Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 3, the nuclear 1950s

6 Oct

From our beginnings with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the origins of the Cold War, and the incoherence of early US atomic policy, last week we moved on to the 1950s: the era of the Korean War, Massive Retaliation, and (of course) the hydrogen bomb. One thing that has really struck me is the interest in the catastrophic Castle Bravo test. While I expected that it might generate a little interest, the enthusiasm exhibited by some students has really surprised me.(1)

Student presentations continue to impress, with some very strong ten-minute papers on key subjects. The breadth and depth of scholarship and sources addressed by these very brief presentations is remarkable. We had examinations of the reasons for US non-use of atomic weapons during the Korean War, the role of race issues in nuclear policy, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace‘ initiative, and the impact of Castle Bravo on Japanese-American relations.(2)

All that being said, this was the first class where I felt that I made some genuine pedagogical missteps. In retrospect, I probably tried to fit too much into this particular seminar, a function of the sheer diversity of nuclear themes and events prevalent in the 1950s. We examined NSC-68, Korea, Castle Bravo, Atoms for Peace, and so on. And, I feel that this diminished the experience for students. A clearer focus on – for example – Korea as an exemplar of “atomic diplomacy” and then Castle Bravo as representative of the hydrogen bomb revolution (thus leading to massive retaliation, fear of fallout, the rise of transnational anti-nuclear movements, etc) would have provided a much better learning experience.

Furthermore, I talked far, far too much. This in no way helps with the impressive engagement students have shown with the readings and primary sources. In week 2, I felt that there was a lot more constructive debate. This week, I felt that I only inhibited debate. Some of this was a function of trying to resolve the intractable issue of class. A 25 person seminar does not make for easy, flowing conversation. This time, I split the room into two, encouraging students to debate and discuss in groups of 12/13, rather than having to wait ages for their turn to speak in a group of 24/25. While this was at least a quasi-successful tactic, there still needs to be more discussion and I need to find ways to facilitate that.

Looking at the positive, I’ve been forced to reassess some of the teaching methods I’ve been planning on using. To that end, I’ll be bringing into our classes some ideas that I toyed with, but never really settled on. The experiences of the last couple of weeks have convinced me that there is room for experimentation.

This coming week, we move on to Anglo-American nuclear relations. As part of this, we’ll be taking a look at the infamous March 1955 Strath Report which – as Jeff Hughes comments – saw the British government “look into the abyss of nuclear devastation.”(3)


(1) The core readings suggested for this week were: Roger Dingman, ‘Atomic Diplomacy During the Korean War,’ International Security, 13:3 (Winter, 1988–1989), 50–91; Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima: The United States, Race, and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Chp.2 ‘The Korean War, the atomic bomb, and Asian-American estrangement,’ Chp.3 ‘Securing the East Asian Frontier: stalemate in Korea and the Japanese peace’ and Chp.4 ‘A great sanction: the defence of South East Asia, the advent of the Eisenhower administration and the end of the Korean War,’ Chp.5 ‘Atomic Madness: Massive retaliation and the Bravo test’; Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), Chp.3 ‘Winning Weapons: A-Bombs, H-Bombs, and International Control, 1946-1953,’ Chp.4 ‘The President in the Gray Flannel Suit: Conformity, Technological Utopianism, and Nonproliferation, 1953-1956,’ and Chp.5 ‘Seeking a Silver Bullet: Nonproliferation, the Test Ban, and Nuclear Sharing, 1957-1960′; Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Chp.4 ‘The Korean War: the emerging taboo’; and Vladislav Zubok, Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), Chp.5 ‘The Nuclear Education of Khruschev, 1953-1963.’

(2) If you’re interested in the non-use question, I’d heartily recommend the Tannenwald reading noted above; On the role of race and racism, and the impact of the Castle Bravo test in Asia, there’s no better place to start than Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima.

(3) Jeff Hughes, ‘The Strath Report: Britain confronts the H‐Bomb, 1954–1955’, History and Technology: An International Journal, 19:3 (2003), 257-275,

2 Responses to “Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 3, the nuclear 1950s”

  1. Larissa Sterchi at 11:40 am #

    I agree that there was a lot to be discussed to be in week 3, however, personally I think it sometimes works out well as we get to assess the certain cold war policies with extensive knowledge of what the effects of it were. Maybe this was particularly relevant in my case, as I began reading on the Korean war and ended up with Atoms for Peace, which highlighted the increasing desperation within the Eisenhower administration. Also thought that the splitting of the two rooms was a good idea, possibly caused some neck pain, but was worth it.

    • malcolmcraig at 10:33 am #

      Thanks very much for the feedback, Larissa. I’m going to continue fiddling with the room layout to see how different structures affect our interactions. And sorry for the neck pain!

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