Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

The Origins of the Cold War
Cara Harker
US History
Time Frame:
• This lesson requires 45 minutes in an Advanced Placement classroom and 90 minutes in a traditional classroom
Cold War

Grade Levels:
9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • Students will examine the historical interpretation of the origins of the Cold War and use primary documents to defend or refute a particular historical interpretation.

  • This lesson allows students to explore the historical thinking skill of historical interpretation and strengthen their abilities to use primary sources as evidence to support a position.  It also explores essential content in American history.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

  • Describe and evaluate the evolution of United States domestic and foreign policies from Reconstruction to the present, including: . . . two world wars (and the) Cold War.  (Missouri Social Studies High School standard 3a.w)
  • Examine the wars of the twentieth-century pertinent to US history including: causes, comparisons, consequences and peace efforts  (Missouri High School Social Studies standard 3a.x)
  • Be able to analyze diverse historical interpretations (College Board Advanced Placement United States History Skill 8)
  • Based on analysis and evaluation of historical evidence, make supportable inferences and draw appropriate conclusions. (College Board Advanced Placement United States History Skill 7)

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Six Months in 1945:  FDR, Stalin, Churchill and Truman – from World War to Cold War, by Michael Dobbs (2012) – opening excerpt
  • Article:  “The Inevitability of the Cold War,” by Michael Dobbs, History News Network, George Mason University, 29 October 2012. 

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Minutes from The Crimea Conference (Yalta), excerpt from February 8, 1945 section, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Papers as President:  Map Room Papers, 1941-1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

< http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/_resources/images/mr/mr0129.pdf>

  • Photograph:  Crimean Conference--Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Marshal Joseph Stalin at the palace in Yalta, where the Big Three met, Library of Congress

< http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96522032/>

  • Notes by Harry S. Truman on the Potsdam Conference, July 17-30, 1945. President's Secretary's File, Truman Papers.

< http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/pdfs/63.pdf#zoom=100>

  • Photograph:  Churchill, Stalin, Truman at Potsdam, United States Army Signal Corps Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Accession Number: 63-1457-28 <http://www.trumanlibrary.org/photographs/63-1457-28.jpg>
  • Henry Stimson to Harry S. Truman, accompanied by a memorandum, September 11, 1945. President's Secretary's File, Truman Papers.

< http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/pdfs/22.pdf#zoom=100>

  • Winston Churchill, “Sinews of Peace” (excerpt), Westminster College, 1946

< http://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1946-1963-elder-statesman/the-sinews-of-peace>

  • Telegram, George Kennan to James Byrnes ["Long Telegram"], February 22, 1946. Harry S. Truman Administration File, Elsey Papers.

< http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/coldwar/documents/index.php?documentdate=1946-02-22&documentid=6-6&studycollectionid=&pagenumber=1>

Full description of activity or assignment.

1.  Present essential question:  When did the Cold War begin?  (Teacher may have assigned textbook reading on origins of Cold War, or students may just have finished examining World War II.)   Depending on the students’ prior knowledge, some may mention the “Iron Curtain” speech or even the Truman Doctrine.  If students know nothing about the origins of the Cold War, teacher should provide some background as to what the Cold War was and how it grew out of World War II. 


2.  Present students with excerpt from historian Michael Dobbs’ monograph, Six Months in 1945:  From World War to Cold War. (If teachers prefer, they may assign Dobbs’ article, “The Inevitability of the Cold War,” from History News Network.)  After reading the excerpt, students should discuss the following in small groups:  What is Dobbs’ argument regarding the beginning of the Cold War?  (By the time students examine the Cold War in an AP US History class, they should have had lots of practice identifying an author’s thesis.  If students have not done this in other classes, the teacher should talk about historiography a bit, explaining that historians have different viewpoints and that there is no “right answer.” History is interpretation.)


3.  Discuss Dobbs’ thesis as a class, honing in on the argument that while many historians place the origins of the Cold War with various events (The Iron Curtain Speech, George Kennan’s push for containment, the Truman Doctrine, etc.), Dobbs argues that the Cold War began during the last six months of World War II, from February to August 1945.  Have students share which ONE SENTENCE in the excerpt best summarizes this argument.  (Suggested response:  “The six months between Yalta and Hiroshima form a hinge between two very different wars and two very different worlds.”) 


4.  The main task for the class period is to assess the validity of Dobbs’ claim, to determine whether historical evidence proves his thesis.  Students will work in groups to analyze the primary documents listed above.  To analyze the documents students will complete the following tasks:

            a.  Examine the source of the document.  Discuss the author’s background (if relevant) and the capacity in which the writer produced the document.

            b.  Discuss the historical context  -- time and place – in which the document was written.  Obviously, these documents were written during or immediately following World War II.  What other specific details can students provide to add meaning to the documents?

            c.  Discuss the main points of each document, particularly as they show growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

            d.  Draw comparisons among documents.  How are the documents similar to one another?  How are they different?  (Particularly important with the two photographs)

            e.  Evaluate the extent to which the document support Dobbs’ argument, that the Cold War began within the final six months of World War II.


***The document analysis portion of this lesson could be rather time-consuming, depending on students’ comfort level with reading primary sources.  The Truman notes on Potsdam may give them difficulties due to the handwriting, and the minutes from the Crimea (Yalta) conference are rather lengthy.  However, for my purposes, reading these documents in their entirety and in the provided format is an important part of historiography in my classroom.  Teachers should feel free to excerpt these documents or put them in a different format to meet the needs of their students.


            f.  After students have discussed the documents in small groups, have them create a chart showing which documents support Dobbs and which may not.  Groups should be prepared to share the chart in a full-class discussion.

            g.  After discussing the small groups’ analyses of the documents and the charts they created, provide copies of excerpts from Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace,” aka “Iron Curtain” speech, George Kennan’s Long Telegram, and the Truman Doctrine.  Students should pay close attention to the dates on these documents and determine whether these documents show a direct shift to create the Cold War or whether they simply reflect the Cold War that was well in play by the time these documents were written.  After small-group discussion, bring the discussion to the full class as time allows.

            h.  Exit Ticket:  Students should respond to the following question on a half-sheet of paper and hand it to the teacher as a ticket out of class:  To what extent do you agree with historian Michael Dobbs that the Cold War began during the last six months of World War II?  Which document(s) best supports your conclusion?  Explain. 

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:
  • This lesson relies primarily on formative informal assessment.  The full-class discussion will provide the teacher with a clear picture of whether students are able to evaluate the historian’s thesis and use evidence from the documents to support or refute the thesis.  The exit ticket will provide the teacher with a snapshot of student understanding of the topic as follows:


Exit Ticket:  To what extent do you agree with historian Michael Dobbs that the Cold War began during the last six months of World War II?  Which document(s) best supports your conclusion?  Explain. 

  • Student response should be about 50 words. (guideline)
  • Student response MUST defend or refute the historical interpretation. (1 point)
  • Student response MUST cite at least two specific historic documents to support or refute the claim.  (2 points)
  • Student response MUST explain HOW the document(s) support their analysis of the historian’s claim.  (2 points)