3. Theme 3 - Cold War Crises (ATL)

Theme 3: Cold War crises

This theme involves studying Cold War crises. A crisis is considered to be an event when there was a clear escalation of tension between the superpowers

Students need to be able to examine and compare the causes, impact and significance of two Cold War crises from two different regions.

On this page we have ATL for three crises from two regions. However there are other crises which can be used and we have covered these elsewhere on this site:

The Korean War (Asia region):  ATL: Theme 1 - Rivalry, Mistrust and Accord and ATL: Containment under Truman and Eisenhower and ATL: The Korean War and its impact 

Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Europe region): ATL: Khrushchev and Brezhnev

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Asia region): ATL: Khrushchev and Brezhnev and ATL: Afghanistan 1979 - 1992 

The Suez Crisis (Middle East region): 2. Arab-Israeli conflicts, 1956 to 1973 

Guiding questions:

For each crisis that you cover in the Cold War, the following questions need to be covered:

What were the origins of the crisis?

What was the impact of the crisis?

What was the significance of the crisis?

1. The Berlin Crisis of 1948 (Europe)


What were the causes of this crisis?

Germany's geographic position in the centre of Europe and its potential economic strength made it an area of vital concern to all countries. In addition, the fact that it had been invaded on several fronts by several enemies meant that, unlike Japan, it was much more difficult to leave undivided at the end of the Second World War.

Task One

ATL: Self-management skills

Review your notes on the Yalta and Potsdam conferences

1. What decisions were taken at Yalta and Potsdam regarding Germany?

2. In pairs, discuss the aims of each of the following powers regarding Germany. Also discuss why they had these aims. Click on the eye below to check you have covered all of the points.

  • USSR
  • France
  • USA
  • Britain

The USSR did not wish to see a resurgent Germany which could threaten it again. It also wanted to secure reparations - as much as possible - in the range of US $20 billion

France also feared a strong, united Germany again

The USA saw that a strong, economic Germany was key to the peace and stability of Europe; it also increasingly saw a strong economy as key to resisting communism (hence the Marshall Plan after 1948)

The UK endorsed the US point of view as it was dependent on US aid.

The division of Germany that was decided on at the post war conferences was not intended to be a permanent division. It was intended that all times Germany would be treated as a single economic unit and that Germany would eventually emerge as a single united state once more. However, by 1949 it had become permanently divided. This was due to several reasons. The first was the different aims that the different powers had (which you discussed in the task above).

Secondly, the existing tensions were exacerbated by growing Cold War tensions.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

1. In pairs discuss why the development of Cold War hostility would make it more difficult to carry out the original aim of eventually unifying Germany. What would each side now be concerned about with regard to Germany?

2. In 1946, Secretary of State James F Byrnes gave a speech in Stuttgart, known as the 'Speech of Hope'. You can find a full text of the speech here.

What is the tone of this speech regarding US actions towards Germany? What promises does he make the Germans? Why might the Soviets feel uneasy about this speech?

The third factor which made increased tensions were specific disputes within Germany itself. The Potsdam arrangements whereby the USSR was to take 25 per cent of German industrial equipment from the Western zones in return for supplying those zones with food and raw materials, did not work. Food was a huge problem in war-torn Germany, especially with the flood of refugees from Eastern Europe swelling the population. The USSR was not delivering enough food to the Western zones and was also being increasingly secretive about what it was taking from the Soviet zone. thus the United States and the United Kingdom stopped supplies to the Soviet zone. There were also disputes over coal with West refusing to hand over coal from their zones to the USSR.

A final factor was the political, economic and social differences that were established between the two zones and which saw the two areas developing into separate states as early as 1946.

Stalin hoped to win over west Germans to supporting the Socialist  Unity Party (SED) which had been created by a merger between the German Communist Party (KPD) and the more popular Social Democrats (SPD). However, Germans in the western sector were unlikely to vote for a Soviet controlled party which, even if it unified the country, was unlikely to bring economic aid and no chance of democracy. Nevertheless, within the Soviet controlled sector the SED under Walter Ulbricht came to dominate the political landscape and sweeping changes to society and economy were implemented driven by socialist principles and by a determination to eradiate Nazism:

  • Economic changes followed socialist principles; the state took control of banks and much of industry and commerce was nationalised which substantially altered the balance of power and influence in the Eastern zone. The powerful farmers or 'Junkers' lost their power - though the change from large estates to small farms was to prove much less efficient economically
  • In Education socialist values were also introduced. As a result of the Law for the Democratisation of German Schools, the schooling structure was changed to and new text books promoted socialist rather than Nazi ideals. Working class children now had more opportunities and the number going to university almost doubled in three years.

