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

August 19, 2021 1.8k votes 453 voters 95.9k views11 items

List RulesVote up the most interesting insights into 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.

  • 1

    The Cuban Missile Crisis Is Called The 'Caribbean Crisis' In Russia

    From the perspective of Russian Redditor u/ffree:

    [The] local view on [the] Caribbean Crisis is... focus[ed] on how Khrushchev was a peacemaker and prevented nuclear war. Generally in schools it was described like:

    [The] USA put their missiles in Turkey as a clear act of... military aggression against [the] USSR.

    As a counter act, [the] USSR decides to support friendly socialist Cuba... protect the island against potential military aggression from the USA, and put some defensive missiles there as a countermeasure against Turk[ish] deployment.

    [The] USA learns about that and start[s] to escalate the conflict (generally all USSR history books clearly state that [the] USA was aggressive and not ready for compromise there).

    Khrushchev makes a bold move and acts as a peacemaker, removing missiles from Cuba, preventing a nuclear war, [and] negotiating [a] nonaggression treaty for Cuba and removal of missiles from Turkey.

    Russian textbooks from the late 1990s provide additional insights into how the information was presented. Sentences like "President Kennedy finally took a realistic position, and began negotiating with Khrushchev" emphasize the view that the crisis was brought on by American aggression. 

    In Cuba, some students were taught that the crisis "showed the world the US arrogance, and its disregard for the sovereignty of other nations. It also demonstrated the Cuban and Soviet interest in the peaceful solution of conflicts, preserving Cuban sovereignty and preventing a world nuclear catastrophe. It also proved that Fidel Castro was right..."

    Interesting insights?
  • Photo: Fleet Air Arm official photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Canadians Get A Mixed View

    According to one Redditor who graduated from high school in 2002, Canadians are taught the conflict was:

    A global struggle between totalitarian communism and western capitalism. But they also looked at the blood on both sides. We were taught about US intervention in Guatemala, Panama, Grenada, and Chile. We were also taught about Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Hungary, East Germany, and the rest of Eastern Europe.

    In 1993, some students received a more biased perspective. When explaining Canadian participation in the Cold War, one textbook called NATO "an American instrument for co-coordinating the defense policies of its allies, rather than a club of equals that could restrain American initiatives."

    The idea that Canada didn't completely subscribe to the policies of the United States is clear: "Despite its cooperation in American military policy, Canada attempted to cultivate an image as a peacemaker. When Britain, France, and Israel went after Egypt to undo its efforts to seize control of the Suez Canal," it was a Canadian who negotiated an end to the conflict.

    The take on Canada's participation in the Vietnam conflict was different, with an acknowledgment that "Canada, after briefly trying to prevent breaches of the accord [between North and South], came to notice only violations by the North Vietnamese side."

    In the end, the book leans toward giving the US a larger share of the blame for the Cold War: "Nationalism within former colonies threatened the success of American imperial objectives and therefore had to be snuffed out."

    Interesting insights?
  • 3

    In Some Parts Of The United Kingdom, It Wasn't Clear Why Communism Lasted

    The bipolarization of the world during the Cold War was part of the curriculum in the United Kingdom. What wasn't incorporated, from the perspective of Redditor u/2deux2, was why communism had such longevity:

    I was taught in the UK in the mid '00s. We had two modules in our history classes on the Cold War from what I remember, one on the Russian Revolution and Stalin's rise to power, and another on the Cuban... crisis and Vietnam... I would say by the end we had a good grasp of Lenin and Stalin, and knew a bit about Khrushchev - i.e., the first three leaders - and had a rough idea what communism was about.

    I would say the weaknesses of our course was that it was definitely... triumphalist. Stalin was portrayed as a paranoid nutjob. The best achievements of the Soviets from the '40s to '60s - i.e., winning WWII, Sputnik, first astronaut in space - were largely off the syllabus. As a result, you never really understood why communism lasted for so long.

    In addition, it offered a very simplistic view of Vietnam. UK teachers are generally left-wing, and what you got was a simplified David and Goliath tale of plucky communist Vietnamese vs. the clodhopping Americans, ignoring the vast amounts of USSR/China support to the Viet Cong, and the large numbers of Vietnamese who fought the communists.

    Textbooks from the United Kingdom reflect this approach. There's very little about how and why communism functioned, with explanations about different stages of the Cold War, organizational development (specifically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations), and conflicts that took place in Korea and Vietnam.

    Interesting insights?
  • Photo: Arto Jousi / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    From The Soviet Union's Perspective, They Won The Space Race

    In the United States, it's widely believed that because an American first walked on the moon, the space race was a win for the US. Several Redditors provided information about how the space race was taught in the former Soviet Union.

    Redditor u/GoodJobMate:

    I remember being told about the dogs Belka and Strelka, [Yuri] Gagarin and his famous phrase "Поехали" [Let's go], the tragedy of his death, and the impact of the space race on the technological advancement of both the USA and the USSR. "Поехали!" and Belka and Strelka is probably something that always comes to mind when a Russian person thinks about the space race.

    Another contributor, u/Lucky13R, echoed this:

    We know we've won it, with [Sergei] Korolyov and Gagarin's names being the most widely recognized. Other important people's roles are much more obscure.

    One more Redditor, u/Es_ist_kalt_hier, explained:

    Everybody knows [the] words of Yuri Gagari[n], "Poehali" (Lets go!), when [the] rocket started. If you are asking about ordinary school history textbooks, there may be no information about foreign space programs.

    Interesting insights?