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America and the Red Scare

The Cold War was sparked by the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Allied Forces were divided by ideology and quickly separated into two camps: the Western democracies, led by the United States, and the Communist nations, dominated by the Soviet Union. This alignment served as the basic framework of the Cold War over the next fifty years, from 1947-1991. As America positioned itself in opposition to totalitarian regimes, American citizens were forced to confront realities of what "freedom" meant, or should mean.

The Red Scare was a period during the 1940s-50s when Americans became anxious that Communists had infiltrated the home front. The public backlash against communism led Senator Joseph McCarthy to spearhead a series of public restrictions and trials on charges of treason. Groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, condemned McCarthy's campaign as an attempt to unjustly restrict civil liberties and free speech.

This lesson will foster class discussion of the American definition of freedom and the appropriateness of governments in restricting civil liberties in the pursuit of peace and stability. Students will be asked to connect these larger themes to past events, such as the Salem witch trials and the WWII Japanese internment camps, as well as contemporary events, such as the post-9/11 response to American Muslims.


Civil Rights


Big Ideas

Cause and Effect

Historical Context

Essential Questions

What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?

Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as an active, critical citizen in a democratic society.

  • Historical comprehension involves evidence-based discussion and explanation, an analysis of sources including multiple points of view, and an ability to read critically to recognize fact from conjecture and evidence from assertion.

  • Historical causation involves motives, reasons, and consequences that result in events and actions. Some consequences may be impacted by forces of the irrational or the accidental.


  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and
    social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and group in interpreting other times, cultures, and places.

  • Evaluate cause-and-result relationships bearing in mind multiple causations.

Background Material for Teacher

  • National Archive's collection of the correspondence between Senator McCarthy and President Truman

  • The Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Preserving American Freedom annotated entries for an anti-Communist and an anti-McCarthy publication

  • Good Night and Good Luck, a 2005 docudrama about journalist Edward R. Murrow's challenge to Sen. McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade.

End of Unit Assessment

  • Students are to write a 2-3 page response paper, contrasting the two groups (HUAC and ACLU) and their points of view. They should use evidence drawn from the two primary documents as well as knowledge culled from class discussion and the Good Night and Good Luck film.

  • Other essay topics might include a summary of the short- and long-term effects of McCarthyism or an analysis of Edward R. Murrow's quote, "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty."

  • Students could also research and write a biography of a famous American who was blacklisted following investigation by McCarthy or the HUAC.


Plans in this Unit

America and the Red Scare

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content



PA Core Standards

CC.8.5.11-12.F  CC.8.5.11-12.G.  CC.8.6.11-12.A

About the Author

This lesson was created by Kaitlyn Pettengill, Education Intern, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Blog Post

"Communism is at Our Door"- Teaching the Red Scare

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