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Fear was everywhere in America during the early years of the Cold War. People were afraid that communists might take over the world. When the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, Americans worried about the nuclear war. That same year, China, the country with the most people in the world, became communist. Half of Europe was under Joseph Stalin’s control. Every time Americans read their newspapers, it looked like there was something new, more scary and more dangerous.

These fears changed the way Americans thought about freedom, safety, and protection. Sometimes they became overly paranoid, or scared of things that weren’t really there.  When this happened they stopped caring about basic freedoms as they rushed to find communists hidden in America. But at other times, the excitement about being protected led to amazing progress in science and engineering.

While the face-to-face standoff between American and communist armies might have been far away in Berlin, Korea or Vietnam, the Cold War, like all wars, changed America. 

Some wars lead to good things on the home front. For example, the Second World War helped thousands of women get jobs and African-Americans won new protections for their civil rights.

Was this true of the Cold War? Did the Cold War make life at home better, or did it hurt America?


In the late 1940s, Alger Hiss, a leader at the State Department who had been helping Roosevelt at Yalta and helped start the United Nations, was put on trial for spying for the Soviet Union. Americans panicked. Hiss said he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he lost his trial and ended up going to jail.  People started to wonder who else in America might secretly be a communist.  Thousands of Americans who worked in the government, army, Hollywood, and many other jobs had to swear under oath that they were not communist. In 1947, President Truman ordered background checks of every government worker to make sure they were not secretly supporting communism or Nazism. 

In 1951, husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenburg were accused of giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Like Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs said they had done nothing wrong. While the evidence against Julius was good, it was not clear that Ethel had helped. Even still, they were both found guilty and put to death in the electric chair.

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin added to the fear people were feeling by saying that communists were everywhere and that he was the only one who could really protect America.  At a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, McCarthy started his attack. He said that he knew about 205 members of the Communist Party who worked for the State Department. A few days later, he said the same thing again at a speech in Salt Lake City. Newspapers and other Senators asked McCarthy to show his proof. As it turned out, McCarthy was never able to give any evidence to support what he was saying.  But he had gotten people’s attention and other Senators asked McCarthy to start a full investigation.

Staying in the news was a full-time job. After accusing low-level government workers of being communist, McCarthy went for the big names. He said Dean Acheson and George Marshall might be communist. They were two of the most respected Republican leaders in the country at that time.

Primary Source: Photograph
Senator Joseph McCarthy claiming to know of communists working in the State Department.

Some Republicans in the Senate were shocked and tried to separate from McCarthy. Others such as Senator Robert Taft and Congressman Richard Nixon saw him as a person they could use. The public loved the show. It was nice to think that someone was making sure the country was safe from communist spies. McCarthy was very good at making people afraid and then making them think he would protect them. People who liked McCarthy helped him by giving him names of Reds, a nickname for people they thought were communist. This made plenty of work for McCarthy and other communist hunters.

Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II, had no love for McCarthy. Eisenhower could see how McCarthy mostly made everything up, but when Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he did not want to attack McCarthy because it might cause a fight in the Republican Party. McCarthy kept up his attacks into 1954 when he made a great mistake. He started going after the United States Army. For eight weeks, on television, McCarthy questioned army leaders. Many had been in World War II and were heroes.

Primary Source: Photograph
Senator Joseph McCarthy and Welch at the Army hearings.

This was his terrible mistake. Television was new in the 1950s, and for the first time, Americans were able to watch McCarthy. Instead of showing a hero who was protecting them, television showed how mean McCarthy was. The army then went on the attack, showing how McCarthy’s had no evidence. One of the most famous quotes from history comes from this time. Joseph Welch, a lawyer for the army, told McCarthy, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness…. Have you no sense of decency?

Americans agreed. McCarthy was a jerk, and Welch and television had shown it. The American people could see through McCarthy’s old lies. Americans did not like attacks on the brave men and women of the army.

