Cold War essay questions




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Origins of the Cold War



1. Explain the objectives of the communists who seized power in Russia in 1917. What kind of society did they hope to create? What methods did they use to capture power and rebuild Russia?

2. Research and discuss the ‘First Red Scare’ in the United States. What ideas and factors fuelled this scare? How legitimate were these fears?

3. Describe the relationship between the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II. What was the basis of their alliance?

4. Discuss the outcomes of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences regarding the post-war world. What was agreed or promised?

5. “Joseph Stalin was the leader most responsible for initiating the Cold War.” To what extent is this statement true?

6. Explain why eastern European nations ended up with socialist governments after World War II. Refer to three specific nations in your answer.

7. Summarise the ideas and views expressed by American diplomat George Kennan. How did these views shape US policy during the Cold War?

8. What was the Truman Doctrine? Referring to specific policies or statements, provide examples of how the Truman Doctrine was implemented between 1947 and 1952.

9. What conditions did the US place on aid provided by the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan? What did American policymakers hope to achieve?

10. Explain why the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel in 1945. What were the consequences of this division?

Post-war Germany and Berlin




1. Why did Germany evolve into two separate states between 1945 and 1949? What people, policies and events contributed to this separate development?

2. Describe how the Allies responded to the Berlin Blockade in 1948. What were the outcomes and political effects of this response?

3. Investigate conditions in West Berlin between 1945 and 1949. What problems were faced by residents of the city?

4. Why was James F. Byrnes’ September 1946 address called the “Speech of Hope”? What ideas did it convey to the people of Berlin?

5. What did Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev mean when he described Berlin as the “testicles of the West”? Evaluate Khrushchev’s policies and statements with regard to Berlin.

6. Discuss the relationship between East Berlin and West Berlin, between 1946 and the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Explain how movement, communication and trade was conducted between the ‘two Berlins’.

7. Research three attempts to escape the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Why did those concerned seek to escape to the West? What methods did they use and how successful were they?

8. Why did the East German government erect a wall in Berlin in 1961? Explain why this wall became a defining symbol of the Cold War.

9. Summarise the economic policy of East Germany between 1949 and 1989. Was the East German government able to construct a successful socialist economy? What challenges and difficulties did it face?

10. Describe the society of East Germany during the Cold War. How did socialism shape the lives of ordinary East Germans?

11. Evaluate the government, economy and society of West Germany between 1949 and 1989. Was the “economic miracle” in West Germany mostly a result of Western aid – or were there other factors?

12. What was Ostpolitik and who were its main exponents? How did Ostpolitik change the relationship between East and West Germany?

The Red Scare and McCarthyism




1. What was the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC? What was its intended purpose? In your answer, refer to three examples of individuals who appeared before HUAC.

2. Who were the “Hollywood Ten” and what was their fate? Why did HUAC seek to identify communists and communist sympathisers in the worlds of film and literature?

3. Evaluate the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States and Britain in the first decade of the Cold War. Was the paranoia of McCarthyism justified?

4. Explain how a junior Senator like Joseph McCarthy became an important Cold War figure in the early 1950s. What was the basis of McCarthy’s power and influence?

5. Research three individuals who criticised or stood against McCarthyism. What arguments did they use? How successful were they in convincing others?

6. How and why was Joseph McCarthy discredited? Summarise the developments and events that led to his downfall.

7. Referring to three specific movies or television programmes, explain how Cold War ideas and fears were represented and conveyed on the screen.

8. Locate and analyse three items of propaganda warning Western civilians about communism. What were the dangers of communism, according to this propaganda? What were the ‘warning signs’ for spotting communists or communist activity?

9. Depictions of ‘normal’ Americans, families and behaviour were an important part of Cold War propaganda. What was considered ‘normal’ in the 1950s? Discuss how ideas of normality were represented in popular culture, such as television.

10. Explain the role of J. Edgar Hoover in perpetuating Cold War ideas and values in the United States. Refer to at least three specific documents, actions or methods used by Hoover.

Kennedy, Cuba and the missile crisis

1. Describe the objectives of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Why did Fidel Castro want to overthrow the Batista regime? What kind of society did he seek to create?

2. Evaluate the political ideology of Fidel Castro. To what extent was Castro a communist?

3. What was the Bay of Pigs campaign and what did it seek to achieve? How did the outcomes of the Bay of Pigs shape the presidency of John F. Kennedy?

4. Summarise the Vienna summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in May 1961. What was discussed at this summit? What impressions did the two leaders form of each other?

5. Research the political and paramilitary activities of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. What were Guevara’s values and goals? What role did he play in Castro’s Cuba?

6. Why did Moscow agree to install ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba? Why was this move unacceptable to the United States?

