The Cold War: 1945-1962

Lesson Plans by Richard Cleggett

Find these Common Core aligned lesson plans and more like them in our U.S. History Category!

Cold War Lesson Plans | Cold War Timeline

Student Activities for The Cold War Include:

In the aftermath of World War II, global politics came to be dominated by a struggle between two great powers: The United States and the Soviet Union. These two nations defined the course of history in the second half of the 20th century, and the legacy of their Cold War, continues to the present day.

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

The Cold War Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Timeline: Post WWII-Korean War

Timeline - Major Events of the Initial Cold War
Timeline - Major Events of the Initial Cold War


Customize this Storyboard

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Have students use a timeline to outline and define events immediately following the end World War II. Students will be able to explain and analyze what events led to the beginning of the Cold War, and how initial hostilities between the Soviet Union and U.S. developed.

Teachers may pre-select events, conferences, or actions for students to use; recommended timeline ideas include:

  • The Yalta Conference
  • The Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • The Potsdam Conference
  • The Truman Doctrine
  • The Berlin Airlift
  • The Warsaw Pact

This will allow students to see initial attempts at Soviet and American negotiations, as well as how the Cold War begins to heat up.

Timeline: Major Events of the Initial Cold War

February 1945

Yalta Conference

On the cusp of World War II coming to an end, the "Big Three", Joseph Stalin, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, met in Yalta to discuss post-war Europe. All agreed on peace, yet were divided on what to do with countries like Poland. It was also decided to split Germany up between the three countries.
August 1945

Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In a show of military power, and what some would argue as a necessary measure, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. This effectively drew Japan's surrender and the end to WWII. However, the Cold War was already in the works between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
August 1945

Potsdam Conference

In another meeting between the "Big Three", with newly appointed U.S. president Harry Truman, further negotiations took place. Again, conflict arose over controlled areas between the Allies and Soviet Union. Truman, although inexperienced in foreign affairs, remained strong on his anti-communist influence position.
March 1947

Truman Doctrine Issued

In a 1947 address to Congress, President Truman released his Truman Doctrine, or foreign policy in regards to Soviet imperialism. In it, Truman pledged aid, financially and militarily, to any country of free people opposed to communist influence. Initially, the doctrine was aimed at supporting free elections in Greece and Turkey.
June 1948

Berlin Airlift

As tensions continued to rise, East Berlin, controlled by the Soviet Union, was soon cut off from supply lines as a response to a merger of British, American, and French control over West Berlin. In response, Allied forces conducted air drops of food, coal, medicine, and other necessary supplies to aid the peoples of East Berlin.
April 1949

NATO Formed

With the Berlin Crisis, among others, revolving around the growing divide between the Soviet Union and free states, Allied powers soon formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO alliance. In essence, this alliance of free states declared an attack against one, was an attack against all.
June 1950

Korean War Begins

With the end of the Chinese Civil War, and a victorious communist party, the U.S. and U.N. aimed to protect their control in Korea, once controlled by Japan. After Japan's defeat, the country became divided as communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. The war would be the first of the "hot" wars throughout the Cold War.

Extended Activity
Have students further analyze how both superpowers became even further alienated from each other by exploring who was involved in the alliance organizations: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Students should identify how both groups geographically separate communist controlled satellite nations from democratically influenced nations of western Europe.

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

5 Ws: The Korean War 1950-1953

5 Ws - Cold War - The Korean War: 1950-1953
5 Ws - Cold War - The Korean War: 1950-1953


Customize this Storyboard

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

In this activity, students will use a spider map to identify the major components of the Korean War. This will provide perspective on how the Cold War was shaped by the many proxy wars of the 20th century. The Korean War itself was an indirect conflict between the two superpowers, and would evince both countries’ dedicated stance on preserving, and spreading, their ideologies and control. Students will be able to connect and explain how this “hot” war directly correlates with the overall Cold War.

Korean War 5 Ws Example

WHO was Involved?

The United States, as well as part of the United Nation's forces, were pitted against North Korean communists, along with aid from communist China. Both forces aimed to control, and influence, the entire Korean peninsula.

WHY did the War Happen?

The war happened as a result of competing influence over Korea on behalf of communist North Korea and a democratic, U.S.-controlled South Korea. The war was an exemplification of communist vs. democratic states in a post WWII world.

WHERE did this Take Place?

The war occurred on the Korean peninsula, located south of China on the Asian continent. Initially, the border stood at the 38th parallel between North and South Korea. When the war was over, it remained there.

WHEN did the War Occur?

The Korean War began on the heels of China's civil war ending in 1949, as China emerged as a communist state. U.S. and U.N. forces began fighting in Korea in 1950. The war would last until 1953, ending in an armistice. To this day, no formal end has come to the war.

WHAT is the Significance of the War?

The Korean War is significant in that it is one of the initial proxy wars stemming from the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. It exemplifies the U.S. and Soviet determination in preserving, and spreading, their respective ideologies, and global power-holds.

Extended Activity
Have students identify and explain the major components of the Chinese Civil War, between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. Students should be able to draw connections between the Soviets’ aid to Chinese Communists, and how this also helped influence Soviet aid to the Korean conflict. Students may use a Spider Map to explain the major thematic components behind the war.

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Capitalism vs. Communism Economies

Comparative Grid - Cold War - Communism vs. Capitalism/Democracy
Comparative Grid - Cold War - Communism vs. Capitalism/Democracy


Customize this Storyboard

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Students will compare and contrast the ideas and ideologies of both democracy and capitalism with communism and command economies. This will allow students to explain, analyze, and synthesize what defined each superpower’s belief system, in terms of society, economics, and government. Students will be able to connect how such differences in societal theory resulted in the Cold War being an ideological battle, defined by propaganda, espionage, and global control.

Comparison of Capitalism and Communism

Capitalism / Democracy Communism / Command Economy
Political Ideology The political ideology of democracy lies in the belief that the power of government ultimately falls into the hands of the people. As a democratic republic, America believed that free elections and voting were defining cornerstones of how government should operate. Furthermore, with a democratic, free-market system, Americans, and others, could dictate their own freedom and the future of their country. The defining ideas of communism lies in the belief that everything is directed towards the state. Personal wealth, individual freedoms, and personal choice were all secondary to the health and growth of the nation state. They believed in a one-party system of government that merely served to operate based on what was all ultimately contributed to the state. Equality, in a literal sense, defined communism.
Economic Ideology America functions under a capitalist economic system. Although there are government regulations on business and trade, Americans are free to develop, grow, and sustain whatever type of business or service they desire. In turn, this plays into the belief that individual freedom to economically sustain oneself fits with the idea of also having a say in one's government. Under communism, specifically under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union operated under a command economy. In essence, under Stalin's "Five Year Plan", the nation would produce and manufacture a certain number of goods to meet specific quotas. Although this put much pressure on workers and industries, the Soviet's economy grew tremendously. In essence, the government "commanded" the economy to produce what it needed, to be where it needed.
Societal Ideology Under a democratic republic, America's societal beliefs stayed true to the ideas of less invasive, oppressive governments, individual freedoms, and individual ability to expand one's wealth. Society in America aimed to be as true to the ideas of natural rights as possible. Opportunity was there; however, one had to achieve personally to get there. Despite concerns like the wealth gap, and poverty, as a society, Americans believed they were truly free. Society under communism is essentially that all are equal. Everything, again, is aimed at contributing to the state. The government is fully involved in economic and societal affairs. Because of this, there are no classes or levels of wealth. Instead, all enjoy equal pay, treatment, benefits, and enjoy strong ideas of nationalism.
Aims and Goals Goals and aims under America's democratic and capitalist society are to preserve and expand those freedoms and rights. Ideas of natural rights, individual success, and freedom from oppressive government measures were all aims and goals of the democratic nation. In addition to this, they aimed to preserve democracy where it existed, and also for countries who were under the threat of oppressive governments. Aims for communist nations were to preserve and solidify complete equality, as well as the strength of the nation. It was to avoid problems seen in capitalist societies, such as wealth disparity and class warfare. Furthermore, communist regimes believed communism could only survive on a global scale, and therefore spreading it and its influences were crucial.

Extended Activity

Have students define and outline the major ideas of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Students can compare and contrast both figures using a grid storyboard. This will allow students to identify the founding pioneers of capitalism and communism. It will provide historical context to where both nations looked in history to guide their development before and during WWII.

