Singing Along to the Cold War!

Incorporating primary sources is a useful Use music videos to teach key facts about the Cold War, even as you help students better grasp the ways in which the Cold War influenced popular culture, showing up in popular songs of the 1980s. FREE teaching notes for three music videos, complete with helpful links to those videos and related content on YouTube. This Cold War lesson plan can fit into most U.S. and world history classes, requires almost no prep, and is provided online at no cost at all! All you need is an internet connection and a way for students to watch the music videos with you!
approach in any history class, but how much better to use ones that really jazz up the classroom experience! Literally!

I use a lot of period music in my classes, from “The World Turned Upside Down,” rumored to have been played by the British at the formal surrender to George Washington, to the Jazz classics of the Harlem Renaissance. As much as I love music, though, I always enjoy these kinds of lessons the most when my classes reach the 1980s, since that’s when the music video really came into its own as an art form.

I mostly use what I consider to be “primary source” music videos. By this, I mean that when the song was new, the artist was commenting on current events, expressing a prevalent attitude to the events being lived through. You might be surprised what a treasure trove YouTube can be for this kind of content, particularly when it comes to hot topics like the Cold War.

Read on for details about three of the most useful Cold War teaching songs out there, complete with handy links!

The Berlin Wall: “Nikita”

I can show this video as soon as we reach the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s. After examining the reasons for the construction of the Wall and the development of it over time into a more and more formidable barrier, I tell the students that we’re going to take a look at a popular song from the mid-1980s. By then, the Wall had been established for more than 20 years and to many in the West, it seemed like it would never come down.

That’s the theme of Elton John’s “Nikita,” which tells the story of a man who can never be near the woman he loves because she is trapped in the East, behind the Berlin Wall. To make it even more interesting, she’s actually an East German border guard!

Teachable moments in “Nikita” include:

  • Contrast between freedom in the West and lack of choice in the East
  • Censorship of correspondence in the East
  • Communist repression of the news and other media, such that Nikita will “never know” anything about the West
  • The use of visual imagery to make a point: regimented soldier marching is the primary movement in the East, while in the West, a free-flow of movement is a dominant visual theme
  • The “East meets West” checkpoints in the divided city of Berlin

Useful links for “Nikita:”

Elton John’s original video: HD video, nice and crisp!
Original song audio presented with on-screen lyrics: Good for showing if you want students to focus in on the meaning of the lyrics rather than the visual content.
Elton John’s original video with lyrics superimposed on-screen: The best of both worlds, and useful for showing if students have trouble making out some of the words. The drawback to this one, though, is that its not HD. The visual quality is noticeably lower than you’ll find at the first link in this list.

Cold War Ideology: “Russians”

This Sting song is best saved until your students reach the Reagan period of the Cold War. The theme of “Russians” is a hope that the Soviets “love their children too,” since that would mean they don’t want to initiate World War III any more than does the West.

Sting explained in an interview once what inspired him to write the song. While on tour in Finland, he turned on the TV and picked up Soviet programming. He could not understand the audio, but he was watching a children’s show, and it struck him very strongly that children’s cartoons were much the same in the Soviet zone as they were anywhere else. This made him question the ideology that suggested the Russians were somehow monstrous and not like people in the West; it also gave him hope for the future if the world could just make it through the dangers of the nuclear weapons age.

Teachable moments in “Russians” include:

  • The meaning of the word “ideology”
  • A perspective from a non-superpower nation.
  • A critique of the idea of “winnable war” and of the reliance on MAD: mutually assured destruction
  • References to Khrushchev, Oppenheimer, the atomic bomb, and Reagan
  • Oblique reference to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative
  • A look at a very stylish artistic presentation that was influenced by Soviet film-making

Useful links for “Russians:”

Sting’s original music video: This very artistic video is in black and white with imagery that could lend itself to an entire lesson just on analysis

Cold war imagery slide show featuring “Russians” as the music track: This video seeks to accurately illustrate what Sting is singing about. When he mentions Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” comment, for example, on-screen is seen a photograph of the moment when Khrushchev issued the threat.

Both Sides of the Cold War: “Leningrad”

“Leningrad,” by Billy Joel, was written near the end of the Cold War and can serve as a useful retrospective over major events from WWII up to the time when it was written. “Leningrad” tells the Cold War story from two perspectives: that of a Soviet named Victor who was born in 1944, and from Joel’s own experiences starting with his birth in 1949. The result is a strong picture of how Cold War ideology and events affected ordinary people from the 1950s through the late 1980s.

The song strikes a hopeful note, with Joel observing that when met Victor, he realized that the Soviets could be his friends, instead of the enemies he’d been conditioned to think of them as.

Joel has stated in interviews that he was inspired to write “Leningrad” when he visited the Soviet Union shortly before the end of the Cold War and met Victor, who was working as a circus clown. Joel’s young daughter enjoyed the performance very much, which led Joel afterwards to meet with Victor in person. Upon hearing Victor’s life story, he decided to incorporate it into a song and use his own life experiences as a counterpoint to comment on the Cold War period.

Teachable moments in “Leningrad” include:

  • Russian losses in WWII
  • “Serving the state”  as an emphasis in Soviet education
  • McCarthyism
  • The Korean War
  • Air raid drills and bomb shelters in the United States
  • Levittown
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis
  • The Vietnam War

Useful links for “Leningrad:”

Billy Joel’s original music video: Presented as a mixture of primary source footage of Cold War events and Joel performing the song at the piano

Lyrics-only video of Leningrad: This one lets students read along as they listen to the song. There are no visuals to distract them; just white text on a black background.

Looking for more fun primary sources on the Cold War?

I recommend the 1980s movie War Games.  The story is fiction, but that’s part of its charm — it helps students understand the pervasive nature of Cold War fears during the early Reagan years, when it really did seem like nuclear weapons were going to be the death of us. The movie is a highly entertaining portrayal of those fears, and was actually so influential that when President Reagan saw it, he ordered that computer security around U.S. nuclear resources be improved as quickly as possible.

For more information on War Games and how it could fit into your world or U.S. history classes, click the image below, which will take you to the War Games Worksheets page at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

War Games Worksheets work great in U.S.  History classes because the movie captures the mood of the nation in the early 1980s. Fear of nuclear war was rampant -- so much so that there was a nuclear freeze / unilateral disarmament movement gaining ground. The plot is fiction, but the film is useful because it is a genuine product of the fears in play at that time. It also depicts the beginnings of the computer-based technological culture that we live in today and weaves in 1980s cultural strands about computer hacking and video gaming, both trends which have continued to this day. War Games Worksheets works well in any Cold War unit!

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Singing Along to the Cold War!

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