“It’s Imperialism” art by Michael Duffy
My 11th-grade U.S. history students and I were coming to the end of our unit on the Cold War last year when news broke of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. As we discussed news articles about the reported foreign interference, my students were incredulous: “Why is the media making such a big deal about this? What the Russians are being accused of is nothing compared to what the U.S. did in Cuba!” This comment, which came from Max, a politically middle-of-the-road kid in my suburban high school, was repeated again and again in the coming days with slight variations. Sarah said, “I mean I know it’s bad to have the Russians hacking us, but it’s not like anyone died. In Congo, the leader was killed.” David agreed and added, “I just think it’s totally hypocritical of the U.S. to be so angry. We did this sort of thing to lots of countries during the Cold War.”
My students were clearly fired up by their newly acquired Cold War knowledge. But overall, the Cold War is a curricular conundrum for teachers of U.S. history since it lasted so long, spanned so many administrations, and involves so many different locations of conflict and intervention. And it’s no surprise that traditional history textbooks offer no solution. Pearson’s The American Journey, the adopted textbook for my 11th-grade students, has a stand-alone chapter titled “The Cold War at Home and Abroad: 1946–1952.” This chapter emphasizes competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in postwar Europe, the rise of the National Security State, and communism in East Asia — the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the Korean War. Since the authors of The American Journey insist on maintaining a chronological approach, this chapter does not include Cold War policies of the later 1950s or the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. If you want to learn about Cuba, Vietnam, or Nicaragua, you will need to dig through other chapters that follow the stale and triumphalist march of presidencies. And if you want to understand what motivated the overthrow and assassination of Allende in Chile, or Lumumba in Congo, you are out of luck.