The Cold War's Effect on U.S. Education Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Decades Primary Sources: 1950-1959)

Soviet students participate in a chemistry lab in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the Soviet Union, 1958. During the Cold War, the United States felt it was falling dangerously behind the Soviet Union in technology due to its science and math education programs. Soviet students participate in a chemistry lab in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the Soviet Union, 1958. During the Cold War, the United States felt it was falling dangerously behind the Soviet Union in technology due to its science and math education programs. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
Physics graduate students observe cascade particles and anti-protons with a digitized microscope at the Berkeley Laboratory in California, 1958. Students like these received grants and loans to pursue science degrees as a result of the National Defense Ed Physics graduate students observe cascade particles and anti-protons with a digitized microscope at the Berkeley Laboratory in California, 1958. Students like these received grants and loans to pursue science degrees as a result of the National Defense Education Act. ERNEST ORLANDO LAWRENCE BERKELEY NATIONAL LABORATORY. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage ERNEST ORLANDO LAWRENCE BERKELEY NATIONAL LABORATORY. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Summary of Major Provisions of the
National Defense Education Act of


By: Elliot Lee Richardson

Date: 1958

Source: National Defense Education Act. U.S. Statutes at Large 72 (1958), 1580–1605. Summary of the act by the Center for the Studies of Higher Education. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed June 5, 2003).

About the Author: Elliot Lee Richardson (1920–1999) earned degrees from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He was the lieutenant governor and attorney general of Massachusetts. Richardson held a number of high-level positions in the federal government, including secretary of health, education, and welfare; secretary of defense; U.S. attorney general; and ambassador to Great Britain. He was the author of several books.

Soviet Commitment to Education:
Report of the First Official U.S.
Education Mission to the U.S.S.R.


By: Lawrence G. Derthick

Date: 1959

Source: U.S. Education Mission to the U.S.S.R. Soviet Commitment to Education: Report of the First Official U.S. Education Mission to the U.S.S.R. Office of Education Bulletin, no. 16. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, 1959, 1–4.

About the Author: Lawrence G. Derthick (1905–1992) earned a bachelor's degree from Milligan College, a master's degree from George Peabody College for Teachers, University of Tennessee, and a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. He was a high school principal, superintendent of schools, and a professor of education at East Tennessee State College. Derthick served as the U.S. commissioner of education from 1956 to 1961.


Events at the close of World War II (1939–1945) brought the beginning of the hostile and wary relations between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. The presence of nuclear weapons on both sides heightened the anxiety considerably. In this uneasy context, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, in October 1957. Sputnik, a bushel-basket-sized object, was carried into space by an R-7 rocket. A month later, Sputnik 2 was launched. This time, a passenger—a dog named Laika—was sent up with the satellite. These events stunned the United States. The Soviets, it seemed, had surpassed Americans in technological and, more importantly, military prowess. The Sputnik program brought home to Americans the alarming fact that the Soviets possessed rockets which could launch a nuclear weapon from the Soviet Union and strike the United States within minutes.

Critics and American popular opinion placed the blame on U.S. education. It appeared to Americans that the Soviet education system, with its hard-nosed emphasis on math and science, had allowed the Soviet Union to attain its supremacy. The dominance of the progressive education philosophy in the United States over the preceding decades had resulted in schools that promoted self-esteem, life-adjustment, social skills and "creative movement" classes at the expense of serious academic work in science, mathematics, and foreign language. Schools lacked the discipline and rigor necessary to produce the quantity and quality of skilled individuals needed for national defense. Furthermore, the nation's greatest natural resource, human talent, was being squandered: Many gifted students were not challenged to work up to their capabilities, and highly intelligent but needy students were denied access to higher education. The United States had to find and appropriately educate its "best and brightest," especially in science, math, and foreign language.

