Teaching The Nuclear Cold War: Weeks 4 and 5, US-UK relations & the Berlin and Cuban crises

21 Oct

An omnibus edition this time round, because of extreme busy-ness last week!

Week four of the course saw us tackle the ups and downs of the Anglo-American nuclear relationship. From the sudden cut-off because of the McMahon Act to the restoration to full cooperation under the Mutual Defence Agreement, nuclear relations between London and Washington were never that smooth.

This aside, one of the most fascinating aspects of week 3 was our examination of the 1955 Strath Report, and it’s this I’d like to concentrate on. Few university courses use the report in full as a primary source, but I think it – and the reactions it provokes – provide immensely instructive insights into British nuclear thinking in the 1950s. In brief, the Strath Report argued that with the advent of the hydrogen bomb, British society – in its 1950s form – could not survive nuclear war. Ministers responded to this with horror, recoiling from many of William Strath’s recommendations to increase survivability. Likewise, the government declined to make public the findings of Strath.

It is regarding this last point that I found student reactions most interesting. When asked if the government was right in suppressing Strath’s findings, a huge majority of both classes came down on the side of government secrecy. Only a few argued that public knowledge would have been beneficial. This I found most remarkable. It will be interesting to see if this is replicated when – this week – we examine the suppression of The War Game.

Week 5 of the course delved into the Berlin and Cuban Crises as exemplars – or perhaps not – of how nuclear weapons affected international relations. Without a doubt, the Second Berlin Crisis is one of the most politically, geopolitically, and socially complex events of the Cold War. The intertwining of a huge range of issues, from the division of Germany to the American presence in Europe, from the question of a West German nuclear capability to Khrushchev’s domestic problems, it is far from the easiest of situations to understand.

And believe me, we wrestled with the issues for quite some time! I still regard Marc Trachtenberg’s A Constructed Peace as the best treatment of the crisis. It is, however, dense, multi-layered, and very complex (but nonetheless brilliant).

The Cuban Crisis is – in many ways – much simpler. Rather than consider the crisis itself, we looked at the international nature of events and how valuable a widening of the lens might be. Extremely useful here was the excellent Cold War International History Project Bulletin that provides a huge range of primary source material and analysis that really helps to internationalise the crisis beyond the bipolar confrontation.

Across both classes, I’m still juggling with how to best approach a large seminar class of 25 students. Variation across the weeks seems to pay dividends, using small group, medium sized group, and full class discussions to allow the more reticent members of the classes to put forward their opinions.

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6 Responses to “Teaching The Nuclear Cold War: Weeks 4 and 5, US-UK relations & the Berlin and Cuban crises”

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  1. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 6 | theatomicage - October 27, 2014

    […] one area where the classes really took off was in discussion of The War Game. When we examined the Strath Report a couple of weeks ago, the vast majority of both classes were in favour of government suppression […]

  2. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 7 | theatomicage - November 4, 2014

    […] do you want to retain? Will personal relationships play a role? This drew on our reading of the 1955 Strath Report and viewing of The War […]

  3. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 8 | theatomicage - November 10, 2014

    […] many ways, as it permitted an exploration of the relative significance of nuclear weapons. Like our exploration of the Second Berlin Crisis, we returned to the idea that – as Frank Gavin so succinctly puts it – nuclear weapons […]

  4. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 9 | theatomicage - November 16, 2014

    […] was when we were discussing issues of government secrecy and media suppression surrounding the Strath Report and The War […]

  5. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity | theatomicage - April 13, 2015

    […] than anything, this served to ram home the fact that when teaching something like the Cuban Crisis (as I did last semester) we must look far beyond the US-Soviet […]

  6. Atomic Triggers | theatomicage - August 19, 2015

    […] From photographs of the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the bleak awfulness of the Strath Report, to the profoundly disturbing imagery of Threads, there’s a lot that can upset, anger, or […]

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