Meanwhile, in the Western sector a range of political parties developed, though there was an attempt to ensure that there was no repeat of the fragmentation of parties that had happened in Weimar Germany. The SDP and KPD were re-established but did not merge as had happened in the East. The various Christian (Protestant and Catholic) and conservative parties joined together to form the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by Konrad Adenauer. Liberal parties formed the Free Democratic Party. There was no attempt to remodel the Western zone socially and economically such as had happened in the Eastern zone. Nevertheless, the American influence - for example via the Marshall Plan, meant that as Mary Fulbrook writes, 'West Germany [was set] on the course of a moderate, liberal-conservative form of western capitalism'. (Germany 1918 - 1990, pg 158). The West had also given more priority to maintaining professional expertise in economic and political areas and in ensuring economic growth rather than in pusuing deNazification too thoroughly.

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs discuss whether you consider that the division of Germany was already inevitable even before the Berlin Blockade took place. Was there a point at which Germany could have been unified successfully before the blockade?

What was the trigger for this crisis?

In early 1947, the British and US zones merged into one unit called Bizonia and at the London Conference of 1948, France, Britain and the US met to draw up a  constitution for a new west German state. This would involve introducing a new currency. Stalin rightly saw the introduction of the currency as a political move to establish a new state in the West. Thus he set up a blockade of Berlin in order to try and force the West out of Berlin. The West responded with an airlift to keep west Berlin going.

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch episode 4 of the CNN Cold War series on the Berlin Blockade.

1. As you watch this video, make notes on the causes, events and impact of the Berlin Blockade.

Task Four

ATL: Thinking skills

According to this account, what were the results of the Berlin Blockade?

The Berlin Blockade was the first time since 1945 that a war had become a possibility. It also had a significant impact on the development of the Cold War. Firstly, with the failure of the blockade, the division of Germany, and thus the division of Europe, became a political reality. The West moved quickly to set up the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the Soviet followed with the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Berlin also remained a divided city within the East German state; thus the focus of tension now moved from Germany as a whole to Berlin; the city would remain a source of tension between the two sides until the building of the wall in 1961. Finally, the Berlin Blockade confirmed to the Americans that they needed a US defence commitment for Europe. This resulted in the formation of NATO. At the same time the US Congress approved a military assistance programme to help build up Europe's armed forces. Thus, from this time, there would be a strong US military presence in Europe and it was clear the US had abandoned its peacetime policy of avoiding commitments. When the USSR set up the Warsaw Pact in 1955 following the admission of West Germany into NATO, Europe was also divided militarily. In the wider perspective of the Cold War, the events of the Berlin Blockade confirmed to the West, and the US in particular, that the Soviet expansion was indeed a threat and that containment as a policy worked. This would lead the US into resisting Communism anywhere in the world that it perceived Communism as a threat.

Task Five

ATL: Thinking skills

According to historian Barrass, what was the significance of the Berlin Blockade?

General Clay, the American commander in Germany, wrote in his last dispatch to Washington on May 27 1949, that throughout Europe Berlin had become 'the symbol of our determination to resist communist expansion'. It was also more than that. The military presence of the Western Allies in Berlin reflected their refusal to accept the permanent division of Germany and Europe as a whole - this was a political challenge to Moscow that would resonate through the rest of the Cold War.

Gordon S. Barrass , the Great Cold War, Stanford University Press, 2009, pg 59

Task Six

ATL: Self-management skills

In pairs or small groups, review your notes on the Berlin Blockade. Identify the causes, impact and significance of this crisis. Complete the grid at the bottom of the page.

2. The Berlin Crisis 1958 to 1961 (Europe)

The events surrounding the Berlin Wall are clearly explained in the CNN video which can be found in the video section: Videos and questions: CNN Cold War Series .

