High school teacher grateful for the chance to attend Gilder Lehrman summer seminar

Historians in the News

Last month, I experienced the best in professional development for high school history teachers. I attended a week-long seminar entitled "U.S. and the Cold War" in Washington D.C. co-sponsored by The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Twenty-four teachers from across the country and I studied with two of the country’s most eminent scholars, Melvyn P. Leffler of the University of Virginia and Christian Ostermann, director of the Center’s History and Public Policy Program and the Cold War International History Project. They taught the seminar and brought in a number of other leading scholars and writers, such as Michael Dobbs, Thomas Blanton, and Marc Selverstone. These historians gave us an in-depth look at the latest research on the Cold War while preparing us to take what we learned back to our classrooms. Together, we crafted primary-source activities and shared teaching strategies that will make the Cold War real for our students

For teachers, the opportunity to immerse ourselves in one topic with the world's leading scholars is invaluable. This seminar's content was both broad in scope and expansive in detail. Even though most of the teachers can remember the Cold War firsthand, it has only been in the past 15 years that Western historians have had access to materials from former Communist bloc countries and China. These materials provide invaluable insight into the dynamics of the Cold War as seen through the eyes of the "other" side.

The new information about the Cold War is startling. As Michael Dobbs, the author of One Minute to Midnight, explained to us, on 10/27/62, known as "Black Saturday," we were closer to the brink of nuclear war than previously thought. Even after both President Kennedy and Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, committed themselves to peacefully resolving the conflict, factors outside their control almost pushed both leaders to nuclear catastrophe. As President Kennedy so colorfully opined, "There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn't get the message.” We now know that had President Kennedy followed the advice of his advisors and launched a preemptive attack on Soviet missiles in Cuba, Soviet nuclear missiles could have reached New York City. Moreover, a sizable number of tactical nuclear weapons, each one the equivalent of the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been shot at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay and at any invading U.S. forces.

The new documents also provide insight into the depth of the Soviet-Sino split, a situation that U.S policy makers didn't fully appreciate until the late 1960's when President Nixon began exploring the opening up of China. The documents portray North Korean leader Kim Il Sung as the prime instigator of the Korean War. The intrigue among Communist North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union during this time period is fascinating.

Perhaps most significantly, participants in this seminar learned that examination of new primary sources offers us, as historians, a richer and more complex understanding of the fears and motivations behind Soviet decision-making. One of the great lessons of the Cold War, according to Dr. Leffler, is the need to empathize with your opponent so that you can understand his actions. Obviously, understanding may not lead to agreement, but understanding does lead to better decision-making. One of the tragedies of the Cold War was its enormous social and economic costs. During the decades-long conflict, overwhelming fear on both sides caused each side to misinterpret each other's actions and miss opportunities to de-escalate the conflict.

This activity is the ideal kind of professional development for teachers. It was a great opportunity to recharge our intellectual batteries and learn from the nation’s best scholars. I look forward to sharing my new knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject with my students next year. One of my goals is to use many of the primary source document activities that were created this summer with my students. My students will also utilize the Cold War International History Project’s website, http://www.cwihp.org, for original research. This remarkable website contains the most recently released documents from all sides of the Cold War. The networking opportunities among teachers were equally important. During the week, all of us shared best practices in teaching and laid the foundation for future collaboration. I welcome the opportunity to share my resources with my colleagues at Rutland High School and other Vermont educators. For more information on this and other seminars, please visit the Gilder-Lehrman website: http://www.gilderlehrman.org/

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