Covering the Cold War (Quickly)

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As we sprint towards the end of the semester I find myself trying to cover as much post-World War II history as possible. I’ve written previously about the challenges of coverage and this semester is no different. Back in January I revised my syllabus for US History II with the intent of cutting back on certain topics to create more space for others. I have succeeded in some areas and failed miserably in others. Take, for example, the Great Depression: last spring I spent four classes (5 classroom hours) covering the period 1920-1939. Believing this content could be condensed I planned for three class meetings this semester … and then, much to my dismay, I used four.

Now that I’ve (very quickly) covered the Second World War I find myself in another time crunch: how much of the Cold War can I cover without oversimplifying a topic so central to the role of the United States in twentieth-century world history? Since my survey weighs heavily toward social history I need to find a way to provide the students with a succinct introduction to cold war-politics and then shift quickly into a discussion of how the political conditions impacted the home front. In this week’s blog I will share my recent efforts to tackle these challenges.

The first assignment in my abbreviated Cold War study required students to read a textbook chapter and complete an online quiz before coming to class. The multiple-choice quiz was open-book and intended to provide an introduction to key people and terminology.

Next, at our class meeting (75 minutes), we spent the first thirty minutes watching and discussing a dense section of educational film titled “The Cold War Part I: 1945-1961.” My college subscribes to both Kanopy and Films on Demand, which grant faculty and students access to thousands of films. In this case, the first 16 minutes of the film provided visual evidence of the “Big Three” at Yalta and the end of World War II in the Pacific, plus maps explaining the division of Germany and the development of the Marshall Plan. Students listened to brief segments of speeches by Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.

To facilitate discussion of the film segment I distributed a handout with key terms (See McCormack Handout Cold War) and two images: a European-made poster celebrating the Marshall Plan (“All Colours to the Mast”) and Rube Goldberg’s cartoon “Peace Today” (1948). In post-film discussion I asked the students to come up with definitions of the terms and then to consider Goldberg’s audience and intent. The uncomplicated seesaw metaphor enables a smooth transition from world politics to a consideration of how all of these international tensions impacted day-to-day family life.

Finally, for the last thirty-minutes of class we watched “Red Nightmare” (produced by Warner Bros. in conjunction with the Department of Defense). The Jack Webb-narrated picture introduced to students the concept of how American society was conditioned to fear communism. For my purposes, the idyllic image of suburban family life portrayed by the fictional family was a great transition into our next-meeting’s discussion of gender roles in this era.

I relied more heavily than usual on video for my introduction to the Cold War in part because my recent coverage of the Great Depression has me feeling as if perhaps I need to say less and cover more. One of the greatest challenges of teaching history is that it is easy to get excited about sharing content and forget that -- at least in my case -- the goal is an introduction to subject matter and not exhaustive coverage. What about you? How do you whittle down the Cold War to a day or two of class time? Please share!

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.