Teaching American History Project Lesson
  Desiree Gray

Author: Desiree Gray
Unit Title: Bomb Shelters During the Cold War
Lesson Title: “Cold War Fears, Bomb Shelters, and Reality…”
Subject: The Atomic Age
Level: 8th Grade American History
Length of Lesson: Three to Four 75-minute class periods

WWII was a turning point for the United States as well as the rest of the world. Never before had a country unleashed such a devastating apocalyptical weapon. The Manhattan/Groves Project and Truman’s final decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki successful ended WWII and firmly established America as a terrifying force to be reckoned with. August 6th and 9th became infamous dates proving that man had finally mastered a force powerful enough to annihilate the human race. American feelings of superiority were short-lived. In 1949, Soviet capabilities and intentions soon made it apparent to the rest of the world that the United States no longer stood alone in possessing atomic and nuclear resources. With the United States and the Soviet Union both having the ability to ruin civilization, post-war peace did not last long.

The tensions between Russia and the United States led to the stock piling of weapons otherwise known as the “arms race.” Weapons were built “in case” war actually became a reality. Both countries possessed an overwhelmingly powerful weapon and were ready to use it. During this time the United States and Russia were at war, not a physical one, but one of ideas and technology. It was essentially a struggle between democracy and communism. The Atomic Age defined an era in which paranoia, false assumptions, fear of the “Red Menace,” and uncertainty were the underlying motivators.

“Cold War Fears, Bomb Shelters and Reality” builds upon background knowledge of the formulation and detonation of the atomic bomb, post-WWII dilemmas, the Geneva Conference, the introduction of the hydrogen bomb, and the relationship and struggle between the United States and Russia. To fully understand the implication of bomb shelters and the threat of nuclear war, students must first learn about the relationship between the United States and Russia after WWII. What was life like after WWII? What countries were considered the new world “Super Powers?” How had the balance of power shifted? Students must also have a conceptual idea of the destructive capability of atomic and hydrogen bombs. How does radiation affect humans and the environment? What is “nuclear fallout?”

“Cold War Fears, Bomb Shelters, and Reality” will primarily deal with cold war fears, the introduction of bomb shelters, the U.S. government’s strategies to allay the fears of the people, and the reality of what a nuclear attack would bring. By the end of the lesson, students will be able to internalize what they have learned and come to their own conclusions about what life was like during this time period.


Students will analyze a U.S. government brochure called “Facts About Fallout” written in 1950 and question whether or not the U.S. was being forthright about atomic and nuclear warfare.

Students will analyze primary documents from the NARA website to conceptualize what bomb shelters looked like and what items would be stored in an emergency.

Students will practice a “duck and cover” drill and assess whether or not this was a practical safety measure.

Students will participate in a bomb shelter simulation in which they are faced with questions like, “What about the neighbors?”

Students will evaluate the effectiveness of bomb shelters and what life would be like after a nuclear war.

Students will brainstorm and discuss the legacies of bomb shelters on American life and relate it to their daily lives.

Nevada State Standards

History Standard 2.0: History Skills: Students will use social studies vocabulary and concepts to engage in inquiry, in research, in analysis, and in decision making.
Benchmark 2.8.2 Evaluate sources of historical information based on:
- bias
- credibility
- cultural context
- reliability

History Standard 8.0: The Twentieth Century, a Changing World 1920-1945: Students understand the importance and effect of political, economic, technological, and social changes in the world from 1920-1945.
Benchmark 8.8.6 Identify causes, effects, and outcome of World War II, including:
- Allies
- Axis powers and leaders
- Atomic Bomb

History Standard 9.0: The Twentieth Century, a Changing World 1945-1990: Students understand the shift of international relationships and power as well as the significant developments in American culture.
Benchmark 9.8.2 Identify the effects of the Cold War on the United States, including: arms race and nuclear testing

In-Class Student Activities

DAY ONE (75 minute class period)
Introductory Activity: American Response to Cold War Fears

Before class begins, teacher will make a class set of the brochure, “Facts About Fallout (1955)” and place on each student’s desk. The U.S. Government wrote and distributed this literature to allay the fears of citizens. It illustrates 1950s conventional thinking about the threat of nuclear war, radioactive fallout, and consequences. (NARA ARC Identifier 306714)

As the students look at the primary source document, pass out a document analysis worksheet and direct them to answer the related questions. http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/document.html

Give them approximately 20-25 minutes to read and analyze the brochure. Ask them to share their answers with a partner.

