Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


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

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

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The revelations of Soviet spy networks in the United States, and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, may have generated big headlines in the late 1940s, but they would pale compared to those that Joseph McCarthy would elicit. A freshman senator from Wisconsin, 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. For the next two years he and other Republicans would use these charges to hammer the Truman administration, and the "communists in government" theme accounts, at least in part, for the landslide victory enjoyed by the GOP in the 1952 election. Republican control of Congress in 1953 and 1954 gave McCarthy access to more power than ever, but increasingly he became a liability both to his party and to Dwight Eisenhower's administration. McCarthy's antics, particularly his targeting of the U.S. Army, would lead to his official condemnation by the Senate in 1954.

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. Through an examination of documents and political cartoons they will study key points in McCarthy's career, with an eye to understanding how his efforts brought American anticommunism to fever pitch, and then into disrepute.

Guiding Questions

  • What impact did Joseph McCarthy have on American anticommunism?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • 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


First elected as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin in 1946, few noticed Joseph McCarthy during his first three years in the Senate. All that changed when in February 1950 he made a bombshell speech. Addressing the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, he announced that he had evidence that in spite of the Truman administration's efforts to eliminate disloyal elements from government service, 205 members of the Communist Party continued to work for the State Department.

It is likely that even McCarthy himself was surprised at the public reaction to his revelations. In the past two years the United States had watched as China had become a communist country, the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, and North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea. America, which had seemed the world's dominant power in 1945, felt its position slipping away, and McCarthy's accusations provided a convenient explanation.

The Senate, therefore, was inclined to look into these charges, and a committee was soon set up under Maryland Democrat Millard Tydings. The charges, Tydings concluded, were without foundation, but few were paying attention. Three days after the Maryland senator publicly rejected McCarthy's accusations Julius Rosenberg was arrested for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The issue of Soviet penetration of the U.S. government seemed shockingly real. As for Tydings, when he stood for reelection later that year McCarthy and his allies accused him of being "soft on communism." Marylanders took the charge seriously—Tydings, who had been in the Senate since 1927, was defeated.

The message sent by the Tydings defeat was clear—it was dangerous to stand in the way of Joe McCarthy. For the next two years the accusations flew, and quite a few Democrats (and even some Republicans, such as Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who dared criticize the senator from Wisconsin) found themselves accused of being "communist sympathizers." In 1952, aided in part by McCarthy's accusations (but probably more so by the stalemated war in Korea), the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress, while GOP candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in a landslide.

In the short term at least, Republican dominance in Washington gave McCarthy new prestige and power. He was awarded the chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and used his position to subpoena a series of government employees. His accusations did not remain limited to the State Department. Soon employees of Voice of America, and even officers and enlisted men of the U.S. Army, were called before McCarthy's committee and accused of being at best naïve dupes of communism, and at worst traitors to their country.

In the long run, however, Republican control of Congress and the White House led to McCarthy's downfall. Many Republicans had privately expressed doubts about McCarthy's reckless accusations, but had remained silent when his targets were Democrats. Among these was Eisenhower himself, who had refused even to defend his former Army colleague George C. Marshall when McCarthy suggested that he was a subversive. However, after 1952 the Wisconsin Senator was becoming more and more of an embarrassment to the GOP. When in 1953 he began to suggest that communists had infiltrated the Army, Eisenhower went on the attack, issuing an order forbidding any member of his administration from testifying before McCarthy's committee. (For more on Eisenhower's attitude toward McCarthy, see Michael J. Birkner, "Eisenhower and the Red Menace", located at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History.)

The final straw came in 1954, when the Army accused McCarthy and his chief lieutenant, Roy Cohn, of pressuring the Army into giving preferential treatment to Cohn's friend G. David Schine. Now it was McCarthy himself who was on the hot seat, and in the resulting Army-McCarthy Hearings, broadcast on nationwide television, the Wisconsin Senator came across as a common bully. Meanwhile, the Army's chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, finally shamed him with the famous words, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" In December 1954 he was formally censured by the Senate, which put an end to his investigations once and for all. A painful chapter in America's history had at last come to its close.

For those wanting more information on the life of Joseph McCarthy, a timeline is available as well as an article "Cold War Policies, 1945-1991" accessible throught the Internet Archive. A brief biographical sketch may be found at the site of CNN's "Cold War" series. Note CNN no longer maintains this site. It is only accessible through the Way Back Machine.  

Preparation Instructions

Review the 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 PDF.

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. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Letters and Diaries" and "Making Sense of Political Cartoons" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. McCarthy's Accusations

Students will read excerpts from McCarthy's famous Wheeling speech, in which he first claims to have evidence of continued communist infiltration of the State Department. They will also read responses to these charges by Truman, certain Republican Senators, and the political cartoonist Herblock. The following documents are all available at, or accessible via, EDSITEment-reviewed resources; excerpts from the first two are available on pages 2–4 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson.

