Teaching the Cold War

At some point in the history of this blog, I think I’ve had at least one post about every course that I teach — with one exception: I’ve said little about my upper-division course on the history of the Cold War, for the simple reason that I haven’t taught it since May 2011, and this blog started in June 2011.

Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961
Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 – U.S. National Archives

I have special affection for my Cold War class because I’ve been teaching something like it since 1998 (when I was one of the teaching fellows who helped John Gaddis the first time he offered his Cold War survey at Yale). Some of the most effective moments in the semester — like the nuclear crisis roleplaying scenario we’ll do in March — have roots that go back at least five years before I came to Bethel. (You’d think I’d have exhausted the possibilities of that exercise, but two years ago, for the first time, I had one group decide it would be wise to “kidnap” the ambassador of the other team…) So teaching the Cold War evokes a different time in my life: when I was single, didn’t have kids, hadn’t given a second thought to Pietism or church history, and was busy writing about American foreign policy after World War II.

But the fact that I am taking a temporary (or permanent — we’ll see) sabbatical from research in the field has done little to diminish my enthusiasm for teaching this chapter in the history of international relations.

Most seriously, it’s an ideal chance to talk with students about the complexity of terms like freedom, justice, and hope — on them, see my August 2011 reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall going up.

But I also enjoy the chance to teach a truly international history: very early on, I challenge my students not to use the pronoun “we” when speaking of any nation that participated in the Cold War. Both as historians trying to tell the story with of a complicated conflict that spans borders and generations with some degree of objectivity and as Christians who have no lasting city in any secular country, I’d rather that my American students, for example, not identify themselves too closely with the United States government or military.

Zubok, A Failed EmpireTo help strengthen the empathetic muscles that historians rely on for “imaginative understanding,” I first assign readings in Vladislav Zubok’s history of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, A Failed Empire, and ask students to consider how Soviet citizens (Soviet elites, at least) conceived of themselves, their interests and intentions, and the other nations in the world coming out of World War II. Much of this has to do with diplomacy and grand strategy, but I like that Zubok has a broader view of how Soviets experienced and understood the Cold War:

[With all the sources now available from Russia and other Soviet bloc countries] it became possible to write about the Cold War not just as a clash of great powers and as an accumulation of deadly weaponry. Above all, every history is the story of people and their motives, hopes, crimes, illusions, and mistakes. The Soviet Cold War had many fronts and dimensions—from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin to Moscow kitchens, where dissidents spoke about Communism “with a human face,” from the Politburo in the Kremlin to students’ dorms. It was a war of nerves and resources, but above all it was a struggle of ideas and values. (p. xxiii)

So to get a different kind of insight into the “Soviet Cold War,” I also like to show students Soviet cartoons — perhaps expecting that my students wouldn’t have conceived of such a thing being produced in the USSR. My personal favorite is the genuinely funny The Millionaire, a 1963 film that tells the story of a bulldog who inherits a capitalist’s fortune. (Unlike most of the others I show, this cartoon seems to be aimed at children.)

(I also recommend 1933’s Black and White, a parable of anti-racism set to the sublime sound of Paul Robeson singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and 1979’s Shooting Range, about an unemployed American youth who takes a job as a live target in the titular location.)

And, silly as it may sound, it’s the course I teach that most naturally lends itself to making students sing: the mid-Forties to early-Nineties covers a wide range of popular music. It’s fun to play “99 Luftballons” once we get to the renewed tension of the Reagan Era (though I really should find a keytar to bring to class that day instead of my Gibson acoustic…), but my favorites are from much earlier on: a sub-genre of country music from about 1950 to 1963 that dwells on anti-Communism and/or nuclear fear. For example, Hank Williams, Jr. shaming Stalin in “No, No Joe” or the Louvin Brothers’ apocalyptic country-gospel tune “The Great Atomic Power” (both links take you to the great Atomic Platters website).


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