A History Blueprint Cold War Unit-Updates in Historiography

Originally posted on July 19, 2012 by Shennan Hutton

I know about the Cold War. I LIVED through most of the Cold War. I studied the Cold War (college in the 1970s; History Project institutes in the 1990s). I taught the Cold War for 15 years between 1985 and 2000, and periodically since then in world history survey courses. I have great stories to tell students – crouching under my desk during air raid drills; thinking about what I would do during the 20-minute window between the launching of the missiles and their arrival on the nearby airbase; and watching in awe as people crowded together on top of the Berlin Wall. 

But what I “know” about the Cold War is as much a problem as it is an asset. In the interval between 1989 and 2012, historians have had an opportunity to reflect on its meaning and place in history. In short, the historiography has moved on. I need to catch up with it. I will not agree with many of the interpretations I read, but if a historian’s interpretation is supported by compelling evidence, and especially if a majority of modern Cold War historians have adopted that interpretation, I need to communicate that interpretation to my students. Although the “facts” won’t change and much of the content will remain the same, I have to adapt the way in which I frame that content to accommodate new interpretations and approaches. Since I’ve already adopted one paradigm shift – from history as a body of knowledge to history as an interpretative discipline – that I learned from the History Project, I can craft a historical focus question and teaching thesis which gets at the fresh interpretation. With those as the frame for the Cold War unit, I can select primary sources and plan lessons that will give students the information they need to answer the focus question. 

The beauty of the History Project is the collaboration between university historians and classroom teachers. We have professors who keep up with the historiography and explain the latest interpretations and approaches to classroom teachers and historians in other fields (like me, the medievalist.) After discussions with several professors who study the twentieth century in a variety of regions, we identified two key historiographical shifts in interpreting the Cold War. The first is to move from considering the U.S.’s involvement in isolation to examining the Cold War in world historical context. To incorporate this approach, we are planning to create a single Cold War unit that combines the California History-Social Science Content Standards for 10th (world history) and 11th (U.S. history) grades. Many of the standards are similar for the two grades, especially those on the causes, the early crises, and the end of the Cold War. The unit will contain a number of lessons that address both U.S. and world topics, and California’s 10th and 11th grade teachers can choose which lessons they want to teach.

The second historiographical shift is to study decolonization, or the end of the European colonial empires and the formation of new nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, in conjunction with the Cold War. The combination of conflict between the two superpowers and decolonization produced what the authors of the college text, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, call the “Three World Order.” To incorporate this approach, an early lesson of the unit will be on the process of decolonization. Students will then have the background information and the analytical tools they need to analyze events, such as the Suez Canal Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam war, in later lessons.

We are ready, therefore, to craft a good unit historical investigation question for the Cold War unit. We have brainstormed several possibilities, but none seems exactly right. Except for #5, they are certainly not catchy. (A good historical focus question should catch the imagination of high school students.) Here are the ones we’ve come up with so far:
Potential Unit Historical Investigative Questions:

1. How did the Cold War and decolonization combine to create a Three World order?

2. Why did the Cold War break out and how did it affect the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and decolonized nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America?

3. How was containment used as a strategy to wage the Cold War on multiple fronts?

4. How did anti-communism fuel the Cold War abroad and at home?

5. Was the Cold War really cold?

6. Why was the Cold War waged on multiple fronts?

We could use some help. Tell us your favorite, suggest a question, or modify one of ours. We’d love to have your input.

Textbook Citation: Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin.  Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, pp. 745-747 and 753-783.

Photo Citations:
Berlin Wall in 1985, photographed by Noir, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Berlinermauer.jpg.
CIA reference photograph of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (SS-4 in U.S. documents, R-12 in Soviet documents) in Red Square, Moscow. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/photos.htm.
Aerial photo of the destruction in Port Said because of the 1956 Suez war. This is photograph No. MH 23509 from the Imperial War Museums collections. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022435.
President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev meet in the boathouse during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland. 11/19/85. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, c31982-11. http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/gorby.html.