One of the most amazing experiences I had as a 10th-grade world history teacher (1986-2000) was to teach about the end of the Cold War as it happened. 1989 produced one breath-taking change after another. As I watched people open champagne bottles while standing on top of the Berlin Wall, I knew what my lesson would be for the next day. I knew that my students (some of whom now actually teach history themselves) would care deeply about the history happening before their eyes.
The interest of students in the Cold War waned along with the euphoria. Today’s 10th-graders barely remember 9/11, let alone 1989. It’s a struggle to get them to take communism seriously, either as an ideology or as the American enemy in the Cold War. But that is a struggle I can take on willingly now at the college level. It’s always the job of the history teacher to promote historical empathy for events of the past.
In contrast, I’m more concerned when I hear people say that the US under President Reagan’s leadership held firm against the Soviet Union and that caused the fall of communism. My objection is not that this is wrong, but that it is too simple. Although US pressure in the arms race was a contributing factor, the communist system in the Soviet Union fell from within. Tough talk was not enough, and sadly, thousands of people pouring into the streets to protest weren’t enough either. Neither would have worked if communism was working economically.
The final lesson of the History Blueprint Cold War unit lays out the multiple causes of the end of the Cold War in logical order and compelling detail. While the lesson covers the dialogue between Reagan and Gorbachev, students also explore the economic stresses and systemic failures of the command economy model in the Soviet Union.
Here is the introduction to the portion of Lesson CWW/A5 that addresses “Cracks in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.”
In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union appeared to be thriving to outside observers. Its nuclear stockpile was larger than the United States, it was building new military bases throughout Africa and the Middle East, and its political clout in parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, was at an all-time high.
But appearances were deceiving. The Soviet economy was outperforming the United States in several key industrial areas, but it was doing so at enormous cost – Soviet industries were far less efficient than their American counterparts, a fact that could be attributed to the growing technological gap between the United States and the USSR. Furthermore, the Soviet Union maintained an oppressive hold on political and cultural life within the Eastern Bloc, sparking a great deal of social discontent. To top things off, all of these problems were exacerbated by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, which was dragging on with no end in sight. Inside the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, residents in Eastern Europe began to grow restless and vocalize their discontent in ways that had not been allowed in earlier years.
You will be reading and answering questions about four documents that highlight the problems that the USSR faced in the mid-1980s. The first compares the Soviet economy with the American economy. The second is Lech Walesa’s 1983 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, an example of the conflict between the Polish worker union Solidarity and the Soviet Union, a state ostensibly founded in providing for the world’s workers. The third piece is an excerpt from a memoir written by a Soviet soldier deployed to Afghanistan. The fourth document is an excerpt from Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs, addressing the disaster at Chernobyl. In April 1986, the worst environmental accident in world history happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, releasing a great deal of radioactive material into the Soviet Union and parts of Europe. The explosion, fire, and release of radiation affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (though less than 100 were killed in the immediate explosion), and the area around the nuclear power plant will be contaminated for 24,000 years.
To see the sources and activities of this portion of Lesson CWW/A5, click Cracks in Soviet Union CWW-A5.
A teacher today can’t take advantage of the natural excitement of unfolding events as I could in 1989, but this lesson will give them a way to teach comprehensively about the end of the Cold War. The advantage teachers have today is the perspective of time (as well as not having to worry about MAD!)
A West German visitor to the Berlin Wall uses a hammer and a chisel to chip off a piece of the Wall as a souvenir. A portion of the Wall has already been demolished at Potsdamer Platz, 11/14/1989; Source: National Archives ARC Identifier: 6460158.
President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev meet in the boathouse during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland, 11/19/85. Reagan Presidential Library, FC31982-11.
Soldiers ride aboard a Soviet BMD airborne combat vehicle, 03/25/1986, National Archives, http://research.archives.gov/description/6399442.
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