How “Cold” was the Cold War?

Common Core Standards: RH1, RH6, RH8, WHST1, WHST8, WHST9


In teaching the history of the Cold War at both the university and secondary levels, many teachers shroud the complexities of the Cold War in hyperbole. Students often fail to understand that conflict between the two superpowers would not necessarily result in a nuclear armageddon and that the entire period did not consist of the calculated brinksmanship displayed by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Marc Trachtenberg has lamented the overwhelmingly popular interpretation of the Cold War as an arm wrestle on a global scale.[1] Instead, as Trachtenberg and other careful historians of the twentieth century show, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union wore on in waxing and waning periods of volatility between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. An ideal introductory lesson on the Cold War should introduce secondary school students to precisely the question: “How ‘Cold’ was the Cold War?”


This content connects with many other topics of the traditional secondary-school curriculum. The documents included in this lesson plan emphasize the U.S.-Soviet dimensions of the Cold War. Additionally, the teacher might ask students to consider the second half of the twentieth century based upon their knowledge of world history or European history. In engaging these primary sources, students particularly should put to use the skills they have acquired in other disciplines, considering, for instance, the literary and artistic dimensions of the sources they study.


This lesson can be completed in two hours. At the instructor’s discretion, the lesson naturally can be separated into multiple class sessions. Additionally, teachers might consider amending this lesson plan into a larger project-based assignment, particularly suited to younger students or students who have less background in the history of the Cold War.


Primary Objectives. At the end of this lesson, students should be able to do the following:

  • Differentiate between primary- and secondary-source historical documents.
  • Marshal historical evidence in framing answers to historical questions.
  • Define the “Cold War,” distinguishing between its “cold” and “hot” episodes and processes between 1945 and 1991.
  • Identify key diplomatic, political, and social events and processes of Cold War history.

Secondary Objectives. Additionally, students should be able to do the following tasks.

  • Learn new vocabulary terms related to twentieth-century international history and foreign policy-making.
  • Differentiate between various policy-making branches and agencies of the United States government, including Congress, the Department of State, Department of Defense, National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency.


This lesson will challenges students to answer the question “How ‘Cold’ was the Cold War?” using historical documents, the declassified official record, landmark speeches, video, audio, oral history, and published memoirs. The initiation is twofold: (1) Introduce students to the “Cold War,” and (2) Introduce students to primary-source interpretive skills.

Introduce students to the “Cold War.” The instructor should broach the topic with secondary source-level interpretation, in which the teacher provides the necessary contextual overview for subsequent student exploration of a variety of primary-source documents. One of the key lessons that emerges from this period of study is that U.S. policy-makers often simultaneously advocated both coexistence and eradication of the Soviet foe.3

Introduce students to primary-source interpretive skills. The teacher likewise should outline the differences in interpreting primary and secondary sources and have a discussion with the students about the two. Distribute, outline, and discuss the included student handout, “Interpreting Primary Sources.”

Learning Activities

For the instructor.

In small groups, students then should approach a list of teacher-supplied primary sources that offer insight into key periods in the Cold War. Dependent upon the size of the class and the amount of time alloted to the lesson, students can work in small groups to analyze the documents listed below. These sources should harness students’ abilities to interpret various types of letters, newspapers, speeches, classified government documents, images, private audio coversations, video, and data. Each student group would have the opportunity to review its documents and fomulate a synthesis of perspectives in answering “How ‘Cold’ was the Cold War?” In the following section, each primary source is listed along with information about its author and interpretive information about the document.

“Long Telegram” (February 1946)

Author. George F. Kennan served as deputy chief of mission of the United States to the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, 1944-1946. Kennan introduced the idea of “containment” of the Soviet Union and is considered the intellectual force behind that strategy.

“Long Telegram” (February 1946)

Interpretive information. The “Long Telegram,” sent by Kennan in Moscow to Washington in February 1946, submits Kennan’s insights that Soviet policy foresaw perpetual antagonism between capitalism and communism in international affairs—the essence of the United States’ Cold War containment doctrine. Students should read part three, “its projection in practical policy on official level,” with an optional reading of part four, “its projection on unofficial level.”

