Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

McCarthyism and the Cold War
Cara Satterfield
AP US History
Time Frame:
1 45-minute period with homework and brief (10-15 minute) follow-up on due date of assignment
Red Scare
Cold War

Grade Levels:
11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:

brief lecture, document analysis, creation of museum exhibit on McCarthyism


The purpose of this lesson is to evaluate the political, social and cultural impact of McCarthyism in America.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Missouri Show-Me Standards: This lesson meets the following state standards:


  • Social Studies 2:  continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world
  • Social Studies 6:  relations of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions
  • Social Studies 7:  the use of tools of social science inquiry


  • Goal 1.4:  use technological tools and other resources to locate, select and organize information
  • Goal 1.5:  comprehend and evaluate written, visual and oral presentations and works
  • Goal 2.1:  plan and make written, oral, and visual presentations for a variety of purposes and audiences
  • Goal 4.1:  explain reasoning and identify information used to support decisions

KANSAS STANDARDS (High School-US History)

Benchmark 3: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the Cold War (1945-1990).

5. (A) analyzes domestic life in the United States during the Cold War era (e.g., McCarthyism, federal aid to education, interstate highway system, space as the New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society).

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Red Scared! (by Michael  Barson and Steven Heller, Chronicle Books, 2001), CNN Cold War website (http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/cold-war/)

  • Fair Deal and Korean War
  • McCarthyism
  • Cold War era
  • Truman policy
  • Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

    McCarran Act, McCarthy’s telegram to President Truman re. Lincoln Day Speech (Feb. 11, 1950), draft of Truman’s response to McCarthy’s telegram, letter from Mrs. G.C. Hemphill to President Truman (August 23, 1951), images of anti-communist propaganda, film lobby cards, McCarthy hearings, etc.

    Technology Required:

    computers with Internet and database access

    Full description of activity or assignment.
    1. Students will have read the text selection on the Cold War at home prior to class.  (The text used in this lesson is America Past and Present, by Robert Divine, revised 6th edition, 2003.)  The selection focuses on the rise and fall of McCarthy, with mention of Alger Hiss, the Smith Act, the Rosenbergs and Truman’s Fair Deal
    2. Briefly review reading and earlier lessons on the origins of the Cold War, post-war aid to Europe, Cold War in Asia.   Discuss how the fear of communism at home was connected both to the events outlined in the text and the events discussed in prior lessons. 
    3. Brief lecture/discussion (based on Ellen Schrecker’s points)
      1. Summarize story of the firing of seaman Lawrence Parker, as discussed in Schrecker’s paper, “The Red Scare and McCarthyism.” Ask students if they think the firing was justified – brief discussion.
      2. Myths of McCarthyism – product of McCarthy, monolithic, populist movement, ordinary victims w/no ties to communism, linked only to Cold War.  Review Red Scare of 1919 and Palmer Raids and popularity of communism during the Depression.
      3. Fear of communist subversion, espionage, sabotage – Discuss what events described in the assigned portion of the text would support these fears (subversion – communists in government?  Did the conviction of Hiss heighten this fear? espionage – Rosenbergs; sabotage – post-war labor strikes)
      4. Punishments associated with McCarthyism – mostly loss of jobs, although many consider the Loyalty Oaths to be punitive (if time, show scene from Good Night and Good Luck in which employees discuss frustration with Loyalty Oath).
      5. McCarthyism impacted culture – movies w/Anti-communist themes, fear of blacklist led many movies, books, songs, etc. to remain unpublished.  Anti-Communist propaganda grew.
    4.  Documenting McCarthyism through a museum exhibit
      1. Students should analyze some documents associated with McCarthyism – McCarthy’s speech in which he announces he has a list of communists in government, McCarthy’s telegram to Truman, Truman’s drafted response and the McCarran Act.  Students will read and discuss the documents in small groups to determine the significance of their messages.
      2. Provide visual examples of cultural impact (images attached, taken from CNN Cold War website, as well as Red Scared).  Explain that some of these items appear in the Truman Library’s exhibit on McCarthyism.
      3. Instruct students to compile documents and images depicting the political, social and cultural impact of McCarthyism. They should use any print sources available in library (such as Red Scared) and conduct searches of reputable Internet sites (such as CNN’s Cold War site, NARA, Library of Congress) and on-line databases.   Their research should guide them to answer the overarching question:  What was the political, social and cultural impact of McCarthyism in America?
      4. Students should have a minimum of 10 pieces – including at least 2 primary source documents.  Upon finding their pieces, they should organize them into a museum exhibit – sketching a “storyboard” of the exhibit, placing the images on the page and writing the appropriate text to accompany the documents and images.  The exhibit must answer the overarching question above.
      5. Museum exhibit assignment may be completed in class if the teacher desires or as homework. When students turn them in, other students will view the exhibit sketch/outline and read the text.  Students will evaluate a peer’s exhibit based on the “Analyzing Museum Exhibit” form. 
      6. Discuss the exhibits as a class.  Students should be able to defend their exhibits and explain their reasoning behind their organization.  (A brief written explanation/defense may be added at teacher’s discretion.) Discussion should lead to questions connecting McCarthyism to previous lessons – Korea, fall of China.

    Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

    Museum exhibits will be scored according to the attached scoring guide.

    Scoring Guide:  Museum Exhibit on McCarthyism

                                                    Excellent                     Good               Average           Poor

    1. The artifacts were             8                                6                       4                    2      

                carefully selected

    to reflect the political,

    social and cultural

    impact of McCarthyism


          2.  The artifacts are well-        4                                3                        2                   1

               organized to tell a

               clear and coherent

               story line.


          3.   The text that

          accompanies the                4                                3                        2                  1       

    artifacts is clear,

    concise and adds

    meaning to the exhibit.


    1. The presentations is           4                                3                        2                  1

    neat and professional

    in appearance. 






    Total:  ________/20



    Points deducted for failure to include at least two primary documents in exhibit. 


    Analyzing Museum Exhibit


    Name of designer: _________________________________________________


    What is the general theme or story line of the exhibit?  ___________________________





    Select one artifact to analyze________________________________________________


    Is this an actual artifact or a reproduction?  _____actual   _____ reproduction


    Describe its physical qualities:  ______________________________________________


    What was its function or purpose?  ___________________________________________



    How does this object fit into the theme or tell the exhibit’s story?  __________________



    What other objects are nearby?  ______________________________________________


    How do they all tie together? ________________________________________________



    Read the object’s label and evaluate its quality.  Enough information? Too much?  _____




    Describe how the exhibit is organized.  Is the organization effective to the exhibit’s story?  __________________________________________________________________




    How might you present this exhibit differently?  ________________________________