Discuss the impact of two Cold War crises on superpower rivalry.

 From the May 2021 IBDP Paper 2 final exam for history

From the markscheme:

The question requires that candidates offer a considered and balanced review of the impact of two Cold War crises on superpower rivalry. The two crises may or may not be from the same region. Impact may extend beyond the timeframe but it must be clearly linked to the issue raised in the question. Candidates may offer equal coverage of both crises or they may prioritize their discussion of one of them. However, both crises will be a feature of the response. Candidates may refer to the impact of a Cold War crisis in positioning superpowers in opposing camps, for instance the Berlin Blockade. Candidates could discuss the impact of crises like Korea (1950) or Congo (1960–61) that brought the struggle to new regions, and/or involved the UN in Cold War tensions. It would be valid for candidates to discuss the different aspects of crisis, for example Cuba (1962) and refer to the negative impact of brinkmanship or to the compromise reached in Turkey. Other crises, like Hungary (1956) and Prague Spring (1968), provided an opportunity to discuss steps taken by a superpower to deal with perceived challenges to their influence and international reactions. Candidates’ opinions or conclusions will be presented clearly and supported by appropriate evidence.


An outstanding example written under exam conditions by a former student:

Example II:


 The Cold War, extending from 1945 to 1991, was characterised by an ideological divide that saw the world polarised into two camps, led by the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout this period, several crises tested the brinkmanship of the superpowers, straining relationships and influencing the course of the Cold War. This essay will evaluate the impact of two pivotal crises in two distinct regions - the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) in Latin America and the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949) in Europe.

The Berlin Blockade was a significant crisis that tested the resolve of the superpowers in the early stages of the Cold War. In June 1948, in response to currency reforms in the Western zones of Germany and the perceived threat of West German resurgence, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin instituted a blockade, cutting off all road, rail and canal links to West Berlin. This left the city, deep within the Soviet-controlled East Germany, without vital supplies. President Harry S. Truman responded not with force but with an airlift, supplying West Berlin by air for almost 11 months until the blockade was lifted in May 1949. The Berlin Airlift, or "Operation Vittles" as it was known, delivered over two million tons of goods to the beleaguered city, preventing its capitulation to Soviet pressure. Historian Avi Shlaim, in "The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948–1949," posits that the Berlin crisis was a crucial stage in the crystallisation of the Cold War. It confirmed the division of Germany and Europe into Eastern and Western blocs, established NATO as a collective defence organisation in 1949, and sped up the formation of two separate German states.

Yet, as historian William I. Hitchcock mentions in "The Struggle for Europe," the successful management of the crisis by the Western powers without resorting to war also set a precedent for dealing with Soviet aggression. This crisis demonstrated the importance of strategic patience, resolve, and innovation in overcoming the Cold War's challenges.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. In 1962, an American U-2 spy plane discovered Soviet nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. coast. This provocative move was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's response to the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the presence of American Jupiter missiles in Turkey. President John F. Kennedy decided on a naval blockade of Cuba, demanding the removal of the missiles. For thirteen tense days in October, the world watched as the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a high-stakes diplomatic showdown. Ultimately, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement to dismantle U.S. missiles in Turkey.

Historian Michael Dobbs, in "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War," argues that the Cuban Missile Crisis had a profound impact on the course of the Cold War. It demonstrated the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear brinkmanship and led both superpowers to seek ways to manage their rivalry. According to historian Odd Arne Westad's "The Global Cold War," the crisis also highlighted the dangers of superpower involvement in Third World conflicts. The superpowers realised that regional conflicts could escalate into a direct confrontation, prompting them to exercise greater restraint in their foreign interventions. 

In conclusion, both the Berlin Blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis significantly impacted the course of the Cold War. The Berlin Blockade solidified the division of Germany and Europe, highlighted the effectiveness of non-military responses to Soviet aggression, and influenced the creation of NATO. The Cuban Missile Crisis underscored the dangers of nuclear brinkmanship and the potential for regional conflicts to spark global conflagration, leading to increased superpower caution. Both crises were instrumental in shaping the trajectory and conduct of the Cold War, reflecting the intricate interplay of power, ideology, and strategic decision-making that characterised this epoch-defining period.

 From the November 2022 Paper 2 exam:

Evaluate the impact of two crises, each chosen from a different region, on the development of the Cold War.

Another taken under test conditions: 


The Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 and the Korean War of 1950-53 serve as emblematic representations of rapidly escalating tensions between the East and West, profoundly influencing the course of the Cold War. While the Berlin Blockade formalized and crystallized the conflict, the Korean War escalated it to unprecedented heights. This essay aims to argue that, though the Korean War exerted a more profound impact, both crises drastically transformed the Cold War.

The Berlin Blockade elucidated the enduring nature of the Cold War, as it delineated clear and separate blocs within Europe - the East and West. Following the Blockade, the Federal Republic of Germany in the West was established in September, and the German Democratic Republic in the East shortly after in October. The significance of West Germany to the Allies was visibly apparent as its capital was established in Bonn, symbolizing its representation of the Western Bloc.

The Blockade exposed American military vulnerability in Berlin and Germany, leading to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. NATO aimed to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down", as stated by its Secretary-General, Hastings Ismay. Consequently, the Blockade catalyzed a transformation in US foreign policy, signaling an end to its avoidance of entangling alliances. Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s development of an atomic bomb in August 1949 amplified the importance of "Atomic Diplomacy" in the ongoing conflict. The successful containment of Soviet aggression during the Blockade led Americans to believe in the effectiveness of their containment policy. However, this belief would soon be challenged by the events in Korea.

The Korean War's impact on the Cold War was immense. For one, it globalized the conflict. Not only did it demonstrate that the US and the Soviet Union could fight proxy wars, but it also indicated that the Cold War had spread to Asia - not confined solely to Europe. Following North Korea's invasion of South Korea, US foreign policy underwent significant changes. On June 26th, Secretary of State Dean Acheson recommended deploying the Seventh Fleet to protect Formosa and providing additional aid to Indochina. The US's growing involvement in Asia would later shape the Cold War, as evidenced by the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 and the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in 1954, highlighting the US's intent to curb the expansion of communism.

As historian Bruce Cumings articulated, the Korean War, not World War II, positioned the US as the "policemen of the world". Nevertheless, the concrete impact of this globalisation was limited, as SEATO did not mandate member states to act militarily. The Korean War also led to the militarisation of the Cold War. It was the first instance of NATO militarisation, propelling the arms race. US defence spending increased threefold over the course of the war, while the USSR's Red Army expanded from 2.8 to 5.6 million between 1950 and 1953.

Despite its immense impact, the influence of the Korean War was restrained, as Stalin's successors prioritised nuclear weapons over conventional military spending. The War also prompted additional countries to commit to the conflict, including China, which contributed 2.3 million troops, with 300,000 fatalities, illustrating their dedication to communism. Concurrently, anti-communist sentiments surged in the US, culminating in the "Red Scare", thus expanding the Cold War not just into Asia but into people's homes. This fear of communism would further shape US foreign policy, leading to their subsequent involvement in Vietnam.

In conclusion, both the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War played pivotal roles in shaping the Cold War. The Berlin Blockade solidified the conflict between the US and USSR and delineated the "East and West" in Europe. More significantly, the Korean War globalised and militarised the conflict, intensifying it, and influencing both US and USSR foreign policies.