More Bang for Your Buck: Teaching Nuclear History

Teaching America’ is a collaborative blog series by the Historians of Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and U.S Studies Online that aims to offer readers an insight into the ongoing conversations around teaching U.S. history in higher education. Featuring posts from leading historians the series offers advice on new and established approaches to teaching intellectual, radical and religious history, gender and sexuality in higher education, and race and transnational history, plus much more. Find out what you can expect from the series in the series introduction.

The fifth post is by Dr Malcolm Craig (University of Edinburgh) who reflects on his own approach to designing and teaching a course around nuclear history.


Nuclear bunker. Source: Scott Wylie.

What’s your biggest global concern? Religious extremism; climate change; thermonuclear war; or, wealth inequality? You have five seconds. Pick one. No sitting on the fence.

Bet you didn’t pick thermonuclear war. Who today actually worries about global nuclear Armageddon? Other anxieties have taken its place. Climate change affects us all. Religious extremism forms part of major conflicts. The disparities between rich and poor around the world are vast . However, being vapourised or left to die in a Mad Max-esque apocalyptic wasteland?[1] Not on the agenda for most people.

I posed that question to undergraduate students in the first five minutes of my Nuclear Cold War course at the University of Edinburgh. Nobody picked nuclear war.[2] So, how do you teach the nuclear history of the Cold War? How do you get across the fear of atomic apocalypse and how it invaded almost every aspect of peoples’ lives for decades?


The explosion of the hydrogen bomb Ivy Mike.

In many ways, it’s no different to teaching the history of Byzantium or dynastic Egypt. All of the past is in some way alien. In other ways, nuclear history is quite different. There’s a necessity to get across the apocalyptic power of the H-bomb and demonstrate how states reacted to their newfound power to end entire civilisations, while at the same time highlighting the ways in which this fear of the end of the world affected ordinary people’s lives.

As the original atomic power, the United States is obviously a key factor in any history of ‘the bomb’. As a teacher, I’m lucky that we live in an age where we have easy access to a huge range of documentation about the ways in which successive US administrations thought about, planned for the use of, and lived in fear of nuclear weapons. It’s a cliché, but going back to the sources is the way forward. [3]

This year, I’ve actually chosen to start with a different kind of source, nothing to do with Cold War nuclear diplomacy. A poem from 1940.

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,

With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,

With weapons so deadly the world must grow older

And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?

The words above – from Stephen Vincent Benet’s Song for Three Soldiers – have become indelibly associated with nuclear war, despite their being written five years before the first atomic test. Benet’s poem was brought into the nuclear age by its inclusion in Peter Watkins’ landmark 1965 docudrama The War Game. Nuclear weapons are in many ways “beyond the reach” of the human mind, the first weapons able to destroy entire civilisations in a flash. With this horrific capability, they are believed to have exerted a huge influence over the years from 1945 to 1989, supposedly shaping world events, moulding decisions of leaders, and influencing the lives of billions of individuals around the world. The questions I ask in the opening remarks of my course handbook are: Did nuclear weapons really do this, though? If they did, to what extent was this the case? Is the idea of ‘the bomb’ more powerful than its reality?

Getting students to understand the sheer physical power of nuclear weapons is the first significant step on the road to understanding their role as a political, cultural, and social force. Our images of ‘nuclear’ destruction are often still founded in visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As horrific as those attacks were, Fat Man and Little Boy were but firecrackers compared to what emerged in the 1950s with the advent of the hydrogen bomb. Essentially limitless in its destructive power, the H-bomb was a true doomsday weapon. I’ve found Alex Wellerstein’s excellent online tool Nukemap an invaluable educational resource for illustrating this point.[4] Plug in any location, select the nuclear yield, and hit the button. A few seconds later you’ll have a calculation of casualties and fallout. Grim, but effective. Teaching in Edinburgh, I tend to explode one of our current Trident warheads over the city to illustrate the devastation a single bomb could cause.


Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap.

