Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The Origins of the Cold War, 1945–1949 (3 Lessons)

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The Unit

Overview

Although the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union had brought victory in World War II, wartime cooperation meant glossing over many serious differences between the two. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Soviet leaders had been claiming that communism and capitalism could never peacefully coexist. Beginning in the 1930s Josef Stalin had tried to reach some sort of understanding with the West, but only because he viewed Nazi Germany as the greater threat. Indeed, after concluding that the West was not interested in working with him, he made his own agreement with Hitler in 1939. That agreement, of course, was quickly forgotten after the German invasion of the Soviet Union two years later.

After the United States entered the war in December 1941 the administration began encouraging Americans to view the Soviet Union not as a threat, but rather as a partner both for victory over the Axis and for maintaining peace in the postwar world. In newspaper and magazine articles, speeches and Hollywood films, Americans were told again and again that although the Russian people had a different economic system, they were equally committed to democratic values and to a peaceful, stable world order.

This message, hammered home from 1942 to 1945, meant that after the war Americans would be in for a rude shock. Agreements regarding the postwar world were reached at Yalta and Potsdam, but the Soviets wasted no time in violating them. After driving German forces out of Eastern Europe they set about creating communist puppet states throughout the region, apparently ignoring their promises to allow democratic elections there. Having just won a world war, they seemed intent on setting the stage for another.

To the new administration of Harry Truman, this behavior was reminiscent of Hitler's in the 1930s. Like many of the statesmen of his age, he believed that the proper means of responding to an international bully was a credible threat of force; "appeasement" was a dirty word, as it would only lead to new demands. Thus Truman decided on a strategy known as "containment," in which the Soviets would be prevented—militarily if necessary—from using force to export their ideology abroad. Containment would, in fact, remain the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for the next fifty years.

Containment assumed many different forms. Under the Truman Doctrine the president pledged to defend "free peoples" everywhere through economic and military aid. The Marshall Plan provided billions of dollars for economic recovery to Western Europe, lest misery in France, Germany, and Italy lead to communist electoral victories in those countries. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a formal military alliance, and a clear message to Moscow—the United States would fight to defend Western Europe. Ultimately it would lead to actual war in Korea.

Containment was not without its critics, and among the most perceptive was journalist Walter Lippman. Lippman believed that the result would be an ongoing "cold war" that might never involve actual combat, but would continue to drain American resources as the United States was committed to resist communism everywhere it might appear. And indeed, "Cold War" is exactly the term that has come to define the entire period from 1945 to 1989. In this curriculum unit students will learn how the Cold War began, from the agreements reached at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 through the formation of NATO in 1949.

Guiding Questions

  • From the American perspective, why did wartime cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union collapse in 1945–46?
  • What was "containment" and how was it applied in 1947–48?
  • Why did the United States formally commit itself to the defense of Europe by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

Learning Objectives

  • Articulate the agreements made at Yalta and Potsdam regarding the nature of the postwar world.
  • Explain the differences that emerged regarding those agreements in the months following the end of the war in Europe.
  • Assess the strategic options available to the United States in 1946.
  • Articulate the meaning and origins of the strategy of containment.
  • Describe the positions taken by supporters as well as critics of this policy.
  • Explain the origins of the Truman Doctrine and how it fit into the strategy of containment.
  • Explain the origins of the Marshall Plan and how it fit into the strategy of containment.
  • Explain why the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in spring 1948.
  • Discuss the Berlin Airlift and why it was successful.
  • Explain why the United States joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Preparation Instructions

Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable Text Documents.

Download the Text Document for each lesson, available here as PDFs. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Sources of Discord, 1945–1946

    President Harry S. Truman guided the United States through the early years of  the Cold War.

    The fact that the United States and the Soviet Union successfully cooperated in defeating the Axis Powers did not necessarily mean that the two countries would continue to get along in the postwar world. This lesson will examine the U.S.–Soviet disagreements regarding Germany and Eastern Europe.

  • Lesson 2: The Strategy of Containment, 1947–1948

    The Convair B-36 strategic bomber symbolized American military might in the  early days of the Cold War.

    The unwillingness of the Soviet Union to allow the creation of independent and democratic states in Eastern Europe, and the failure of East and West to reach a compromise on Germany, left many Americans puzzled. Why were the Soviets acting as they did? Moreover, how should the United States respond? This lesson will consider containment through the use of original documents, mostly from the Truman Presidential Library. They will study what it meant in theory, and then examine the first two major instances of its application—the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.

  • Lesson 3: The Formation of the Western Alliance, 1948–1949

    When the Soviets blockaded Berlin in 1948, the Western allies initiated an airlift to relieve the besieged city

    In the spring of 1948 Stalin provoked the first serious international crisis of the Cold War by announcing a blockade of West Berlin. This lesson will trace the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49 and the establishment of NATO.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills