3rd Year: Option 1: The Rise of the Superpowers

Main Page: International Relations in 20th Century History
A cartoon from the early 1960s showing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy.
What are they doing? What kind of message do you think this cartoon is trying to give?

With most of Europe in ruins after the war, and the big European empires breaking up in the decades that followed, there were two new contenders for the "most powerful nation the world" title. The United States and the Soviet Union both emerged from World War II much more influential than ever before. America had unleashed a destructive new weapon, and had helped an isolated Britain and a conquered France to resist the Nazis. The Soviet Union repelled Hitler's invasion and pushed back all the way to Berlin itself, while Britain, France and America had taken western Germany. America and the Soviet Union became known as the "superpowers". They were now the strongest and the most influential. But there was a problem. After the war ended, they began to fall out.

An American comic book from 1960.
Is this propaganda? Why do you think so?
The Soviet Union was a communist state, which means that the state owned all businesses and industries and private property was not allowed. Within the Soviet Union (aka the USSR), the Communist Party was the only legal political party, and its leaders ruled as dictators. The USSR held on to the land it had taken from Germany in eastern Europe, so that even though Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other countries were re-made, they fell under communist influence. Germany itself was split in two - West Germany and East Germany. East Germany was communist, West Germany became a democracy. Separately, China became a communist state in 1949.

American leaders were fearful of the spread of communism throughout the rest of Europe and elsewhere in the world, so they followed a policy of containment, meaning they would try to "contain" communism where it already was and not let it spread. The conflict between the USA and USSR that followed is called the "Cold War", as the two nations never fought each other like in a typical (or "hot") war but they still tried to strengthen themselves while weakening the other. The fact that both nations now had nuclear weapons meant that people were even more scared of a war than ever before. Now that nuclear weapons existed, it was possible for a war to destroy the whole world in a matter of hours.

In this section, you'll learn about three flashpoints in the Cold War which almost brought the two superpowers to a full war.

This is one of three option topics you can study. The other two options are Moves Toward European Unity and African & Asian Nationalism.





  • Causes of the Cold War.
  • The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
  • The Arms Race, the Propaganda War and the Space Race.
  • Case Study #1: The Berlin Blockade
    • Postwar Germany, Berlin airlift, Results.
  • Case Study #2: The Korean War
    • Beginning of the war, UN help, Results.
  • Case Study #3: The Cuban Missile Crisis
    • Khrushchev, Communist takeover of Cuba, Bay of Pigs, Missile bases and blockade, Results.
  • End of the Cold War: Reagan and Gorbachev, Glasnost and perestroika, Military spending, Berlin Wall.





Click here for exam questions you can be asked about this topic. (Higher and Ordinary)

A named leader in one of the crises during the rise of the superpowers (Berlin Blockade; Korean War; Cuban Missile Crisis)



The Cold War lasted from about 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 
During that time, many events happened which involved many people, 
not all of whom are in the topic to be studied. Some of them are below. 
You can click on the links if you're interested in learning any more about them.
1st row (l to r): Harry Truman, George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Kim Il-Sung, Dwight Eisenhower
2nd row (l to r): Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy, Laika
3rd row (l to r): Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev
4th row (l to r): Jimmy Carter, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin




Overview of the Cold War
HLS has a detailed look at the events of the Cold War as usual.

History.com: The Cold War
History.com also has an overview, but it might be a bit more detailed in some places. There are a lot of videos however, and features on aspects of the Cold War such as the Space Race. 

BBC: The Cold War
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990
became a symbol of the end of the Cold War.
The BBC focus on the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, weapons used in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Cold War Museum
Based in Virginia, the Cold War museum keeps a timeline of events during the Cold War, and also has features on different aspects of it.

British National Archives on the Cold War
The British National Archives site has a page especially for students showing questions about the Cold War. Click on them to learn the answer. There's information about the relationship between Stalin and the other Allied leaders during WWII, the weapons used in the Cold War and questions about Vietnam. There are also primary sources viewable on the site.

The Berlin Blockade
Learn more about the blockade and airlift here.

The Berlin Airlift: Story of a Great Achievement (YouTube)
A video from 1949 about the airlift, made by the British government. Look out for propaganda. Videos like this were common at the time so that governments could show people how bad the other side was.

The Korean War Project
This site is full of information, details, sources and resources dedicated to the Korean War. You might not know this about it, but that war is technically still ongoing, as the peace declared in 1953 was just a truce.

US Navy: The Korean War
The US Navy site has its own overview of the war, with selected images...

BBC: The Korean War
...and so does the BBC.

War or Peace? American newsreel from 1950 (YouTube)
This American newsreel covers the outbreak of the Korean War as well as other tensions between communist countries and non-communist countries. There's quite a lot of propaganda here, just like in the Berlin Airlift video.

JFK Library: The Cuban Missile Crisis
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has an overview of the crisis and Kennedy's response to it.

Thirteen Days in October
The JFK Library has a much more detailed and interactive site on every day of the crisis, with photos, declassified letters, and recordings of conversations President Kennedy had with other leaders about the crisis. If you're interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis, this site is highly recommended.

President Kennedy Addresses the Nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis (YouTube)
Listen to Kennedy speaking to the American people in October 1962.