Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Atoms for Peace 8 December 1953

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Editor.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value for Teachers

  1. This speech launched a major propaganda campaign that framed America’s development of atomic technology as a peaceful pursuit, while associating the Soviet Union with the forces of fear and darkness.
  2. The “Atoms for Peace” speech addressed both the United States and international groups and countries. One goal was to justify the buildup of atomic weaponry by framing the United States as peacemakers. While some scholars have viewed this speech as effective toward that end, it also served to exacerbate Cold War tensions and may have actually escalated the arms race.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • The “Atoms for Peace” speech purposely left some matters unstated, while relying on implied arguments for much of its persuasive impact. These implicit arguments included a warning to the Soviet Union against escalating the Cold War couched in an explicit message of peace and cooperation. This was consistent with the emphasis on peaceful uses of Atomic energy, which was the central theme of the years-long Atoms for Peace campaign.
  • Light and dark archetypal metaphors are used throughout the speech to contrast the seemingly peaceful motives of the United States with the more aggressive motives of the Soviet Union in developing atomic technology.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

  • Eisenhower is credited with editing the speech personally to place more emphasis on the theme of hope instead of the fear of war. He used the word “peace” 24 times in the speech, while at the same time implicitly threatening the Soviet Union. Eisenhower’s focus on peace may have diverted attention from ongoing efforts to build up America’s atomic arsenal and prepare for war with civil defense policies.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Begin by showing an image of the stamp designed and used as part of the Atoms for Peace campaign by the Eisenhower administration. Without providing any context, have students generate a list of 3-5 words they associate with the image. Have students keep their lists. After analyzing the speech, return to these lists and have students consider how they might revise their list after learning more about Atoms for Peace.

  • Provide historical context for the “Atoms for Peace” speech with information from the scholarly essay by Parry-Giles on the Voices of Democracy website. Have students read the following excerpt from that essay and reflect on the fears and other emotions that might have been present in the United States and around the globe at this time:

“The year 1953 represented a tension-filled period in the cold war; the Eisenhower administration responded to the exigencies both publicly and privately. On March 6, 1953, Joseph Stalin’s death was announced to the world. As the leader of the Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, his passing was viewed as an opportunity for the United States to take advantage of a Soviet transfer of power and address fears about nuclear proliferation. In response to Stalin’s death, President Eisenhower delivered his famous “Chance for Peace” address on April 16, 1953, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Assessing this speech, Ira Chernus suggests that it “identified the Soviet Union as the sole source of nuclear threat.” In the aftermath of the “Chance for Peace” speech, the Eisenhower administration privately planned “Operation Candor,” which was designed to tell the truth to the American people about the increasing dangers of atomic weapons and the escalating cold war with the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower administration often referred to this period as an “Age of Peril.”… Fears were also mounting among the American people over the intensification of the cold war. In April of 1953, the Vietminh invaded northern Laos as the French stronghold in the region deteriorated. The July 27, 1953, Armistice Agreement left a divided Korea; the war thus failed to create a unified Korea devoid of communist infiltration. In a matter of weeks, the Soviet Union had also tested its first hydrogen bomb.”

  • Eisenhower’s speech was delivered to the newly formed United Nations. Have students research when the UN was founded and why. Discuss why you think Eisenhower chose this venue and this audience for his speech launching the Atoms for Peace campaign.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Secretary General Hammarskjold [para 2]: Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in 1961.
  • “The dread secret” [para 21]: Here Eisenhower referred to the scientific knowledge needed to build atomic weapons, which both the United States and U.S.S.R had at the time of his speech.
  • “Dark chamber of horrors” [para 35]: An example of a light/dark metaphor Eisenhower used to contrast the peaceful uses of atomic energy championed in his speech with the use of that technology for war. Specifically, he pledged that the Atoms for Peace initiative promised to a way to move the whole world “out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light,” a reference to the bright promise of atomic energy used for peaceful purposes.

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading, Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures, and Beginning the Speech

  • Students will complete pre-reading assigned by teacher.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • Students will read paragraphs 1-20 of the speech itself.
  • Students will assess how Eisenhower introduced the subject of atomic weapons, emphasizing the dangers posed by these new weapons of mass destruction.

Day 2: Implied Arguments: Continuing on Themes of Peace in a Perilous Nuclear Age

  • Students will read paragraphs 21-57.
  • Students will continue to analyze how Eisenhower makes his argument that the U.S. and its allies have led the effort to find peace in the atomic age, while implying that the U.S.S.R., which only recently discovered the “secret” of the atomic bomb, poses a threat to peace.

