Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Historical resources to discuss North Korea's hydrogen bomb test with our students

We woke up this morning to the news that North Korea may have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb.
While we often strive to have our students speculate what it would have been like to have lived during the eras we are studying, we also want to help them put often-disturbing current events into historical perspective. From that perspective we hope to provide our students with some degree of  understanding and hopefully comfort.

So discussing today's news with our students might be a good way to draw a personal connection to the past.  Ask: Can you think of a time when news of a potential threat shocked the world?

Today's reports instantly reminded me of two historical precedents from the Cold War.  Both deal with developments that caused many Americans to fear that an armed conflict with the Soviets was likely and maybe even imminent.  The first Cold War incident was when the Soviets reported in October 1957 that they had successfully launched Sputnik.
Here's a contemporaneous CBS News report (8:08) about the launch :
What impact did that Sputnik launch have in America?  Good resources you can share with your students include this PBS website ("Sputnik's Impact on America"), this essay by the State Department's Office of the Historian ("Sputnik, 1957"), a discussion of Sputnik's impact on U.S. education in the Harvard Gazette ("How Sputnik changed U.S. education"), and this assessment from NASA's History Office ("Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Race").  Use these resources to have students speculate about how they would have felt if they had lived when the launch was first announced to the world.

The second Cold War incident was the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Americans woke up in October 1962 to this headline:
Good sources for information about the Cuban Missile Crisis include The New York Times here and here, and the JFK Library here.  The National Archives also had a terrific 50th anniversary exhibit on the crisis.  You can read about that exhibit here and see it described here (3:37):
You could also discuss the "Doomsday Clock" published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  The Bulletin was founded by Manhattan Project scientists who were concerned about the consequences of their work.  The metaphor of the Doomsday Clock is their editorial assessment of how likely and imminent is the possibility of nuclear weapon use somewhere in the world.  Right now their threat assessment stands at "3 minutes to midnight."
The Bulletin just re-posted a recent story about North Korea's nuclear ambitions here.

Finally, work with your students through the 2001 AP US History DBQ on Cold War fears:
How did I learn today's news?  I first saw it reported on Twitter last night.  I follow Alex Wellerstein (@wellerstein), a historian of the nuclear era.  He posts about nuclear history topics here.