Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Anticommunism in Postwar America, 1945–1954: Witch Hunt or Red Menace? (3 Lessons)



The Unit


Americans emerged from World War II with a renewed sense of confidence. They had, after all, been part of a global alliance that destroyed the military power of Germany and Japan. Moreover, as the only major combatant to avoid having its homeland ravaged by war, the U.S. economy was clearly the strongest in the world. And, of course, the United States was the only country in the world to possess that awesome new weapon, the atomic bomb. Surely, they believed, they were witnessing the dawn of a new golden age.

It was not long before these glorious expectations were dashed. Over the next five years relations between the United States and the Soviet Union went from alliance to Cold War. To make matters worse it seemed like the Soviets might be winning. In 1948 a communist government seized power in China, the world's most populous country. The following year Moscow successfully tested an atomic device of its own, and in 1950 troops from the Soviet satellite state of North Korea launched a war of aggression against South Korea. To many, it seemed as though a new and infinitely more destructive world war was on the horizon—and this time the United States might actually lose.

How could these setbacks be explained? The arrest and prosecution of a number of Soviet spies in the United States seemed to provide at least a partial answer. Perhaps it was the activity of disloyal Americans—in the Federal Government, in Hollywood, in the schools, etc.—that allowed China to "go communist," that handed Russia the bomb, and invited Stalin's puppets in North Korea to attack their neighbors to the South. But what constituted disloyalty? Was it only to be defined as outright spying or sabotage? Might someone who belonged to the Communist Party be considered disloyal, whether or not he had committed any overt act against the United States? And what about a screenwriter who interjected pro-Soviet themes into a Hollywood movie, or a songwriter who criticized some aspect of American society in one of his songs?

These were the sorts of questions that were on the minds of plenty of Americans in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an age in which Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and of course Joseph McCarthy become household words. In this curriculum unit students will study this turbulent period of American history, examining the various events and ideas that defined it, and considering how much of the anticommunist sentiment of the era was justified, and how much was an overreaction.

Guiding Questions

  • Why was Soviet espionage such an important issue in the late 1940s and early 1950s?
  • What constitutes an "un-American" activity? How did the House Un-American Activities Committee go about defining and investigating such activities?
  • What impact did Joseph McCarthy have on American anticommunism?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the primary subjects of FBI investigation on espionage charges.
  • Explain the Venona project, including how it worked and what purpose it served.
  • Articulate the reasons why the Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage.
  • Identify HUAC, and explain its goals and methods
  • Explain why HUAC targeted Hollywood, and offer an opinion regarding whether this investigation was justifiable.
  • Articulate the issues involved in the Alger Hiss case.
  • Evaluate whether HUAC lived up to its stated purposes.
  • Enumerate the charges that McCarthy made against the Truman administration, and explain why they had such an impact.
  • Articulate the views of McCarthy's critics, namely Truman and Margaret Chase Smith, and assess their validity.
  • Explain Eisenhower's attitude toward McCarthy, and give an informed opinion as to whether Eisenhower should have done more to stop him.
  • Articulate the reasons for McCarthy's downfall in 1954.

Preparation Instructions

Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable Text Document.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Soviet Espionage in America

    Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of supplying the Soviet Union with  nuclear bomb secrets, and subsequently executed.

    The hunt for Communists in the United States clearly reached the point of hysteria by the early 1950s, but what is often overlooked is that it had its origins in a very real phenomenon. This lesson will expose students to recently declassified FBI documents and transcripts of the Rosenberg trial. It will encourage them to think seriously about the extent of the Soviet espionage network in America, thus setting the stage for a proper understanding of later hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy.

  • Lesson 2: The House Un-American Activities Committee

    Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was accused of spying for the Soviet Union in 1948

    In the late 1940s and early 1950s, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had deteriorated to the point of "cold war," while domestically the revelation that Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. government created a general sense of uneasiness. This lesson will examine the operations of House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the late 1940s.

  • Lesson 3: The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy

    The excesses of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's anti-communist crusade led to his eventual censure by the U.S. Senate

    A freshman senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, shocked the country in 1950 when he claimed to possess evidence that significant numbers of communists continued to hold positions of influence in the State Department. In this lesson students will learn about McCarthy's crusade against communism, from his bombshell pronouncements in 1950 to his ultimate censure and disgrace in 1954.

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills