Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 7, the 1960s & non-proliferation

4 Nov

I should open by saying that last week was probably pretty hellish for the students on my Nuclear Cold War course. Honours essays all tend to be due at roughly the same time. That means there were a lot of people having to write two or three 3000-word pieces at the same time. Challenging. And challenging from a pedagogical point of view as well: how do you approach a class where you that – for good reasons – students will not have devoted as much time to reading and preparation as they would in other weeks?

With that in mind, I approached the class a little differently. The first half would be devoted to student presentations and a brief discussion of nuclear proliferation. The second half was devoted to answering technical essay writing questions and…

…getting students to work out who got to live or die during the aftermath of a nuclear war. More on that in a moment, though.

The discussion of non-proliferation across both classes was very stimulating. We focused on Shane Maddock’s 2010 book Nuclear Apartheid. In doing so, we had a very useful set of discussions on the problems with Maddock’s work and drew comparisons between it and monographs such as After Hiroshima by Matthew Jones. We also thought about the role played by race, gender, ethnocentrism, and ideas of international hierarchy within a non-proliferation context.

However, with the essays looming, I felt it was a bit unfair to expect my students to have done a really extensive set of readings! I was, though, delighted to see that many class members had indeed thought about the subject. And it’s great to find out that Frank Gavin’s excellent Nuclear Statecraft remains a very useful text.

Non-proliferation aside, I thought that an activity unrelated to hardcore academic reading and debate might be a good thing to do at this point in the semester. Hence, the nuclear bunker survival scenario. October 1962, two weeks after global nuclear war, three months before anyone can leave. There’s only enough food and water for a limited number of people to survive. Who do you value? What skills 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 Game.

The characters that were handed out were:

Name: Arthur   Age: 63  Occupation: Accountant and head of local council   Skills: Accounting   Notes: Knows the location of secret supply bunkers. Married to Anne for 25 years. 15 year old daughter Mary is also in the bunker.

Name: Anne   Age: 58   Occupation: Housewife   Skills: Skilled seamstress   Notes: Married to Arthur for 25 years. Was considering divorce prior to the nuclear war. 15 year old daughter Mary is also in the bunker.

Name: George   Age: 33   Occupation: Mechanic   Skills: Skilled mechanic and engineer   Notes: Has a medical condition that means that he will consume supplies 50% faster than normal. In a relationship with Violet.

Name: Margaret   Age: 28   Occupation: Chemist   Skills: Scientific training   Notes: Married to Dennis. Having an affair with Timothy.

Name: Timothy   Age: 27   Occupation: School teacher and local councillor   Skills: Teaching.   Notes: Is having an affair with Margaret.

Name: Mary   Age: 15   Occupation: Schoolgirl   Skills: None of note   Notes: Daughter of Arthur and Anne. Is pregnant, but has not told her parents.

Name: Bob   Age: 40   Occupation: Historian for the local authority   Skills: History   Notes: Has repeatedly been passed over for promotion by Arthur.

Name: Louise   Age: 45   Occupation: Clerk, secretary to Arthur   Skills: Amateur radio enthusiast, so is skilled at building and maintain electronics   Notes: See above.

Name: Ben   Age: 23   Occupation: Army officer   Skills: Military training   Notes: Believes that under the circumstances, he should be in charge.

Name: Violet   Age: 39   Occupation: Doctor   Skills: Medical training   Notes: Addicted to prescription drugs. In a relationship with George.

Name: Dennis   Age: 28   Occupation: Carpenter   Skills: Woodworking and building   Notes: Married to Margaret. Cannot walk because of injuries sustained getting to the bunker.

And I must say, it’s the most animated I’ve seen any classes ever! It was borderline pandemonium at points, as students argued for the characters they had been given, argued against other characters, debated what skills would be needed in the post-nuclear world. From an observers point of view, it was all immensely entertaining and revealed some previously unsuspected character traits! Who would have known certain students were so keen on death threats and torture? Not me. I’m a little scared now.

The one character that got booted out to die of radiation sickness by every group was, sadly, Bob, the 40 year old historian. I guess that in a survival situation, academics approaching middle age just aren’t a vital part of society any more. Likewise, Timothy the teacher got the boot quite a lot as well. So much for the value of education!

Remind me never to to get trapped on a desert island with my students.

One Response to “Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 7, the 1960s & non-proliferation”


  1. Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Conclusions | theatomicage - January 13, 2015

    […] learning techniques proved to be a bit of a hit. My ‘bunker game’ (see the entry on Week 7) and the ‘create your own BBC docudrama’ (see the entry on Week 10) were two exercises […]

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