History Essay Topics Cold War Kids

Rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union for control over the postwar world emerged before World War II had even ended. U.S. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin never really trusted one another, even while working together to defeat the Nazis. This mutual mistrust actually began as far back as 1917, when the United States refused to recognize the new Bolshevik government after the Russian Revolution. Stalin also resented the fact that the United States and Great Britain had not shared nuclear weapons research with the Soviet Union during the war and was unhappy with the countries’ initial unwillingness to engage the Germans on a second front in order to take pressure off of the Soviets. Additionally, Stalin was irked by the fact that Truman had offered postwar relief loans to Great Britain but not to the USSR.

Important ideological differences separated the two countries as well, especially during the postwar years, when American foreign policy officials took it upon themselves to spread democracy across the globe. This goal conflicted drastically with the Russian revolutionaries’ original desire to overthrow capitalism. Having been invaded by Germany twice in the last fifty years, Soviet leaders also wanted to restructure Europe so that a buffer existed between the Germans and the Soviet border. Both the United States and the USSR believed that their respective survival was at stake, and each was therefore prepared to take any steps to win. As a result, both countries found themselves succumbing to the classic prisoners’ dilemma: working together would produce the best result, but with everything to lose, neither side could risk trusting the other.

At the same time, however, both the United States and the USSR did much to prevent the Cold War from escalating, as both countries knew how devastating a nuclear war would be. Truman, for example, kept the Korean War limited by refusing to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China, aware that doing so would force the USSR to retaliate. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept his distance from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, knowing full well that the USSR would not tolerate interference in Eastern Europe. Likewise, the Soviet Union made sacrifices to keep the war “cold” by backing down from the Cuban missile crisis. Many Cold War historians believe that both countries worked hard to keep conflicts limited and used tacit signaling techniques to communicate goals, fears, concerns, intensions, and counteractions.

The Cold War had an enormous impact on the United States politically, socially, and economically. In addition to spawning fear-induced Red hunts and McCarthyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Cold War also shaped U.S. presidents’ political agendas. Eisenhower, for example, sought to reduce government spending at home in order to halt what he called “creeping socialism” and to save money for more urgent needs such as defense. Kennedy’s New Frontier inspired patriotic fervor and visions of new hope in American youth. Even Eisenhower’s farewell warning of a growing military-industrial complex within the United States, which would come to dominate American political thinking, proved to be eerily accurate during the Vietnam War era the following decade. At the same time, federal dollars feeding this complex helped produce one of the greatest economic booms in world history.

The question as to whether the United States or the USSR was more to blame for starting the Cold War has produced heated debate among twentieth-century historians. For years, most historians placed blame squarely on Soviet shoulders and helped perpetuate the notion that Americans wanted merely to expand freedom and democracy. More recent historians, however, have accused President Truman of inciting the Cold War with his acerbic language and public characterization of the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to the free world. Although conflict between the two powers was arguably inevitable, the escalation into a full “hot” war and the attendant threat of nuclear annihilation might have been avoidable.

The Cold War

Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was built by the communist government of East Berlin in 1961. The wall separated East Berlin and West Berlin. It was built in order to prevent people from fleeing East Berlin. In many ways it was the perfect symbol of the "Iron Curtain" that separated the democratic western countries and the communist countries of Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.

Berlin wall 1990
Photo by Bob Tubs

How it All Started

After World War II the country of Germany ended up dividing into two separate countries. East Germany became a communist country under the control of the Soviet Union. At the same time West Germany was a democratic country and allied with Britain, France, and the United States. The initial plan was that the country would eventually be reunited, but this didn't happen for a long time.

The City of Berlin

Berlin was the capital of Germany. Even though it was located in the eastern half of the country, the city was controlled by all four major powers; the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France.


As people in East Germany began to realize that they did not want to live under the rule of the Soviet Union and communism, they started to leave the eastern part of the country and move to the west. These people were called defectors.

Over time more and more people left. The Soviet and East German leaders began to worry that they were losing too many people. Over the course of the years 1949 to 1959, over 2 million people left the country. In 1960 alone, around 230,000 people defected.

Although the East Germans tried to keep people from leaving, it was fairly easy for people to leave the city of Berlin because the inside of the city was controlled by all four major powers.

Building the Wall

Finally, the Soviets and the East German leaders had had enough. On August 12th and 13th of 1961 they built a wall around Berlin to prevent people from leaving. At first the wall was just a barbed wire fence. Later it would be rebuilt with concrete blocks 12 feet high and four feet wide.

The Wall is Torn Down

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he asked the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "Tear down this Wall!"

Reagan at the Berlin Wall
Source: White House Photographic Office

Around that time the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse. They were losing their hold on East Germany. A few years later on November 9, 1989 the announcement was made. The borders were open and people could freely move between Eastern and Western Germany. Much of the wall was torn down by people chipping away as they celebrated the end to a divided Germany. On October 3, 1990 Germany was officially reunified into a single country.

Interesting Facts About the Berlin Wall
  • The Eastern Germany government called the wall the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. The Western Germans often referred to it as the Wall of Shame.
  • Around 20% of the East German population left the country in the years leading up to the building of the wall.
  • The country of East Germany was officially called the German Democratic Republic or GDR.
  • There were also many guard towers along the wall. Guards were ordered to shoot anyone attempting to escape.
  • It is estimated that around 5000 people escaped over or through the wall during the 28 years it stood. Around 200 were killed trying to escape.
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