The Cold War: APUSH Topics to Master Before Test Day

The Cold War. It’s a HUGE topic. It’s been thoroughly realized and satirized in film, music, and television, to varying degrees of success. But what is its significance (outside of making the United States and Russia forever frenemies), and what Cold War APUSH topics do you need to know for the exam? Keep reading to find out.

First: a discussion about boundaries

I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said that the topic of the Cold War is huge. There are lot of dates, names, and proxy wars to consider. (In fact, one of the most neglected proxy wars is the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.)

This being the APUSH exam, we can put some limits on what this blog post will address. This blog post will touch on the following:

  1. The start of the Cold War
  2. US policy of containment
  3. Nuclear warfare
  4. The Bay of Pigs
  5. McCarthyism
  6. The close of the Cold War

Obviously, there are many, many other things that could have been included in this list. However, we have a finite amount of time and space. With that, let’s get started!

Cold War APUSH topic #1: The start of the Cold War

  1. After WWII, the United States and the Soviet Union* were battling each other to have the dominant global ideology. Isolationism, as a foreign policy, is old news at this point: everyone wants to get in the game of global influence (which also gets into some nasty points of economic and cultural imperialism, as well).
  2. This battle for dominance led to what is now called the Cold War. Some historians call this a “cold war” because the United States and the Soviet Union never directly fought each other (which would be, technically, a “hot war”). However, there were plenty of proxy wars where the United States fought the Soviet Union (and vice versa) in other states and for other reasons. This was extremely bloody and violent in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Latin America at-large.

*If you are confused by why the Soviet Union is called the Soviet Union in this blog post, please reference this article on the Russian Revolution.

Cold War APUSH topic #2: US Policy of Containment

One of the policies that contributed to this being a “cold war” between the Soviet Union and the United States was the idea of containment. Essentially, containment was the idea that while the United States would not actively oppose the idea of communism, they would oppose the spread of communism. That policy lead to many of the proxy wars I mentioned earlier. The Vietnam War is one of the most important proxy wars (to the United States) during the overall Cold War.

Cold War APUSH topic #3: Nuclear warfare

This whole story would be relatively straightforward (and minor) if each country was just doing its own thing without any extremely deadly and world-changing weapons in their arsenal.

But remember WWII? The United States had dropped an atomic bomb – twice – and that changed things.

Cold War APUSH-magoosh
The mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Taken by Bob Caron from the Enola Gay.

Furthermore, nuclear technology was spreading, and the United States wasn’t the only one who could strut around claiming to have the most advanced weaponry. This idea that every country had a bomb (and that each country needed a bomb to even be taken seriously) was the driving force behind nuclear proliferation. During the Cold War, the idea was that no one would actually use a nuclear bomb because of “Mutually Assured Destruction”: if the United States sends a bomb to the Soviet Union, you can bet the Soviet Union will send one back, ergo no one sends a bomb. Still, it doesn’t make the threat any less scary. And that threat was clearest during the Bay of Pigs.

Cold War APUSH topic #4: The Bay of Pigs

There is so much to talk about with the Bay of Pigs that I thought this video might be more appropriate. Enjoy.

Source: Khan Academy

Cold War APUSH topic #5: McCarthyism

Hysteria was not reserved for attacks and threats of war; there was plenty of domestic hysteria around rumor, led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In fact, his fiery speeches against potential communists were legendary enough to set off a wave of McCarthyism in all parts of US society. Anyone considered subversive – generally people who had critiques of the United States government – were blacklisted. McCarthyism especially targeted people who did not fit into mainstream society, such as black activists, Jews, non-heterosexual individuals, and immigrants.

Cold War APUSH topic #6: The close of the Cold War

So how did this whole thing end? Again, pretty long to explain. Videos are nice, yes?

Source: CrashCourse

So you just explained a lot of information. Like, A LOT. Why does any of this matter?

The Cold War spanned a large period of time (1954-1991) and touched every aspect of the globe. For that reason alone, it matters.

But ultimately, the end of the Cold War made the ideas of capitalism and democracy synonymous (even though the two concepts don’t have to necessarily be linked), which is even more important for understanding global geopolitics. You can’t really understand the current world we live in without understanding the politics of the Cold War.

With that being said, I would recommend that you do much more reading about the Cold War. I have provided you a brief overview to make sense of these concepts, but there is still so much more to know and understand.

What are some example Cold War APUSH questions?

These questions come from the 2017 AP US History Practice Exam.

Questions 1 and 2 refer to the excerpt below.

“I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”
President Harry Truman, address before a joint session of Congress articulating what would become known as the Truman Doctrine, 1947

1. In his statement Truman had the goal of
A. restraining communist military power and ideological influence
B. creating alliances with recently decolonized nations
C. reestablishing the principle of isolationism
D. avoiding a military confrontation with the Soviet Union

2. Truman issued the doctrine primarily in order to
A. support decolonization in Asia and Africa
B. support United States allies in Latin America
C. protect United States interests in the Middle East
D. bolster noncommunist nations, particularly in Europe

Correct Responses:

1. A
2. D

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  • Allena Berry

    Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

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