Cold War Lesson Plan

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

This lesson plan on the Cold War gives you the tools you need to help students understand the start and early years of the Cold War, as well as its impact on American life during the 1940s and 1950s.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to do the following:

  • Understand the causes and timeline of the Cold War.
  • Recognize the core conflict between Communism and Democracy/Capitalism.
  • Critique how concern for Communism affected life in the United States.


1 hour

Curriculum Standards


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.


Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.


Begin the lesson by watching the video The Cold War: Definition, Causes, & Early Events, stopping it at the following points for discussion:

  • 3:05 - How was the Cold War already being fought with respect to economics and knowledge? How would you best describe the message that Truman was trying to send the Soviets? What motivated this message?
  • 4:35 - How was the idea of containment challenged by the Soviets? Looking at a map, what did NATO accomplish with respect to containment? Where did the Korean War fit into all of this?

At this point, play the video The Cold War in America: Effects on Everyday Life, pausing again for the following points of discussion:

  • 1:51 - Why do you think labor unions were a target of concern? Remind students of the early days of Communism in Russia. How do you think these fears accelerated with the Soviet development of an atomic bomb in 1949?
  • 4:59 - Ask students if they sense an 'us vs. them' mentality developing. Do they think that the increased fear of programs like Duck and Cover may have caused people to return to more 'American' institutions, such as religion, or even turning a blind eye to the actions of HUAC? Could this be viewed as each citizen doing their part for Containment?


This activity can be completed independently or within student groups. Tell students that they have to plan how they would write a book that features a short report about the political beliefs of each member of the United States Senate. To add to the realism, you may want to hand out students a list of current members of the Senate (found here), as well as a list of policy positions, e.g. foreign policy, healthcare, social security, education, and defense spending.

In other words, there is plenty of detail and complexity involved in this project. However, they don't have to actually do the work, but instead, they just have to describe how they would perform the work.

If students are working collaboratively in groups, tell half the groups that they are to solve the task at hand in a Communist fashion while the other half may use Capitalism.

If working with an individual student, have them approach the task from both angles. They can use a hypothetical scenario and fictitious group members to craft their plans.


  • Share their grade as a group
  • Everyone must have a role in the project.


  • Earn their own grades
  • Those who don't want to work don't have to, but it will affect their grade.

Give students 15 minutes to discuss how they would allocate work, milestones that should be achieved by a given time to make sure that everyone is on track, and how to make sure that the work was done at a quality level. How will each group and each member ensure they get the grade they want?

Allow students to present a 5-minute overview of how they would accomplish the work, based on their viewpoint.

Next, ask the following questions:

  • Did they think their system was fair?
  • How do they feel about how their work might impact other group members?
  • Do they trust other people in their group to do quality work?

As students present and discuss, record some common themes that represent the pros and cons of both systems on the board or poster paper. Ask students to help brainstorm some advantages and disadvantages of Communism. What about the advantages and disadvantages of Capitalism?

Lastly, ask students to describe why Americans were fearful of Communism. How did it impact our culture?


  • Reinforce to students that the Cold War wasn't just about politics. Encourage them to explore the role of sports, such as the US Hockey Team in 1980's Miracle on Ice, as well as the Space Race, as rivalries between East and West.
  • Many view current relations between Russia and the West as being similar to the Cold War. Discuss this information.

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