Less than a year after Sputnik 1, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), a landmark piece of legislation. The NDEA authorized federal funding for an array of educational programs designed to address the national "educational emergency." Efforts to improve education at home were accompanied by increasing American interest in Soviet education. What was the Soviet Union doing right? Could, and should, the Soviet approach be duplicated in U.S. schools? The answers to these questions would partially depend on a detailed knowledge of the Soviet educational approach. To help achieve this, an exchange agreement between the two countries was signed on January 27, 1958, authorizing "exchanges in cultural, technical, and educational fields to promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the Soviet Union." The first U.S. education mission to the Soviet Union took place from May to June 1958. Nine Soviet educators visited the United States from November to December 1958.


One goal of the exchange mission was to improve U.S.-Soviet relations. The second goal was "to secure first-hand information on the operation and accomplishments of Soviet schools." The mission observed and reported on the Soviet administrative system, preschool education, general education, extracurricular activities, arts education, technical training, teacher education, and higher education. The report reflected an issue important in the public debates: Was the Soviet model of authoritarian, regimented, and centrally controlled education an appropriate one to transplant in an American democracy? On the other hand, if such a system was the secret to Soviet success, could the United States afford not to? Americans faced the dilemma of wanting educational freedom and flexibility on the one hand and discipline and rigor on the other.

The members of the mission found a Soviet people dedicated to education and willing to give up much in the pursuit of self-improvement for the betterment of the state. In the foreword of the report, U.S. commissioner of education Lawrence G. Derthick posed the question: "Will we Americans work and sacrifice to extend to all our youth the best in American schools?"

The NDEA poured $887 million over four years into programs intended to develop American talent in fields relevant to national defense. The act was a major milestone in expanding the federal role in public education and opened the door to further federal involvement. For several years prior to Sputnik 1, Congress had debated the issue of expanding federal support for public schools. The strong American tradition of state and local control of schools proved difficult to overcome. The launch of Sputnik 1, however, cleared away obstacles and opposition—national security was now the number-one priority.

The NDEA was expanded in 1963 by two amendments extending the act, directing more aid to the student loan program, and allocating funds for construction of new facilities and libraries for colleges and universities.

Despite a statement under Title I that the NDEA did not allow federal government "direction, supervision, or control" of schools, the fact that the funds were subject to certain conditions did have the effect of fostering some federal influence on public schools. Individuals administrating programs were obligated to sign a loyalty oath, plans for spending the funds required federal approval, and federal regulations had to be followed. And, inevitably, the channeling of funds to certain types of programs, in preference to others, changed the face of American education.

Primary Source: Summary of Major Provisions of the National Defense Education Act of 1958

SYNOPSIS: This summary of the major provisions of the NDEA lists the types of programs funded, describes

how the money will be allocated, and outlines the conditions that must be met. The programs include student loans, aid for curriculum development in defense-related subjects, fellowships, testing and guidance for bright students, language training institutes, research and development of audiovisual materials for education, vocational programs relevant to national defense, and the creation of the science information service.

Title I. General Provisions

A. Findings and Declaration of Policy

The Congress finds that an educational emergency exists and requires action by the federal government. Assistance will come from Washington to help develop as rapidly as possible those skills essential to the national defense.

B. Federal Control of Education Prohibited

Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize any agency or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution or school system.

Title II. Loans to Students in Institutions of Higher Education

A. Appropriations Authorized

To help establish student loan funds at colleges and universities, the federal government is authorized to pay $47.5 million for fiscal 1959, $75 million for fiscal 1960, $82.5 million for fiscal 1961, and $90 million for fiscal 1962. The United States Commissioner of Education can provide whatever funds may be necessary in fiscal 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1966 to allow students in the program to complete their education.

B. Allotments to States

Each state's ratio will be based on the number of students enrolled full time in colleges and universities when compared with national figures.

C. Payment of Federal Capital Contributions

Individual institutions will file application for a portion of their state's allotment. No institution will receive more than $250,000 in a single fiscal year.

D. Conditions of Agreements

The institution must contribute 10 percent of the total loan fund. The institution must give preference to students who are superior academically and who indicate a desire to teach in elementary or secondary schools. The institution must also give preference to students with a superior capacity for or preparation in science, mathematics, engineering, or a modern foreign language.

