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Lesson Plan

The Cold War and the Nuclear Weapons Threat

About this Video

This six-minute video provides students with a brief and engaging overview of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War, and how it permeated American culture. It poses the question of whether the threat posed by nuclear weapons may be greater now than ever before. The video contextualizes the current discussion of nuclear proliferation by comparing today’s problems with the comparative predictability of the Cold War’s nuclear standoff, showing students both the changes and the continuities relating to one of the gravest challenges of the 21st century.

This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.

  • How Cold War fears led the United States and the Soviet Union to amass large nuclear arsenals.
  • How the bipolar world system of the Cold War and cooperation between the two superpowers created some degree of stability and predictability in managing the risk posed by nuclear weapons.
  • Why nuclear proliferation over the last 20 years has led some experts to believe that nuclear weapons pose a greater threat to humanity today than ever before.
  • Earth and Space Science
  • Social Studies
  • World History
  • Civics & Government
  • 1960s America
  • 1950s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • America as a World Power
  • Arms Race
  • Cold War
  • Communism
  • Space Race
  • The Atomic Bomb
  • U.S. Foreign Policy
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union ignited over the threat of nuclear attack. By the early 1950s , the U.S. had even launched publicity campaigns with “duck and cover” training films and cartoons that instructed citizens what to do in the event of nuclear war.

Meanwhile, both countries began building up massive nuclear arsenals as insurance against annihilation. Concern was fed by popular novels like “Seven Days in May,” and films like “Dr. Strangelove,” which, along with “Ban the Bomb” marches, became part of the cultural landscape in the 1960s.

While tensions seemed always to escalate, leaders of both countries were well-aware that an accidental blunder – rather than an intentional assault – could spell global doom for all. That belief in a shared fate caused both sides to put safeguards in place and brought them to the negotiating table.

By the late 1980s, major arms reduction agreements had been negotiated by President Reagan, while the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 seemed to greatly diminish the threat of nuclear war.

But over the last few years, the nuclear weapons situation has become more complicated. The major superpowers – the U.S., Russia, and China – still face off with nuclear arsenals. But they are not alone. North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel reportedly have nuclear capability, and other countries including Iran seem eager to join them.

At the same time, some of the chief lessons of the Cold War – the necessity of safeguards and the value of negotiation – seem to be missing.

Essential Questions
  • How did the U.S. and the Soviet Union end up with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at one another? What was the reasoning on both sides that led to this proliferation?
  • At the same time the U.S. and the Soviet Union were building up massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, how were the two sides also working together to try to prevent an accidental nuclear exchange from occurring? How did the bipolar international system during the Cold War create a certain degree of predictability and stability?
  • How did the end of the Cold War affect perceptions and anxiety levels about the possibility of nuclear war?
  • What are several factors and developments in the last 20 years that have increased the likelihood of a nuclear exchange?
Lesson Procedure
  • Why are so many nations still seeking nuclear weapons?
  • Why isn’t there the same level of public concern and anxiety about nuclear war as there is about climate change? Which threat concerns you more? Do you think there will be a nuclear exchange between two nations in your lifetime?
  • Why do you think nuclear proliferation is so hard to control? Why is it even harder now than it was during the Cold War?
  • What role should the United States play in controlling nuclear proliferation? Is it possible or reasonable for the United States to ask other countries to abstain from stockpiling or building nuclear weapons, or reduce weaponry, while the U.S. continues to retain one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals? If it isn’t possible for the U.S. to lead the fight for de-proliferation, who should be responsible for doing so?
Additional Resources
Check out the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School Origins of the Cold War class Gilder Lehrman
Transcript for "Why the Cold War Race for Nuclear Weapons Is Still a Threat" Retro Report
This is Not a Drill: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Skill 1.B: Explain a historical concept, development or process.

Theme: America in the World (WOR)

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