Lesson Plan: The Red Scare and McCarthyism

April 5, 1951 Universal Newsreel: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

This April 5, 1951, Universal Newsreel reports on the death penalty for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.


Following World War II, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States increased. As the Cold War began, the spread of communism and Soviet influence in places like China and North Korea concerned leaders in the United States. Additionally, the Soviet development of the atomic bomb and the discovery of spies in the US helping them led to an intense fear of communism within the United States. This led to investigations of communists and suspected communists in the Unites States. This lesson includes events such as the Rosenberg trials, blacklisting in Hollywood and the rise and decline of McCarthyism. Student should have a basic understanding of the early events during the Cold War prior to this lesson.


  • WARM-UP:

    Have the students answer the following question before beginning the lesson.

    • What events led to the Cold War?
    • Explain the differences between democratic and communist governments?

    Review the students' responses and correct any misconceptions about the Cold War and communism. Ensure that the students understand the following vocabulary terms and concepts before

    • Blacklist
    • Communism
    • Espionage
    • Nuclear Weapons
    • Soviet Union

    Have the students view each of the video and answer the questions below and on the Red Scare and McCarthyism handout.

    Video Clip: The Rosenberg Trial (1:17)

    • Explain the charges that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg faced. What was the result of this?

    Video Clip: The Red Scare and Nuclear Scientists (3:06)

    • Explain the backlash that scientists faced during the Red Scare.
    • What were the problems with this backlash?
    • How did President Truman describe this problem?

    Video Clip: Hollywood and the House Un-American Activities Committee (3:59)

    • Who were the "Hollywood Ten" and what were they accused of doing in the House Un-American Activities Committee?
    • What argument did the "Hollywood Ten" give in their defense?
    • What was the result of the "Hollywood Ten" refusing to testify?
    • Explain what is meant by "blacklisted."

    Video Clip: The Historical Background of McCarthyism (2:59)

    • How does Ms. Brennan describe Senator Joe McCarthy?
    • Describe the political context for Senator McCarthy's speech.
    • What was the general view of communism in the 1940s and 1950s? What specific events led to this?

    Video Clip: Senator Joe McCarthy's "Enemies from Within" Speech (3:33)

    • What was the historical context of Senator McCarthy's speech?
    • Explain the major charge that Senator McCarthy's speech presented.
    • How did Senator McCarthy's claims spread?
    • Why did the number of people on the list change?

    Video Clip: ACLU Co-Founder Arthur Garfield Hays on McCarthyism (2:18)

    • Explain Mr. Hays's arguments that the communist influence in other countries is different than in the United States.
    • According to Mr. Hays, what is the problem with this search for communists?

    Video Clip: McCarthy and the Senate Hearings (5:32)

    • How did the election of 1952 increase the power of Senator McCarthy?
    • What tactics did Senator McCarthy use during the Senate committee hearing?
    • Describe who McCarthy targeted during this period.
    • How did the public's opinion of Joseph McCarthy charge during these hearings?
    • Explain the decline in Senator McCarthy's influence and power.

    After reviewing the students' answers, have the students debate or write a written response to the following prompt.

    • Describe the rationale for the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Did the government act appropriately during this time? Support your response with specific examples.

    Witch-Hunts- Use the following Merriam-Webster definition of a "Witch-Hunt:" "The searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views."

    • Using this definition and the information in the lesson, do you consider the events during the Red Scare and McCarthyism a "witch-hunt?"

    Modern-Day Comparisons- Research recent events and actions that have been described as witch-hunts. Compare those actions to the Red Scare and McCarthyism.

    Additional Writing Prompts-

    • Do you think something like the Red Scare could happen again?
    • How should the United States balance individual freedoms with national security?
    • How should the government have responded to the threat of Soviet spies and communist influence during the Red Scare?

Additional Resources


  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Blacklist
  • Censure
  • Committee
  • Communism
  • Hearing
  • House Un-american Activities Committee
  • Mccarthyism
  • Nuclear
  • Propaganda
  • Red Scare
  • Security Clearance
  • Soviet Union
  • Subpoena


Civil Rights & Civil LibertiesU.S. History


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