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Cold War: Finding Images in the Prints & Photographs Division

This guide highlights collections that are strong for coverage of events and individuals relating to international and diplomatic struggles between 1946 -1991 with an emphasis on rights-free images. Search tips and related resources are also covered.


Editorial cartoon drawing shows two hairy, muscular, anthropomorphic atomic bombs labeled U.S. A-Tests and Sovient Intransigence
Edmund S. Valtman, artist. "He's driving me nuts - I'm on the verge of blowing my top" . 1962. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Prints & Photographs Division offers rich pictorial resources documenting Cold War events, its key players, and the clash of ideas it embodied. The images include photographs, cartoons, and posters. This guide points out collections particularly strong for documenting the geopolitics and ideological struggles of the era, with a special focus on pictures that are rights-free. In some cases, collections contain both rights-free and some potentially copyright restricted imagery. The guide includes search strategies for locating rights-free images in these circumstances.

Although the beginning and ending dates of the Cold War can be debated, it extended roughly through the period 1946-1991. The geopolitical struggle that involved the United States, the USSR, China, and their respective allies, with its ideological and military components, began roughly at the conclusion of World War II. As postwar arrangements were discussed, tensions surfaced among the former allies, expressed in George Kennan’s 1946 “long telegram,” which suggested a policy of containment against Soviet influence (though Kennan later noted that his comments were misinterpreted) 1. The Cold War is generally thought to have ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. In between were a series of international negotiations, hostilities, and proxy wars conducted in an era of nuclear proliferation.

The Prints & Photographs Division's collections relating to the Cold War come from a variety of sources. Many prints and photos were received through copyright deposit. Other images came through donations, purchases, and transfers from Manuscript Division collections.


  1. Martin Sixsmith. The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold  War Mind. (New York: Pegasus Books, 2022), 82. Sixsmith traces the first use of the phrase "Cold War" to an essay by George Orwell in Oct. 1945, referring to the "stagnant conflict that might develop between the nuclear powers." (ix).
Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.