Domestic Impacts of the Cold War

GRADES: 9 (United States History)
DURATION: 45 minutes



The Cold War changed American culture in a number of important ways. Fear of communism greatly increased due to rising tensions with the Soviet Union.
Politicians of both parties often tapped into that fear and ran for office based on how strong they would be against communists.  And fighting communism always involved the threat of nuclear war since both the U.S. and Soviet Union had nuclear weapons trained on each other.

President Dwight Eisenhower's military plan relied on nuclear stockpiles rather than land forces.  He hoped the threat of nuclear destruction would restrain the Soviets.
Increasing American fears was the development of the hydrogen bomb, many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had the weapons by 1953.  People had feared attack by atomic bombs; a hydrogen bomb attack would be vastly more damaging.
Tennesseans were constantly reminded of their unstable circumstances. Science fiction and political movies, based on Cold War themes, were widely popular. Movie themes included attacks by giant insects (a byproduct of nuclear experimentation), invasions from outer space (mirroring the public fear of death from the sky), international espionage, and communist infiltration.
At school, children were taught to hide under their desks in the case of a nuclear attack. They even had practice drills. 
Office buildings and schools were designated as Civil Defense fallout shelters. Nuclear warning sirens were erected in cities to warn the surrounding neighborhoods of impending attack. The sirens would be periodically tested. Radio and television stations regularly interrupted their programming to run warning signals. The prerecorded announcement would say, "This has been a drill..."  It is not surprising that Americans were fearful about a nuclear attack.
 Nuclear fear led to a new market for fallout shelters.  Home economics classes taught girls how to stock such a shelter with food and supplies in the event of nuclear attack. The government created official films on shelters, praising their value and advising homeowners on how to use them.
President Dwight Eisenhower recognized the negative effects of nuclear fear on Americans. He cautioned people that "We do not have to be hysterical. We can be vigilant."

Guiding Questions:

  • How did the fear of nuclear attack affect everyday life in the fifties?
  • How did the government respond to the fear of nuclear attack in the fifties?


  1. Students will describe the contents of the video entitled Duck and Cover.
  2. Students will explain why this video was shown to school children in the fifties, but not in the sixties or later.
  3. Students will identify other effects of fear of nuclear attack during the fifties.


  • Have students write a brief summary of why people feared nuclear attack in the fifties and how the government responded to that fear.


  1. Ask students to brainstorm the types of “drills” that are conducted in schools. (Fire drills, tornado drills, tsunami drills, earthquake drills)
  2. Ask students to speculate as to why not all types of drills are conducted everywhere. (Tornados, tsunamis, and earthquakes are more likely some places than others.)
  3. Ask student to consider the benefits of doing such drills. (to prepare for emergency situations, to reduce student anxiety and fear)
  4. Open the website to the section on The Threat of Nuclear War  (
  5. Instruct students to take notes as they view the short video “Duck and Cover” on the following issues:
·         What is the main message of the film?
·         Would the film probably have been frightening or reassuring to school children? Why?
·         What film-making techniques were used and why?
  1. Play the film entitled Duck and Cover (about 9 minutes).
  2. Discuss students’ answers to the questions:
·         What is the main message of the film? If you duck and cover, you may be able to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear bomb explosion.
·         Would the film probably have been frightening or reassuring to school children? (Why?) It may have been both frightening and reassuring. It may have been frightening because of the injuries you might sustain. It may have been reassuring because there seemed to be a way to avoid injury.
·         What film-making techniques were used and why? The cartoon turtle and the “jingle” might make the topic seem less frightening to students. The use of student actors might help them understand exactly what they should do.
  1. Ask students to speculate as to why the film was not shown in the sixties or later.
    • The actual threat of nuclear attack was perceived to be much lower as time went on.
    • Experts came to realize that “ducking and covering” would not help much in the event of an actual attack with the more powerful nuclear weapons that had by then been developed.
  1.  Have students read the page to identify other impacts of the fear of nuclear attack. (building and stocking a home “fallout shelter”, “Sci-Fi” movies)


  • Have students interview relatives who were children in the fifties about their recollections of “duck and cover” drills, “Sci-Fi” movies about monsters created by fallout, etc.
  • Have students research information on “fallout shelters” built and stocked in the fifties by home owners and on the issue of whether most of these would have actually “worked” in the event of nuclear attack.
  • Have students research science fiction movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Have them identify the fear that was behind the movies. i.e. Mutant ants attack cities—the fear of radioactive fallout


TN 4 Me website - section on The Threat of Nuclear War (      


Historical Awareness:

  • Utilize primary and secondary source material such as biographies and autobiographies; novels; speeches and letters; and poetry, songs, and artwork

            National History Standards ( 
5-12 Thinking Standards: STANDARD 2: Historical Comprehension
Draw upon the visual, literary, and musical sources including: (a) photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings; (b) novels, poetry, and plays; and, (c) folk, popular and classical music, to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.