E. Terms of Loans

No student may receive more than $1,000 per year or more than $5,000 from the loan fund. To be eligible, a student must be in need and enrolled in or accepted at the institution. Also, the institution must judge that the student is capable of maintaining a good academic standing.

The borrower begins repayment of the loan one year after he ceases full time enrollment. The 3 percent interest charge begins only after he ceases study or completes up to three years of service in the military. Repayment may take up to ten years.

F. Loans to Institutions

If an institution is unable to raise its share of the loan fund, the commissioner may loan up to $25 million to the institution. He will determine the interest rate charged and also the repayment period.

Title III. Financial Assistance for Strengthening Science, Mathematics, and Modern Foreign Language Instruction

A. Appropriations Authorized

A total of $70 million each year for fiscal 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962 is authorized to the states as grants for purchase of equipment and as loans to private schools to purchase equipment. During the same four fiscal years, a total of $5 million each year is authorized to enable the states to expand or improve supervisory services in these subject areas.

B. Allotments to States

A formula will be devised based on the state's school-age population when compared with national figures and each state's income per school-age child. Twelve percent of the $70 million each year will be set aside for the private school loans.

C. Payments to States

After approval of each state's plan by the commissioner, he will pay one-half of the cost of the plan. The other half must come from state funds.

D. Loans to Nonprofit Private Schools

Each state will receive all amount based on its private school population when compared with national figures. The commissioner will decide the conditions of these loans, but they must be repaid within ten years.

Title IV. National Defense Fellowships

A. Number of Fellowships

There will be 1,000 fellowships in fiscal 1959 and 1,500 each year in fiscal 1960, 1961, and 1962. These fellowships cover three years of study.

B. Award of Fellowships and Approval of Institutions

Individuals may receive fellowships only after they are accepted into an approved program. To receive approval from the commissioner, a program must be new or an expansion of an existing graduate program at a university. Approved programs must aim at promoting a wide geographical distribution of graduate education in the country. They must also give preference to individuals who are interested in becoming college teachers.

C. Fellowship Stipends

Each fellow will receive $2,000 for the first academic year of study, $2,200 for the second, and $2,400 for the third. He will also receive $400 per year for each dependent. The commissioner will pay $2,500 per fellowship per year to the institutions. These stipends will continue only if the fellow enrolls full time in his studies.

Title V. Guidance, Counseling, and Testing: Identification and Encouragement of Able Students

Part I. State Programs

A. Appropriations Authorized

During fiscal 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962, a total of $15 million a year will go to the states for secondary school programs. These programs will consist of testing to identify abilities and counseling and guidance to encourage students to develop their aptitudes and attend college.

B. Allotments to States

Each state will receive funds according to the proportion of the national school-age population it has. No state will receive less than $20,000 per year.

C. Payments to States

The commissioner will pay the full cost of the programs for fiscal 1959 and one-half of the cost for the remaining three years. If, because of its laws, any state cannot pay for testing in private schools, the commissioner will arrange and pay for these in full for fiscal 1959 and one-half in fiscal 1960, 1961, and 1962.

Part II. Counseling and Guidance Training Institutes

The commissioner will contract with universities to operate institutes for training secondary school guidance counselors. During fiscal 1959, the institutions will receive $6.25 million. For each of the following three fiscal years, they will receive $7.25 million. Public school personnel who attend these institutes will receive stipends of $75 per week of attendance and $16 per week for each dependent.

Title VI. Language Development

Part I. Centers and Research and Studies

A. Language and Area Centers

The commissioner will contract with colleges and universities for the establishment of institutes to teach modern foreign languages if such instruction is not readily available to individuals in government, business, or education. If understanding of a foreign region is necessary, these centers will also teach the history, economics, geography, and so on of the region. The commissioner will pay one-half of the cost of establishing and operating such centers. If a student at one of these institutes agrees to teach modern foreign languages in college or go into government service, the commissioner will pay stipends of unspecified amount to him and also provide allowances for dependents.

B. Appropriations Authorized

A total of $8 million a year is available for fiscal 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962.

Part II. Language Institutes

Anyone teaching or preparing to teach any modern foreign language in any elementary or secondary school may attend institutes for training in new methods and materials. These institutes will take place at universities that. have contracts with HEW. A total of $7.26 million each year will be available to operate these institutes in fiscal 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962. If one teaches in public schools, one may receive a stipend of $75 per week and $15 per week for each dependent during the time of attendance.

Title VII. Research and Experimentation in More Effective Utilization of Television, Radio, Motion Pictures, and Related Media for Educational Purposes

Part I. Research and Experimentation

The commissioner, assisted by the Advisory Committee oil New Educational Media in the Office of Education, will provide grants or contracts to foster new audiovisual techniques for teaching. The grants will go to nonprofit agencies and the contracts to public or private agencies or organizations.

Part II. Dissemination of Information on New Educational Media

The commissioner may authorize studies to determine the need for audiovisual media in education. He shall prepare and publish information to encourage use of such media.

Part III. General Provisions

A new Advisory Committee on New Educational Media will be established. In addition to the commissioner, it will include a representative of the National Science Foundation and twelve other members from the communications media, elementary and secondary fields, and college and university fields. The committee will review all activities of this title and will approve projects with the commissioner. A total of $3 million is authorized for this title for fiscal 1959. In each of the succeeding fiscal years, $5 million will be available.

Title VIII. Area Vocational Programs

A. Amendment to Vocational Education Act of 1946 (George-Barden Act) Known as Title III

The purpose of the amendment is to meet the needs of national defense for technicians trained in science and technology and to offer vocational education to areas not adequately served by this program The states will receive funds on the same basis of allotment as specified in other parts of the George-Barden Act.

B. Appropriations Authorized

For fiscal 1959, a total of $15 million is authorized, and the same amount for fiscal 1960, 1961, and 1962. These funds must be matched each year by an equal amount from state and local sources.

Title IX. Science Information Service

The new Science Information Service will be under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. The service will have the advice of a Science Information Council. Fifteen members will be appointed by the Director of the National Science Foundation, with several other members from other agencies of government. Such sums as may be necessary are authorized to carry out this title.

Title X. Miscellaneous Provisions

A. Loyalty Oath and Affidavit

No individual may receive funds under this act unless he first files with the commissioner an affidavit "that he does not believe in, and is not a member of and does not support any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government by force or violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods." Also, he must swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.

B. Administration of State Plans

No state plan will be approved to receive funds unless the commissioner decides that he will have adequate reporting by the state of administration of the plan. If the commissioner decides that a state plan has changed and no longer complies with the provisions of the act or that the state is not administering the plan successfully, he will notify the state that payments will cease until the program is satisfactory to him.

C. Judicial Review

Any state that is dissatisfied with action by the commissioner may, within sixty days of his action, file in United States district court a petition for review. The commissioner must then file his record of proceedings with the court, and the court will take whatever action it deems proper.

D. Improvement of Statistical Services of State Educational Agencies

The commissioner will make grants to the states of undetermined sums for four fiscal years: 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962. The states will match these grants with sums of their own. No state shall receive more than $50,000 for any year. They will establish new programs or expand existing ones that will improve the reliability of educational statistics and expedite the processing and reporting of such data.

Primary Source: Soviet Commitment to Education: Report of the First Official U.S. Education Mission to the U.S.S.R. [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The first chapter of the report of the first education mission to the Soviet Union discusses the strong impression of members of the team that the Soviet people are highly committed to education and are willing to work hard to "reach and over-reach America." General impressions of life and education in the Soviet Union are offered.

I. A Nation Committed

The one fact that most impressed us in the U.S.S.R. was the extent to which the Nation is committed to education as a means of national advancement. In the organization of a planned society in the Soviet Union, education is regarded as one of the chief resources and techniques for achieving social, economic, cultural, and scientific objectives in the national interest. Tremendous responsibilities are therefore placed on Soviet schools, and comprehensive support is provided for them by all segments and agencies of Soviet society.