This source is available online, courtesy of the National Security Archive, at

Telegram from Nikolai Novikov (27 September 1946)

Author. Nikolai Novikov served as Soviet ambassador to the United States during 1946 and 1947, during which time the U.S.-Soviet relationship entered a more strained phase following their alliance in the Second World War.

Interpretive information. The Novikov telegram, prepared at the request of Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, outlined Novikov’s interpretation of U.S. foreign policy aims in the postwar period. Like Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” Novikov’s telegram did not necessarily introduce any revolutionary new ideas into foreign policy-making, but it did provide the political, diplomatic, and intellectual justifications for policies already unfolding. Novikov wrote that the U.S. sought expansionism and domination. Students should read the first section of the telegram on “U.S. foreign policy in the postwar period.”

This source is available online, courtesy of the Cold War International History Project, at

[For an extended historical analysis of the Kennan and Novikov telegrams, see Kenneth M. Jensen, ed., Origins of the Cold War: The Novikov, Kennan, and Roberts “Long Telegrams” of 1946, rev. ed. (Washington: United States Institutes of Peace Press, 1993).]

Mao Tse-tung, “The People’s Democratic Dictatorship” (30 June 1949)

Author. Mao Tse-tung served as the first chairman of the Communist Party of China beginning in 1949, following his leadership of the communists during the Chinese Civil War. Mao’s ruthless pursuit of his unique breed of communism resulted in tens of millions of deaths during his leadership, which ended with his death in 1976.

Interpretive information. Mao’s speech, “The People’s Democratic Dictatorship,” delivered on the twenty-eighth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), represents one of his many articulations of this challenges he and his comrades faced in securing communism’s future in China. His speech was delivered in a “question-answer” format, in which Mao posed questions and criticisms against CCP policies, then explaining his logic. The speech exhibits Mao’s belief that “sitting on the fence will not do, nor is there a third road between “imperialism” and “socialism.”

This source is available electronically through Fordham University’s “Modern History Sourcebook”.

NSC 68 (14 April 1950)

Author. Paul H. Nitze served as director of the Policy Planning staff in the U.S. State Department at the time of the drafting of the National Security Council report 68 (NSC 68). Nitze often has been described a “hard-liner” in his positions on the emerging Soviet foe. The NSC 68 report explained that the United States represented the only impediment “between [the] idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin . . . .”

Interpretive information. NSC 68 demonstrates the magnitude of the U.S. military buildup and the intersection of values and force in the Cold War world. The report, formulated under the perview of the State Department, advocated for increased U.S. defense spending in preparing to deter and thwart Soviet advances in the world.

The full text of NSC 68 is available online.

The original draft of the report is also available from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.

For an initial look at the document, students should consult chapters one, two, and three, outlining the “background of the present crisis,” the “fundamental purpose of the United States,” and the “fundamental design of the Kremlin.” (NB: Teachers may wish to select different passages of this rich document, depending upon students’ interests and background knowledge of the subject.)

Berlin Blockade footage (July 1948)

Author. International Newsreel footage of the Berlin Airlift is available at v=5GoIL9gVonQ(link is external).

Interpretive information. The Berlin Airlift, lasting for nearly a year between the summer of 1948 and the spring of 1949, represented one of the final steps before the clear division of Germany into two separate states. Although postwar Allied cooperation had allowed for U.S., British, and French access to their respective sectors of Berlin —situated more than a hundred miles inside the Soviet sector of Germany—Stalin sought to consolidate his hold on Eastern Europe, beginning with imposing restrictions on passage to and from the Western sectors of the divided Berlin. With limited fuel and foodstuffs in West Berlin, the British and American air forces flew supply missions to West Berlin.

Duck and Cover (1952)

Author. The film, Duck and Cover, was written and produced by a private company, contracted by the United States Federal Civil Defense Administration. The film was intended for distribution in schools.