It's also worth looking at David Reynold's Summits video on The Vienna Summit where he bullies Kennedy over Berlin: Reynolds covers this very well. This is on this page: 4. The Cold War: Videos and activities 

Note that there is also an essay plan comparing the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis : Cold War crises: Essay writing exercises and essay plans

Task One

ATL: Thinking and Research skills

Using information from both the CNN video on Berlin, which can be found here: 5. The Cold War: Videos and activities CNN Series, and the David Reynold's video on the Vienna Summit  which can be found here: 4. The Cold War: Videos and activities (along with any other research), answer the following questions on the causes of this crisis.

The Crisis of Berlin, 1958 - 61

  1. By 1958, what were the economic differences between West Germany and East Germany?
  2. By 1958, what were the political differences between West Germany and East Germany?
  3. By 1958, what were the differences between East and West Berlin?
  4. Why do you think that Khrushchev described Berlin as 'fish bone in the gullet'?
  5. What ultimatum did Khrushchev give to the West in 1958 to try to solve the Berlin problem? What was the reaction of the West?
  6. What was Ulbricht's role in the development of the crisis?
  7. What was Khrushchev's attitude towards Kennedy and the Berlin issue at the Vienna summit of 1961?
  8. Why was the response that Kennedy made in his television broadcast so significant?

The tension over Berlin continued to grow and thus the number of refugees moving from East to West increased. On 12 August 1961 alone, 40,000 refugees fled to the West. Khrushchev had no intention of starting a war over Berlin, and so, following Kennedy's threat to defend Berlin 'by any means' and the growing crisis in East German, he bowed to pressure from Ulbricht and agreed to close the East German border in Berlin. On the morning of 13 August 1961, barbed wire was erected between East and West Berlin. This was followed by a permanent concrete wall.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Use the information below to create a mind map to show the impact of the Berlin Wall for:

  • Khrushchev
  • Ulbricht
  • the citizens of Berlin
  • the Cold War

The Berlin Wall became a key moment in Cold War developments in Europe:

  • The Wall was a visible admission that the Communist propaganda message had failed
  • Families and friends were split with no hope of reunion
  • Khrushchev was now able to regain control over the situation; there was no longer a danger of Ulbricht acting independently
  • Ulbricht was able to consolidate control over East Germany
  • The drain of skilled workers from East to West ended
  • The GDR did not obtain control over access routes to Berlin despite promises from Khrushchev to Ulbricht that this would happen
  • Over the next three decades, hundreds of people were killed trying to defect to the West
  • The Wall became a powerful symbol of the division between East and West; Churchill's 'iron curtain' became a reality
  • The Berlin Wall removed Berlin as an issue in the Cold War
  • The focus of the Cold War moved from Europe
  • The Americans were able to use it as a propaganda weapon against the Soviets e.g, Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner speech

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the speech below that Kennedy made when he visited Berlin in 1961. You can also read it here.

In what ways does Kennedy use the building of the Berlin Wall as a propaganda weapon against the USSR? How successful is he in doing this?

Quote directly from the speech to support your arguments.

It is often difficult to get a real perspective of what the Berlin Wall actually was i.e. that it was much more than just 'a wall'. The following video is excellent for conveying what the wall actually meant in reality and the extent to which it was a symbol of repression - and also just how afraid the East was of defectors.

Task Four

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the following video which shows the Berlin Wall and how it operated. What are your reactions to this?

Task Five

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the sources below. For each source, identify what point the historian is making regarding the significance of the Berlin crisis.

Source A

The Berlin crisis had been a dreadful moment, but this was followed in Europe by a prolonged period of stability, if not calm. The Soviet Union was not unhappy with the outcome...A problem had been solved..The continent's political permafrost settled deeper...Europe settled down into its two armed camps.

Martin Walker, The Cold War, Vintage press 1994, pg 159

Source B

The Berlin Wall was an ideological defeat of colossal proportions for the Soviet Union and world Communism. The Wall became a symbol of the Cold War, concrete evidence of the inability of East Germany to win the loyalty of its inhabitants. It was also seen as hard proof that Soviet -style socialism was losing its economic competition with Capitalism. Although the Wall ended the mass emigration that had been destabilising East Germany and also let to a period of prolonged stability in Europe, no one at the time new that this would be the outcome.