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Eisenhower vs. Khrushchev: A New Look

Khrushchev vs. Eisenhower - Emerging Superpower Leaders in the Cold War
Khrushchev vs. Eisenhower - Emerging Superpower Leaders in the Cold War


Customize this Storyboard

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Using a T-Chart, have students compare and contrast the backgrounds, policies, relationship, and actions of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, the elected leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. By comparing and contrasting the two world leaders, students will be able to connect continuous Cold War policies of both nations, as well as how both nations operated under new leadership. Exiting Truman’s presidency and Stalin’s strict control, tensions deepened between the two countries. Students will be able to explain and analyze how both leaders aimed to gain control in the evolving world.

Eisenhower vs. Khrushchev

Khrushchev Eisenhower
Background Nikita Khrushchev was born on April 15th, 1894. He was a skilled iron worker, and joined the ranks of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution in 1918. He became a protegé of Stalin, and was eventually elected to prime minister of Ukraine. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev quickly rose to rank of premier, and instituted a de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union. Dwight D. Eisenhower was born October 14th, 1890. As a young man, Eisenhower had a keen interest in military affairs and history. He attended West Point, and was soon recognized for his organizational abilities, as well as commanding abilities. He eventually rose to Commander of the Allied forces, and later in 1952 was elected the 34th president of the United States.
Foreign Policy Khrushchev and his policy towards the west was rocky, yet more progressive than his predecessor, Stalin. However, Khrushchev did conflict with the U.S. over the control over East Berlin, which he refused to give up. In addition, Khrushchev oversaw the launch of Sputnik I, greatly inducing fear from the West. He also improved relations with the communist nation Cuba. Eisenhower ran his campaign on combating, and preventing, the influence of communism in the U.S. and across the globe. Under Eisenhower, he attempted to initiate disarmament between the U.S. and the Soviets, but to no avail. In addition, Eisenhower pledged to support the stoppage of communist threats in Southeast Asia. He also contributed to the nuclear and technological build-up to match the Soviets' progress.
Domestic Policy Domestically, Khrushchev remained true to communist principles. He aimed to increase production and manufacturing throughout the Soviet Union. In addition, Khrushchev oversaw improvements in weaponry and space technologies, including the Soviets' successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb, and the launch of space's first satellite, Sputnik I. In terms of domestic policy, Eisenhower's America flourished. Post-war America under him was strong. Eisenhower also initiated the creation of the Interstate Highway System for both traveling and defensive means. In addition to this, Eisenhower remained staunch on strengthening the space program in NASA, as well as support for science and higher education. He also ended segregation in the military.
Actions in the Cold War Throughout the continued Cold War, Khrushchev was instrumental in leading the Soviet Union. While he did aim for peaceful relations with the west, he placed nuclear weapons within Cuba, instigating the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as suppressed anti-communist revolts in Hungary. Furthermore, he also saw the construction of the Berlin Wall, which would come to symbolize the divide in the Cold War. For Eisenhower, his actions centered also around aiming at peaceful relations with the Soviet Union; however, his objectives of stopping the spread of communism did take precedent. He helped support the creation of SEATO, which vowed assistance to prevent communist influence in Vietnam. In addition to this, Eisenhower initiated domestic and foreign initiatives to protect the U.S. from potential Soviet attacks.

Extended Activity

Have students research ahead and compare another American president and Soviet leader, highlighting their policies, backgrounds, and how they functioned as leaders during the Cold War. Remind students that the Cold War stretches from after World War II until the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, so there are several choices for comparison.

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

The Arms and Space Race of the Cold War

Cold War Terms - The Space Race and the Arms Race
Cold War Terms - The Space Race and the Arms Race


Customize this Storyboard

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Using a spider map, have students create a word map to identify and explain the major terminology of the arms races and space race of the Cold War. This will allow students to further understand how close the countries came to nuclear war and reinforce the concept of mutually assured destruction, that is, the catastrophic nuclear bombardment of both countries that would inevitably result if either launched an attack. Students will be able to explain and define the terms of both technological races, and how these competitions furthered tensions between the two superpowers. The activity will also give context to the ever expanding technological developments that continue to shape our world today.

