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Grades 9-12
On January 17, 1955, Commanding Officer Eugene P. Wilkinson of the U.S.S. Nautilus (SSN 571) declared, "Underway on nuclear power." Thus began a new era in submarine warfare and a race between the United States and the Soviet Union for superiority under the sea. This lesson introduces students to the role of nuclear submarines during the Cold War. Students will explore the uses of nuclear submarines, the dangers faced by their crews, and the legacy left to their generation by the Cold War build-up. They will look at incidents involving submarines both during and after the Cold War, including the K-19 disaster . Students will analyze various aspects of these incidents and assemble their findings into a classroom presentation.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, world history, environmental science
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 13: "How the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of Earth's surface"
Three hours

Materials Required:
Students will
  • learn basic facts about the Cold War and how it contributed to the development of nuclear-powered submarines;
  • work in groups to gather information about the role of nuclear submarines during the Cold War and the role they play today; and
  • compile what they have learned to create classroom presentations.
Geographic Skills:

Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
At the top of the board, write Commander Wilkinson's famous message, "Underway on nuclear power." Inform students that with this message the U.S.S. Nautilus (SSN 571) set out to sea as the world's first nuclear-powered submarine. With a nuclear reactor producing steam to power its generators, Nautilus was able to travel underwater farther and at greater speeds than any sub before it. This gave it a significant advantage over the diesel/electric subs of its time.

Tell the students that they are going to perform an investigation into the role of the nuclear submarine during the Cold War. They will work in small groups to research a particular topic related to submarines, and they will combine their work in a classroom presentation. At the end of the lesson, the groups will present their findings and teach the rest of the class what they have learned.

Tell students that, although the diesel/electric submarines of WWI and WWII had been effective, they had a major limitation in that their design required them to surface frequently. Nuclear power solved this problem. By the mid-1950s, when Nautilus set out to sea, the United States and the Soviet Union were already in the midst of the Cold War. The two countries were at odds over their political ideologies, and both sides prepared for war. Improving the submarine's ability to remain submerged enabled it to remain undetected for longer periods of time, and thus launch its weapons closer to enemy territory than ever before.

Inform the students that the submarine's evolution includes many examples where innovation helped meet the challenge of underwater warfare, but with innovation came new dangers. Within about five years of the Nautilus launch, both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear-powered submarines carrying ballistic missiles capable of destroying entire cities. In the nuclear age, submarine warfare was no longer restricted to the targeting of enemy naval and shipping operations. It extended to the targeting of civilian populations as well.

Have students explore the following Web sites to gather basic information about nuclear submarines and their role in the Cold War.

National Geographic: K-19 and Other Subs in Peril
CNN: Raising of the Kursk
PBS: NOVA Online—Submarines, Secrets, and Spies
Smithsonian Institution: Fast Attacks & Boomers

Divide the class into four groups. Assign each group one of the following topics to research, using the Web sites listed above. Groups will use the information they gather to create classroom presentations. Each student should have a role in the presentation—cartographer, historian, environmental hazard specialist, political scientist/diplomat, etc.—and should therefore be searching for information that is relevant to that role.

  • How did the K-19 disaster demonstrate the implications of a nuclear disaster at sea?
  • What were the causes of accidents involving other nuclear submarines? How could they have been avoided?
  • What are the potential environmental hazards resulting from the decay of decommissioned submarines in Russian shipyards?
  • What is the role of nuclear-powered submarines in the post-Cold War era?
Have students use map printouts generated by the Xpeditions atlas to indicate the date, time, and location of any events detailed in their findings.

Although students might have been too young to remember the events, be sure they understand the significance of the end of the Cold War. Although the conflict never escalated to an actual war, 1991 marked the end of almost forty-five years of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Inform students that today the United States and the countries of the former Soviet Union, especially Russia, are working together to find more and more outlets for cooperation. Ask students to talk to family members about what it was like to live during the Cold War. What evidence exists to reflect a change in attitudes toward or about countries of the former Soviet Union since then?

Suggested Student Assessment:
At the end of the lesson, each group of students will give its presentation to the class. Each student in a group should be given the opportunity to present information from the viewpoint of his or her specific role. Detailed examples to support any conclusions must be provided along with maps indicating the location of events described in the research. Each presentation will include time for comments in order for students to make connections between their topics. The completed classroom report should give students a comprehensive view of the nuclear submarine's role both during and after the Cold War era.
Extending the Lesson:
Have students stage a debate about the role of the nuclear submarine during the Cold War. Did the mandate of its mission outweigh the toll taken on its crew as a result of accidents at sea? What about the potential environmental hazards left behind? Students should adopt the perspective of different personalities involved in, or affected by, the nuclear-powered submarine. Some examples include:
  • Captain Zateyev of K-19. While he opposed sending submarines to sea without adequate safety precautions in place, he remained committed to the submarine's mission to defend his country.
  • Commander Wilkinson of the U.S.S. Nautilus. Would he have felt the same way as his Soviet counterpart?
  • A relative of a crewmember who lost his life as a result of a submarine accident at sea. How might this perspective differ from that of the two submarine captains?
  • A fisherman in Norway. His country was not involved in the conflict, but the fish he relies on to make a living may now be contaminated.
From the findings compiled in their classroom report, students should have the background knowledge required to stage this debate. They may work on their own or in small groups to prepare their arguments. Invite another class to participate as a panel of judges that will decide the outcome of the debate. Designate a moderator to introduce each personality and their position "for" or "against" the use of the submarine.
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