Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 2, the early Cold War

29 Sep

After the introductory Muellerising of last week, this time we really get down to business. Our class this week looked at the totally non-controversial and historiographically non-debateable questions of the “atomic diplomacy” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atomic bomb as a causal factor in the onset of the Cold War, and the direction (or lack thereof) of American nuclear policy in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So, no room for debate and discussion there then.

This was also the first week where students had the chance to give ten-minute presentations on topics within our general theme for the week. It’s always a tough gig going first, and I’m glad to say that all of our presenters set a high standard. In both classes we had someone examine the “atomic diplomacy” question and someone else look at the bomb and the onset of the Cold War. In all cases, the presentations usefully stimulated debate and set the tone for the ensuing conversations.

Like Mueller’s work, the “atomic diplomacy” theory of Gar Alperovitz provides a stimulating starting point. This classic of New Left revisionist history on the origins of the Cold War still has a valuable role to play in teaching the subject, despite the age of the text and the near-endless debates around the key arguments. I was pleased to see students keying in to the complexities and nuances of this contentious field of study, contrasting Alperovitz with more recent work, such as that by Campbell Craig and Sergei Radchenko, Shane J. Maddock, and Vladislav Zubok.

When looking at notions of international control, scientific internationalism, and technological utopianism in US atomic policy, it was interesting that some students found the notion that atomic weapons could be seen as a ‘silver bullet” for all the worlds’ ills. With a presentist viewpoint, the idea that many in the early atomic age might have seen atomic power as a means of ending war and providing free, limitless power for all the peoples of globe can seem a little bit weird.

Pedagogically, the size of the classes still poses a challenge all of its own. While there are many students willing to speak up in front of twenty four of their peers, it can be an intimidating environment for others. Hence, when discussing the direction of American atomic policy in the immediate aftermath of the war, we broke down into smaller groups that usefully allow more reticent students an opportunity to speak.

This coming week, we’ll be changing the format yet again. Nothing like keeping people on their toes.

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