The Cold War lasted for almost a half-century, from the mid-1940s through the early 1990s. The conflict’s origins were deep and complex, but the root cause of this persistent hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union was ideology. The United States is a constitutional democracy. This form of government, along with capitalism, abundant resources, and advanced industries, made the nation an unmatched global power by the end of World War II. The Soviet Union (officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or U.S.S.R.) was the world’s greatest communist state. Arising amid the growing pains of industrialism in the West, communism is an ideology antithetical to democracy and capitalism. Communism seeks to erase the class lines inherent in capitalist societies. To accomplish this goal, the Soviet Union completely denied or severely restricted its citizens’ basic rights: freedom of speech and press, property ownership, and the free practice of religion. American democracy was imperfect – at the start of the Cold War, racial segregation and prejudice denied millions of African Americans their rights – but the principles of individual freedom and equality made possible movements to dismantle state-sanctioned discrimination during the Cold War itself. In the Soviet Union, totalitarian rule in service to communism rarely wavered.

Yet these vastly different nations had joined together during World War II to fight a common foe, Nazi Germany. This fact alone reminds us of the complexity of the Cold War. The alliance did not abate the possibility of postwar conflict. It increased it. Distrust and suspicion based on each nation’s respective actions pitted the two superpowers against one another. Both sought to spread their respective ideologies and forms of government. As they competed for allies, they pulled much of the world into the conflict. The label “Cold War” refers to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union never directly went to war with one another, but proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, among many places, demonstrate the long and devastating reach of the conflict.

The Cold War did more than determine international alliances and cause wars; it also impacted the diplomacy, military, economy, politics, culture, and society of the superpowers and dozens of other nations. In the United States, the fear of communism led numerous states to require their public employees, including teachers, to take loyalty oaths. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a committed Cold Warrior, nonetheless used his Farewell Address to warn his fellow citizens that a growing “military-industrial complex” and dependency on the federal government for scientific and technological innovation (both results of the Cold War) threatened self-government and individual liberty (Document 19).

The costs of the Cold War were enormous; so, too, its hazards. The United States spent trillions of dollars to advance its Cold War policies and programs. Just one of the proxy wars, the Korean War (Documents 8-9), took the lives of more than 1.2 million combatants (including 36,574 Americans), yet the three-year war ended precisely where it started, with a communist regime north of the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. In Southeast Asia, the United States committed itself to an unsuccessful war to prevent the unification of Vietnam under communism (Documents 21, 29-31, 34). The difficulties of forcing Vietnam’s civil conflict to fit the policy of containment raised concerns within the government (Document 32) and led some Americans, including President Jimmy Carter, to ask if the United States had undermined its own principles in fighting this war (Documents 33 and 40). Finally, the arsenals of nuclear weapons amassed by the United States and the Soviet Union (as well as other nations) held the power to kill a majority of the world’s population and likely destroy the planet’s ability to sustain life. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, almost triggered a nuclear war (Documents 23-26).

Acutely aware of the ultimate danger of the Cold War, Soviet and American leaders often worked to ease tensions. In 1959, the United States hosted an exhibit in Moscow on American society and industry. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev accompanied Vice President Richard Nixon on a tour of the exhibit, leading to a spirited but friendly exchange between the two men about the merits and flaws of communism, capitalism, and democracy. Both leaders stood their ground during the Kitchen Debate (so-called because one back-and-forth took place in a model of an American kitchen), but they also agreed that mutual understanding inhibited conflict (Document 18). In 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union, along with other nations, drafted and signed a nuclear test ban treaty in hopes that the quest for more powerful nuclear arms could be slowed (Document 28). In 1972, Nixon, now president, visited communist China as part of a strategy known as détente, a French word that in this context means an easing of tensions (Document 36). The historic meeting enabled the United States and China to soon restore diplomatic and trade relations.

However, the entrenched differences between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies meant that crises could erupt at any time. In 1976, U.S. national security policymakers discussed various ways, including military action, to disrupt the foreign policy of communist Cuba, but they also noted the danger of such actions provoking the Soviet Union (Document 39). In 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan incurred a strong response from the United States (Document 41). The era of détente abruptly ended.

During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan was determined to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. Though critics charged that he was intensifying the Cold War by committing the United States to a massive military buildup, Reagan countered that a strengthened defense, including an experimental anti-missile program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, advanced peace by deterring communist aggression (Document 42). Reagan also drafted nuclear arms reduction agreements with the Soviet Union. As the president made clear in a 1987 speech, the ultimate goal of the United States and its allies was not simply to manage the Cold War – it was to peacefully advance freedom and democracy, sweeping communism aside in the process (Document 43). By the late 1980s, democratic movements in Poland and Czechoslovakia, both communist nations, hinted that the Cold War might well be at a turning point.

Indeed, aware that drastic changes were needed to save communism, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev undertook major internal reforms and, just as important, significantly changed the terms of Soviet control of Eastern Europe’s communist states. In 1956, the Soviet Union had crushed a democratic uprising in communist Hungary (Document 17); thirty years later, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would not use force to intervene in the domestic affairs of communist nations. In 1989, Gorbachev spoke hopefully of Europe as a “common home” in which communist nations worked peacefully with democratic countries to solve mutual problems. U.S. intelligence analysts cautioned that the Soviet Union remained a threat (Document 44), yet communism was faltering and falling. Later that year, the Berlin Wall – the most visible sign of the division between the communist and free worlds in Europe (Documents 27 and 43) – came down, and the joyous meeting of Berliners on this previously heavily guarded border signified the end of the Cold War (Document 45).

The purpose of this collection is to provide teachers with a selection of primary sources that document the multi-faceted Cold War. A variety of sources are used to represent, as much as possible, the conflict’s most significant developments and patterns. The addresses and statements of Cold War-era presidents offer insight into the principles and purposes of U.S. policies. Congressional resolutions and testimony before Congress show the key role of the legislative branch. Declassified documents from the National Security Agency, Department of State, and National Security Council offer a glimpse into the planning of covert operations, management of international propaganda, and Soviet espionage in the United States, among other topics. Although a majority of the sources relate to the diplomatic, military, and political sides of the Cold War, select documents provide perspective on the conflict’s effects on American society. The sources are presented in chronological order, but a thematic table of contents is also provided (Appendix A), so that users may quickly find documents of interest.


Several people assisted me in the preparation of this collection, and I’m grateful for their contributions. Eric Pullin and John Moser provided excellent suggestions on the selection of documents. Ali Brosky ably converted and formatted documents for me. Series editor David Tucker offered expert guidance and editing and had immediate answers for all my questions.

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