The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer offers insights into social studies topics including World War II, the Manhattan Project, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the war, the Cold War and anti-communism, arms control, the nuclear age, the relationship between the military and the scientific establishment, and more. Use the program in your classroom, or delve into the rich resources available on the film’s Web site.
The Teacher’s Resources section offers four elements:
Teachers are encouraged to adapt the guide to meet their own learning objectives for their students.
For each of the following statements, write T if it is true; if it is false, rewrite it so that it is true.
To help students understand why many Americans felt threatened by the Soviet Union.
Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the two activities below. (Roughly equal numbers of groups should perform each activity.)
Working in small groups, write a brief summary (500-750 words) of the main events of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Your summary must use all of the terms in the five categories listed below.
Concepts: capitalism, dictatorship, proletariat, socialism, world revolution
Events: creation of USSR, October Revolution, Russian Civil War, World War I
Organizations: Bolshevik Party, Comintern, Communist Party of the Soviet Union
People: Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Nicholas II, Joseph Stalin
Places: Russia, Soviet Union, St. Petersburg, Moscow
Working in small groups, write a brief summary (500-750 words) of the events leading to the Cold War. Your summary must use all of the terms in the five categories listed below.
Concepts: containment, Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine
Events: Berlin Airlift, Cold War, Korean War, World War II
Organizations: NATO, Warsaw Pact
People: Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman
Places: Berlin, Eastern Europe, Germany, “Iron Curtain,” Soviet Union, United States
Call on selected groups to read their summaries to the class. Then discuss as a class:
To help students imagine how Oppenheimer might have felt personally about the atomic bombings of Japan.
View the film chapter chapter 8 “Los Alamos.” Then read
this interview with a teenage victim of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Imagine that Oppenheimer read or heard this interview. What might he have said to Mr. Taniguchi in response? Write a letter from Oppenheimer to Taniguchi that explains how you think Oppenheimer would have reacted to the interview.
Ask several volunteers to read their letters to the class. What are their similarities and differences? While Oppenheimer was working on the Manhattan Project, do you think he and the other scientists truly understood that the atomic bomb would cause the kind of suffering described in the letter? Why or why not?
To help students understand the enormous destructive power of thermonuclear weapons.
View the film chapter “Genocide.” Then, as a class, examine the amount of destruction an H-bomb could cause if it hit your community. Begin by photocopying a map of the community and the surrounding area. Then, using information on the pressure damage and fallout that a 1-megaton thermonuclear bomb would cause, draw a series of rings around that central point at the distances described in the readings. (The pressure damage information, for example, describes the effects at 1.7, 2.7, 4.7, and 7.4 miles from the explosion.)
Examine the communities that lie within these circles. Roughly how many people live there?
Then do this same activity for other communities, such as major U.S. or world cities. On the board, create a chart listing your estimates for the number of casualties each city would suffer.
Have the class review the chart on the board and then discuss this question: Oppenheimer opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb because he thought it would be too destructive to be a legitimate weapon of war. Do your findings support or contradict his view, and why?
To explore the relationship between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller.
View the film chapter “The Hearings.” Then, as a class, write and perform a play based on Edward Teller’s testimony against Oppenheimer in the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing. The play should have three characters: Oppenheimer, Teller, and Roger Robb (the prosecutor who questioned Teller).
The lines spoken by Teller and Robb should be based on this transcript of the hearing. Select the portions of Teller’s testimony you think were most important in making the case against Oppenheimer.
In writing Oppenheimer’s lines, consider what thoughts might have been going through his mind while listening to Teller’s testimony and have him address these thoughts directly to the audience at various points during the testimony. For example, he might want to contradict a statement by Teller, or explain why Teller might want to ruin his reputation, or simply remember some event in his past that is relevant to the testimony.
The play’s final scene should be a brief conversation between Teller and Oppenheimer after Teller leaves the witness stand. (You may want to create a somewhat longer conversation than the one shown in the film.)
When the script is finished, select three students to play the three parts and perform the play for the class.
After the play is performed, discuss as a class: Was the play consistent with the film in terms of how it portrayed Oppenheimer and Teller? Why or why not? Also, if you had been in either man’s position at the time of the hearing, would you have acted differently than he did? Why or why not?
To inform students about important issues in the news today concerning nuclear weapons and to consider how Oppenheimer might have responded to them.
Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following topics: (1) North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, (2) Iran’s nuclear program, (3) tensions between the nuclear-armed countries of India and Pakistan, (4) the danger that terrorist groups will obtain a nuclear weapon, and (5) the large stockpiles of nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia still possess.
Each group should review recent news accounts and other sources to learn more about its assigned topic. Using this information, each group should prepare a five-minute oral briefing for the class explaining the issue and why it raises the possibility of nuclear war.
After each group makes its presentation, discuss as a class: If Oppenheimer were alive today, what do you think he would say about this situation, and how might he recommend that the United States try to deal with it? Why?
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