Interpretive information. In 1949, the Soviet Union broke the U.S. nuclear monopoly, marking the beginning of a nuclear arms race between the two Cold War superpowers. Duck and Cover aimed to prepare children for the dangers of nuclear attack and illustrated the growing popular concern in the U.S. that war with the Soviet Union was imminent.

The film is widely available online. See

North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949)

Author. Signatory states to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

North Atlantic Treaty (4 April 1949)

Interpretive information. The North Atlantic Treaty began the collective defensive organization of Western states. In the fifth article of the treaty, signatory states agreed that “an attack on one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

The text of the treaty is available from NATO’s website.

Warsaw Pact (17 May 1955)

Author. Officially, the Warsaw Pact is the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. Signatory states to the Warsaw Pact in 1955 were Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Repbulic, Hungary, Poland, Roumania, and the Soviet Union.

Interpretive information. With the Federal Republic of Germany’s entrance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1955, Soviet leaders, fearful of potentially resurgent German power and infused with the power of a newly developed Soviet hydrogen bomb, initiated the Warsaw Pact.

The text of the Warsaw Pact is available electronically through Fordham University’s “Modern History Sourcebook”.

“A Study of Assassination” [undated]

Author. This unsigned and undated document, “A Study of Assassination,” was included in the files of Operation PBSUCCESS, the U.S.-backed 1954 coup d’état in Guatemala. It outlines instructions for carrying out assassinations, including the specific methods and weapons to employ.

Interpretive information. Seeking the overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacabo Árbenz Guzmán, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency devised a series of plans to oust him in hopes of quelling any potential gravitation towards socialistm in Central America. The episode ended with the U.S.-backed Carlos Castillo Armas leading a small invading force into Guatemala and the resignation of Árbenz. The document is available online.

See “CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents,” National Security Archive briefing book 4, ed., Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh.

Mikoyan-Suslov telegram (24 October 1956)

Author. Anastas Mikoyan, first deputy of the Council of Ministers, remained an important figure in the Soviet bureaucracy for much of his life. Following the 1956 uprising in Hungary, Mikoyan traveled to Budapest to observe the unfolding situation and to report back to the Moscow government. Mikhail Suslov, another high-ranking Soviet policy-maker, accompanied him.

Interpretive information. For a two-and-a-half week period during October and November 1956, mass uprising gripped the communist People’s Republic of Hungary, protesting the repression of the government. Although the revolutionary forces toppled the government, Soviet forces intervened, invading with massive military force to restore communist control in Hungary. Thousands of Hungarians died, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee.

This source is available online, courtesy of the Cold War International History Project, at

“Controlling the Outbreak of Nuclear War” (22 October 1962)

Author. This short recording chronicles a conversation between President John F. Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Under Secretary of State George Ball, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul H. Nitze. (Nitze also had been the framer of the 1950 report NSC-68.)

Interpretive information. This conversation took place on 22 October 1962, one week into the Cuban Missile Crisis. As evidenced in this conversation, one of Kennedy’s fears as the crisis unfolded was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pushing the U.S. to fast down a path toward armed conflict.

The source is available to educators, courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs, online at

“Remembering the Prague Spring”

Interpretive information. In January 1968, Alexander Dub!ek rose to power in Czechoslovakia, ushering in a period of dramatic liberalization in politics, economics, and society. Called the “Prague Spring,” the reformist period ended in the third week of August, with Warsaw Pact troops invading and occupying the country. In the post-1968 period, the Dub!ek reforms were reversed and the country became firmly ensconced in the Soviet orbit.

BBC News created a website devoted to “Remembering Prague Spring.” Included on the site are audio files announcing the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces and reactions to the invasion.

The audio files are available on the BBC website.

Nixon-Kissinger conversation (6 October 1972)

Author. Richard M. Nixon served as president of the United States from 1969 until his resignation in 1974. Among his many foreign policy actions, Nixon ended U.S. military commitments in Vietnam. Henry A. Kissinger served as Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor and as Nixon’s National Security Advisor (later also serving as Secretary of State).

