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The Cold War and Beyond


Two class periods



U.S. History

Jay Lamb, social studies teacher, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia.


Students will understand the following:

1. The Cold War came to an end under the watch of Reagan and Gorbachev.

2. Scientists and politicians are among the people who influence a nation's arms policy.


For this lesson, you will need:

Access to tape recorders or video cameras for interviews

1. With the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of some weapons systems by both the United States and the former Soviet Union, your students may not appreciate the nuclear threat that school-age and college-age people lived under from the 1950s through the 1990s. This project gives your students an opportunity to make Cold War history come alive by interviewing adults who remember growing up in a United States in the decades of an ever-expanding nuclear arsenal.

2. Begin by checking whether all students in your class have someone to interview about the experience of going to school and living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Recent immigrants to this country may need your help in locating adults who will share with them what it was like to be a child or young adult here during those decades.

3. Write on the board a number of nuclear war terms that were frequently used in the 1950s and 1960s, and instruct students to become conversant with them before setting out on their interviews. Such terms include the following:

- A-bomb
- H-bomb
- Hiroshima
- Air-raid drill
- Radioactive fallout
- Bomb shelter
- Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

4. Based on what your students learn about the preceding terms, work as a class to make up questions to ask people who were children in the 1950s and 1960s. Here are some sample questions:

- When you were a child, did you hear people talking about nuclear bombs? If so, how did people seem to feel about nuclear bombs? Do you remember if you had any feelings about nuclear bombs when you were a child?
- Did you understand who the enemy was? What did you think of the enemy? What did you think of the United States as a nuclear power?
- When you were a child, did your school have air-raid drills? What did the students have to do during an air-raid drill? Why?
- When you were younger, did you ever hear about or see a bomb shelter? What supplies did people put in bomb shelters? Why? What feelings did you have (and do you have) about bomb shelters?
- When you were younger, were you afraid that the United States or the world would be blown up by bombs or missiles?
- Do you remember being young and reading books or seeing movies or television shows about nuclear destruction? How did the books and movies make you feel?
- Did you stop being afraid of nuclear war as you grew up? Why or why not?
- How did you feel when Reagan and Gorbachev started talking about reducing nuclear armaments? How do you feel now about the threat of nuclear war?

5. Remind students about the basics of setting up and conducting an in-person interview:

- Tell the potential interviewee why you want to speak to him or her and how much time you would like for the interview.
- Schedule the interview at a time that is convenient for the interviewee.
- Ask the interviewee if you can use an audio or video recorder during the interview.
- Make sure you know how to get to the interviewee's home or office, and get there on time.
- Be familiar with the questions you want to ask; make sure you have them written out in case you forget them.
- Make sure you don't ask simple yes-or-no questions: The interviewer should get the interviewee to talk as much as possible.
- Make sure you don't ask questions that you can get answers to in a book. The interviewer shouldn't waste the interviewee's time.
- Have a notebook and pen for taking notes—whether or not the interviewee has agreed to taping the session.
- Throughout, act patiently and politely. Do not argue with anything your interviewee says.
- Follow your prepared questions, but be willing to go off in other directions if something the interviewee says intrigues you. That is, listen carefully, and ask follow-up questions that occur to you on the spot.

6. Remind students about what to do after the interview:

- As soon as the interview is over, review your notes and make a transcript of the tape to see what makes sense and what doesn't. If you have further questions about what someone said, get back in touch quickly and politely.

- Make a phone call or send a note thanking the interviewee for his or her time and insights.

7. Suggest that students sift through their notes and the transcripts to find the highlights of the interview—highlights that students should summarize, paraphrase, or quote verbatim in a three-to-five-minute oral presentation to the class. The presentation, of course, should clearly identify the person interviewed: How old is he or she? In what part of the United States did he or she grow up?

8. Suggest that students listen very carefully to one another's oral presentations so that when it's their turn they can comment on how their interviewees expressed similar or different feelings from other students' interviewees.

9. Follow up the individual oral presentations with a discussion on what the class learned about being a student in the bleakest days of the Cold War versus being a student today. Have new problems replaced the threat of nuclear war?

Instead of sending students out to do one-on-one interviews, consider inviting to class someone who went to an American public school in the 1950s, when the Cold War started. Ask the guest to talk about how the fear of nuclear war manifested itself in day-to-day school life. Let the students, as a group, ask questions of the guest.

1. Why were so many people initially surprised by the way President Reagan spoke about the Soviet Union? What was different from the speeches of earlier presidents? Why do you think President Reagan spoke this way? Was it a good idea? Why or why not?
2. Explain the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and discuss how valid it was as a strategy to prevent war.
3. In planning his SDI speech, why did President Reagan bypass the usual White House procedures? Was this a good idea? Does this foreshadow later concerns with the Reagan presidency such as the Iran-Contra affair?
4. Why did many people in the European community object to the deployment of American missiles in Europe even though the intention was that these missiles were to protect them from the Soviet Union?
5. How did the deaths at the top levels of Soviet leadership change the approach of the Soviet Union toward the United States? What do you think would have happened if the old leadership had remained? What was different about Gorbachev?
6. Given the state of the Soviet economy and other factors, how much credit should President Reagan's SDI proposal receive for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union?
7. Was President Reagan correct when he turned down the Soviet Union's offer to eliminate all ICBMs? What are the arguments on both sides?