Terms to Know for the Cold War

Sputnik I
Sputnik I is the name of the Soviet satellite launched in 1959. It was the first orbiting satellite ever launched, and was considered a great achievement by the Soviets. However, in relation to the Cold War, it increased tensions and fears of a Soviet attack and overall Soviet domination. It also increased America's efforts to improve its space programs.

Space Race
The term Space Race refers to the efforts and improvements in space technologies on both the U.S. and Soviet sides. By initiating increased funding and research, both countries sought to out-do each other in the race to space. The Soviets would accomplish launching the first satellite into space, Sputnik I.

Apollo 11
Apollo 11 was the space mission conducted by the United States, effectively putting the first man on the moon. Launched on July 20, 1969, the landing on the moon was seen as the peak of the space race. It also, however, brought about detente, or peaceful times between the Soviets and U.S. in terms of their relations.

"ICBMs" is the acronym used to describe intercontinental ballistic missiles, or missiles that could be launched between one continent and another. These types of weapons helped increase fear, as well as pushes by both the Soviets and Americans to increase their defenses and weaponry.

Arms Race
The Arms Race refers to the efforts by both the Soviet Union and United States to increase, and advance, their arms. In particular, it was a race of nuclear weaponry that defined the Cold War. The race in increasing arms led to even further tension, and fear, of nuclear attacks and threats between the two nations.

Nuclear weapons function off of nuclear reactions, and are considered weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. dropped two nuclear atom bombs on Japan in 1945, and both the U.S. and Soviet Union aimed to stockpile and create as many devastating weapons as possible. This also, however, led to the realization of mutually-assured destruction.

Extended Activity

Have students create a word map for today’s military and space technologies. Students should try to connect the recent advancements to those of the Cold War. Students will connect military and space advancements as they evolved over time. Some ideas include:

  • Mars Rover
  • Hubble Telescope
  • Drone technologies

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Cold War - Major Events of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Cold War - Major Events of the Cuban Missile Crisis


Customize this Storyboard

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Have students create a timeline of the events that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, under President John F. Kennedy. Students will outline and define the events that led to both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. being on the brink of nuclear war. This will highlight major global policies and negotiations that took place to avoid conflict and nuclear destruction. In addition, this will help summarize the growing tensions that existed between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. when Kennedy took office, and elucidate how the Cold War was a continuous ideological conflict.

Example Cuban Missile Crisis Timeline

January 1959

Fidel Castro Assumes Power in Cuba

After the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and his forces rise to power. Castro pledges not to have Cuba become a communist state. However, he will break this pledge.
December 1960

Cuba Aligns with Soviet Union

Almost two years removed from their revolution, Castro and Cuba openly align themselves with the Soviet Union, as well as their communist policies.
January 1961

U.S. Ends Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

In response to Cuba's open declaration of aligning with communist ideals and the Soviet Union, the U.S. breaks all diplomatic ties with Cuba. They also close their embassy there.
April 1961

Bay of Pigs Invasion

Under President John F. Kennedy, a group of Cuban exiles and U.S. military personnel aim to launch an invasion at the Bay of Pigs to trigger a anti-Castro rebellion. It fails, reflecting poorly on Kennedy.
June 1961

Khrushchev and Kennedy Meet

Khrushchev and Kennedy meet in Vienna to try and negotiate terms concerning the growing Cuban crisis. The meeting, however, does not go well, and Khrushchev leaves with a poor impression of Kennedy.
October 1962

Missile Sites Photographed

U.S. military planes photograph what appear to be constructed missile bases in Cuba. The U.S. enters DEFCON 3 as a precaution, preparing for the worst. It is, to many, clear-cut evidence of Soviet nuclear aggression.
October 1962

Crisis Finally Ends

Finally, after an extremely tense October, the U.S. and Soviet Union come to terms. The U.S. agrees to remove missile bases in Turkey, while the Soviets agree to withdraw missiles from Cuba. The crisis is averted.

Extended Activity
Have students create a timeline of events affecting the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, led by Fidel Castro. This will highlight America’s sour relationship with the small, communist nation and how the U.S. responded over the years. Students should try to also connect to current day events, i.e. the Cuban embargo being lifted and improved relations with Cuba in 2015.

