History Essay Topics Cold War Kids


The Cold War

Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was built by the communist government of East Berlin in 1961. The wall separated East Berlin and West Berlin. It was built in order to prevent people from fleeing East Berlin. In many ways it was the perfect symbol of the "Iron Curtain" that separated the democratic western countries and the communist countries of Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.


Berlin wall 1990
Photo by Bob Tubs

How it All Started

After World War II the country of Germany ended up dividing into two separate countries. East Germany became a communist country under the control of the Soviet Union. At the same time West Germany was a democratic country and allied with Britain, France, and the United States. The initial plan was that the country would eventually be reunited, but this didn't happen for a long time.

The City of Berlin

Berlin was the capital of Germany. Even though it was located in the eastern half of the country, the city was controlled by all four major powers; the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France.

Defections

As people in East Germany began to realize that they did not want to live under the rule of the Soviet Union and communism, they started to leave the eastern part of the country and move to the west. These people were called defectors.

Over time more and more people left. The Soviet and East German leaders began to worry that they were losing too many people. Over the course of the years 1949 to 1959, over 2 million people left the country. In 1960 alone, around 230,000 people defected.

Although the East Germans tried to keep people from leaving, it was fairly easy for people to leave the city of Berlin because the inside of the city was controlled by all four major powers.

Building the Wall

Finally, the Soviets and the East German leaders had had enough. On August 12th and 13th of 1961 they built a wall around Berlin to prevent people from leaving. At first the wall was just a barbed wire fence. Later it would be rebuilt with concrete blocks 12 feet high and four feet wide.

The Wall is Torn Down

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he asked the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "Tear down this Wall!"


Reagan at the Berlin Wall
Source: White House Photographic Office

Around that time the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse. They were losing their hold on East Germany. A few years later on November 9, 1989 the announcement was made. The borders were open and people could freely move between Eastern and Western Germany. Much of the wall was torn down by people chipping away as they celebrated the end to a divided Germany. On October 3, 1990 Germany was officially reunified into a single country.

Interesting Facts About the Berlin Wall
  • The Eastern Germany government called the wall the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. The Western Germans often referred to it as the Wall of Shame.
  • Around 20% of the East German population left the country in the years leading up to the building of the wall.
  • The country of East Germany was officially called the German Democratic Republic or GDR.
  • There were also many guard towers along the wall. Guards were ordered to shoot anyone attempting to escape.
  • It is estimated that around 5000 people escaped over or through the wall during the 28 years it stood. Around 200 were killed trying to escape.
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Study Questions

1.

In your opinion, was the Cold War inevitable? If not, was the United States or the USSR more to blame?

Although both Truman and Stalin helped increase tensions in Europe and East Asia in the years immediately following World War II, the Cold War itself was likely inevitable. The alliance that had formed between the United States and the USSR during World War II was not strong enough to overcome the past decades of suspicion and unease between the two nations. Moreover, as both leaders sought to achieve their postwar security objectives, which were often mutually exclusive, neither was willing to compromise.

The United States and the USSR had always generally disliked and distrusted each other, despite the fact that they were allies against Germany and Japan during the war. Americans had hated and feared Communism ever since it had appeared in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and had refused to recognize the new Soviet government, especially after Bolshevik leaders promoted the destruction of capitalism. During World War II, Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill delayed their decision to open a second front, which would have distracted the Nazis and taken pressure off the Red Army entrenched at Stalingrad. Stalin resented this delay, just as he resented the fact that the United States and Great Britain refused to share their nuclear weapons research with the Soviet Union. After the war, Truman’s decision to give Great Britain relief loans while denying similar requests from the USSR only added to the resentment.

Another major factor contributing to the Cold War was the fact that the United States and USSR were the only two powers to escape World War II relatively unharmed. Whereas other major world powers such as Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany lay in ruins, the Soviet Union and the United States still had manufacturing and military capabilities. The world had been a multipolar one before the war but was bipolar afterward, and this new order implicitly pitted the already distrustful and ideologically opposed United States and Soviet Union against each other.

Perhaps most important, both powers had conflicting security goals that neither wanted to concede. The USSR, which had already been invaded twice in the first half of the twentieth century, wanted to set up friendly governments throughout Eastern Europe to create a buffer between Moscow and Germany. In addition to exacting enormous war reparations, Stalin wanted to dismantle German factories to keep Germany weak and dependent. Truman, conversely, believed that rebuilding, reindustrializing, and democratizing Europe was the key to preventing another world war. With neither side willing to compromise on these conflicting ideologies and postwar plans, tension between the United States and the USSR was inevitable.

2.

Why has the Korean War often been called America’s “forgotten war”? What purpose did the war serve, and what impact did it have?

The Korean War has often been called America’s “forgotten war” because the United States made no significant territorial or political gains during the war. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of Americans died, the war both began and ended with the Korean Peninsula divided at the 38th parallel. Nevertheless, the Korean War helped define the Cold War, established a precedent for keeping peripheral wars limited, and boosted defense spending that contributed to the postwar economic boom in the United States.