To help guide their reading, students should answer the following questions related to these documents (available as a worksheet on pages 1–2 of the Text Document):

  • What information did McCarthy cite to show that America was losing the war against Communism?
  • Explain what McCarthy meant when he said "When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within."
  • How did McCarthy describe the sorts of people engaged in "traitorous actions" in the United States?
  • What did Truman mean when he claimed that McCarthy was an "asset" to the Kremlin?
  • According to Truman, how did McCarthy fit in with the overall strategy of the Republican Party?
  • Evaluate the five statements by the Republican senators. What was their purpose in issuing these statements?
  • In your opinion, how did partisanship fighting between the Republicans and Democrats interfere with the issue at hand?
  • How does the political cartoon by Herblock portray McCarthy? Why do you think he chose to portray McCarthy this way?
Activity 2. Eisenhower and McCarthy

The sweeping Republican victory in the 1952 election gave McCarthy more power than ever to conduct his investigations, but it also caused him to become more sweeping in his accusations. His behavior was deeply troubling to President Eisenhower, but while Eisenhower found the senator personally repellent, he knew that McCarthy had many supporters in both the House and the Senate. To personally criticize McCarthy would run the risk of alienating them, and thus endangering his legislative agenda. He also believed that to respond personally to McCarthy's accusations would be beneath the dignity of the presidency. Ultimately he would come out against the Wisconsin Republican, but not until 1954 (this is covered in the next activity).

In this activity students will consider a series of documents (or excerpts thereof) and political cartoons related to Eisenhower's attitude toward McCarthy. The documents all come from the Eisenhower Presidential Library, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital Classroom, while the cartoons come from Herblock's History, accessible via the Library of Congress. After reading them the class will be divided into two groups to debate the following proposition: "Eisenhower should have spoken out against McCarthy earlier than he did."

Brief excerpts of the following may be found on pages 5–9 of the Text Document.

Activity 3. The Fall of Joseph McCarthy

For this activity students will consider a series of documents related to the Army-McCarthy hearings and McCarthy's censure. These documents come from the Eisenhower Presidential Library, History Matters, and "Our Documents," which is accessible via History Matters. (Brief excerpts from these documents may be found on pages 10–18 of the Text Document.)

Divide the class into three groups, each of which will examine a set of readings related to one aspect of McCarthy's decline and fall. To save class time, the readings might be assigned as homework.

Group #1: Eisenhower vs. McCarthy (excerpts on pages 10–12 of the Text Document)

Group #2: The Army-McCarthy Hearings (excerpts on pages 13–17)

Group #3: McCarthy's Censure (pages 18–19 of the Text Document)

After reading their assigned documents, each student should write a paragraph describing the events detailed in them, and explaining how they might have contributed to McCarthy's downfall. Then in class students should meet briefly in their groups to compare their paragraphs and draft together a "master paragraph" that incorporates all of the relevant information and analysis.

When students are finished creating their master paragraph, reshuffle the class into groups of three, each one made up of a member of one of the previous groups. These new groups will compare their paragraphs, and then use them to create an essay explaining McCarthy's downfall in 1954.


After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:

  • What was the basis for McCarthy's accusations and investigations?
  • Assess the criticisms of McCarthy. Were they justified? Why or why not?
  • Describe and evaluate Eisenhower's policy regarding McCarthy.
  • Analyze the reasons behind McCarthy's downfall in 1954.

More advanced students might alternatively be assigned a more comprehensive essay question:

  • On balance, do you think McCarthy strengthened or weakened anticommunism in postwar America?

Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Joseph McCarthy
  • Army-McCarthy Hearings
  • Roy Cohn
  • G. David Schine
  • Joseph N. Welch

Finally, if students completed the first activity of the first lesson in this unit (on the Venona Project), they might be asked the following:

  • How would McCarthy's crusade have been affected had the Venona Project been made public during this time?

Extending The Lesson

The EDSITEment-reviewed site "Digital Classroom," from the National Archives and Records Administration, includes numerous group and individual activities in which students examine telegrams between McCarthy and Truman in February 1950 (that is, just after McCarthy's Wheeling speech).

The second activity in this lesson mentions McCarthy's attack on George C. Marshall. Teachers who wish to spend more time on this subject may want to have their students read an excerpt from that speech, which McCarthy made in June 1951. It stands out as a classic example of how McCarthy was able to twist a policy disagreement into a charge of treason. The excerpt may be found at the Modern History Sourcebook, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.

An audio file of one of McCarthy's speeches—before the Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago on St. Patrick's Day, 1954—is available at the site Authentic History, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History. All or some of this file (it is just under thirteen minutes in its entirety) might be played for students in order to give them a sense for his manner of speaking. One question that might be asked is whether his words as spoken sound more convincing than they appear in print.

The 1964 film Point of Order is a documentary based on the Army-McCarthy hearings, mainly consisting of actual televised footage from the hearings. Teachers who want to provide their students with more details about this event might show them some or all of this film, which runs 93 minutes in its entirety. More information on Point of Order may be found at the site "Cold War Policies, 1945–1991," accessible via the Internet Archive.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • 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
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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