Lesson Plan

Lesson 3: The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy
Photo caption

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

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

Were Joseph McCarthy's accusations justified?

Did McCarthy strengthen or weaken anticommunism efforts in postwar America?

Learning Objectives

Analyze the motives behind McCarthy's accusations and the political and cultural significance of the hearing in the U.S.

Examine the competing perspectives on HUAC and the proper role of government with regard to protecting safety and liberty.

Assess the role of media as public informant during and after the McCarthy hearings. 

Evaluate the short and long term effects of the McCarthy hearings on public trust of government and the power of government.