Nixon-Kissinger conversation (6 October 1972)

Interpretive information.

In this conversation, Nixon and Kissinger discuss the difficult realities of extricating the

United States from its Vietnam commitments, most likely resulting, as Kissinger noted, in the suicide of Nguyen Van Thieu. In their conversation, Nixon and Kissinger discussed their own morality and the domestic political ramifications of a possible collapse of South Vietnam, Nixon hoping that they could postpone the inevitable fall until after his election in November 1972.

This source is available to educators, courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs, online at

Kosygin-Taraki Telephone Conversation (18 March 1979)

Author. Alexei Kosygin served as premier of the Soviet Union from 1964 until 1980. He was skeptical of the need for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, believing the risks did not adequately meet the potential gains to be had for the USSR. Nur Muhammad Taraki served as prime minister of Afghanistan, overthrowing the short-lived Afghanistan Republic in the spring of 1978.

Interpretive information. Soviet troops spent nearly a decade in Afghanistan attempting to uphold the Brezhnev Doctrine—that the duty of all communist countries is to spurn the advances of capitalism in any socialist country.

A translated transcript of this document is available, courtesy of the Cold War International History Project and the National Security Archive.

Ronald Reagan, Address to the National Association of Evangelicals (8 March 1983)

Author. Ronald Reagan, president of the United States from 1981 to 1989, has been credited by many for working to end the Cold War through his policies of negotiating from a position of strength. A gifted orator, Reagan’s rhetoric in 1983 fueled Soviet suspicions that he was gravitating toward confrontation with the communist bloc.

Interpretive information. Reagan’s address, delivered in Orlando, Florida, called upon his audience to understand (from his perspective) the Soviet origins of the Cold War struggle between good and evil. As articulated in his speech, for Reagan, the Soviets constituted an “evil empire” bent on domination through intimidation and violence.

Both a video recording and transcript are available online, courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs.

Robert M. Gates, In From the Shadows, discussing “Able Archer” (November 1983)

Author. Robert M. Gates,has led a long career in public service, principally in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council (NSC). In November 1983, Gates was serving as a high-level official in the CIA.

Robert M. Gates, In From the Shadows, discussing “Able Archer” (November 1983)

Interpretive information. In this excerpt from his memoir, Gates chronicles briefly the Able Archer episode, in which the Soviets leadership, paranoid that the U.S. and its NATO allies would launch a first strike against the Warsaw Pact countries, dangerously raised their military alert status. Gates describes the Soviet reaction as “out of touch,” nearly resulting in a “terrible miscalculation.”

Robert M. Gates, In From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 270-273.

Defense Secretary report to Congress (1989)

Author. Frank Carlucci, III served as U.S. Secretary of Defense during the last years of the Reagan administration.

Interpretive information. The Secretary of Defense reports annually to Congress, outlining the president’s agenda for securing U.S. national interests, assessing international threats and military balances, and U.S. defense policy and strategy. These reports typically focus on allocating necessary resources to achieve the president’s and the Pentagon’s defense goals for the country. This document, submitted to Congress in early 1988, despite the tremendous advances in achieving more peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, outlines a very suspicious attitude toward Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost policies. In an international environment teeming with new developments, students will find that Carlucci’s projections for 1989 and 1990 rely on checking Soviet advances, as the USSR “continue[s] to maintain a capability for warfighting at all levels of the conflict spectrum.”

Frank C. Carlucci, Report of the Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci to the Congress on the Amended FY 1988/FY 1989 Biennial Budget (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988). Students should read pages 23 to 28 and study the various charts on the following pages.


After the students have completed their small-group discussions, the teacher might reconvene the group by posing the original question: “How ‘cold’ was the Cold War?” As students volunteer to speak, ask them to support their answers with the document(s) they reviewed and to share the main ideas of the document with the class.

Further Reading

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Pengiun Press, 2005).

Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

William I. Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent, 1945-2002 (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).