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Red Scare DBQ
Anti-Communism in the 1950’s:
Did the US Government go too far?
Fallout shelter built by Louis Severance adjacent to his home near Akron, Mich., …., ca. 1960.
Source: National Archives, Records of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency
Overview: After WWII, the fear of communism spread throughout American politics, culture, and society during
the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The “Red Scare” as it was known, impacted the lives of
ordinary Americans. The US government took extraordinary steps to combat the threat of communism. The
question for this DBQ is “Did the US Government go too far?
The Documents:
● Document A: President Truman's Statement Announcing the First Soviet A-Bomb, September 1949
● Document B: Civil Defense Poster, 1954
● Document C: Excerpt from speech delivered by Senator Joseph McCarthy, February 1950
Background Essay
Anti-Communism in the 1950s: Did the US government go too far?
As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States intensified in the late 1940s and early
1950s, hysteria over the perceived threat posed by Communists in the U.S. became known as the Red Scare.
(Communism is a type of government and philosophy. Its goal is to form a society where everything is shared
equally. In a communist government, the government owns and controls most everything including property,
means of production, education, transportation, and agriculture). Communists were often referred to as “Reds” for
their allegiance to the red Soviet flag. The Red Scare led to a range of actions that had a profound and enduring
effect on U.S. government and society. Federal employees were analyzed to determine whether they were
sufficiently loyal to the government, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as U.S. Senator
Joseph R. McCarthy, investigated allegations of subversive elements in the government and the Hollywood film
industry. The climate of fear linked to the Red Scare finally began to ease by the late 1950s.
Following World War II (1939-45), the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union became
engaged in a series of largely political and economic clashes known as the Cold War. The intense rivalry between
the two superpowers raised concerns in the United States that Communists and leftist sympathizers inside America
might actively work as Soviet spies and pose a threat to U.S. security. Such ideas were not totally unfounded. The
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had long carried out espionage (spy) activities inside America with the
aid of U.S. citizens, particularly during World War II. As apprehension about Soviet influence grew as the Cold
War heated up, U.S. leaders decided to take action. On March 21, 1947, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972)
issued Executive Order 9835, also known as the Loyalty Order, which mandated that all federal employees be
analyzed to determine whether they were sufficiently loyal to the government. Truman’s loyalty program was a
startling development for a country that prized the concepts of personal liberty and freedom of political
One of the pioneering efforts to investigate communist activities took place in the U.S. House of
Representatives, where the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed in 1938. HUAC’s
investigations frequently focused on exposing Communists working inside the federal government or subversive
elements working in the Hollywood film industry, and the committee gained new momentum following World
War II, as the Cold War began. Under pressure from the negative publicity aimed at their studios, movie executives
created blacklists that barred suspected radicals from employment; similar lists were also established in other
Another congressional investigator, U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-57) of Wisconsin, became the
person most closely associated with the anticommunist crusade–and with its excesses. McCarthy used hearsay and
intimidation to establish himself as a powerful and feared figure in American politics. He made charges of disloyalty
at celebrities, intellectuals and anyone who disagreed with his political views, costing many of his victims their
reputations and jobs. The FBI and its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), aided many of the legislative
investigations of communist activities using wiretaps and surveillance.
Public concerns about communism were heightened by international events. In 1949, the Soviet Union
successfully tested a nuclear bomb and communist forces led by Mao Zedong (1893-1976) took control of China.
The following year saw the start of the Korean War (1950-53), which engaged U.S. troops in combat against the
communist-supported forces of North Korea. The advances of communism around the world convinced many U.S.
citizens that there was a real danger of “Reds” taking over their own country.
Americans also felt the effects of the Red Scare on a personal level, and thousands of alleged communist
sympathizers saw their lives disrupted. They were hounded by law enforcement, alienated from friends and family
and fired from their jobs. Examine the documents that follow and do your best to answer the question:
Anti-Communism in the 1950s: Did the US government go too far?
Background Essay Questions
What two countries were involved in the Cold War?
What was the Loyalty Order and why did Truman issue it?