Despite the loss of life, the Korean War faded from national memory, perhaps because the three-year conflict ended without any territorial or political gains. Although General Douglas MacArthur captured nearly the entire Korean Peninsula after his brilliant Inchon landing, his tactical miscalculation at the Yalu River brought China into the war and forced United Nations troops back down to the 38th parallel, where they had started. Both sides became entrenched there, each preventing the other from making any headway. As a result, neither side could claim victory when cease-fire negotiations began in 1953. The 38th parallel remained one of the “hottest” Cold War borders in the world, almost as if the war had never really ended.

The Korean War was an important conflict, however, because it set the tone for the entire Cold War. In expanding the draft and sending more than 3 million U.S. troops to Korea, Truman demonstrated to the USSR his commitment to containing Communism at almost any cost. This demonstration of massive U.S. military force in East Asia forced the Soviets to rethink postwar policy in Eastern Europe and the rest of Asia.

Truman also set a precedent during the war of avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, despite the fact that MacArthur advocated using them against North Koreans and the Chinese. Although the American public vilified Truman for this decision and for firing his insubordinate general, the decision proved to be prudent. The president knew that using nuclear weapons would only drag the Soviet Union and China fully into the conflict, which would destabilize Europe and initiate a third world war—one that might even lead to all-out nuclear war. By refusing to use nuclear weapons, Truman kept the war confined to the Korean Peninsula. The decision would later have an enormous impact on future presidents making similar decisions in Vietnam. Truman’s actions in Korea therefore demonstrated not only American resolve to contain Communism but also a desire to keep the Cold War from devolving into an open war.

The Korean War also boosted American military spending, as a result of a memorandum issued by the National Security Council, known as NSC-68. The memo recommended that Congress quadruple military and defense spending in order to contain the Soviet Union. As a result, the percentage of Congress’s annual budget spent on defense soared throughout the following years, hovering at roughly 50 percent under the Eisenhower administration. Government investment in war factories kept employment high and money flowing into the economy between 1950 and 1970, contributing significantly to the prosperous economic boom.

3.

Was the United States, the USSR, or Cuba more to blame for the Cuban missile crisis? What impact did the crisis have on U.S.-Soviet relations?

Because the United States attempted repeatedly to assassinate or overthrow Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, the blame for the resulting Cuban missile crisis falls squarely on American shoulders. Had it not been for Khrushchev’s ultimate willingness to back down and end the crisis, the United States and the USSR might actually have ended up in the nuclear war that the world feared.

The United States tried repeatedly to topple Castro after he seized power in a popularly supported revolution in Cuba in 1959. Americans disliked the Castro regime because it threatened U.S. economic interests in the country. When the United States withdrew its financial support from Castro’s government, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. In order to prevent Cuba’s Communist influence from spreading throughout Latin America, Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress, a program that awarded Latin American countries millions of dollars in U.S. aid to tackle poverty. Kennedy took more direct action when he authorized the arming and training of 1,200 anti-Castro Cuban exiles to invade the island, in the hopes that the invasion would cause a massive public uprising that would ultimately depose Castro. The plan for this Bay of Pigs invasion failed, however, when Kennedy decided not to involve American military forces and withheld the air support he had previously promised the exiles. As a result, the Cuban army killed or captured all of the exiles, and the invasion attempt was an embarrassment for the U.S. government.

Although Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs failure, he continued to authorize unsuccessful CIA-led assassination attempts against Castro. Not surprisingly, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for support, and in 1962, U.S. intelligence officials discovered that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy sent a naval blockade to circle the island, despite Cuban and Soviet protests, and refused to back down, even at the risk of nuclear war. The crisis ended only when Khrushchev himself agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for an end to the blockade. This sacrifice cost him his position as head of the Soviet Communist Party but saved the world from the prospect of nuclear war between the superpowers.

The crisis had a significant impact on U.S.-Soviet relations, as both sides worked to improve their relationship in order to prevent another potentially catastrophic situation from arising. A Moscow-Washington “hotline,” for example, was installed so that the Soviet premier and American president could speak to each other personally should another crisis occur. Kennedy also changed his rhetoric by asking Americans to think more kindly of the Russians rather than see them as enemies. He also pushed the USSR into signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a symbolic but nonetheless significant step that helped pave the way for détente in the 1970s.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How did George Kennan’s containment doctrine change during the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations? Which president was the most successful in containing Communism?

2. What were the causes of the American economic boom in the 1950s? How did prosperity affect the nation socially, politically, and economically?

3. Why were Americans so terrified of Communist infiltration after World War II? What impact did the Red hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s have on American politics and society?

4. What impact did the Korean War have on American foreign policy?

5. Why was the launch of Sputnik I in 1957 so significant? What did its launch mean for Americans?

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