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Origins of the Cold War: History - Grade 10

Subject: History

Grade: 10

Lesson Objective: To understand the origins of the cold war.

Common Core Standard:  

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.7 - Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.9 - Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington's Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"), including how they address related themes and concepts.



Say: The Cold War was a war between the United States and Russia without guns, without fire, without chemicals. It was an icy conflict between superpowers, one that left wondering, "Who will attack first?" The only thing that kept us from destroying ourselves was mutually assured destruction. If we went to war with Russia, both of our countries would have been devastated by nuclear war. 



  • Read the following text supported by appropriate multimedia (Pearl Harbor 1941), and then have students complete the questions.
  • Say: The U.S. entered WWII after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and entered a Grand Alliance with Great Britain, and the USSR (Russia). But post-WWII, this alliance would ultimately break down between the East and the West.
  • Ask: Why would an alliance this strong break down? Allow for some discussion.
  • Say: Backing up a bit, although WWII started in 1939, the leaders of the U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR met for the first time in 1943 at the conference of Tehran in Persia. The leaders agreed that their armies would invade France to fight the German army and force them out of the countries they had occupied. Stalin, the USSR leader, was particularly happy with this decision as up until then, the USSR was the only army fighting the Nazi army in Europe.
  • Show related multimedia (Tehran Conference 1943).
  • Say: With victory in sight, the Big Three—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met again at the Yalta Conference in 1945. The conference was held in Yalta, Crimea. The objective was to decide what to do with Germany once they had been defeated. 
  • Show related multimedia (Yalta Conference 1945).
  • Say: They decided that they would divide Germany into four zones between the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the USSR. Churchill insisted France be included. He wanted Britain to have a European ally with whom it could work and share the cost of rebuilding Germany after the war.
  • As such, Berlin was divided as well. Because Berlin, the capital of Germany, was situated 100 miles inside the USSR zone, the city would become the Cold War's focal point up until the 1980s.
  • Show media video about the Berlin Wall (Berlin Wall).
  • The Big Three decided that all countries liberated from Nazi occupation were free to hold their own elections and form their own governments as per The Declaration on Liberated Europe. However, the communist USSR was granted a sphere of influence in their zones.
  • Last but not least, the allies agreed to form the United Nations, whose purpose would be to prevent further world wars. 
  • Show related multimedia (United Nations is Formed).
  • Say: The next meeting of the Big Three took place in 1945 in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. At this conference, President Roosevelt was replaced by President Truman, following Roosevelt's death. Whereas the Yalta Conference had been fairly friendly, the Potsdam Conference was less so. 
  • By this time, the Americans had secretly developed the nuclear bomb. Truman, who made no secret of his dislike for Stalin and communism, announced the successful detonation of the nuclear bomb in the Mexican desert. Although Stalin had been monitoring the U.S.'s development of the nuclear bomb through his network of spies, he complained at this conference that it was unfair for allies to keep secrets. 
  • Although they agreed at the Yalta Conference that free elections would be held in Europe after the defeat of the Nazis, there was little evidence of this in Eastern Europe. The Soviet army was in control in Poland and the USSR was in the process of establishing a communist government.
  • Show related multimedia (Potsdam Conference 1945).
  • Ask: Let's go back to our first question now that we know a little bit more. What do you think caused the Grand Alliance to break down? Allow for discussion.
  • Say: Between 1945 and 1948, seven Eastern European countries fell into the hands of communist-led parties sponsored by the Soviet Union. For the U.S. and Western Europe, the expansion of communism in Eastern Europe was a cause for great concern.
  • In 1946, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow provided information about the USSR's intentions. In a famous telegram, called The Long Telegram, the official said the USSR feared the outside world but was intent on spreading communism wherever it could; the USSR was heavily armed, but the U.S. was stronger. In his view, the spread of communism could be contained. He also stated that there could be no peaceful coexistence between the U.S. and the USSR.
  • Show related multimedia (Post War Issues Political Cartoon pg 30).
  • Say: The Soviet response to the Long Telegram was the Novikov Telegram written by Nikolai Novikov, the Soviet Ambassador in the U.S. In his telegram, the ambassador stated that, as the U.S. had emerged from the war economically strong and bent on world domination, the USSR had no choice but to turn Eastern Europe into a buffer zone in the event that war might break out between the East and the West. 
  • Show related multimedia (The Long Telegram).
  • Show related multimedia (The Novikov Telegram ).
  • Ask: How did these two telegrams contribute to the start of the Cold War? Allow for discussion.



  • Write in your own words what you think contributed to the start of the Cold War and why. Allow time to write and share. 
  • Go home and find two multimedia sources or historical documents that support your argument. Be prepared to discuss this in person tomorrow.


Written by Joseph Stonebank

Education World Contributor

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