Cold War

Talking with the Producers of the New Documentary Series


Teachers of world history since World War II often face problems in obtaining the right classroom materials for dealing with the period. Educators who teach about the Cold War will be interested in an important new 24-part documentary to be shown on CNN during the 1998-99 school year. Cold War presents primary sources, eyewitness interviews, and news footage from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and incorporates the results of recent scholarship on the period. Turner Learning is offering free curriculum materials to teachers interested in using the series in their classrooms (for information, visit Turner Learning on the World Wide Web at

The documentary, whose first one-hour episode will be aired on September 27, 1998, has been endorsed by National Council for the Social Studies because of its educational value. In a recent interview with Social Education, Executive Producer Jeremy Isaacs and Series Producer Martin Smith discussed the contents and objectives of the series.


Social Education: What impact did making this TV documentary series have on your own understanding of the Cold War?


Isaacs: What this kind of television history tries to do is to tell its story through the experiences of ordinary people as well as the thoughts and utterances and decisions of statesmen. It adds a human dimension to history, bringing back things we think we remember with a new freshness, and revealing details of human experience that we certainly werenít aware of. Itís very instructive to listen to somebody mourning a death at the Berlin wall. Itís very instructive to know how stifling it was to live in an Eastern European dictatorship for decade after decade. Itís very instructive to hear Americans who left the industrial cities of the East in the 50s and 60s, and moved West because the defense industry was pulling jobs to California.


Smith: I would say two things: one is a great feeling of relief that we have gotten through a situation in which to wage war could have ended human life on the planet. Another is understanding how the Cold War affected the lives of individuals from the very top of society to the most ordinary blue jean level of lifeóand how all our lives were affected.


Social Education: What do you think the current generation of school students most need to know and understand about the Cold War?


Isaacs: I think they need to understand that their parents lived with the consciousness, the all-pervasive consciousness, of the possibility of a nuclear war. If you see the film called The War Game, made in the late 50s or 60s, or listen to the strategic thinking that drove the arms race, itís a very frightening experience.

I hope that through this series we can impart some kind of understanding of just how horrible and risky human life and existence can be in the 20th century. Itís grimmer than any Grimmís fairy tale. And there are certainly more corpses than in Pulp Fiction. What weíre looking at is how human society could be pushed to the brinkócould actually be spending this massive amount of money and living through a period in which both sides thought that they might actually have to end life on earth. This is an amazing concept.

One of the terrible tendencies of the Cold Waróand that involves the propaganda on both sidesówas to demonize the opponent. Russians were taught to believe that American imperialists were out to get them, and Americans believed that Soviet Communists were out to destroy their way of life and take over the world.

The first program of the series is called ìComradesî because, in the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazi Germany. When the Russians and Americans met near Torgau on the Elbe in April 1945 they hugged and kissed. And both sides tell usóthe Russians we spoke to and the Americans we spoke toóthat if you changed the uniforms you wouldnít have known who was American and who was Russian.

Within years, they were being brought upóand their children were being brought upóto think of the other as a kind of demonized enemy.


Social Education: Do you think the world is still at risk because of this tendency of people to demonize other people? Could the Cold War be followed by something like a North vs. South conflict between rich nations and poor nations?


Isaacs: I hope that we no longer think that the other half of the world is evil and out to destroy us. Of course, the human tendency to demonize an enemy or a supposed enemy is all too evident in the world today.

If you ask me about the next century, I think itís possible that things will come to a pass where the world might divide in that way again. There might be a division between what we call the western world and China, or a north-south conflict over water resources or food resources.

I personally think that unless you understand the past, youíre condemned to repeat it. And so our hope is that by showing people what the harmful consequences of demonization were in one context, they will be able to think about the implications of that sort of behavior in a future context.


Social Education: In addition to the relations between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, what else in your documentary might be of special interest to social studies teachers?


Isaacs: I think any teacher would be interested in the scientific impact of the Cold Warópeople are talking today of the Internet as something that has grown out of the Cold War. The space age has also grown out of the Cold War.

The way in which ethics and life styles changed during the Cold War is also very interestingólook at the change in attitudes to sex and morality in the 1960s in the Soviet Union and the United States.

The full development of the concept of human rights as actually having a place in politics is something that evolved during the Cold War period. It would have been impossible to have imagined, in the mid-1940s, that one of the principal American negotiators dealing with the Soviet Union would be a Black from Alabama. Human rights and race are now firmly on the international agenda.

And, in our series, we try to do more justice to the Cold War experience of African countries like Angola, or Central and South American countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador and Chile.

We have always hoped that the series will be used in schools. I think teachers will find many segments that can start excellent discussions after they are viewed by the class.


Smith: One thing that is new about the Cold War series is that all of our unedited interviews are going to the National Security Archives in Washington, D.C. People will be able to see the entire transcript of an interview, and indeed, some of the key interviews will be on the Net.

Weíve also been very careful to treat this series as would a serious historian. No historian will write a book without providing references to the sources of the material. We do that with the film used in the series; weíre transparent as to where the films came from. I think that, for the first time with a television series, it is going to be possible to go to the archived material to see what has been made of it. And this is good in terms of studentsí understanding the need to inquire further in history.


Social Education: As a documentary maker, how do you deal with the fact that there are no visual records of the major decisions of the Cold War actually being made?


Isaacs: One would give a very distorted idea of events by relying only on pictures, and a very dry account of events by relying only on what we call ìtalking heads.î In making a series like Cold War, we have the advantage of being able to use both. Where we canít show something but know we have to explain it, we get somebodyónot a lecturer, not a historian, not a pundit, but a participant or an eyewitnessóto tell us about it. This is much easier for the later period, when you can actually talk to, say, George Bush or Mikhail Gorbachev.

For the earlier period, we tried to get people who were close enough to the leaders to be able to report something about what was going on in their minds. Using an example from ìComrades,î why did Stalin sign the Nazi-Soviet pact? I know that there were several reasons, and we donít try to give an absolutely comprehensive account of that, but we do have Sergo Beria. He is the son of Lavrenti Beria, who was Stalinís chief of police. He said that Stalin often came to the house, and that he signed the Nazi-Soviet pact to buy two years to prepare against the invasion of the Soviet Union that he saw coming.

The fact is, if you canít get a statesman, then the statesmanís secretary, or the interpreter, or the valet may be a valid witness. One of the interesting things about this series is the marvelous stuff you get from interpreters. During the Cold War, there were summit meetings at which the U.S. president or the general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union might be sitting in a room with only two or four people; and one of those people was the interpreter. He heard every word that passed, and indeed, memorized it because he took notes of it, and so can tell what actually happened behind those closed doors.

Iíd like to add to that, in terms of visual and audio materials, we are in an absolutely incredible century. Can you imagine being able to deal with the 15th century or the 12th century with what we have available now? You are right that getting these materials for the early part of the Cold War can be tough. But the materials are out there, and the records are open in a way theyíve never been before.


Social Education: Is it possible to be truly neutral when you make a documentary of this kind?


Isaacs: It is possible to try. I donít think itís possible to be completely neutral, though it is possible to strive for objectivity by making sure you really are checking your facts and not allowing your own biases to weigh too heavily on the material. We have been aided in that endeavor by having tested every single statement made in the series against the critical opinions of three serious historians, each one of whom comes from a different political and national backgroundóan American, a Briton, and a Russian. So we do our best, thatís all that I can say.

Both of us are human beings, and human beings have sympathies. Itís quite hard in some of the films one makes to avoid showing, not the political side oneís on, but the human side oneís on in a particular situation. If a woman is run over by a tank, you sympathize with the woman more than the man in the tank.