Given their background knowledge and the new information presented, put up an overhead asking them to determine and give specific examples of the approach the U.S. government took to alleviate fear of nuclear threat. In their opinion, was this a “realistic” and “sound” plan? Why did the U.S. government choose to downplay the effects of nuclear waste? What motivator did the U.S. have for passing out simplistic brochures to the citizens? Do you think this effectively comforted people? Why or why not? This reflection will take 20-25 minutes. Share together as a class.

For the remainder of the period, have the students design a more accurate and realistic brochure. Finish as homework.

DAY TWO (75 minute class period)
Content: What Did Bomb Shelters Look Like?
Make overheads of primary source digital picture copies of bomb shelters.
NOTE: To use NARA primary sources go to http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/basic_search.jsp and Click 'ARC Search'. In the search box type in the number only 542191 to retrieve the item listed.

ARC Identifier #542105
How to build a fallout shelter - Attractive interior of basement family fallout shelter includes a 14-day shelter food supply which may be stored indefinitely, a battery-operated radio, auxiliary light sources, a two-week supply of water, and first aid, sanitary and other miscellaneous supplies and equipment

ARC Identifier #542104
Temporary Basement Fallout Shelter, [artist's rendition

ARC Identifier #542103
Display of survival supplies for the well-stocked fallout shelter

ARC Identifier #542102
Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization exhibit at a local civil defense fair.

Two possibilities:
1. As you display each overhead, have the students record their ideas, questions, and knowledge about each scene in the picture. Allow them to share their responses and add to the discussion by asking questions. Examples might be: How big would a bomb shelter need to be? What items would be needed for survival? For entertainment? For education? How would the quality of your life change? How might the world change while you are underground?
2. Use the NARA Documents Analysis Worksheets for photographs.

DAY 3-4 (1 and ½ 75 minute class periods)
Cold War, Duck and Cover, and Simulated Bomb Shelters

Preparation: Measure one 8 x 14 foot area in your room and mark it off with masking tape.

After the tardy bell rings, make a loud noise, ring a bell, or yell loudly. Instruct students that they need to get under their desks, move into a fetal position, and “duck and cover” their heads. Tell them to approach the drill seriously; it’s for a participation grade. Make them stay this way for at least five minutes. After they are seated, have them take out a piece of paper and record their reactions to the drill. Discuss responses. Direct the conversation to lead students to the frightening fact that if a nuclear bomb were to hit their city, no desk or structure would protect them. America during the 50s was somewhat naïve and under they assumption that the “bomb could be beaten.” Americans where reassured that nuclear waste was harmless and that they would be notified with plenty of time to reach protection.

Next, students will move into their 8 x 14 foot “bomb shelter.” Make sure that they bring their notebooks and supplies with them. Do not let them up unless it is an emergency. The goal is to make them feel as claustrophobic as possible, giving them a brief glimpse about what living in a shelter would entail.

Surround them with desks so that they are scrunched inside the “simulated” shelter. Show them a few video clips from “Atomic Scare Films,” a collection of ludicrously outdated Cold War shorts dealing with nuclear war and its after effects. Included are "Survival Under Atomic Attack," "Duck and Cover," "American Cities Atomic Fallout Strategy," "The Atom Strikes," "You Can Beat the A-Bomb" and Civil Defense commercials. You can purchase this video at Movies Unlimited for $19.99. http://www.moviesunlimited.com/musite/product.asp?sku=D62393++


Show them a video called, “The Atomic Café.” The Atomic Cafe (1982) is an ironic and darkly funny documentary look at the "Cold War" mentality of the '40s and '50s. U.S. government films, newsreels, contemporary songs and Hollywood clips show America's naive attitudes towards nuclear power, the A-bomb, and World War III. See children "duck and cover" to avoid fallout, tour custom-built bomb shelters, and get some sound advice from Hugh Beaumont. 88 min. You can purchase this video at Movies Unlimited for $18.99.