David Painter, The Cold War, An International History, Routledge, 1999, pg 53

Source C

In August 1962, the Soviet Union was humbled as the Berlin Wall was constructed to save East Germany fro ignominious economic collapse. Peaceful coexistence had failed to attract Western concessions, particularly a settlement of divided Germany, and as the Wall was raised peaceful coexistence collapsed.

Bradley Lightbody, The Cold War, Routledge, 1999, pg 44

Task Six

ATL: Self-management skills

In pairs or small groups, review your notes on the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961. Identify the causes, impact and significance of this crisis. Complete the grid at the bottom of the page.

The Cuban Missile Crisis (Americas)

The origins of the Cuban Missile Crisis can be traced back to the overthrow of the pro-USA Cuban government of General Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro in 1959. The proximity of Cuba to mainland America, and the suspicion of the US that Castro was a Communist, meant growing tension between Cuba and the US. This resulted in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion by the US in an attempt to overthrow Castro and, as relations worsened between Cuba and the US, increased friendship between the USSR and Cuba.

Note that an alternative video to the one below is the Timewatch 'Defying Uncle Sam' video. See this page: 4. The Cold War: Videos and activities 

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the following CNN Cold War video on the Cuban Crisis up to 22 minutes. Click on the eye for questions.

  1. What actions did Castro take which upset the Americans?
  2. How did the Americans retaliate?
  3. Why did Castro turn to the Soviets for help? How did the Soviets respond to this?
  4. Why did Kennedy agree to the CIA invasion of Cuba?
  5. How did Kennedy alter the plans?
  6. Why did the operation fail?
  7. What was the impact of this failure?
  8. What actions did the CIA now take?
  9. What factors encouraged Khrushchev to decide to put missiles into Cuba?
  10. Why was the discovery of these missiles so unacceptable to the US?
  11. What were the options that the US discussed in ExComm to deal with the missiles?

    It is not totally clear why Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that the reason was to protect Cuba and also because 'it was high time America learned what it feels like to have her own land and her own people threatened'. The United States had missiles in Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union and putting missiles a similar distance away from the United States was seen as a way of redressing the balance. Equally important was Khrushchev's aim to seize a propaganda advantage after the humiliation of the Berlin Wall and to acquire a bargaining chip against the stationing of US nuclear missiles in Europe. John Lewis Gaddis, however, believes that Khrushchev put the missiles into Cuba mainly because he feared another invasion of Cuba - that he was determined to save the Cuban revolution.

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Study the timeline below and answer the following questions:

    1. What actions would have convinced the US that Castro was a Communist?
    2. What actions taken by Castro indicated that he might not have been a Communist in 1959?
    3. What evidence is there to suggest that the US helped to push Castro into a relationship with the US?

    Timeline on relations between Cuba, the USA and USSR

    Here is another timeline from Council of Foreign Relations of US-Cuba relations from 1959 up to 2018; the conflict between the two countries has continued...

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    The impact of the Berlin crisis on the Cuba Crisis

    Read the following extract which comes from Tony Judt's Post War Europe.

    1. What point is Judt making regarding the impact of Berlin on Cuba?
    2. How do you think this might have affected the actions of the Americans with regard to the Cuban crisis?

    Just as Truman and Acheson had seen the Korean incursion as a possible prelude to a Soviet probe across the divided frontier of Germany, so Kennedy and his colleagues saw in the missile emplacements in Cuba a Soviet device to blackmail a vulnerable America into giving way over Berlin. Hardly an hour passed during the first ten days of the Cuba crisis without American leaders reverting to the subject of West Berlin, and the need to 'neutralise' Khrushchev's anticipated countermove in the divided city. As Kennedy explained on October 22nd 1962 to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: 'I need not point out to you the possible relation of this secret and dangerous move on the part of Khrushchev to Berlin'.

    As you have seen from the video, ExComm considered several options in dealing with the Soviets and Cuba. Kennedy rejected calls from the military for an immediate air strike followed by an invasion of Cuba and ordered instead a naval blockade of the island. The President went on television to announce the establishment of the 'quarantine' around uba to prevent the delivery of any nuclear warheads to the island. Although the Soviet ships initially continued to head to Cuba, on 24 October, six ships turned back. At this point Dean Rusk, the US Secretary State, commented, 'We're eyeball to eyeball and i think the other fellow just blinked.' Nevertheless the crisis continued as the missiles sites still remained on Cuba.

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Now watch this excerpt from Robert McNamara's excellent Fog of War documentary.

    What are your reactions to the discussions that took place in ExComm?

    How was the crisis resolved according to McNamara?

    Who should get the credit for the resolution of this crisis?

    What are your thoughts about the first telegram that Khrushchev sent to Kennedy?

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking skills

    In pairs discuss the roles of Kennedy and Khrushchev in the crisis.

    1. Who was most to blame for the crisis?
    2. Who played the most significant role in the defusion of the crisis?

    Consider McNamara's video, the quote above from Judt and the historiography on this issue (below) in your    discussions. Also note McNamara's comments on the resolution of the crisis in the video at the top of this page on nuclear weapons.

    Traditional interpretations of JFK's actions in the Cuban crisis stress his statesmanlike approach; this view is supported by Robert Kennedy's account of the crisis in Thirteen Days and by historians Theodore C. Sorensen and Richard E Neustadt. The Revisionist view (put forward by historians Roger Hagman and David Horowitz) argues that Kennedy, through his actions, unnecessarily raised the Cuban episode to the level of a crisis. Recent interpretations are closer to the traditional interpretation; the tape recordings of the ExComm meetings at the time show Kennedy pushing for compromise and anxious to avoid a nuclear showdown.

    The Cuban missile crisis had significant consequences for both Kennedy and Khrushchev. It can also be seen as a turning point in the relations between the USSR and Cuba and between the USSR and the USA (see also Sewell on this below):

    • The outcome was a personal triumph for Kennedy; his prestige soared nationally and internationally
    • The crisis was a humiliation for Khrushchev; he was deposed in 1964 and this was a key factor in his removal
    • Both sides realised the danger of nuclear war; the Limited Test-Ban Treaty was signed in August 1963 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968
    • Cuba no longer faced the threat of an invasion as the USA had promised it would not invade Cuba as part of the final deal
    • The arms race continued unabated as the Soviets attempted to reach parity with the USA - but it was carried out within an increasingly precise set of rules.
    • Neither side would challenge each other's sphere of influence
    • Castro was furious that he had not been consulted in the negotiations; Cuba now pursued a more independent foreign policy
    • China saw the outcome as a sign that the Soviet Union had ceased to be a revolutionary state; its relationship with the USSR worsened considerably
    • A hotline was established between the USA and USSR to make immediate communication easier and avoid another confrontation such as this happening again

    Task Five

    ATL: Thinking skills 

    According to Mike Sewell, what was the signficance of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

    Source C

    The significance of the crisis lies in the fact that the world has never been closer to a nuclear exchange. It was also a hinge, or a turning point, in the history of the Cold War. Among the experiences that shaped policy makers’ approaches to any issue in the post -1962 period was a memory of the way in which crisis management was not crucial to the very survival of life on earth. As Defence Secretary McNamara later put it, the very idea of crisis management was shown to be a dangerous misperception. Crises, by their nature are unmanageable.... the outcome of the crisis, cemented the position of Cuba and West Berlin as outposts of their respective blocs and changed both sides’ negotiating styles..the crisis bred new perspectives in both superpower capitals and helped contribute to the rise of détente. Although it changed the cold war confrontation, it did not end it…’.

    Sewell, The Cold war, CUP, 2002, pg 88

    Task Six

    ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

    Organise the bullet points above into a mind map to show the impact of the Cuban Missile crisis on the different countries involved and on the international situation in general.

     Review and revision of Cold War crises

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

    This grid covers some of the crises suggested by the IB curriculum, though there may be other crises that you wish to cover. This grid could be completed as a revision exercise or you can complete the grid as you go through the course so that you get used to analysing each crisis in these terms and also to start comparing them.

    Grid comparing cold war crises

    Task Two

    ATL: Social and communication skills

    Divide the class into groups. Each group should take one of the Cold War crises that have been covered as part of the course. Their job is to argue that their crisis was more significant to the development to the cold war than the others. Each group should 'pitch' their crisis outlining what happened, its impact and significance.

    The teacher will judge the most convincing argument.

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