The Cold War

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In this lesson learn about how the Cold War started, how it was fought and how it came to an end.

This lesson includes:

  • three short film about the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War
  • two audio clips on the US in Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • two activities for you to practise your learning

Learn

After World War Two the old order of European powers had disappeared.

The world now appeared to be divided into two main camps - one led by the USA, the other by the USSR.

The Cold War is the title given to the period of tension between these two superpowers.

Some, but not all, of the events of the Cold War are covered in more detail below.

Communism and Capitalism

The tension between the two superpowers initially grew from ideological differences between the two:

  • the Soviet Union was communist, in theory a classless society where all property is owned publicly
  • the USA was capitalist, an economic system based on privately owned businesses and the creation of profit
An overview of the Cold War.

Expansionism and containment

The Soviets operated a policy of expansionism, attempting to spread communism throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. The USA and its allies operated a policy of containment, seeking to prevent the spread of communism.

As the Cold War progressed, there were attempts by both superpowers to extend their power and influence globally.

Nuclear war and the arms race

Following the USA dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, one of the most striking features of the Cold War was a growing threat of nuclear war.

The USSR had developed its own nuclear weapons capability by 1949, and throughout the 1950s both sides accumulated stockpiles of ever more powerful nuclear weapons, a process known as the arms race.

The threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), in which any nuclear attack would trigger an immediate retaliation, eventually led to a cautious willingness by both sides to limit nuclear arms production by the 1960s.

The nuclear arms race was also matched by a similar competition over space and the race to the moon.

The Berlin Blockade, 1948-49

The Berlin Blockade was one of the first Cold War crises, and began when the Soviet Union blocked the Allies' access to West Berlin in 1948.

Berlin could only be accessed by air, resulting in:

  • a restriction on the freedom to travel outside Berlin for all Germans
  • a shortage of food
  • a lack of basic goods like fuel and medicines

The Western Allies decided that their sectors of Berlin would be supplied by air, in a remarkable operation known as the Berlin Airlift, which lasted for eleven months until the blockade was lifted in May 1949.

Watch the short film below for more information on the Berlin Blockade.

US cargo plane flying over ruins with food and other relief supplies in Berlin Airlift.
An overview of the Berlin Blockade.

The Korean War, 1950-1953

The success of communism in China had persuaded the USA that their domino theory was correct - that if one country was allowed to fall to communism, then communism could quickly spread to neighbouring countries.

After World War Two, Korea had been divided at the 38th parallel (the border between the North and South) into:

  • Soviet-backed communist North Korea, led by Kim Il Sung
  • non-communist, American-backed South Korea under the leadership of Syngman Rhee

In June 1950, with the support of China and the Soviet Union, North Korea launched an attack on South Korea.

The Korean War was an important development as it was the first time the two superpowers had fought a proxy war in a third country.

US troops emerge from tandem helicopters onto an open field during the Korean War.
An overview of the Korean War.

The Vietnam War, 1959-1975

After World War Two, many Vietnamese people wanted independence.

The French found themselves fighting a war against the Viet Minh, who were dedicated to getting rid of foreign imperialist powers from Vietnam.

Worried about the spread of communism, the USA began to bankroll the French war effort in Vietnam.

In 1954, the French were finally defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Vietnam was divided into North and South at the 17th Parallel, with the Viet Minh in control of North Vietnam, and a non-communist government in control of South Vietnam.

The USA sent military advisors to support Diem and prevent Vietnam reunifying and falling to communism.

Diem’s government was unpopular with ordinary people in South Vietnam, and they began to give their support to the Vietcong, which was aided and supplied by communist North Vietnam.

In 1959 Ho Chi Minh declared a war to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and unite Vietnam under communist rule with the support of the Vietcong.

In 1968, with mounting criticism of the Vietnam War, President Johnson announced that he would stop the bombing of North Vietnam.

The last American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, before the war finally ended with North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Vietnam War Supplies being carried through jungle routes from North Vietnam to the South on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Politician John Kerry's testimony about the US in Vietnam to the US Congress on 22nd April 1971.

The Berlin Wall, 1961

On 13 August 1961, Soviet authorities sealed off East Berlin by constructing a huge barbed wire barrier, soon replaced by a concrete wall, complete with lookout towers and armed guards.

On 27 October 1961, Red Army (Soviet) tanks pulled up to Checkpoint Charlie, the main crossing point between East and West Berlin, and refused to allow allied troops to pass.

All day the two sides, with tanks and soldiers at the ready, faced each other in a tense stand-off.

The Berlin Wall remained a symbol of Cold War tension until it was torn down in November 1989.

Stand off at Checkpoint Charlie

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

Tensions peaked in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. America discovered that the Soviets were installing missiles in communist Cuba with a 4,000 km range.

These sites brought every town in the US within range of Soviet nuclear missiles.

President Kennedy did not dare invade Cuba, because that action could have started a world war, but could not let the missile sites be completed - he decided on a naval blockade instead.

The Soviet leader, Khrushchev, offered to dismantle the Cuban bases if Kennedy lifted the blockade, promised not to invade Cuba, and dismantled American missile bases in Turkey.

John F Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Détente

As time went on, the USA made efforts to improve relations with the USSR and China, leading to a period in the 1970s known as Détente, meaning the relaxing of tension.

The relationship between the USSR and China had soured and the USA dropped its objection to China joining the United Nations.

In May 1972, US President Nixon made a trip to meet the Soviet leader to begin a new, more peaceful relationship between the two superpowers.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) took place, resulting in the signing of SALT I, a treaty that restricted the number of ICBMs (long-range missiles) both sides could have.

Practise

There are lots of fun things to do to help you remember what you've learnt about the Cold War.

Here are a few you could try.

Activity 1

Draw a timeline of some of the key events of the Cold War.

You will only need a pen or pencil and some paper for this activity.

Activity 2

Take this quiz to see how much you've learnt about the Cold War.

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources around the BBC and the web.

More lessons for Year 10 and S4
GCSE History on BBC Bitesize
More Cold War coverage by Quizlet
Germany: The Cold War by Britannica
Introduction to the Cold War by MASSOLIT
GCSE History on BBC Teach
The BBC and the Cold War