7. What is brinkmanship? Why is the handling of the Cuban missile crisis referred to as an example of brinkmanship?

8. Evaluate John F. Kennedy’s leadership between January 1961 and his assassination in November 1963. Did Kennedy’s presidency escalate or ease Cold War tensions?

9. Summarise the United States’ Cuba policy after the missile crisis. Did the US really wage “undeclared war” on Cuba, as Castro has claimed?

10. Research and describe life in Cuba after 1960. Was Castro’s Cuba a communist utopia, an oppressive dictatorship or something else?

Waging the Cold War



1. Explain how nuclear weapons shaped policy and attitudes during the Cold War. What was the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” and how effective was it at avoiding conflict?

2. In October 1949 Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party emerged as the new leaders of China. How did this event influence and change the Cold War?

3. Describe and evaluate the Domino Theory. How did this idea shape Western policy in the Cold War? How valid was this theory?

4. Investigate civil defence measures of the 1950s and 1960s. What precautions did governments take to protect their civilian population during and after a nuclear strike? How were civilians trained to respond to a nuclear attack?

5. How did the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev change the Cold War? Did this change of leadership improve US-Soviet relations?

6. Describe the governments and policies of both Yugoslavia and Romania during the Cold War. How did socialism in these countries compare to that in Soviet bloc nations?

7. How did propaganda shape public attitudes during the Cold War? Referring to specific sources, explain how propaganda depicted life in both capitalist and socialist nations.

8. Research two or three ‘proxy wars’ during the Cold War. Explain and evaluate the involvement of major powers in these proxy conflicts.

9. Investigate three missions or operations conducted by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Cold War. What tactics or methods did the CIA and its agents employ? Were these missions successful in advancing American interests?

10. What did the ‘Kitchen Debate’ reveal about the ideas, values and leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union?

11. What were the ramifications of the Soviet capture of Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane in 1960?

12. Chart the course of American involvement in Vietnam. Why did the US become involved in Vietnam? How and why did this involvement increase during the 1960s?

13. How did Cold War tensions shape events in the Middle East between 1945 and 1979? Which Middle Eastern nations were influenced by the superpowers and which steered their own course?

14. Explain how sport was used for political advantage during the Cold War. Refer to at least three specific people or events in your answer.

15. Research three peace or disarmament movements that were active during the Cold War. What were the objectives of these groups? What methods and tactics did they use?

Détente and the Reagan era

1. Describe the United States’ relationship with the People’s Republic of China between 1949 and 1972. How and why did this relationship change in 1971-72?

2. What factors contributed to the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s? How did the breakdown in Soviet-Chinese relations affect the broader Cold War?

3. What caused the US oil crisis in 1973? How did this crisis impact on the Cold War?

4. Discuss how economic factors and conditions contributed to the policy of Détente in the late 1960s and 1970s.

5. Investigate the two arms limitation treaties (SALT I and SALT II) of the 1970s. How successful were these treaties at easing Cold War tensions?

6. Why did the Soviet Union invade and occupy Afghanistan in late 1979? What were the short and long-term ramifications of this action?

7. What was the Reagan Doctrine? Referring to at least three specific examples, explain how Reagan sought to undermine and weaken communism around the world.

8. Why did Ronald Reagan order US forces to invade Grenada in 1983? Why was this operation controversial?

9. Explain the purpose of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). Why was this policy controversial?

10. Discuss how the Korean air disaster and the Soviet response to this disaster affected the US-Soviet relationship.

11. Why did the 1980s see a resurgence in nuclear paranoia, particularly in popular culture? How justified were these fears?

12. Evaluate the Reagan administration’s strategy during the Cold War. Did Reagan “win the Cold War”, as is often claimed? And if so, how did he achieve it?




The end of the Cold War

1. Poland was one Soviet bloc nation to experience popular opposition to the socialist government. Who initiated the reform movement in Poland? What were their grievances and objectives?

2. Evaluate the role of Pope John Paul II in undermining socialism and ending the Cold War in Europe.

3. How effective was the United Nations in minimising conflict and easing tensions during the Cold War? Identify some notable ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ of the UN.

4. Discuss how popular music contributed to the decline of the Cold War. How did music challenge or change ideas and attitudes? Refer to specific artists and performances in your answer.

5. What was the Chernobyl disaster? What impact did it have on the Soviet Union and the Cold War?

6. Evaluate the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. How was Gorbachev different to his predecessors? How did his actions and policies contribute to ending the Cold War?

7. What factors led to popular uprisings against socialism in eastern Europe in 1989? Referring to two specific countries, explain how popular movements led to political reform.

8. What brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Discuss the people, events and factors that contributed to this significant event.

9. Why was there an attempted coup d’etat against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991? Why did this coup fail?

10. What factors brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. What was created to replace it?


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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Brian Doone, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Cold War essay questions”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/cold-war-essay-questions/.

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