One of the leading Soviet educators told us: "We believe in a planned society, you in individual initiative. Let time tell." They are convinced that time is on their side and that through education and hard work they can win their way to world acceptance of Communist ideology.

Everywhere we went in the U.S.S.R. we were struck by the zeal and enthusiasm which the people have for education. It is a kind of grand passion with them.

Wherever we turned we heard the slogan: "Reach and over-reach America." And everywhere, the people seem to respond in the conviction that education, in addition to hard work and the postponement of many creature comforts, is the best means of winning world supremacy.

Education reaches far beyond school-age children and youth and is eagerly sought by hundreds of thousands of full-time workers who are also full-time students; hundreds of thousands of others take correspondence courses. Many of these correspondence students also hope to qualify for university entrance. They do this because being well educated is the key to advancement. We are sure that the Soviet people anticipate the day when their present sacrifice for knowledge will bring them many rewards, but right now, as we see it, they regard good schools and universities as the necessities in their race for world supremacy.

And they have been building schools and universities at a rapid pace. Down on the borders of China where only a half-century ago the people were almost 100 percent illiterate, we saw thriving schools, an impressive scientific academy, and other institutions that have reduced illiteracy and advanced knowledge to an astonishing degree. From the shores of the Black Sea to remote Siberia we found the attitude summed up in the expression of a Soviet education official: "A child can be born healthy, but he can't be born educated."

We have the impression that most people in the U.S.S.R. feel that conditions are improving gradually, that they are looking ahead for 5, 10, 15, or 20 years. They appear to be completely confident about achieving a quality of life and a standard of living fully as high as ours but realize that it will take time, sacrifice, and hard work.

There is still a considerable shortage of buildings resulting in part from tremendous damage during World War II. Very likely few people in the United States are familiar with the extent of the damage to both cities and rural communities in the Soviet Union in World War II—we were shown films of whole cities in ruins. Although whole cities have been rebuilt in less than 15 years, the normal supply of building and housing replacements, always low, has necessarily fallen behind. Housing is scarce, though relatively cheap.

People appear to be well fed and to have ample access to food stores and restaurants. Food is abundant, though not of much variety, and it is expensive. Clothing seemed to us to be very expensive and not readily available. In general, however, people seemed to be neatly, if not stylishly, dressed, by American standards.

There seems to be complete equality between men and women. The relationship between boys and girls in school appears to be characterized by dignity and mutual respect for each other. At each desk there is usually one boy and one girl. A professor at the University of Leningrad said: "With us, boys and girls, men and women, are partners. We are partners in education, partners in love, and partners in work."

A woman is expected to do any job as well as a man. Many women have entered the professions, particularly medicine. We saw women working with electrical crews, repairing telephone equipment, operating streetcars and busses, and working in factories. We noticed that many women specialized in mathematics and physics.

Education has been and is recognized as the source of past accomplishments and as the way to the future. The developments in the organization and practices of education at all levels during the past half century have been impressive both for their speed and for their extent. Wherever we went our hosts described with pride the contrasts between the present conditions and those existing before the revolution. That we returned with our faith renewed in the superiority of the American system for our society does not discount the tremendous efforts the Soviets are exerting to advance their kind of education to strengthen the Communist system. They tell many dramatic stories of the progress of their education, and all credited education with the improvement in their condition. The story summarized below, which we heard at the Ministry of Education in the Uzbek Republic, is one of the more dramatic but perhaps typical.

This is a highly developed agricultural and industrial region now, but before the revolution it was a colony of Czarist Russia and was much retarded. Agriculture was primitive, crops were small, and the country was underdeveloped. Only 2 percent of the population was literate; there were no institutions of higher education, and the 160 schools were attended by 17,300 children of privileged families. There were no engineers, doctors, or teachers with higher education.

