Become a Member
Support the programming and educational initiatives of Idaho Public Television by joining today.
home ready to learn k-12 adult education

IdahoPTV Schedule

Local Productions

Stay Curious


IdahoPTV Learning Services


 The Cold War Warrior Defending: The Moral Beacon of the World

by Sara Black
Boise State University

Grade: 11th
Time Allotment: Two 50-minute class periods or one two-hour block class period
Subject Matter: U.S. History


          Through the use of video clips students will journey back in time to the 1980s to explore the social atmosphere of this era. Students will explore the figure of President Reagan to gain insight into his motives for his domestic and foreign policies. In the process of exploring Reagan's policies the student will evaluate the impact his decisions made on the common citizen and world leaders.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Identify President Reagan's domestic and foreign policy;
  • Describe America's attitude toward communism during this era;
  • List the characteristics of Reagan which endeared him to the American people;
  • Explain why some Americans spoke out against Reagan's foreign policy.

From the State of Idaho Department of Education Learning Standards for Social Studies, available online at

  • Standard 496: Students will understand the political, social, and economic responses to industrialization and technological innovations that have occurred in the United States.
  • Standard 497: Students will understand significant conflicts in United States History.

From the Boise School District Curriculum available online at

  • Student Objective 1321.22: Understand the events leading to the end of the Cold War and the role of the United States in post-Cold War conflicts around the world.

Media Components :
Reagan (The American Experience) Part 1 & 2, Produced by Austin Hoyt and Adriana Bosch, Videocassette Dist. By PBS Home Video, 1998

Web sites

For each student:
Pen and Notebook
Discussion Question Handout (See Attached)

Prep For Teachers
Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark the Web sites on all computers. You may want to photocopy some of the articles if limited numbers of computers are available. Provide each student with a photocopy of the video discussion sheet.

Introductory Activities

Step 1.
On the front white board list the following questions for students to ponder as they enter the classroom:

  • According to the Constitution of the United States, what are the qualifications needed in a president?
  • Are there any other qualifications that Americans have deemed necessary not included in the constitution?
  • What specific qualities made Reagan a popular choice for president by the American people?

Step 2.
Students will proceed to answer these questions in their journals for the first five minutes of class. Then the instructor will lead a short discussion on the questions in order to have verbal feedback from students.

Learning Activities
Ask students what images come to mind when they hear the words "Cold War"? (Students may respond with statements such as communism, Soviet Union, Arms Race, and nuclear weapons.)

Give students a brief background of the 1980's era. It was a time according to the American Experience series when America had the most ideological President in his speeches and was very pragmatic (practical) in his actions. President Reagan was a person who was full of contradictions:

  • He believed in balanced budgets but never had one himself.
  • He hated nuclear weapons yet he built them by the thousands.

Reagan saw the United States as a shining city on a hill to be a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. He sought to fix economic problems with his supply side economic plan. He cut big government and gave the American public a 30% cut in taxes. Yet all the while he started to build up the American military.
Explain to the students that they will now be watching a piece of the video concerning the atmosphere of the country as Reagan entered office.

Focus For Media Interaction
Instruct students to look for comparisons between President Reagan's character and the historic figure of FDR during this video clip. Students may list these characteristics on the discussion question worksheet.

Insert American Experience, Reagan Pt 1. (tape 2) into the VCR. The tape is to start nine minutes from the beginning with Reagan taking his oath for office of President. Play for about five minutes and stop the tape.

  • Have students discuss why Reagan was compared to Democratic President FDR?
  • What common characteristics did they share? How were they different from one another according to the video clip?
  • Allow students to share answers to these questions with the class.

Insert American Experience, Reagan Pt 2. (tape 3) in the VCR. This segment will begin at the start of Part 2 with the series host, David McCullough, discussing Reagan and his part in the actions that brought the end to the Cold War.

Focus for Media Interaction
Have students listen and look for the impact the economy hand on the American people. (Discussion sheet) Play video until narrator talks about blue collor supporters defecting. Ask students what the impact of the poor economy was on the American public during this time? How would you feel had you been a blue collar worker during this time period?

Insert American Experience, Reagan Pt 2 (tape 4) into the VCR. Begin video approximately five minutes into the tape. The tape shows talks between President Reagan and Gorbachev. Stop after Reagan leaves the talks without an agreement.

Focus For Media Interaction
Have students listen for how Gorbachev views the talks with the U.S. and how it is different from past relations. (Discusssion Question 4)

Students will read an excerpt of Mikhail Gorbachev's Attitude Toward Ronald Reagan (Copied as a handout). Source of document is from the American Experience: The Presidents web page. Address:

Students will then read a short document on Reagan's Domestic Policy found online at (Copied as a handout if access to computer screens is limited).

Another document that students will read is an article written by Julie Wolf found online at

Teacher will then review main ideas covered within these documents to aid students in writing newsletter.

Culminating Activity

Students will break up into groups of four to discuss their feelings as an American during this time period. Students will work together in small groups to create a short newsletter expressing their needs and concerns to their U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives. Each student will write a short piece to be included in this newsletter. Students may choose to represent different individuals or groups within their newsletter. The final product will be typed and published.

Some of the issues that could be addressed in the newsletter are:

  • defense spending,
  • cuts in social programs,
  • loss of jobs,
  • nuclear weapons,
  • President Reagan's personality.

The newsletter should be at least two pages in length and be formatted in columns like a newspaper. Students may include pictures or cartoons to help express their ideas.


Language Arts
Write a letter to the editor describing a current event in government that you would like to see changed. Students will have the opportunity to submit these letters to the local newspaper for publishing. Students may use Microsoft Word or Publishing to present final product.

Students will look at the supply side economic policy presented by President Reagan to the United States. This policy will be examined and the affects will be calculated mathematically in terms of the money spent on military build up verses domestic spending. Students will also look at how inflations impacted the value of money on the average citizen. Students will present findings to the class in small groups via a power point presentation.

Community Connections

  • Visit your local State House and see how the legislature works in passing legislation. How many votes does it take to pass a bill? Prepare a PowerPoint presentation on your findings.
  • Visit your local history museum or society and investigate what legacy Presidents have left in the your state or city. Which Presidents have visited your state for any length of time? Prepare a PowerPoint presentation on your findings.

Search more than 3,000 free lessons and activities on PBS TeacherSource!

Type in a keyword or words, then click go.

Utilization Strategies

Lesson Plans


The National Teacher
Training Institute
is made
possible through the
generous support of

Cisco Foundation Logo

GE Fund Logo

Thirteen WNET New York Logo


Idaho Public Television Homepage