What Was the Cold War?

A study of the Cold War can helps students learn about history through interviewing people who lived through this period.

By Daniella Garran

cold war lessons

The Cold War was a unique era in both American and world history. In an era characterized by hate and fear, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II and the Yalta Conference no longer allies as they once had been. As tensions continued to mount, Americans and Russians were prepared for a nuclear holocaust. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons were built and the two nations promised one another “mutually assured destruction.”

Any study of the Cold War should begin with an analysis of the differences between the USSR and the United States. Create a large grid on the board or on chart paper that will help students recognize and understand the two nations’ economies, political systems, social freedoms, and the like.

Create a multi-tiered timeline that charts the political, economic and social events of the Cold War. Assign students a particular era or category to research and then have them list all of the relevant events on a larger timeline that may be displayed in either the classroom or the hallway.

Students must also understand the role of propaganda during the Cold War. After viewing Cold War era commercials and print ads that can be found online, ask students to develop their own advertisements that would have capitalized on people’s fears and distrust of the enemy state.

Have students research a particular individual who was involved in the Cold War. They may be political leaders (e.g.: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Nikita Krushchev), scientists, reporters or average Americans who were affected by the Cold War. Have them prepare and present an oral report about how historic events had an impact on this particular individual.

Cold War Lessons and Activities:

Setting the Stage

Beginning with the post-World War II conference at Yalta, this lesson can help students understand the events and circumstances leading up to the Cold War. Students also gain an understanding of the involvement of America and the Soviet Union in both World Wars and how the Yalta Conference set the stage for the Cold War.

Warring Philosophies: The Cold War

This lesson helps students understand the causes behind the Cold War. It focuses on the differing philosophies between the United States and the Soviet Union. Students develop an understanding of the political and economic ramifications of the Cold War, both short and long-term.

The Cold War and Beyond

The Discovery Channel has created this lesson as a way to help students understand the effects of the Cold War on individual Americans. Students conduct an interview of an adult who lived during the Cold War. In this lesson, not only do students work toward content mastery, but they also hone their interviewing skills. Students will conduct oral presentations summarizing what they learned in their interviews.

The Cold War in Popular Music

Students develop an understanding of the impact of the Cold War on popular culture through an examination of popular songs. Students analyze the lyrics of “99 Red Balloons” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” You may choose to have students select another song of the same era which references the Cold War and conduct a formal analysis which they may present to the class.

Cold War

This lesson examines the depiction of the Soviet Union during the Cold War through an analysis of film clips. The films, made by American movie studios, reveal a great deal about Americans’ attitudes towards the Soviets during the Cold War.