Once students have an understanding of the power if nuclear weapons, we can consider how the bomb has affected history. As the original nuclear weapon state and pre-eminent Cold War superpower, the position of the United States is critical.[5] Frank Gavin comments (in the context of the Second Berlin Crisis) that nuclear weapons mattered very greatly, and very little.[6] And this ­­– for me at least – is one of the contradictions at the heart of teaching nuclear history. Gavin’s point extends out to the Cold War in general. In many, many situations, nuclear weapons mattered an awful lot, but in many situations they simply did not matter, or in many cases they were simply one of a constellation of factors affecting the course of history.[7] Take the always-vexed question of the origins of the Cold War. Campbell Craig and Sergei Radchenko argue that the pre-existing hostility between the USA and USSR made Cold War almost inevitable, but “the novel fears engendered by the atomic bomb” were the tipping point for decades of confrontation.[8] Here, the bomb is central to the Cold War’s emergence, but it is not the be all and end all. Letting students understand the bomb’s subtle influence is just as important as inculcating an understanding of its awkward status as a blunt diplomatic instrument.

And it’s not just diplomacy, international relations, and statecraft where nuclear weapons can sometimes be said to matter “very greatly”. The ways in which the atomic threat affected American culture and society are many, varied, and fascinating. I always make use of films, literature, visual art, and music in my teaching to show how the nuclear ages penetrated almost every level and every part of American society. From atomic secret agent rings that you could get with ten tokens from your favourite cereal, through the grim, brilliant musical satire of Tom Lehrer, to Hollywood hits like Them! or Seven Days in May, the atom was everywhere.[9]

Finally, it’s important to emphasise the impact of the bomb on the individual. I enjoy using role-play situations to get students into the mind-set of those living in the shadow of the bomb. My ‘bunker survival’ game – where twelve survivors have to decide which of their number must be sacrificed for the greater good – proved to be horrifying but immensely popular.[10] As did the ‘doomsday letter’ exercise, where small groups formed the conscience of a national leader writing orders for their nuclear forces, to be enacted should she or he be killed in an attack. Although these role-plays can never truly emulate the feelings of the time, they’ve become a valuable teaching tool.

Cold War nuclear history – like many other parts of historical study – is complex and contested, able defy rational argument and provoke strong feelings. The subtler influence of the bomb on US policies and decision-making from 1945 to 1989 needs to be emphasised alongside the brute-force doctrines of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and Nuclear Utilization Target Selection (NUTS). Teaching the nuclear Cold War is an exercise in emphasising shades of grey in a world overshadowed by the most black and white choice imaginable.


[1] Unless you happen to think that living in the world of Mad Max: Fury Road sounds appealing. In which case, I suggest a re-evaluation of your priorities.

[2] During the course, I wrote weekly blog entries analyzing my teaching performance, how the classes went, issues arising, and so forth. You can find them collected here:

[3] The National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault is an immensely useful resource, bringing together electronic briefing books on a wide range of nuclear issues, available at:

[4] You can waste a huge amount of time nuking your hometown. I have. Visit Nukemap at

[5] Although, it is vital to also examine the role and influence of powers other than the ‘big two’ in Cold War nuclear affairs. While the superpower arms race is a major issue, it makes no sense to deal with it as a factor divorced from other nuclear and non-nuclear issues of the day.

[6] Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 74.

[7] For example, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s nuclear threat made a huge difference to the attitude of the Nixon administration. On the flipside of this, Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles argued that their veiled nuclear threats brought about the armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953. There is, however, little evidence to support the assertion that the North Koreans, Chinese, or Soviets realized they were being threatened by atomic attack.

[8] Campbell Craig and Sergei Radchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 162.

[9] This may be the first time in recorded history that these two films have appeared in the same sentence. You can find a treasure trove of atomic ephemera on the CONELRAD website at

[10] A more detailed description of my ‘bunker game’ and the student responses to it can be found here:

About Malcolm Craig

Dr Malcolm Craig is currently a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH). His research interests include US and UK foreign policy during the Cold War, nuclear non-proliferation, secret intelligence, and media representations of these issues. He co-hosts the American History Too! podcast with Mark McLay, and writes his own irregular blog. His research has been published in Cold War History and The International History Review, and his first book on the US, the UK, and the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme in the 1970s will be appearing through Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.
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