After participating in both simulations, students will return to their desks and write down their impressions of what life was like during this time period. Again they will question why the government was so vague and simplistic about the idea of nuclear war and how frightening it must have been to face such disturbing facts. If not already mentioned by the students, introduce the media’s role featuring stories of average American families going through the process of building and preparing to live in a fallout shelter. Families were even advised about what sorts of items should be stockpiled.

At the end of the lesson, students will respond to a variety of questions.
1. Would you have allowed a neighbor and his family into your shelter when you only had enough supplies for your own family? What would you do if neighbors insisted on coming in to your shelter? Would you have the right to use armed force?
2. Describe what life might be like after a nuclear war. Would life on Earth after such catastrophic devastation still be worth living?
3. Describe the feelings you would have experienced as a young child practicing “duck and drill” exercises for several years? How would this affect your life?
4. What mob mentality might come result from a limited amount of bomb shelters? How safe would you be?

Extended Enrichment Activities:

1. Make class sets or read aloud an interesting article called “Cold War Bomb Shelter Now a Tourist Attraction” by Karen Testa.
2. Tell them or read aloud the true story of the Mininson couple who spent their honeymoon in a bomb shelter. You can access this story at http://www.conelrad.com/atomic_honeymooners.html or http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2001/jf01/jf01geerhart.html

Both websites will give you extensive coverage about their two-week stint in a shelter. Note that the story glamorizes life in a bomb shelter as the couple emerges from the shelter happy and rested.

Materials List:

NOTE: To use NARA primary sources go to http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/basic_search.jsp and Click 'ARC Search'. In the search box type in the number only 542191 to retrieve the item listed.

“Facts About Fallout (1955).” (NARA ARC Identifier 306714)

Document Analysis Worksheets from the NARA website

Pictures of Bomb Shelters

ARC Identifier #542105

ARC Identifier #542104

ARC Identifier #542103

ARC Identifier #542102

“Atomic Café” or “Atomic Scare Films” from Movies Unlimited.

Mininson Couple Honeymoon in a Bomb Shelter stories can be found at:
http://www.conelrad.com/atomic_honeymooners.html or http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2001/jf01/jf01geerhart.html

Evaluation /Assessment:

Students will put together a journal or portfolio of their responses to the lessons and bring all their knowledge together in an essay called, “Would you rather be dead, Red, or below ground in your shelter?” Participation credit would also be given for any NARA Document Analysis forms used.


“Facts About Fallout (1955).” Government Printing Office ARC Identifier 306714 Item from Record Group 287: Publications of the U.S. Government, 1790 – 1979. Center for Legislative Archives (NWL), National Archives Building, Room 8E, 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408 .

Document Analysis Worksheets. NARA website. http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/worksheets.html

“How to Build a Bomb Shelter (1957).” NARA. ARC Identifier #542105 Federal Emergency Management Agency (04/01/1979 - 03/2003). Item from Record Group 311: Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1956 – 1981. Still Picture Records LICON, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740.

“Temporary Basement Fallout Shelter.” NARA. ARC Identifier #542104 Record Group 287, Records of the Government Printing Office; Record Group 304, Records of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization; and Record Group 311, Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Display of Survival Supplies for the Well-Stocked Fallout Shelter” NARA.
(ARC Identifier #542103) Record Group 287, Records of the Government Printing Office; Record Group 304, Records of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization; and Record Group 311, Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization Exhibit at a Local Civil Defense Fair.”
(ARC Identifier #542102) Record Group 287, Records of the Government Printing Office; Record Group 304, Records of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization; and Record Group 311, Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Atomic Café. New Video Group. Director: Pierce Rafferty. Release Date: March 26, 2002.

Atomic Scare Films. Educational Shorts Compilation. Release Dates: 1950s.

Geerhart, Bill. “Atomic Honeymooners: Well-Sheltered Love May Last a Lifetime.” 2001. Conelrad E-magazine.

Geerhart, Bill. “Watch Out Below.” 2001. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 6-7.