Opportunity for education came immediately after the revolution, although schools were developed gradually. On December 2, 1920, Lenin decreed the establishment of the University of the Republics of Asia. In 1919 a decree on the elimination of illiteracy was published, and shortly afterward literate people began to teach the illiterate. Now we have an academy of science, an academy of agricultural sciences, 34 higher education establishments, 100 technicums, 50 special technical schools, 5,800 general or 10-year schools, 12 pedagogical institutes to prepare teachers, and 1,400 kindergartens. We have schools for people of each nationality in their own tongue, and we also have inservice education establishments. Altogether 1,300,000 children of all nationalities have an opportunity for education. More than 50 percent of our 80,000 teachers have higher education.

We have many establishments to develop the interests of children. We work out our own courses of study for schools. Each Republic develops curriculums for itself because of differences in language.

We have enough money to expand our education programs and buildings. Our people are rich; they like to work. All our people want peace. We are sure we are able to meet the problems we face.

As is indicated earlier, Uzbekistan is not an isolated example; we heard similar stories in other places—the description of similar accomplishments in the Tatar Republic, for example, was equally impressive. Such progress is dramatized for the people of the U.S.S.R. continuously by the State and the Party. In every possible way—particularly through art, music, and literature—the people are reminded of what has been done. Everywhere, in every school we visited, we saw pictures or statues of Lenin, and less frequently, Marx and Stalin, even in kindergartens. From infancy, children are taught that the highest good is to serve the State; school children through their clubs or circles, in classes, and in games are taught to identify all good things with the State; on class excursions and tours of museums, shrines, factories, they are taught the history of the revolution and to honor its heroes, underplaying the prerevolutionary achievements and emphasizing Soviet progress.

What we observed of Soviet education gave us the impression that the entire operation was being carried out on a systematically planned basis to achieve Communist objectives. To be sure, there were some excellent prerevolutionary foundations, institutions, and traditions of Russian education on which to build the Soviet structure—the academic secondary school of Imperial Russia; the Ballet School in Leningrad, over 200 years old; the great universities, especially in Leningrad and Moscow; the National Academy of Sciences; and the School for the Blind in Moscow that celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1947. These are just a few of the substantial roots from the past, and they should not be overlooked. It was always stressed, however, that education was restricted in prerevolutionary days to a very small proportion of the population of the vast area—one-sixth of the earth's surface—that today is the U.S.S.R.

Today, of course, education is planned, financed, controlled, and administered by the State. Even though education in the U.S.S.R. is controlled by the Government and is therefore standardized and regimented, there is some flexibility of operation. Furthermore decisions on policy, on textbooks, on teacher training, on curriculum, and on similar matters are not always made arbitrarily. We found fairly widespread evidence that before making decisions on education, the Government seeks opinions from specialists at all levels of education, from teachers throughout the country, and information based on research and experience. And it seems to get willing cooperation.

Few nations or people are today more passionately committed to education than the Soviet Union and the Soviet people are. The Soviets see what has already been accomplished and are confident of the future.

Further Resources


Avis, George, ed. The Making of the Soviet Citizen: Character Formation and Civic Training in Soviet Education. New York: Croom Helm, 1987.

Benton, William. The Teachers and the Taught in the U.S.S.R. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Clowse, Barbara Barksdale. Brainpower for the Cold War: The Sputnik Crisis and National Defense Education Act of 1958. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.

Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. New York: Walker, 2001.

Douglass, John. "A Certain Future: Sputnik, American Higher Education and the Survival of a Nation." In Roger D. Launius, John M. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith, eds, Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite. London: Routledge, 2002.

Dow, Peter B. Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons From the Sputnik Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Holmes, Larry E. The Kremlin and the Schoolhouse: Reforming Education in Soviet Russia, 1917–1931. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Matthews, Mervyn. Education in the Soviet Union: Policies and Institutions Since Stalin. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Pearson, Landon. Children of Glasnost: Growing up Soviet. Seattle: University of Washington, 1990.

Zajda, Joseph I. Education in the U.S.S.R. New York: Pergamon, 1980.