Cold War

The Cold War wasn’t.  Cold I mean (except in Korea.  It was cold in Korea).  Here’s a run down of what the Cold War was and how it got us where we are today.  I strongly recommend that when you teach this to your kids you do a timeline and annotate it for them as you go along.  In other words explain your take on the events.  If you’re early thirties or older you will remember at least some of these events yourself.

Vietnam, a hut burning in the background

The Cold War really began before WWII which ended with a conference of the “big three” at a resort town called Yalta.  The big three were Stalin of Russia, Churchill of Britain, and Roosevelt of America.  They discussed much but didn’t agree on much.  They severely distrusted one another and each had his own agenda.  This distrust only widened as time went on.  At the end of the war Poland was given to Russia over protests from the USA, but out of a necessity to bargain.  Germany was divided into four quadrants, one of which would be under Communist control.  Japan was fully under US control though Russia had tried to finagle a stake in it as well.  In the end the Soviets controlled most of eastern Europe and the west was feeling immense pressure from a hostile force.

At a checkpoint on the Berlin Wall 1988

Over the next several decades power struggles between communists and democracies (or old established political regimes or opportunists) took place.  America never attacked Russia and Russia never attacked America, but they fought out their ideological battle with weapons and death in countries on nearly every continent.

There was the Greek civil war which America supplied with arms and won, Afghanistan, where the US backed the Taliban in fighting Russian troops (oops, that came back to haunt us), Korea where we blasted through and took the entire country only to have political commanders back home force a retreat (we’re still at war officially with North Korea), the ill-fated Vietnam war, and CIA overthrows or attempted overthrows of communist regimes in Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chili, and Grenada.  Third world countries all over the globe were turning to communism as a solution to their woes after having been abused by capitalist European countries during the Colonial period, which finally came to a complete end with WWII.  The Russians were quick to jump in to model the perfect society and give financial aid.  Meanwhile the Americans were desperate to keep the communist threat at bay.  No one was quite sure to make of communism at first. Many sincerely believed it was the solution to all the world’s ills and America was afraid it was.  Besides, the communists were militant about spreading their ideology.

There was also the space race angle.  Both the Soviets and the Americans were desperate for two things, to prove they were the superior civilization because of their political and economic models, and to maintain a military advantage.  The next military move was to put missiles in space.  But first you had to get there and you had to get there first.

Saturn V rocket

It is interesting therefore that wherever America interfered we created problems and scandal and lengthened out the life of communism and oppression, while in countries we chose not to interfere or were unable to interfere, communism died a swift death all on its own. Nearly all communist countries today are softening their economic and civil rights policies to allow for prosperity.  Communism simply implodes when left to its own devices.

Discussion Questions

  • If communism and other restrictive regimes do not last, what should be our response to them as a nation?
  • How would the cold war period have been different if the US had stayed at home and done nothing?  Was it important to take a strong stance to avoid becoming a Soviet target or did we do more harm?
  • There have been several times in the past when the US has supported evil regimes for our own ends, most notably the Taliban in Afghanistan.  What have been the consequences of this?  What would you have done differently, looking back or do you think it was the best decision?
  • The UN was a result of WWII and a response to the communist threat.  How do you think the UN has done as a peace keeping body?
  • US senator Joe McCarthy focused on exposing communists in the US government during the 1950’s and putting them on trial for their beliefs.  Some people have called this a witch hunt.  Do you think McCarthy was right or wrong?  Why?  Remember these were government officials sworn to uphold the US constitution when you make your judgments.
  • During the Cold War, thousands upon thousands of people escaped communist countries and fled to the free west.  But no one fled the west to move to communist countries.  Why was it so bad in those communist countries that people would risk their lives to leave it?
  • By the end of the 50’s no one in the west thought communism was a good idea.  That attitude lasted until just a few years ago, but lately there has been a communist revival.  They claim that it wasn’t done right the first time and this time it will work.  What do you think?  Is it the people in charge, or the system that is the problem?  Don’t know much about various economic models?  Try these trivia and matching games to brush up.

As part of your Cold War study do this role play of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Additional Layers

  • Learn more about the Space Race and President Kennedy’s role in it.
  • Astronauts are cool and so are rockets.  Learn more about them.
  • The Berlin air drop is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Cold War.  Learn more about it and how it happened.
  • Your grandma probably remembers doing air raid drills in school.  Ask an older person about what it was like.  Were they afraid?  What did they think of it?  Was there an air raid shelter near their school or home?
  • The KGB was formed during the Cold War in the Soviet Union.  They were a truly menacing organization.  It was odd to hear my children ask who they were.  When I was a kid those three letters were a very big deal.  Learn more about the KGB.  What do we need to do to keep our CIA from exercising the kinds of evil powers the KGB did?
  • Do a biographical sketch of one of the players in the Cold War: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Stalin, Roosevelt, Kennedy, McCarthy, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and more.
  • Atom bombs were crucial to the story of the Cold War. Learn how they work and why they can cause such damage.

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