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Teaching Guide

Teaching Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente

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The Cuban Missile Crisis is packed with inherent drama: missiles, a crisis, and…ping-pong. So while you might want to organize a table tennis match and serve up hot Cuban sandwiches (um, invite us to class that day, please), you'll first want to dig a little deeper into the events that thawed out the Cold War.

In this guide you will find

  • questions to prompt discussion about Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • reading quizzes to make sure students know that while detention = bad, détente = good.
  • assignments analyzing the world-changing speeches from political figures of the time.

This teaching guide is a powerful missile of learning: the kind that solves crises and doesn't cause them.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: The discovery of missiles in Cuba provided President Kennedy with an unprecedented challenge and opportunity—to present his case for a war-threatening naval blockade directly to the American people. 

In this exercise your students will look at his speech and decide whether he met this challenge successfully.

Length of Lesson: One class period + a writing assignment (and an optional follow up discussion if time permits)

Materials Needed:

Step One: Cue up the projector! Okay, the clip is available on YouTube, but it has kind of an old projector feel to it. Plus it starts with that classic version of Hail to the Chief that makes us think of old newsreels. Anywho...

First, pass out copies of the text of Kennedy's Address or refer your students to the text on their individual devices, and then start the video of Kennedy's Address on Cuba. Encourage students to take notes as they watch, listen, and read along. 

Step Two: Give everyone a quick stretch break (30 seconds, tops) and then hit them with the questions below during a class discussion of the address they've just seen and heard. 

  • What is the most unsettling information Kennedy reveals about the missiles?
    • Why did Kennedy provide details regarding the missiles?
      • Was this detail necessary?
  • What is the most damaging information he provides about the Soviets?
    • Why did Kennedy spend so much time detailing his conversations with the Soviet ambassador?
  • How, according to Kennedy, does the placement of missiles on Cuba change the nuclear status quo?
    • How does American treatment of its nuclear weapons differ?
  • On what legal basis was Kennedy's quarantine established?
  • Why does the president underscore the fact that the blockade is just an "initial step?"
    • What does he hint might follow the quarantine?
  • What is the most provocative thing said by Kennedy?
  • Is Kennedy trying to increase or ease American anxieties?
  • After hearing the speech, do you think that the imposition of a blockade is appropriate?
    • Is it necessary?
    • Is it too provocative?
    • Is it a strong enough response?

Step Three: To wrap up, assign students a brief essay using the following prompt.

Overall, how did Kennedy do? Was his speech convincing? Was his case well-presented? Or do you think he left Americans with more questions and concerns than answers? Write a brief essay (5 paragraphs, 1-2 pages) and make a case one way or the other. Be sure to point to specific passages from Kennedy's address to support your claims. 

Be sure to give students any necessary formatting guidelines and a due date for the essay. 

Step Four (Optional): When the essays are due, take the first 15-20 minutes of the class to give students a chance to share their opinions. How many of them felt that Kennedy made a strong case? How many disagree? And the big one: why? 

If you have plenty of class time, this discussion could potentially expand to fill the whole period. If not, just give a few volunteers a chance to offer their opinions and collect the papers. 

Instructions for Your Students

The Cuban Missile Crisis was an unprecedented television event. No previous president, at such a critical moment in history, had ever had access to the television to prepare his nation for the events unfolding before them.

You will be watching President Kennedy's televised address to the nation on 22 October 1963. During the address he will announce his decision to impose a naval blockade—a decision that may lead the country to war with the Soviet Union. Try to put yourself in the place of an American viewer at the time. Does he make the case for his course of action? Remember, the result may be nuclear war.

So what do you say? After watching the address, are you with him, or did he just make things a whole lot worse? 

Step One: Get a copy of the text of Kennedy's Address from your teacher. If hard copies aren't available, you can read along online—just be sure to jot down some notes as you go so you'll remember any key phrases or sentences that caught your attention. 

Once everyone has access to the text, cue up the projector! Okay, so the clip of Kennedy's Address on Cuba is on YouTube, but it has kind of an old projector feel to it if you know what we mean. Either way, kind of makes us want some popcorn. 

Step Two: Take a quick stretch break (30 seconds, tops) and then tackle the questions below during a class discussion of the address you've just seen and heard. 

  • What is the most unsettling information Kennedy reveals about the missiles?
    • Why did Kennedy provide details regarding the missiles?
      • Was this detail necessary?
  • What is the most damaging information he provides about the Soviets?
    • Why did Kennedy spend so much time detailing his conversations with the Soviet ambassador?
  • How, according to Kennedy, does the placement of missiles on Cuba change the nuclear status quo?
    • How does American treatment of its nuclear weapons differ?
  • On what legal basis was Kennedy's quarantine established?
  • Why does the president underscore the fact that the blockade is just an "initial step?"
    • What does he hint might follow the quarantine?
  • What is the most provocative thing said by Kennedy?
  • Is Kennedy trying to increase or ease American anxieties?
  • After hearing the speech, do you think that the imposition of a blockade is appropriate?
    • Is it necessary?
    • Is it too provocative?
    • Is it a strong enough response?

Step Three: To wrap up, you're going to write a brief essay in response to the following prompt.

Overall, how did Kennedy do? Was his speech convincing? Was his case well-presented? Or do you think he left Americans with more questions and concerns than answers? Write a brief essay (5 paragraphs, 1-2 pages) and make a case one way or the other. Be sure to point to specific passages from Kennedy's address to support your claims. 

Be sure to get any necessary formatting guidelines and a due date for the essay from your teacher. 

Step Four (Optional): When the essays are due, take the first 15-20 minutes of the class to share some of the ideas you came up with in your essay and hear what other people think. How many of your classmates feel that Kennedy made a strong case? How many disagree? And the big question: why? 

If you have plenty of class time, this discussion could potentially expand to fill the whole period.

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING COLD WAR: CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS TO DETENTE?

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