Teaching the Cold War: Primary Sources, Landscapes, and Interviews
Primary Source Analysis
While most students are familiar with history textbooks, they do not always realize that the narrative presented in them are the result of a reconstruction of the past done by historians and based on primary sources. Asking students to analyze a primary source document (a document from the time period studied in class) will give them a better sense of how historians make sense of the past. Primary sources can be written texts, but they can also include films, songs, and photographs.
There are many different ways to encourage students to conduct their own primary source analyses. You can assign students primary sources that you have selected. You can also make use of the primary sources contained in the Documents section of this website.
Another possibility is to have your students select their own primary document from an online platform. Some good collections include: Digital Collections of the Library of Congress.
A Library of Congress website entitled “Cold War Dispatches: Service Stories from 1947-1991,” which features the stories of veterans who served in non-combatant roles within the military between 1947 and 1991.
The Wilson Center Digital Cold War Archive
The Russia Programs by the National Security Archive at George Washington University
Additional materials can be found in the Additional Resources section of the website.
Finally, you can have students look for a primary source at home, or in their grandparents’ attic. Such documents might include: local newspaper clippings from the Cold War era; letters from a family member sent to war in Korea, Vietnam, or stationed in Europe to guard against Soviet invasion; old pictures from the town; pamphlets and posters.
Depending on the students’ grade-level you will have to tailor the length of the writing piece you assign. You should also consider emphasizing different aspects of the exercise based on the students’ abilities: the descriptive portion for younger students and the analytic segment for more advanced students.
The following questions can be useful in helping students analyze a primary source:
- What kind of document is it (example: letter, map, photograph, drawing, newspaper article, etc.)?
- Where did you find the document? Where is the document located?
- Who is the document’s author? What biographical information can you provide about the document’s author?
- When was the document created? How does this information help us understand the document better?
- Why was the document created? Does it display any bias, whether intentional or unintentional?
- What does it tell us about the Cold War era?
Landscape Case Study
History also leaves its imprint on the landscapes that surround us. Decades or even centuries after a battle takes place, it’s impact on the environment can usually be detected. Even though the Cold War did not lead to combat on US soil, it is still possible to identify physical traces that persist decades after its end. Having students to conduct a landscape case study will allow them to gain a better understanding of the constructed nature of the environment we live in and how events like the Cold War shaped everyday life.
One way for students to conduct a landscape case study is for them to use Google Maps to search the area around their hometown for traces of old military installations, such as missile silos. They could also look at blueprints of their school to determine whether it once included a bomb shelter. Another possibility would be for them to analyze a war memorial in their town, or they could look for a portion of the Berlin Wall on display nearby.
For younger students, you might focus on asking them to describe the landscape, which can be done in the form of short answers; the analytic portion of the exercise will have to be conducted in class. More advanced students should be capable of more analysis on their own, placing the landscape in its original historical context and drawing ties to the present. For advanced students, the case study could take the form of an essay.
The following questions can be useful in helping students analyze a landscape:
- Where is the landscape located?
- What is the nature of the landscape? (example: old missile silo, military installation, nuclear bunker, nuclear test site, war memorial, etc.)
- When was it created?
- Who created it? (government, private citizen, association, etc.)
- What was the building/site meant for? Who was it meant for?
- Is the building site still in use today?
- What impact did it have on the natural environment?
- What does the site tell us about the Cold War and its legacies?
Oral History Interview
It is important for students to understand that history consists events of that people just like them lived through. Oral history interviews reveal that the same event can be experienced in radically different ways by different people. Having students conduct their own oral history interviews with people they know will allow them to better understand the human dimension of history.
Potential Oral History Assignment:
It’s your turn to be the historian. Do you know anyone in your family or your neighborhood who has lived through the Cold War? Now is the time to sit down with them and have a chat. You will need a notepad and, if possible, a recording device. Remember that the interviewee is doing you a favor, so be mindful of their time and ask permission in advance if you plan on recording them.
Here are some of the questions you might want to ask them (make sure to tailor your questions based on your interviewee’s age: if they were born in the 1960s, they cannot remember the Cuban Missile crisis). These questions are meant as a starting point—feel free to think of your own!
Questions about the nuclear arms race:
Did you have to practice “duck and cover” drills in school? What was that like?
Were you and your friends scared of a nuclear attack growing up?
Did your hometown have a shelter in case of a nuclear attack?
Did you or someone in your family participate in anti-nuclear demonstrations?
Questions about the Soviet Union:
What were you taught about the Soviet Union in school?
What did you know about life behind the Iron Curtain?
What was your perception of communism?
Do you remember the “Red Scare” of the 1950s or any of its consequences?
Questions about specific events:
Did anyone in your family fight in the Korean War?
Do you remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?
What did you do during the Vietnam War?
What, if anything, do you remember about the Prague Spring of 1968?
How old were you when the Berlin Wall came down? What do you remember?
Remember, this is an interview, not an interrogation. The questions are meant as starting points for your interviewee to tell their story. Don’t be afraid of digressions, as they often lead to the best stories.
The worksheet below can be used as a guide for this assignment. It is also available to download as a Microsoft Word document and can be adjusted according to your students’ grade level and the amount of detail you would like them to provide.
Name of the Interviewer:
Name of the Interviewee:
Date of the Interview:
Place of the Interview:
- What kind of information did you learn?
- What was the most striking thing you learned?
- Did you learn something that contradicted what we learned in class? If so, what? How could you corroborate that information?
- How does the interviewee's perspective on the cold war compare with your own?