For most students Cold War history includes some prior knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a flash point covered in high school history class. Thanks also in part to JFK’s legacy and the movie Thirteen Days cultural memories leave skewed versions of history. Much like David Jaffee’s section in Ways of Seeing, I want to “build the scaffolding” for students to see beyond the simple answer – to confront their prior knowledge and turn it on its head. I would start off by showing a clip of Thirteen Days.
Then, utilizing the Material Culture introductions for analyzing documents, have the class critically read a select set of primary documents, images, and audio clips from the NSA archive on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Much like the Historical Thinking Matters site, I want students to learn how to closely read, critique, and build historical narratives using primary documents. Throughout high school and college I wrote a lot about different films historical accuracy (or lack thereof). So many people today always swear the book is better than the movie, I want students to see that as well. However, in this instance we’re pushing beyond the history textbook and learning to look at the sources with a critical eye. The National Security Archive on the Cuban Missile Crisis has a treasure trove of recently unclassified materials, but I particularly love the audio clips. Being able to hear President Kennedy and his cabinet hash out potentially world altering decisions allows students to feel like part of the history. By comparing a (hopefully) familiar scene from Thirteen Days and contrasting it with the sources the US government had at the time, students have the opportunity to see if they would make similar decisions based on the information at hand. Working in small groups, they collaboratively construct their historical narrative and arguments then present their findings in class.
I think this assignment would be a great way to teach students to use their background knowledge, critical reading and analysis, and collaborative narrative construction. The breadth of materials high school and survey classes must cover all to often leave out the reasoning behind these historic decisions. Students will hopefully come out of this with a better understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the huge amount of information weighed prior to making such decisions.