California State University, Long Beach
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Cold War In Southern California

Published: September 2, 2014

History’s Dave Neumann and Tim Keirn received a $177,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) last fall to support a two-week workshop this summer for teachers from all over the country to explore the topic “Cold War Home Front in Southern California.”

Neumann, director of the History Project at CSULB, and Keirn, a full-time lecturer in history and the College of Education, as well as the director of the Yadunandan Center, were pleased at the level of funding they received from the NEH in support of the workshops’ focus on the role of aerospace in shaping the economy and culture of the region.

The NEH sponsors Landmarks in American History and Culture throughout the country during the summer that introduce teachers to historic locations with important connections to the American past. Keirn, who joined the Department of History in 1991, pointed to the CSULB workshops’ distinctive approach to the Cold War.

“Lots of teachers address the home front when they teach about World Wars I and II, but they don’t think of the Cold War as having a home front,” he said. “Southern California, with its concentration of defense contracting and aerospace manufacturing, was the major American home front of the Cold War.”

To take just one local example, the North American Rockwell plant in Downey in 1970 encompassed more than 200 acres and employed more than 30,000 people. At this site, the Apollo and Space Shuttle vehicles were designed and built. Now all vestiges of the plant are gone. Participants in the workshop attended a roundtable of retired North American Rockwell engineers who shared their Cold War experiences in aerospace design and manufacture as part of the Space Race and defense contracting.

Neumann, who has been a member of the university since 2005, explained, “Given the role of aerospace in Southern California, it made sense to make the Cold War the theme for our project.” Based on Keirn’s idea, Neumann wrote the grant which involved researching historical context, planning the week’s schedule, coordinating site visits, and arranging speakers. The twin workshops in the last week of July and the first week of August hosted 72 participants, which the NEH calls summer scholars, in 36-member cohorts.

As project director, Neumann’s goal for the workshops was to help summer scholars think through the idea of a Cold War home front through three key elements.

The first major component of the workshops was field trips to relevant sites. The group visited Long Beach Airport where Douglas Aircraft played a key role during the Cold War, toured the California Science Center to see the artifacts from the space program including the space shuttle Endeavour and also toured the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which pioneered in missile and spacecraft experimentation, and continues to supervise the Mars rovers.

The workshops’ second component consisted of speakers as several scholars addressed technical aspects of aerospace.

“This is an area in which most educators do not have much background,” said Keirn. “There is a new emphasis at the K-12 level on STEM instruction. For teachers more used to instructing English, social studies and history, these workshops offer a technological connection.” Other scholars presented on the ways that the Cold War intersected with popular culture in Southern California.

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PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
David Neumann (l) and Tim Kiern

Speakers also included people with first-hand experience of the aerospace industry, such as Elinor Otto, a 94-year-old World War II riveter who still works at Boeing and met participants at Long Beach’s Rosie the Riveter Park. At Downey’s Columbia Memorial Space Center, located on the grounds of North American Aviation’s former plant, participants also interacted with a panel of aerospace engineers.

The series’ third component was scholarly readings.

“These teachers from all over the U.S. are particularly high quality and enthusiastic educators,” said Neumann. “They really got into the reading and discussion. The biggest problem we had was time. There always were more questions and comments.”

Neumann’s experience with organizing workshops comes from his work with the California History-Social Science Project, a K-16 collaborative effort headquartered at UC Davis and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in history and social science education.

“The History Project is committed to improving the teaching and learning of History-Social Science through partnerships between K-12 teachers and university faculty that strengthen disciplinary content knowledge for all students as outlined in the History-Social Science Content Standards,” he said.

“What we were doing in this NEH workshop is unique in the sense that we are researching landmarks and home fronts that are not traditional and disappearing,” said Keirn. Some of the central historical questions addressed by the workshop were: If the United States won the Cold War, then why do so few landmarks remain? Where are the American monuments to the Cold War? Given that much of the work done in the Cold War was performed behind a wall of security, how does a nation memorialize things it doesn’t officially know about? In this sense, how was Southern California also a center of the security state?

Neumann believes the double workshops reflect well on CSULB.

“This university exists because of the Cold War boom that followed World War II, and these workshops place the campus in that context,” he concluded. “Rising standards of living and the emergence of a new type of economy drove the demand for increased access to higher education, a role primarily fulfilled by CSU schools like Long Beach State. Thanks to the CSU, education has been further democratized and given a mission of outreach to the community.”