Q108: Who was the United States’ main rival during the Cold War?

A. The Soviet Union/USSR
C. Japan
D. West Germany

Question Background Information


The Soviet Union, formally the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, emerged after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and was the primary antagonist of the United States during the Cold War that marked much of the 20th century. 
As part of an effort to weaken Russia and remove an enemy army from the field in World War I, Germany helped smuggle home Vladimir Lenin, a communist revolutionary exiled from Russia. The effort succeeded spectacularly, as Lenin helped bring down the Russian government, almost immediately leading to Russia’s withdrawal from the war. (One can say the effort succeeded only in the short term insofar as the Soviet Union that would emerge would eventually conquer and occupy Germany for decades).

After the overthrow of the Russian Tsar (Caesar, or, in effect, king) Nicholas II a few months prior, Russia had been briefly governed under the leadership of the moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky. But soon the more radical Bolshevik faction under Vladimir Lenin took over in the October 1917 revolution. In the years that followed, the Bolsheviks and their Red Army—named for the color of their flag—brutally consolidated power, executing the former tsar and his family, and eradicating the so-called “White Russians”—the anti-Bolshevik coalition—in a civil war. (The Allied governments had quietly supported the White Russians, and not until Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was the Soviet Union, as it was now called, recognized as the official government of Russia.) 

After Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin took control of the country. Both Lenin and Stalin engaged in aggressive plans to modernize the backward Russian economy; the resulting famines that came with collectivized farming led to millions of deaths. Karl Marx, the primary theorist behind communism, had said a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be necessary, and Lenin, Stalin, and their successors used brutal repression to maintain power. The desire to spread communism throughout the world triggered the Cold War, which lasted until the USSR finally collapsed in 1991.  

Additional Content

Offline Activity


What was life like under communism in the USSR? In this exercise, students will read a history of communism in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as primary sources—largely letters and other correspondence—by Soviet peasants and political leaders 


  • Provide each student with Communism in the 19th and 20th Centuries: A History
  • Provide each student with Revelations from the Soviet Archives: Internal Workings of the Soviet Union (Library of Congress).

Required Files


  • Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C. 
    • If students are in pairs rather than groups, then divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C). 
  • Provide each group/pair with a copy of the two readings.  
  • Explain that they are to read the documents and that each group member should annotate their copy. 
    • Tell students to write at least three questions and three comments/observations. The notes should be written in the margins of the documents provided. 
      • Examples of questions: 
        • “Why wouldn’t the Soviet leadership respond to these letters?” 
        • “Why did these letter writers have to declare their loyalty either before or after their criticisms?”
      • Examples of comments: 
        • “I can’t believe that the Soviets did all those things! No wonder Americans were scared of that!” 
        • “It’s really interesting that they recognized they could get away with things in an emergency they couldn’t otherwise.” 
      • Emphasize that there is no “wrong” question or observation, and encourage them to write down any question or observation that comes to mind, even if they go over the required total. 
  • Provide the groups/pairs with time to annotate and discuss; 15-20 minutes depending on the class and the amount of content to annotate. 
    • Circulate and talk briefly with each group. If they are having trouble coming up with questions or observations, then ask questions to stimulate their conversation. 
  • At the end of the activity, facilitate a class discussion, allowing the students to lead with the questions and comments/observations that they wrote in the margins.