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7.1 The Cold War (in One Take)

Potsdam Conference

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Lesson description

The dawn of the Cold War brought deadly technology, brutal wars, and fear across the globe. So hold tight as this lesson – and its musical ‘In One Take’ video – takes you on a high-octane tour across borders and through time, covering the entire history of the Cold War.

This lesson contains:

  • A detailed chronology of the key political events, wars, and characters that both fuelled and shaped the Cold War.
  • A look at the development of tensions between the US and the USSR from the end of World War Two and throughout the second-half of the 20th century.
  • An analysis of which events and developments had the greatest influence on the progression of the Cold War.
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Fact Sheet

What was the Cold War, and when did it take place?

The Cold War was a period of political and military tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasting from the late 1940s to the early 1990s.

 

It was called the “Cold” War because it didn’t involve direct military conflict between the two main rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead, it was characterised by  rivalry, competition, and ideological differences. The United States represented capitalism and democracy, while the Soviet Union represented communism and a one-party system. 

 

These two superpowers, along with their respective allies, engaged in a global struggle for influence, often through diplomacy, espionage, and proxy wars in different parts of the world. The Cold War had a significant impact on international relations, shaping the policies and alliances of nations during this period.

Who were the two main superpowers involved in the Cold War, and what were their differences?

The two main superpowers were the United States and the Soviet Union. They had different political systems (capitalism vs. communism) and were in a competition for global influence.

 

In addition to these ideological differences, there were also military and geopolitical aspects to the conflict. Both superpowers built up massive arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, leading to a state of “mutually assured destruction” where neither side wanted to risk a full-scale nuclear war. The superpowers also engaged in a global struggle for influence, supporting opposing sides in conflicts in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

What were the key events during the Cold War?

Key events and crises during the Cold War include the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the construction of the Berlin Wall.

How did the Cold War end, and what were the consequences of its conclusion?

The Cold War ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to the dissolution of communist governments in Eastern Europe. The consequences included the reunification of Germany and the expansion of democracy in many countries in Eastern Europe.

What countries were affected by the Cold War, and how did it impact them?

Countries affected by the Cold War included Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and many nations in Eastern Europe. The impact ranged from divided nations like Germany to proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam.