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

By the end of WWII, the Allied Powers had endured, and won, one of the costliest wars in history. Tens of millions, both combatants and civilians, had perished, large portions of Europe laid in ruins, and the power of atomic weaponry had been unleashed. Many sought peace, and the opportunity to begin reconstructing their homes, nations, and lives. However, the peace to come would be imperfect.

Two countries would ascend to be world superpowers: The United States and the Soviet Union. One founded on principles of democracy and capitalism, the other, a nation birthed from the ideologies of Karl Marx and communist theories. Both would vie for power, position, and control of global affairs. The result was an ideological war: The Cold War.

Former allies against the Axis, the U.S. and U.S.S.R found themselves at odds even before the final shots of the war. Europe was ripe for reshaping, and both countries aimed to dictate this transformation. The result was decades of proxy wars, propaganda, espionage, the space, nuclear and conventional arms races, and general distrust between the East and the West. The events that define the Cold War have left an indelible mark on global affairs from the end of World War II, until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Students will be able to explain, analyze, illustrate, and draw conclusions about how events unfolded post-WWII, and what events, figures, and ideas come to define the Cold War. Specifically, we will cover events from immediately after WWII, until 1962, when conflict arises between the U.S. and Cuba. By isolating and analyzing the history of Cold War in smaller segments, students and teachers alike can better understand how the conflict between the communist East and democratic West came to outline American history for the next half century.

Essential Questions for The Cold War

  1. What major events unfolded, post-WWII, leading to tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R?
  2. How did the serving presidents throughout the Cold War years handle affairs? What measures were taken domestically?
  3. How did technology factor into the Cold War? Specifically, how did the “Space Race” and arms races come to exemplify this rise in hostile technology?
  4. How was the Korean War a tangible result of the Cold War? Why is it a “proxy war”?
  5. What events defined the Cuban missile crisis and its resolution?
  6. What is the major differences between capitalist democracy and communism? How did these ideologies define the major differences between the U.S. and U.S.S.R?

Create a Storyboard 

(This will start a 2-Week Free Trial - No Credit Card Needed)

Image Attributions

Help Share Storyboard That!

Looking for More?

Check out the rest of our Lesson Plans!

View All Teacher Resources

Our Posters on ZazzleOur Lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers
© 2018 - Clever Prototypes, LLC - All rights reserved.
Start My Free Trial
Explore Our Articles and Examples

Try Our Other Websites!

Photos for Class – Search for School-Safe, Creative Commons Photos (It Even Cites for You!)
Quick Rubric – Easily Make and Share Great-Looking Rubrics
abcBABYart – Create Custom Nursery Art
Prefer a different language?

•   (English) The Cold War: 1945-1962   •   (Español) La Guerra Fría: 1945-1962   •   (Français) La guerre froide: 1945-1962   •   (Deutsch) Der Kalten Krieg: 1945-1962   •   (Italiana) La guerra fredda: 1945-1962   •   (Nederlands) De Koude Oorlog: 1945-1962   •   (Português) A Guerra Fria: 1945-1962   •   (עברית) המלחמה הקרה: 1945-1962   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الحرب الباردة: 1945-1962   •   (हिन्दी) शीत युद्ध: 1945-1962   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Холодная война: 1945-1962   •   (Dansk) Den kolde krig: 1945-1962   •   (Svenska) Det kalla kriget: 1945-1962   •   (Suomi) Kylmä sota: 1945-1962   •   (Norsk) Den kalde krigen: 1945-1962   •   (Türkçe) Soğuk Savaş: 1945-1962   •   (Polski) Zimna wojna: 1945-1962   •   (Româna) Războiul Rece: 1945-1962   •   (Ceština) Studená válka: 1945-1962   •   (Slovenský) Studená vojna: 1945-1962   •   (Magyar) A Cold War: 1945-1962   •   (Hrvatski) Hladni rat: 1945-1962   •   (български) Студената война: 1945-1962   •   (Lietuvos) Šaltasis karas: 1945-1962   •   (Slovenščina) Hladna vojna: 1945-1962   •   (Latvijas) Aukstais karš: 1945-1962   •   (eesti) Külm sõda: 1945-1962