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The American Experience
Suggestions for the Classroom

Time Period 1945-1960

Feedback At the dawn of the Cold War, the United States initiated a top secret program in New Mexico to build a weapon even more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Japan. A world away, at an isolated facility 250 miles from Moscow, the Soviet Union began a similar effort. A web of spies and scientists, intrigue and deception marked the race to develop the hydrogen bomb, a weapon that would change the world.


    World War II; nuclear arms race; Cold War in domestic and international politics; Korean War; civil defense; science, technology, and society.

Before Watching

  1. Before watching, review with students some of the events that led up to the Cold War, including the dissolution of the U.S.-Soviet alliance at the end of World War II, the Soviet wartime experience, and the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After Watching

  1. Have students debate the decision to develop the superbomb. Was this a good decision? What could have been some possible outcomes? What are the responsibilities of scientists? Should they continually push the boundaries of what is possible or should they consider the potential effects of their research? Who should develop ethical guidelines for the use of scientific discoveries? If the public should be part of the discussion, how can citizens play an informed role when science is becoming so complex? You may wish to continue this discussion focusing on more current scientific research, like cloning.

  2. Have students write an essay discussing how nuclear weapons are similar to and different from other military weapons.

  3. Drawing upon a variety of contemporary and current sources -- including newspapers and periodicals, government documents, personal memoirs -- find out about the mutual suspicions and divisions fragmenting the Grand Alliance at the end of World War II and leading into the increasing tensions after the war. Investigate the propaganda used by both sides during the Cold War. What impressions did American citizens have about Soviet life, and vice versa? Can you find parallels between the tactics used by the Soviet and U.S. governments to influence public opinion during this period?

  4. Both the atomic and hydrogen bombs were developed in extreme secrecy. What are some reasons for keeping their development secret? What problems can develop because of secrecy? In what situations, if any, do you think a government has the right to keep secrets from its citizenry? Who should decide how much citizens should know about government actions? What are some potential consequences for a society if the citizens don't know all the facts?

  5. Have students research different aspects of the current state of nuclear weaponry. Research topics could include: What countries currently have a nuclear capability? What are current estimates of nuclear arsenals for different countries, including the U.S. and the countries that make up the former Soviet Union? What safeguards are in place, if any, to limit the ability of terrorists and dictators to acquire a nuclear weapon?

Educators & Librarians: You may order "Race for the Superbomb" at PBS Video.