The Cold War

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 8–12
History, Language Arts
Small Group, Whole Class, Individual, Close Reading, “Flipped” Classroom


  • Students will learn the main developments in the Cold War up to Steinbeck’s writing of Travels with Charley.
  • Students will be able to identify the main areas of the book which reference the Cold War.


Travels with Charley is about a journey across the United States, but more particularly it is about a journey across the United States in 1960. In Part Two of the book Steinbeck makes references to the Cold War, giving the reader a look into Steinbeck’s impression of how the United States was thinking about and affected by the Cold War.

This lesson is designed to provide historical background to these references.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley
  • Access to the Context section of the Steinbeck in the Schools web site (in particular, the articles on the “The Cold War” and the “The Cold War at Home”).
  • Access to YouTube (TeacherTube may also have videos available).
  • Recommended videos Cold War era educational videos (Also found on the DVD “Target You! Cold War Educational Films from the Golden Age of Homeland Security,” available at some libraries and can be found for sale online as well.):
  • ~"Duck and Cover” – Featuring Bert the Turtle; an educational video explaining how to survive an atomic bomb.
  • ~“What is Communism?” – Featuring Herbert A. Philbrick describing Communism as an international criminal conspiracy
  • ~“Target You!” – A detailed description of how to be prepared for a nuclear attack.
  • Recommended dramatizations:
  • ~“The Shelter” – A 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone dramatizing the fear of a nuclear attack.

Estimated Time

  • 1-3 class periods



Have students read “The Cold War” and the “The Cold War at Home” handouts.

  • Students should understand:
  • ~The causes of the Cold War
  • ~Mutually Assured Destruction, “MAD”
  • ~“The Bomb”
  • ~Red Scare
  • ~Containment

Close reading and analysis

  • Divide the class into small groups
  • Assign each group one of the following sections of Travels with Charley to examine for Cold War references.
  • ~Pages 18-19: Steinbeck talks about submarines with a man he met on the ferry.
  • ~~Themes: Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear warfare
  • ~Page 25-27: a hawkish discussion between Steinbeck and a farmer in Vermont.
  • ~~Themes: Containment, belief that the Soviets were unpredictable, fear of “the bomb”
  • ~Page 100: Steinbeck driving along an Evacuation Route in St. Paul or Minneapolis.
  • ~~Themes: Fear, fear of “the bomb”
  • ~Pages 109-111: Steinbeck discusses attitudes towards the Russians with a storekeeper in Minnesota.
  • ~~Themes: Red Scare, scapegoating
  • ~Each group should present their findings to the class
  • ~~Students should provide quotes from the text to support their findings

Cold War Era Videos (optional)

  • This portion of the lesson is optional, but the most engaging and fun
  • Depending on how much time can be devoted, consider showing some or all of the videos listed above in the “Materials Needed/Preparation” section.
  • ~These videos are only suggestions, there are many, many more to choose from that can easily be found online.
  • Use the videos to spark class discussions on the Cold War
  • ~This naturally lends itself to talking about current events and terrorism.
  • ~See Discussion Topics for more discussion ideas.
  • ~See Writing Prompts for ideas on writing prompts.
  • Consider following this activity with Cold War Videos.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Consider following this activity with Cold War Videos


  • Students should understand that the Cold War was a constant reality in the 1960s.
  • Students should draw correlations between the Cold War and the War on Terrorism.


  • As applicable, tie in the themes and discussions from this activity with current events.


  • This is primarily an activity based on participation. Students should be assessed based on their contributions to discussions and group work.

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8

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