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Video Transcript

CIA OperativeSir, that’s the fifth one today, the same identical message, “To History Bombs, do the Cold War (in One Take)”, but what does it mean?
CIA ChiefHistory Bombs, huh? It’s gotta be the Russians, their spy network, maybe something to do with the Manhattan Project, I gotta take this to the President.
ChrisHey guys, I’ve got this.
CIA OperativeWho’s that guy?
ChrisPass me the mic, I’m coming through.
So you thought there would be peace after World War Two?
How could you, be so naive to believe,
That we’d seen the worst of the 20th Century?
On one side, the communist USSR
V capitalist US
US MarinesOORAH!
ChrisThe tension’s about to blow sky high, At the Potsdam Conference, 1945.
TrumanWe did it Stalin, chalked up a win.
And we’ve each got a nice little piece of Berlin.
StalinMy victory Truman, your troops arrived late, But at least I’ve seized the Baltic States.
TrumanSo you’re gonna’ pull back, time to take stock?
StalinWhat, are you jealous of my Eastern Bloc? So you want Russian help to defeat Japan?
TrumanWell actually, I’ve got an explosive plan.
ChrisThe Potsdam Agreement split Germany and Austria into four occupied zones, as an ‘iron curtain’ fell across Europe. This was the only time Truman and Stalin
met face to face. Just one week after the conference, Truman unleashed America’s top secret nuclear weapons on Japan without informing Stalin, fuelling mistrust between the former allies.
George KennanThis is George Kennan reporting from Moscow ma’am, Eyes only for Truman, a Long Telegram:
It must be America’s firm intention, To contain Soviet’s global aggression.
NovikovIt’s Novikov reporting from United States. Tell Stalin we must spend whatever it takes. The US are clearly laying foundations,
For total global domination.
PresenterKennan’s Long Telegram influenced the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, which provided aid to countries threatened by Soviet communism. The US sent aid to Turkey and Greece, but when they tried to introduce the Deutsche Mark in Germany, Stalin blockaded supplies to West Berlin. Cue the Berlin Airlift!
RAF PilotLook up Stalin, you can block the roads,
But the Brits are flying in with peaceful payloads!
Australian Air ControlHa, good on ya mate! How about some credit, For the US, Aussie, Kiwi and Canadian effort!
RAF PilotWe be dropping 9,000 tonnes of supplies a day, Mostly coal and potatoes, hardly gourmet. Now find me a runway, I need to hit the ground.
Australian Air ControlYou can head home mate, Stalin’s just backed down!
RAF PilotWhat what!
ChrisThe Allies flew in vital supplies to West Berlin until Stalin backed down in May 1949. In the same year the Western Allies formed NATO to counterweight Russia, but that winter the balance of power was about to shift dramatically east.
StalinComrade, welcome to the Soviet Union And kudos on your communist revolution!
MaoAnd so a new era for China begins,
I need good news to take back to Beijing.
StalinAn alliance together, if I may say so, Would surely put it right up NATO!
MaoLet’s renew the Sino-Soviet Alliance?
StalinAgreed! Now, you like rocket science?
ChrisStalin and Mao renewed the Sino-Soviet Alliance, presenting a seismic shift in geopolitics. What’s more, the USSR secretly tested their first nuclear weapon. Both superpowers began spreading their influence abroad, backing a complex web of competing governments and rebel groups until tensions crystallised on the Korean Peninsula.
USF CommanderOK boys, it’s good to see ya,
The Commies are backing North Korea,
So we’ll be supporting our troops on the ground.
BrownGetting up close to the speed of sound!
USF CommanderAlright, now remember it’s a UN mission, We’re part of a Western coalition, Protecting the South, you got that Briggs?
BriggsYes Sir! Time to bag me a MIG!
ChrisThe Korean War hit a stalemate until an armistice began in 1953. North and South Korea were split along the 38th parallel, a line that still divides the country today. Over the next decade, tensions escalated further and the conflict became truly global. Are you paying attention? Let’s go.
Stalin died and Truman lost power,
In come Khrushchev and Eisenhower,
The Warsaw Pact binds the Eastern bloc, But the Russian and Chinese bond is rocked.
In ‘56 the Hungarian Uprising,
Is smashed by the Russians, the world’s realising, That these superpowers crush those who oppose,
As the CIA ruthlessly hunts in the shadows,
The space race makes for a dazzling sideshow,
As Khrushchev cranks up the pressure from Moscow,
In the Berlin Crisis, you’ve probably guessed, They put up a wall to split East and West. And just before you begin to relax,
An island off Florida have just unpacked,
A lethal arsenal of Soviet nukes,
The world holds its breath and I’m gonna’ puke!
JFKMy fellow Americans, there’s a Soviet move-a
To put a boat load of nukes on the island of Cuba. It would appear that Moscow have fed us lies, And I will not stand idly by.
Now I know what you’re thinking, last year wasn’t great, The Bay of Pigs was a big mistake,
But after careful thought, the decision’s been made, We’ll stop Moscow’s ships with a naval blockade.
ChrisFor 13 days the world held its breath as Washington and Moscow communicated via unreliable back channels. Despite some close calls, Khrushchev agreed to remove the weapons if Kennedy removed his own missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an ill- advised proxy war was growing out of control.
US Vietnam SoldierWell, good morning Vietnam,
Lit by the furious fire of napalm,
Scarred by a million brutal shells,
A jungle paradise turned to hell.
And is this battle really ours?
Where’s the ‘just’ within this cause?
America an elephant scared by a mouse, Drawing lines in the sand when the tide is out.
ChrisFor two decades the US fought a futile war against communist-backed North Vietnam until the US withdrawal. In 1972 President Nixon travelled to Beijing and Moscow, holding talks to limit the arms race during a period known as détente. However, in 1979 Cold War tensions would ratchet up once more.
American CIA AgentSir, we just got word from Afghanistan,
A communist coup.
American CIA BossSounds like a Soviet plan.
American CIA AgentYes sir, the Russians are sending advisors, Clearly, they’re trying to undermine us.
American CIA BossSo let’s support the other side.
American CIA AgentThe Islamist fighters?
American CIA BossYeah, that sounds fine.
Encourage them to fight a holy war,
V. the Soviet Union.
American CIA AgentWell, if you’re sure.
ChrisThe Soviet Union sent thousands of troops to support the communist party in Afghanistan but they failed to defeat local Mujahideen fighters, backed by the US. In 1987 Gorbachev and Reagan signed a treaty to limit nuclear weapons as the Soviet economy began to fail and in 1989 the eyes of the world turned to Berlin.
East BerlinerWe’re sick of silence, we will not rest, Berlin as one, not East and West,
If there’s one thing of which I’m certain, It’s time to end this iron curtain!
West BelinerWe must destroy this brutal vision, This ugly symbol of division,
East and West, join the call,
Hey Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
ChrisIn ‘89 the wall came down,
And Eastern Europe stood its ground, With a sweeping wave of revolutions, Against their Soviet institutions.
Finally, after 50 years,
Of proxy wars and nuclear fears, The world began to heal the scars, Of countless battles, near and far.
And present day? Fast forward the clock, We’re still living with the aftershock,
This global war for domination,
Affected almost every nation.
So don’t assume this war was Cold,
That it didn’t take a human toll,
For the millions who died for their nation states, Let us learn from their fate.