You can evaluate students' oral presentations using the following three-point rubric:

- Three points:clearly identifies and describes interviewee; gives overview of the interview in a well-organized presentation supported with details; always speaks clearly, stands still, and makes eye contact with the audience

- Two points:identifies and describes interviewee; gives overview of the interview but doesn't include enough details; mostly speaks clearly, stands still, and makes eye contact with the audience


- One point:inadequately identifies and describes interviewee; speaks in a disorganized way about the interview and omits details; needs improvement in speaking clearly, standing still, and making eye contact with the audience


You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining the number of details the presentation should contain.

High Road or Low Road?

Remind students that President Reagan accused the Soviet Union of having the will to commit any crime to achieve its goals, implying that such behavior is improper conduct for any country. Was President Reagan correct? Raise the following questions with students: To what degree should the United States or any other country be expected to act in a moral manner on international issues? Under what conditions would morality be expected or not be expected? Have students research the points of view of political theoreticians and politicians. Once students understand the issues involved with this problem, have them design a survey to poll their fellow students, parents, and members of their community on the question of international morality. Do they find a consensus in the responses?

Was the Force with Us?

Some people maintain that President Reagan's threatened Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But the question remains “Could the plans for the SDI have ever been actualized?” Have students research the SDI proposal to determine its estimated costs, its political liabilities and assets, and scientific appraisals of whether it was practical.

Reagan Ought to Get Oscar for Star Wars”

by Arnold Beichman. Insight on the News, September 27, 1993.

This commentator explains the contributions of Reagan's Star Wars program to the advancement of such electronic technologies as optics, sensors, lasers, and lightweight telescopes.
Symposium: Did the Reagan Doctrine Cause the Fall of the Soviet Union?”

Margaret Thatcher and Raymond L. Garthoff. Insight, January 26, 1998.

This point/counterpoint format offers opinions of the former British prime minister and the political science scholar give, who credit to Reagan and to Gorbachev, respectively, for enacting policies that caused the former Soviet Union to crumble.

POTUS: Reagan

Presidents of the United States: Internet Public Library's resource.

The Ronald Reagan Home Page

A list of Reagan's achievements through sound files.

Whatever Happened to Missile Defense?

An article published in a journal of international military affairs.

Ronald Reagan: Star Wars

Discovery Channel's Reagan Activities page.



The relaxation of strained relations or tensions (as between nations).


So far detente has been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims.


To spread out, utilize, or arrange strategically.


The new centerpiece of the American nuclear strike force was the mobile MX missile, but every attempt to deploy it ran into problems.

nuclear deterrent

A means of discouraging enemy attack by threatening to use nuclear weaponry.


Reagan was searching for an alternative to the nuclear deterrent, which had kept an uneasy peace between the superpowers.


Not able to be passed.


When Reagan announced his SDI program, it was presented as an impenetrable missile defense system.


Uninformed, not knowledgeable in worldly wisdom.


I think she would have refrained from characterizing it as naive as long as she knew it was the view of the president of the United States.


The principal policy-making and executive committee of a communist party.


The Soviets decided in the politburo to withdraw from Afghanistan.


A person who subscribes to an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods.


He began as #1 enemy and ended as #1 friend to the capitalist world.

Grade Level:


Subject Area:

U.S. history


Understands developments in foreign and domestic policies between the Nixon and Clinton presidencies.


Understands the impact of the Reagan presidency on relations with other countries (e.g., Reagan's view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and how that shaped defense policy, the issues raised in the Iran-Contra affair).

Grade Level:


Subject Area:


Understands the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy, and understands how the government is financed through taxation.

Understands how specific foreign policies such as national security and trade policy affect the everyday lives of American citizens and their communities.

Grade Level:


Subject Area:


Understands how the world is organized politically into nation-states, how nation-states interact with one another, and issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy.

Understands the significance of principal foreign policies and events in the United States' relations with the world (e.g., Monroe Doctrine, World Wars I and II, formation of the United Nations, Marshall Plan, NATO, Korean and Vietnam Wars, end of the Cold War).

Knows how the powers over foreign affairs that the Constitution gives to the president, Congress, and the federal judiciary have been used over time; and understands the tension between constitutional provisions and the requirements of foreign policy (e.g., the power of Congress to declare war and the need of the president to make expeditious decisions in times of international emergency, the power of the president to make treaties and the need of the Senate to approve them).
Grade Level:


Subject Area:

world history


Understands the promises and paradoxes of the second half of the 20th century.


Understands common arguments of opposition groups in various countries around the world, common solutions they offer, and the position of these ideas with regard to Western economic and strategic interests.


Copyright 2001 Discovery.com.

Teachers may reproduce copies of these materials for classroom use only.

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