HST6085: Under Attack: The Home Front during the Cold War

Survival Under Atomic Attack

15 credits (Semester 2018-19: Autumn | Semester 2019-20: Autumn)

Module Leader: Dr Miriam Dobson

Module Summary

'How did the Cold War transform domestic politics and culture? What were the limits of the Cold War’s domestic reach? And were there common experiences of the Cold War on both sides of the conflict?' Dr Miriam Dobson

Competition and conflict between two the superpowers, the US and the USSR, not only defined the course of international relations across the globe, but also shaped key aspects of domestic life and popular culture. For the USA, USSR, and their near neighbours in Europe, it was a deferred conflict: direct military confrontation gave way to surrogate and covert warfare often far from home. With the long-awaited peace now seemingly secured, the rival political doctrines of the two blocs promised the world could be transformed, be that through the triumph of the 'free world' or of socialism. And yet with the escalation of the arms race and the proliferation of ever more deadly nuclear weapons, terrifying images of global and environmental devastation also shaped visions of the future. Excitement about the possibility of social and political transformation, and the export of these new visions to the rest of the world, co-existed with angst about the humankind’s new capacity for self-destruction.

Yet there is a danger in attributing all historical developments from the 1940s to the 1980s to the Cold War. This module thinks critically about the following questions: what was the Cold War, and how did it impact on the ‘home front’? Are there common patterns which cut across the ideological ‘iron curtain’ dividing east and west? How did the Cold War impact on societies elsewhere in the world?

To some extent the module will focus on the key protagonists in the Cold War, the USSR and the USA, but you will be encouraged to develop your own research interests and to reflect on the issues under examination with regard to other countries.

Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Introduce you to key debates about the impact, nature, and scope of the Cold War;
  2. Introduce you to the concept of the 'home front' and encourage critical reflection on its aptness for the post-45 period;
  3. Develop your capacity to consider the relationship between global events and the history of countries in which you are developing a research interest;
  4. Develop your fluency of expression in speech and writing.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Explain some of the ways that the Cold War impacted on domestic society and popular culture (Aims 1, A3);
  2. Demonstrate a critical awareness of the literature on the Cold War and its impact at home (Aims 1, 2, 3); 
  3. Reflect critically on whether concepts such as the Cold War and home front are useful for characterising the history of a specific society or culture (Aims 1, 2); 
  4. Demonstrate confidence in expressing ideas verbally (A4); 
  5. Express ideas and evidence through clear and perceptive prose (A4).


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two hour classes. Seminars will take a specific theme or question and in preparation you will be asked to read a key introductory text which will set the agenda for debate (LO1, LO2). You will also be expected to read and prepare reflections on the historical experience of a particular country / society in relation to the seminar’s theme (LO3). Some time in seminars will be given over to considering how to turn the issues explored into strong written work (LO5). You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your written work for this module and also any concerns you have regarding verbal participation (LO 4, LO5).

Draft seminar schedule:

  • Seminar One, ‘The Nuclear Family’, will use the prism of family life to introduce some of the key questions under examination in the module. Published some thirty years, Elaine Tyler May’s seminal Homeward Bound established a connection between Cold War politics and American family life in the 1940s and 1950s, linking the foreign policy of containment overseas with domestic ‘containment’. This seminar will explore the resurgence of normative family values across different societies in these two decades, considering the way different national experiences of the interwar period and WWII itself also shaped expectations of family life, as well as the impact of the new global tensions and the atomic threat post-45.
  • Seminar Two will focus on conceptions of ‘the other’, exploring how the cold-war opponent was represented in film, fiction, the media and other cultural forms. We will ask how far a coherent and convincing image of the enemy was created (and by whom); and the extent to which it was effective in unifying societies in this ‘imaginary war’.
  • Seminar Three is about ‘the future’ and emotional responses to the Cold War. Were cold-war cultures fundamentally optimistic or fearful? Did the political ideologies of democracy and socialism serve as sources of inspiration? Did scientific and technological advances generate excitement about the new world under construction? Or, with the shadow of the bomb, were these societies burdened with fear and trepidation about the apocalyptic desolation ahead?
  • Seminars Four and Five will be narrower in focus and as a group you will collectively decide on two topics from the following list: The Religious Cold War; The Battle for Human Rights; The Politics of Childhood; Peace and Protest Movements; Civil Defence.



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a 3,000-word paper on a topic agreed with the tutor. The paper will be expected to draw critically on relevant secondary sources in exploring a historiographical debate or a new area of historical inquiry, and, if appropriate, will also involve scholarly analysis of primary sources (LOs 1, 3, 3, 5)


Selected reading

  • P. Kuznick and J. Gilbert (eds), Rethinking Cold War Culture (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001)
  • Benjamin Ziemann and Matthew Grant (eds), Understanding the imaginary war : culture, thought and nuclear conflict, 1945-90 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016)
  • Rana Mitter and Patrick Major (eds), Across the blocs: Cold War cultural and social history (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2004)
  • E. Conze, Martin Klimke, Jeremy Varon (eds), Nuclear threats, nuclear fear, and the Cold War of the 1980s (Publications of the German Historical Institute,. 2017)
  • Heonik Kwon, The Other Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010)
  • Kate Brown, Plutopia : nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Philip E Muehlenbeck, Religion and the Cold War: a global perspective (Nashville, Tenn. : Vanderbilt University Press, 2012)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.