The Cuban Missile Crisis
This activity, devised and described by Ian Luff, is a gem, not just because of its simplicity and clarity but because it starts from the problem that students have in learning about a topic. Young teachers often focus on their own knowledge, worrying about whether they possess enough knowledge about a topic. It’s vital to spend at least as much time thinking about why students might struggle with a new topic. As Ian Luff explains, it’s often the apparently obvious that trips them up.
Ian Luff's Introduction
It is very easy for a teacher to assume that pupils understand the concept at the very heart of the crisis and to move immediately into examination of key events and detailed source analysis. In my experience pupils cannot see why missiles in Cuba were any more significant a threat to the USA than those already based in the USSR. In many pupils’ minds, missiles are seen to travel so fast as to be instantaneous and to be infallibly accurate at any distance. How many Hollywood movies show or even hint at any missile’s true travelling time? - 35 minutes or more in the case of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Understanding the crucial concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, its importance to the balance of power and the way that the missile bases on Cuba may have tipped that vital balance must provide the wide backdrop to any detailed study of the crisis. A very short practical demonstration can give that conceptual understanding.
In examinations students are expected to recall, select, organise and deploy knowledge and communicate it through description, analysis and explanation. None of this can be done without understanding. This activity combines the requisite understanding with a high chance of recall.
1. Pick one pupil in two diagonally opposed corners of the room – preferably ones without deadly accurate throwing arms. Explain that one pupil is the USSR and the other the USA.
2. Give each pupil a nuclear arsenal - consisting of a ball of loosely screwed up paper or a foam tennis ball. Explain that if one side tosses its ball the other must respond immediately.
3. Step back and say that one of the pupils must launch within 10 seconds. After one or two ‘dummy’ throws they will launch. It will be seen that:
- On launch of one side’s missiles the other side will have plenty of time to reply before the missile hits its target; and,
- the missiles sometimes go astray hitting some unfortunate country (pupil) in the middle of the room. Discuss what this would mean in the real world of 1962 – no side could be certain of hitting its enemy or of remaining unscathed from any response.
4. Now give a ball of paper to a pupil sitting next to the pupil representing the USA. Explain that this pupil is Cuba and now carries some missiles on behalf of the USSR.
5. Tell Cuba to launch its missiles at the USA. A direct hit will ensue, probably without time for the USA to retaliate. Even if the USA does retaliate against Cuba the USSR sits smugly untouched at the other side of the room. Now it is graphically clear why JFK objected so strongly to the Cuban missile bases!
6. Follow up with discussion. Did the people of Cuba have the right to set up bases? What of US bases in Turkey?
Now pupils are ready to look at the detail and to interpret sources. The key concept has been made concrete in pupils’ minds and they are ready now to embark upon detailed study (even micro–question practice) with a holistic mental framework upon which to build.
- What impact did the activity have on specific misunderstandings about the topic that happen year after year?
- How did tackling this topic through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the causes and consequences?
- What’s the best way of students’ recording or consolidating what they have learned?