Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 11, The Final Countdown

12 Dec

The_Final_Countdown_singleThe hectic nature of the end of semester means that this penultimate post about the nuclear Cold War course has been more than a little bit delayed. Apologies for that.

Our final class examined the end of the Cold War and the influence of nuclear arms (and related issues) on the conclusion of nearly five decades of confrontation. Did ‘the atom’ have any influence? In the big scheme of things, did the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – as an example of arms control – actually do anything to help? I argued (and many students agreed) that the end of the Cold War is in fact even more complicated than the beginning of the Cold War. Disentangling the various threads (no pun intended) is one of the challenges of studying this period.

One student offered a very interesting presentation on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the impact this had on Soviet thinking about nuclear war. This was very thought-provoking and raised interesting issues about the differences in perception, readiness, and threat evaluation. The manifest inability of the USSR’s civil defence structure to deal with Chernobyl certainly indicated that – in the event of full-scale nuclear conflict – the Soviet Union would not be able to cope as well as planners in Moscow predicted.

The above presentation was a good example – and there were many throughout the course, I am merely using this one as an exemplar – of lateral thinking and an imaginative approach to the presentation elements of assessment. The presentation also brought civilian nuclear power into the equation, something that we had hardly touched upon (other than discussion of Atoms for Peace, the NPT, and the 1974 Indian nuclear test). Perhaps the overlaps between civilian and military nuclear power are elements I could emphasise more strongly in a future version of the course.

in terms of assessing arms control and the stances of the opposing sides, there was some voluble debate (in one class at least) regarding the importance of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI, or ‘Star Wars’). I was delighted to see that some students had thought hard about this issue and engaged well with the argument that SDI ‘broke’ the Soviet economy. Recognising the essential awkwardness of such claims and the generally asymmetric nature of the actual Soviet response to SDI created a good platform on which to build our debate about the Cold War’s conclusion. Likewise, there was acknowledgement that the INF Treaty was – if nothing else – symbolically important, even if it did nothing to reduce the apocalyptically powerful strategic arsenals.

In the end, as with all such things, our conclusions were as varied as the historiography itself. There were impassioned arguments for the centrality of Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, George H. W. Bush, Solidarity, Ronald Reagan (first term Reagan versus second term Reagan), popular dissatisfaction in Eastern Europe[1], the failure of the Soviet economy, the unintended consequences of perestroika and glasnost, and many other factors. I enjoyed both classes’ acknowledgement of the complexity of the issue(s) and the difficulty of teasing out cause, effect, and significance. In future versions of this course, I’m tempted to make this a two-part class.[2]

In my final post on this course, I’ll offer an overview and assessment of how things went. I’m quite critical of my teaching across many parts of this course, and there is certainly scope for improvement. I’ll also be reflecting on student feedback, which has been excellent and exceptionally useful.


[1] In this regard, I would agree with Jacques Levesque that “Gorbachev’s highly idealistic expectation that Soviet acceptance would bring new forms of democratic socialism and salvage Soviet influence within a transformed alliance proved to be ill-founded” and “The Eastern European revolutions occurred when Gorbachev’s tolerance for reform surpassed anything that his contemporaries had imagined. As his tolerance became clear, the reformers were emboldened, as were Bush and Kohl. East European peoples had long yearned for change; Gorbachev made it possible.” See Jacques Levesque, ‘The East European revolutions of 1989’, in Odd Arne Westad and Melvyn P. Leffler, The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.332.

[2] The above cited Cambridge History of the Cold War (CHotCW), Volume III, has an excellent selection of chapters on the end of the Cold War. I would recommend those by Archie Brown, Beth A. Fisher, John W. Young, Jaqcues Levesque, and Helga Haftendorn as being particularly useful and succinct. Indeed, for anyone interested in the full panoply of Cold War history, I would heartily recommend all three volumes of the CHotCW. All three volumes are not cheap (around £70 for the complete set), but is a great investment for any scholar of the period.

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