“We Must Be Ready”

Teaching and Learning About Nuclear Weapons in American Elementary Schools in the Early 1950s

  • Emily Y. Tran University of Wisconsin-Madison


On 29 August 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon, ending the American monopoly on atomic technology and introducing the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation to the American homeland. This essay explores the effect of Cold War atomic culture on the school lives of elementary-aged American children during the early 1950s. In examining this cohort schoolchildren, this study emphasizes the potency of the nuclear beliefs, fears, and concerns that led legislators, educators, and activists to forcefully push for even the youngest of children to meaningfully learn about the atomic threat. I focus on curricular guidelines produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration and the states of North Carolina and Michigan, as well as the landmark film Duck and Cover. These teaching resources shared four major themes: they attempted to conventionalize the new atomic threat; urged children to obey authority figures; emphasized the importance of self-reliance for survival; and characterized nuclear attack as unavoidable. Ultimately, this research demonstrates that what was taught to schoolchildren about nuclear weapons in this period was indicative of the nuclear attitudes and beliefs of their educators, parents, and communities. Thus, in seeking to understand school curricula it is necessary to understand the broader historical context from which the curricula emerged; similarly, school curricula can reveal the major issues and concerns of society that were deemed so important as to permeate the lives of the youngest of children.