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Essential Purpose

In the months following their victory in World War II, the alliance between the Soviet Union and the West quickly proved to be little more than a marriage of convenience. Suspicion clouded relations --while a curtain descended over Europe.


  • From the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1946 to the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the Cold War was the central theme of the postwar world.

  • According to one estimate, the Cold War arms race cost $8 trillion. That is about $1,300 for every person on Earth.

    Immediate Causes

    The cold war was a period of conflict and tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies. It lasted from the mid 1940's until the early 1990’s. It was called the “Cold War” because there never was a direct military engagement between the United States and the Soviet Union. The causes of the Cold War are still in dispute to this day. However, the actions of the major world powers contributed to this state of tension and hostility.

    By 1948, Stalin had imposed pro-Soviet governments in Eastern Europe. Instead of the free elections he had promised these countries, he used the Red Army and ruthless political tactics to create a buffer zone of “communist countries”. In response, Winston Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” now existed, dividing the Soviet-dominated Eastern countries from the Western democracies. Like Churchill, President Truman was alarmed. He viewed communism as an evil force spreading across the world. To deal with this threat, he proposed that the United States abandon its traditional isolationist stand and take a leading role in opposing communism.

    The immediate result of these emerging differences was a world filled with distrust and hostility, leading to a series of foreign policy decisions and actions which had major consequences for world peace. The Truman Doctrine coming after Churchill's "iron curtain" speech called for the containment of communism by providing military and economic aid to European countries in danger of falling to communism. Stalin’s response was increased hostility and a divided Germany with East Germany becoming a communist bloc country. West Berlin was now in the communist zone and for a time had to be supplied by a 24 hour a day airlift. Both sides quickly consolidated its support by creating alliances – NATO in the West and the Warsaw Pact in the East. The roots of the Cold War were now firmly planted.

    World-Wide Consequences

    The "Cold War" also impacted the postwar redevelopment process as the United States sought to contain the spread of communism to other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. As a result there were many crises that threatened to escalate into world wars. These included the Korean War in 1950, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the Vietnam War in 1964. In addition, smaller conflicts broke out in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence in these "newly emerging" nations. In addition, the spread of ominous new weapons would raise the specter of global destruction. The Cold War ended dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    National History Standards

    Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

    Standard 2A:

    The student understands the international origins and domestic consequences of the Cold War.

    • Explain the origins of the Cold War and the advent of nuclear politics.
    • Explain the rationale, implementation, and effectiveness of the U. S. containment policy.
    • Analyze the change from confrontation to coexistence between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    State/Local Standards

    States should align these modules to their own state/local standards as appropriate.

    Essential Questions

    • How did the actions of the world powers after World War II contribute to the creation of the Cold War?
    • How did the tensions of the Cold War have world-wide consequences?
    • How did the Cold War impact the course of world events?

    Essential Content

    Actions of the World Powers

    • Formation of Communist countries in Eastern Europe
    • Warsaw Pact
    • Churchill's "iron curtain" speech
    • Truman Doctrine
    • Marshall Plan
    • Divided Germany
    • Berlin Wall
    • Berlin Airlift
    • NATO
    World-Wide Consequences
    • Communism in China
    • Korean War
    • Viet-Nam War
    • Collapse of the Soviet Union
    • Tensions in Latin American, Africa, and Asia

    21st Century Skills

    • Work productively with others
    • Monitor one's own understanding and learning needs
    • Locate appropriate resources

    Summative Assessment

    This assessment may be carried out independently by the students or as team projects, where students work in pairs or in groups of three.

    Teachers should set aside class time to help students with research and writing.

    Essential Questions Addressed by the Summative Assessment:

    • How did the actions of the world powers after World War II contribute to the creation of the Cold War?
    • How did the tensions of the Cold War have world-wide consequences?
    • How did the Cold War impact the course of world events?

    Printable Student View

    Prior Knowledge
    Criteria for an Exemplary Response

    Now that you have learned what the "Cold War" was, how it started, how it impacted peoples' lives and how it ended, you are ready to try to tell this story to younger students.

    You have just received an e-mail from an editor with a publishing company that produces educational materials for students. They have decided to publish a series of booklets for junior high students dealing with the Cold War.

    Your teacher has told them that you are a high school student who is a good researcher, thinker, and writer, who likes to communicate ideas to younger students.

    As a result, the publishing company wants you to be the author of a booklet dealing with the subject of the cold war. In the booklet, the Publishing Company wants you to address these questions:

    1. What was the Cold War?
    2. What was one event that resulted from the Cold War?
      • Why was this event important to the Cold War?
      • How did it start?
      • How did it affect people's lives?
      • How did it end?
      • How does this historical period effect our lives today?

    Be prepared to present your booklet to the class.

    You will also find the Guidelines for Your Booklet useful in organizing your information.

    Scoring Guide