Define or explain each of these terms:
-Cold War
-House Un-American Activities Committee
List two events or incidents which caused people in the US to fear the spread of communism.
What is a communist “sympathizer”?
1938 - HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) established
1945- WWII ends
1947 - Harry Truman issues “Loyalty Order”
1949- The Soviet Union detonates a test nuclear bomb
1954- Brown vs. Board of Education landmark decision declaring “separate but equal” unconstitutional
1955- First McDonald’s restaurant opens
1957- Soviets launch Sputnik- the “space race” begins
Document A
Source: The American Presidency Project. John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. University of California, Santa Barbara.
President Truman's Statement Announcing the First Soviet A-Bomb
September 23, 1949
I believe the American people, to the fullest extent consistent with national security, are entitled to be informed of all
developments in the field of atomic energy. That is my reason for making public the following information.
We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.
Ever since atomic energy was first released by man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was
to be expected. This probability has always been taken into account by us.
Nearly 4 years ago I pointed out that "scientific opinion appears to be practically unanimous that the essential
theoretical knowledge upon which the discovery is based is already widely known…” And, in the Three-Nation
Declaration of the President of the United States and the Prime Ministers of United Kingdom and of Canada, dated
November 15, 1945, it was emphasized that no single nation could in fact have a monopoly of atomic weapons.
This recent development emphasizes once again....the necessity for that truly effective enforceable international
control of atomic energy which this Government and the large majority of the members of the United Nations
The photograph shows the mushroom cloud from the "First lightning" test in 1949. This was the first Soviet nuclear test of a plutonium bomb.
Document Analysis
Is this document a primary or secondary source? Explain your thinking.
What do you think President Truman is trying to emphasize in this speech?
How does this document help answer the question, “Anti-communism in the 1950’s: Did the US
government go too far?”
Document B
Source: Personal Files of James M. Lambie Jr., 1952 - 1961, Civil Defense Poster
The text reads: “She looks to you for a real answer. She knows what she could do when the sirens sound at
school. But what happens if they sound when she’s at home? Will you be ready, like teacher is? Ready to
protect her from harm? Ready to help her if she is hurt? An atomic blast is something like a tornado, a fire
and an explosion all rolled into one. Any of these may happen any day. They do happen every day,
somewhere. But when they happen all at once, lots of people get hurt. Everybody needs help at the same
time- and it may be hours before it comes to your home. U.S. Civil Defense, working with doctors and
atomic scientists, has developed a list of “must” disaster first aid supplies. These few simple items may
already be in your home or, if not, you can get them at any drug counter. For the sake of your children,
your neighbors and yourself, these supplies should be in your home - and you should know how to use
Document Analysis
Is this document a primary or secondary source? Explain your thinking.
What do you see as the purpose of this advertisement? Does it accomplish the purpose? Explain.
3. How does this advertisement help answer the question, ”Anti-communism in the 1950’s: Did the government go
too far?” Explain.
Document C
Source: U.S. Senate, State Department Loyalty Investigation Committee on Foreign Relations, 81st Congress; Joseph McCarthy to
President Harry Truman February 11, 1950, Congressional Record, 81st Congress
Editor’s note: In February 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech in West Virginia where he claimed to have a
list of 205 communists working for the State Department. A few days later, he entered an edited version of the speech in the
Congressional Record.
Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions
of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down….
Ladies and gentlemen, can there be anyone here tonight who is so blind as to say that the war is not on? Can there be
anyone who fails to realize that the Communist world has said, “The time is now” – that this is the time for the
show-down between the democratic Christian world and the Communist atheist world? …. In my opinion the State
Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with Communists. I
have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card carrying members or certainly loyal to the
Communist party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy. One thing to remember in
discussing the Communists in our Government is that we are not dealing with spies who get thirty pieces of silver to
steal the blueprints of a new weapon. We are dealing with a far more sinister type of activity because it permits the
enemy to guide and shape our policy….
Document Analysis:
Is this document a primary or secondary source? Explain your thinking.
What is the tone of this speech? Explain.
How does this speech help answer the question, “Anti-communism in the 1950s: Did the US government
go too far?” Explain.