Teaching American History Project Lesson
  Joseph D. Boulanger

Author: Joseph D. Boulanger

Unit Title: The Cold War

Lesson Title: The Spy’s Dilemma

Subject: U S History

Level: 11th Grade

Length of Lesson: Two traditional class periods


This lesson will serve two main purposes: the first is to give the students a taste for the espionage that permeated the Cold War era, especially in regard to Soviet and American covert activities. The second function of this lesson is to hone the students document analysis skills.

The intent of "The Spy's Dilemma" is to immerse your students into a world of urgency and secrecy out of which they hopefully will emerge educated in several important respects. Most important, this exercise is intended to give your students the historian's experience of having to analyze and evaluate information in historical documents. They are asked to choose from among seventeen documents from the holdings of the Harry S. Truman Library, all dated from 1945, the five that in their judgment contain information that is the most sensitive, the most important, and the most pertinent to the informational needs of one nation struggling against another in the implicitly hostile environment that came to be called "Cold War." The seventeen documents have greatly varying importance and sensitivity. Some contain information that in 1945 would have been greatly advantageous to the Soviet Union if the United States had they possessed it; others contain valueless information, and some contain information that would have been only mildly interesting to the Soviets. In making their choices, your students will be introduced to a selection of historical documents and will be made familiar with at least some of the kinds of information primary source materials can contain.

Since their purpose is to analyze kinds of information rather than to absorb all the information they encounter, your students will participate actively with historical data in the way that historians do when they conduct research.



  • Students will understand the role of espionage during the Cold War.
  • Students will be able to interpret and analyze primary source documents from the Cold War era.
  • Students will understand why some primary source documents are more informative than others.
  • Students will be able to work in teams to achieve a common goal.


Nevada History Content Standards and Benchmarks

History Standard 9: The Twentieth Century, a Changing World: 1945 to 1990: Students understand the shift of international relationships and power as well as the significant developments in American culture.
Benchmark 9.12.1 - Describe the causes and effects of the Cold War, including: Europe: Marshall Plan, Berlin, NATO, Great Britain, West Germany, France; Middle East: Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan; Asia: Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Russia; Americas: Cuba, United States 


In Class Student Activities:
Over the course of the two class periods the student swill be engaged in one activity that will pull together content knowledge and also strengthen critical thinking skills. The activity that will be used to achieve these goals is called Spy’s Dilemma. It is a simulation game created by the research scholars at the Harry Truman presidential library. This competitive activity requires the students to break up into groups, read, and analyze a number of primary source documents from the Cold War era and decide which have the most value for a spy. The student teams will be competing against one-another to choose the most valuable documents that have the highest point values. It is a very challenging activity because the students in the teams not only have to divide the reading of the material amongst themselves in an orderly fashion, but also interpret, analyze and make a value judgment in the course of one class period (53 minutes).

The following day, the teams should have already decided which five documents are the most important after debating their pros and cons with their groups and then be ready to present which they chose and why. This is an important step because the students really must be held accountable as to why they chose some documents over others. As a class you will then engage in class discussion where the students have a chance to discuss their selections with both their peers in the other groups as well as with the teacher. 

It is the primary responsibility of the teacher over the course of the two days to guide them through this process by moving around from each group to listen to the thinking process and offer help and clarification when necessary. Additionally, the teacher will be responsible for bringing the lesson to its conclusion by going through each document and sharing the strong and weak points of each respective document. After going through each document the teacher should share the point value assigned to each of the documents so the students can keep score and in the end, calculate who has the highest score. While the competitive aspect of this exercise is important, it is more important for them to experience the simulation of a Cold War era espionage mission and work on their critical thinking and document analysis skills. The teacher’s edition of the Spy’s dilemma exercise has all the documents that are needed; additionally it also provides the rationale behind which documents are the most valuable. It is a great activity that combines academic skills with fun and students and teachers alike will enjoy this greatly. Spy’s Dilemma-Harry S. Truman Library http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/applications/dilemma/dilemma.html


Extended Enrichment Activities:
One great extension that could arise is for the students to do a small research exercise for homework and find five documents using either the National Archives or the Library of Congress and analyze each by using document analysis sheets. This will reinforce the skills that they have just learned and allow them to use their own judgment in selecting relevant Cold War artifacts. A document analysis worksheet can be found by following this link: http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/document.html

The second extension that could follow this activity is for the students to create an in-class skit that portrays the climate of espionage during the Cold War. One possibility is for them to use historic documents that they select to be used as props in their skits. Skits often bring a physical reality to the academic work that they are studying at the time. I have had great success in adding depth to certain time periods by doing activities similar to this.


Materials List:
Spy’s Dilemma Packet from the Harry S. Truman Library

Library of Congress Document Analysis Sheet:


Evaluation /Assessment:
The evaluation for this exercise consists of both an internal and external assessment. Students will receive a participation grade from the teacher based on his/her positive participation with the group as well as their individual contribution to the class discussion at the end of the activity.

The internal assessment will come through the homework exercise, which will require the students to write a reflection on the activity that they participated in. In this journal they should reflect on their thinking process as well as how the group functioned to achieve their goal. This will be handed in and given credit for completion.


Spy’s Dilemma-Harry S. Truman Library

Library of Congress Document Analysis sheet: