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How The Cold War Is Actually Taught In Countries Around The World

Updated October 14, 2021 1.9k votes 497 voters 115.5k views11 items

List RulesVote up the most interesting anecdotes about how the Cold War is taught around the world.

When it comes to history lessons about the 20th century, classes often focus on WWI and WWII, especially the latter. Beyond WWII and Pearl Harbor, the curriculum shifts to the Cold War, a complex era that is taught differently depending where you are in the world.  

The era began right after WWII ended, largely dominated by the two superpowers that soon polarized the world. The United States and Soviet Union, with their decidedly different political frameworks and atomic capabilities, entered into decades of tension, contests for influence, and even a few skirmishes along the way. What students learn about the Cold War may amount to a few quick comments related to the space race and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, often leading up to the 1980s, glasnost, perestroika, and the ultimate dismantling of the USSR.

Redditors from different countries have shared what they learned about the Cold War, and information from textbooks provides insights, too.

  • Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #699865 / Vladimir Fedorenko / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Right After The Soviet Union Fell, Russians Were Told Communism Was Full Of Mistakes

    A Redditor from Russia, u/kwonza, described their experience:

    I went to school right after the collapse of the Soviet Union; by the time I was old enough to learn about the Cold War there were already new post-Soviet textbooks that gave more or less [a] natural overview about said time period.

    [The] [n]ew Russian state was eager to point out various blunders and mistakes made by the communist leaders, but at the same time they’ve acknowledged that geopolitical pressure from [the] USA was the dominating factor that shaped Soviet external policies at the time.

    For the first time in decades Americans weren’t seen as mortal enemies but as... promising new friends and partners... All that hopefulness and goodwill came to a halt the day... NATO invaded Yugoslavia. Public opinion had shifted overnight toward... more proactive military activity. Liberal politicians started to lose their ground to... more hard-line figures that often had military or intelligence background. As a result, Putin comes to power in less tha[n] a year.

    [I] [h]ave no idea what modern textbooks tell about the Cold War though. I guess they’ve done a bit of editing since the '90s; would be fun to see.

    This holds true with the trend of textbooks in general after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As individual nations and states emphasized their individual histories, the era became a conflict between two superpowers who split "the world into two systems... [that] could not help but affect international relations of this time period."

    It was the "increasing bipolarization of the entire world and its gradual division into two camps" that led "the globe toward a growing threat of" atomic conflict.

    Interesting insights?
  • Photo: Ronald Haeberle / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Many American Textbooks Omit Some Major Events From Vietnam

    The exclusion of key events and outcomes from the Vietnam War have been noted in numerous textbooks that were used in American classrooms. Redditor u/iwazaruu observed: 

    I'd like to talk about our Secret War in Laos, [w]hich was absolutely not covered at all in any of my history classes in all of my school years. I only learned of this recently when I went to Laos last month:

    From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. At least 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped as part of the bombing campaign; approximately 80 million failed to detonate.

    Data from a survey completed in Laos in 2009 indicate that UXO [unexploded ordnance], including cluster bombs, have killed or maimed as many as 50,000 civilians in Laos since 1964 (and 20,000 since 1973...). Over the past two years there have been over 100 new casualties each year. About 60% of accidents result in death, and 40%... are children. Boys are particularly at risk.

    Laos has suffered more than half of the confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world.

    People talk about the Vietnamese still feeling the effects of Agent Orange and such, but I've been to both countries, and I saw far more mutilated people in Laos - just because they were tending to their fields. I went to an unexploded object rescue center when I was in Laos and noticed on their board that five people have already died this year from bombs dropped 50 years ago, and many more injured (blinded and losing an arm seem to be the most common...).

    It's insane this isn't taught in American schools. Between this and the false flag attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, America really was the bad guy in the '60s.

    Another Redditor, u/WSLOU, offered this:

    U.S. - My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. Our country completely ignores teaching this.

    I'm sure there are people who want to learn about it, but most professors don't study the Vietnam War, and even if they wanted to there isn't a lot of information about the Vietnam War altogether. I just always hear the same excuse: "We were in an unknown country; everyone looked the same." Sound familiar?

    History is written by the victors. Or in this case, ignored by the losers.

    Interesting insights?
  • 7

    In India, The Soviet Union Was Presented As A Friend

    In India, post-WWII policies were characterized as those of "nonalignment," indicating the country didn't side with the United States or the Soviet Union. Indian Redditor u/gcs8 recalled:

    The USSR was a reliable friend to India in the days of the Cold War. Hence, even though Indians have a natural tendency to be pro-US because of our common Anglophone connections, the Soviets were admired by people who were aware of geopolitics.

    Because there was a friendship pact between India and the USSR, we had easy access to a lot of their literature. I loved reading books by Mir Publications, Raduga, periodicals like the science mag Sputnik, [the] glossy lifestyle [magazine] Life in the USSR, Misha [magazine], etc. India and the USSR organized cultural festivals in either nation that were broadcast by their national stations. Because of this exposure, I got interested in Soviet history and knew quite a bit about their people and places. In fact, had the USSR not disintegrated, I probably would have migrated... there for education or work!

    In a comment, u/gcs8 expanded their thoughts:

    I was a preteen when I started getting to know about the USSR. Personally, I liked almost everything about them. In school, I was told that they had a system wherein nobody owned a lot of stuff, [and] everybody was ensured a minimum basic standard of living. That appealed a lot to me.

    Interesting insights?
  • 8

    In China, Participation In Cold War Conflicts Was Presented As Self-Preservation 

    China was involved in the Korean War and in Vietnam, offering support to communist allies in both areas. The vested interest of the Chinese informed how the conflicts were taught, as explained by Redditor u/dasolomaso:

    We were taught North Korea started the war to unite Korea. America joined and cross[ed] the 38th Parallel, which was taken as intrusion. So China joined [the] war to protect [its] ally.

    So today we think North Korea made a civil war; we joined because if America continued... China would be in danger.

    The complex relationship between China and Vietnam entered a different chapter during the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, however. In China, the conflict is seen as a border conflict, detailed by u/dasolomaso:

    For China, Vietnam encroaches on the border between China and Vietnam in the north and invades Cambodia, an ally of China in the south.

    We took Vietnam as a threat and a traitor since we used to help them...

    To... make sure Vietnam would not rise as a regional power, China started a war with Vietnam on the excuse of its invasion of Cambodia.

    From the perspective of u/SSCookieLover, who learned about the Sino-Vietnam conflict in Vietnam:

    In my country's history books it doesn’t say that we would encroach China to invade since it would be a very stupid idea. Imagine Mexico just united their country after a civil war and they were looking to invade the USA. That’s how dumb the idea was.

    The precursor of the Sino-Vietnamese [conflict] was the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. China at that time was friendly with Cambodia and the US, while Vietnam was friendly with the USSR, and [the] enemy of my friend [is my] enemy, so the war broke [loose].

    Interesting insights?