Day 3: Finishing the Speech and Post-Reading & Assessment

  • Students will read paragraphs 58-81.
  • Students will complete post-activities.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraphs 1-5: Discuss with students the opening of Eisenhower’s speech. Who made up this audience at the UN General Assembly? President Eisenhower spoke of the “honor” and “privilege” of addressing them; why do you think he did that? Did he say those things merely to flatter his audience? Do you think his opening might have made the audience more receptive to his message?
  • Paragraphs 6-9: How would you describe the tone of the speech in this section? Students might pull from these paragraphs key words that they might associate with an uplifting mood (such as “wisdom,” “courage,” “faith,” “happiness,” “universal peace,” “human dignity,” etc). At the same time, how did Eisenhower’s language prepare his audience for the seriousness of his topic—the threat of atomic war?
  • Paragraphs 10-20: Here Eisenhower’s tone becomes even more serious, as he directly acknowledges the threat of nuclear war. Where did he say the danger lies? How did he convey the magnitude of America’s growing “stockpile of atomic weapons” (para 18)? How did he communicate the destructive power of those weapons? Why do you think he placed so much emphasis on the destructive force of that stockpile? Guiding questions might include: Which country had the most atomic bombs at this time?    And how do you think this part of Eisenhower’s speech might have been interpreted by UN delegates from the Soviet Union or other countries? Could Eisenhower’s talk about the power of the U.S. arsenal be seen as a warning or a threat to the Soviet Union?.
  • Paragraphs 21-30: This section contains the first explicit reference to the Soviet Union. What tone did Eisenhower establish when discussing the U.S.S.R? Note Eisenhower’s use of the term “dread secret” (see Key Vocabulary section above). Why does he suggest we should “dread” the “secret” of the atomic bomb? What other key phrases do students notice in this part of the speech? After the most explicit discussion of the threat of atomic bombs, Eisenhower concludes, in paragraph 30, by warning that any atomic attack on the U.S. would be met with massive retaliation. Yet he then goes on to say that this “is not the true expression of the purpose and hope of the United States.” What did Eisenhower mean by that, and why did he place that statement here?
  • Paragraphs 31-39: Here Eisenhower takes a long view of history, noting that the threat of nuclear annihilation threatens to destroy “the irreplaceable heritage of mankind handed down to us generation from generation.” Associating the United States with the forces of “decency, and right, and justice” in the “age-old struggle upward from savagery,” he insists that the U.S. wants to be “constructive, not destructive.” In the process, he implicitly criticizes the Soviet Union. Who else might he be referring to when he speaks of the “Great Destroyers” in history? Ask students to imagine how Soviet leaders might have reacted to the speech. Would they see the speech as threatening or conciliatory, offering a chance to work together for peace?
  • Paragraphs 40-54: These paragraphs offer a seemingly more conciliatory attitude, suggesting America’s willingness to negotiate with the Soviets. Here the emphasis is on diplomacy, negotiation, and “the conference table.” Have students discuss whether this section seems consistent with the tone of the rest of the speech. Is it more hopeful? Less threatening to the Soviets?
  • Paragraphs 55-77: Here Eisenhower lays out his Atoms for Peace proposal, which he offers as an alternative to the development of nuclear technologies for the purposes of war. Who did Eisenhower imply should lead this effort, the UN or the U.S.? How did he transition in this part of the speech from a discussion of the fearful prospects of an atomic arms race to an optimistic vision of Atoms for Peace? What did he mean when he said, in paragraph 60, that the development of atomic technologies should be turned over to those who could adapt those technologies to “the arts of peace?”
  • Paragraphs 78-81: How did Eisenhower close the speech? What did he mean in speaking of the “fearful atomic dilemma” faced by humanity?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Identify and discuss President Eisenhower’s use of metaphors in the speech. How do his metaphors of light and dark contrast the threat of atomic weapons with the promise of peaceful uses for atomic energy?
  • Remembering the contrast of “hope” and “fear” in President Eisenhower’s speech, have students consider other public discourses that invoke feelings of hope or fear. What other political leaders have emphasized themes of hope and/or fear? Did former President Obama’s speeches about the “power of hope” also appeal to fear? Did President Trump’s warnings about the threats posed by illegal immigrants or “radical Islamic extremism” also appeal to hope?
  • Read President George W. Bush’s “Graduation Speech at West Point” in 2002, also on the Voices of Democracy Website (http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/bush-graduation-speech-speech-text/). How did Bush’s characterization of the threats faced by the U.S. after 9/11 compare with President Eisenhower’s description of the atomic age? Which seems a more dangerous and frightening portrait of the world and the threats faced by the U.S.?
  • Locate two sources that detail contemporary attitudes toward the United Nations. In what ways are today’s attitudes toward the UN different or similar to those views articulated in Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech?