Volume Three – Guatemala: Cold War in Central America


From 1981 to 1983, the Guatemalan military government carried out a genocide of indigenous Mayan civilians, and massacres of Ladino civilians (Spanish-speaking non-indigenous people), destroying 440 Mayan villages, killing between 45,000 and 60,000 adult Guatemalans, and leaving over 200,000 children without at least one parent.
The conflict was part of a Civil War that started in 1960 and was fought until 1996, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans.

  • How did the post-World War II (1945) conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union lead to civil war in Guatemala?
  • How did some of the descendants of the great Mayan civilization in Guatemala become labeled as communists, and come to be targets of their own country’s military?
  • How does a soldier become a weapon turned against the communities in which he was raised?
  • As terrible as war is, why is it worth the cost for some, and for what purpose?
  • Why do ordinary people risk their lives to flee or transform authoritarian states?

California Curriculum Framework and Standards

10th Grade California Curriculum Framework and Standards

World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times

Students in grade seven study the social, cultural, and technological changes that occurred in Europe, Africa, and Asia in the years A.D. 500–1789. After reviewing the ancient world and the ways in which archaeologists and historians uncover the past, students study the history and geography of great civilizations that were developing concurrently throughout the world during medieval and early modern times. They examine the growing economic interaction among civilizations as well as the exchange of ideas, beliefs, technologies, and commodities. They learn about the resulting growth of Enlightenment philosophy and the new examination of the concepts of reason and authority, the natural rights of human beings and the divine right of kings, experimentalism in science, and the dogma of belief. Finally, students assess the political forces let loose by the Enlightenment, particularly the rise of democratic ideas, and they learn about the continuing influence of these ideas in the world today.


7.1 Students analyze the causes and effects of the vast expansion and ultimate disintegration of the Roman Empire.

1. Study the early strengths and lasting contributions of Rome (e.g., significance of Roman citizenship; rights under Roman
law; Roman art, architecture, engineering, and philosophy; preservation and transmission of Christianity) and its ultimate
internal weaknesses (e.g., rise of autonomous military powers within the empire, undermining of citizenship by the growth of
corruption and slavery, lack of education, and distribution of news).
2. Discuss the geographic borders of the empire at its height and the factors that threatened its territorial cohesion.
3. Describe the establishment by Constantine of the new capital in Constantinople and the development of the Byzantine
Empire, with an emphasis on the consequences of the development of two distinct European civilizations, Eastern Orthodox
and Roman Catholic, and their two distinct views on church-state relations.

10th Grade World History, Culture and Geography: The Modern World

Curriculum Framework (2016)

Unit:  International Developments in the Post-World War II World, pp. 355-359

  • Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union intervened politically, militarily, and economically in Latin America and elsewhere in an effort to protect their strategic interests.
  • Students explore differences between the capitalist-democratic U.S. and the communist-authoritarian Soviet Union.

Content Standard (1998)

10.9.3  Understand the importance of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which established the pattern for America’s postwar policy of supplying economic and military aid to prevent the spread of Communism and the resulting economic and political competition in arenas such as…[the “old” Content Standards do not mention Latin America or Central America] 

11th Grade United States History and Geography: Continuity and Change in Modern United States History

Curriculum Framework (2016)

Unit:  Cold War Struggles Abroad, pp. 407-410

  • Students examine the events in the Western Hemisphere leading to Soviet influence and military aid in the Caribbean, and American intervention in Guatemala (1954)

Content Standard (1998)

11.9.3   Trace the origins and geopolitical consequences (foreign and domestic) of the Cold War and containment policy, including the following: Latin American policy

12th Grade Principles of American Democracy (One Semester)

Curriculum Framework (2016)

Unit:  Comparative Governments and the Challenges of Democracy, pp. 450-454

  • Students can review major political and economic systems and how they influence economic policies, social welfare policies, and human rights practices:  socialism, communism, capitalism
  • Students examine nondemocratic and tyrannical forms of government: control of the media, lack of political and personal freedoms, corruption of public officials, lack of governmental transparency, and the lack of citizens’ access to changing the government
  • Students can explore the importance of the rule of law, the need for civilian control of military and police, and the desirability of popular petitions, rallies, and other forms of participation
  • Attention also should be given to historical and contemporary movements that overthrew tyrannical governments and/or movements toward democratic government in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Content Standards (1998)

12.9.1  Explain how the different philosophies and structures of feudalism, mercantilism, socialism, fascism, communism, monarchies, parliamentary systems, and constitutional liberal democracies influence economic policies, social welfare policies, and human rights practices. 

12.9.5  Identify the forms of illegitimate power that twentieth-century African, Asian, and Latin American dictators used to gain and hold office and the conditions and interests that supported them. 

12.9.6  Identify the ideologies, causes, stages, and outcomes of major Mexican, Central American, and South American revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Lesson Activities

  • Students prepare their own analyses of the conflicts in Central America, drawing on the photographs of the Richard Cross collection, oral history interviews, and other resources.
  • Students answer and develop their own Compelling and Supporting Questions.

Compelling and Supporting Questions

  • are intellectually rigorous and
  • are relevant and interesting
  • spark inquiry
  • motivate students to want to learn more
Historical Content
Bullet points that

  • cover basic content
  • inform slide presentations
  • teach note-taking
  • lead to resources – websites and published curriculum

Photograph Viewing Guide

  • Authentic inquiry vs. exploitation
  • People, land and physical structures
  • Historical thinking skills
  • Personalizing historical photographs

Assessment Ideas
Formative and summative assessment options

References to support deeper study of conflict in Central America