Tired of the embarrassing show, other senators attacked McCarthy for making the Senate look bad and his fight to find communists ended. In poor health and drinking too much alcohol, McCarthy himself died three years later.


Senator McCarthy was not the only one to make a name for himself, looking for communists. Members of the House of Representatives wanted to show that they were just as excited about finding communists.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) went after Hollywood. actors, writers and producers.  They were called to come to Washington, DC to meet HUAC and give names of co-workers who may have been members of the Communist Party.  Those who named names of people they thought might be communists got to go home and continue working.

Even still, people who would not talk to HUAC were put in jail. 

Primary Source: Document
A warning to Americas during the height of the Red Scare focused especially on the supposed influence of communists in Hollywood.

When ten writers and directors refused to answer the HUAC members’ questions, pointing out that the First Amendment protected them from having to talk about their ideas or the people they knew, they were put in jail. This was not really legal. The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to free speech and freedom of assembly, there is nothing illegal about being communist, meeting with communists, or sharing communist ideas.  Congress does not have the right to question anyone’s political beliefs.  But in the craziness of the early 1950s, just having someone say you were a communist would ruin someone’s life.

The Hollywood 10, as they came to be called, had to pay a fine, were put in jail, and lost their jobs. Like others who were accused of being communist during this time, they were blacklisted, meaning no one would give them a job. Years went by before they could work again.

Americans had mixed feelings about the Hollywood 10. Some people admired them for standing up for their rights. Other people thought that communism was such an important problem that bending the rules was needed to protect the country.


This time in American history is called the Red Scare or McCarthyism, and we look back with some surprise. How could people have been so filled with fear that they ignored the Constitution? Were there any communists in America? The answer is yes. Some of the people who were attacked had gone to communist meetings many years before. Also, there were a few Soviet spies working for the American government. But, most of the people hurt in the Red Scare had not done anything wrong. Still, all across America, state governments and school boards copied McCarthy and HUAC. Thousands of people lost their jobs and their friends because someone called them a communist.

The Red Scare affected many different people. Communist hunters often thought that labor unions might be a place to find communists. Because of this, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) joined in 1955 to protect themselves. Even schools were affected. Librarians and school boards pulled books they thought might hurt children, including Robin Hood, which was thought for teaching kids the communist idea of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

Some famous politicians first got their start during the Red Scare. Unlike Senator McCarthy, who became unpopular, congressman Richard Nixon showed that he was anti-communist as a HUAC member. He was picked by Eisenhower to be vice president in 1952. Later, Nixon ran for president himself and people liked him because they knew he was against communism. Another future president, an actor named Ronald Reagan, became president of the Screen Actors Guild, the union of Hollywood actors, and worked to find communists in Hollywood.

The Red Scare left a long shadow over American foreign policy as well. For more than 20 years, no leader could even think of visiting China or taking soldiers out of Vietnam without being called a communist. In the end, it was Richard Nixon, one of the great heroes of HUAC, who was able to visit China without being suspected of being soft on communists.

Above all, several messages became clear to the average American: Don’t say anything bad about the United States and don’t be different.


As the arms race was getting more serious, people became more scared about atomic bombs. Research on atomic energy was top secret. The results of that research had only been used for new bombs. President Eisenhower wanted to change that. In 1953, he gave a speech to the United Nations that has become known as “Atoms for Peace.”

Eisenhower wanted to find some way for new atomic science research to be used for good, not just for making bombs. Basically, Eisenhower said that the countries of the world should share their discoveries about atomic energy so that it could be used for peaceful things like producing electricity and medicine.

Atoms for Peace opened up nuclear research to people and countries that did not have nuclear bombs and sharing this information made it possible for some countries to make their first atomic bombs. But, Atoms for Peace got people thinking about having fewer nuclear bombs in the world.  The International Atomic Energy Agency was created and many countries signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Countries that already had atomic bombs kept them and built more, but very few other countries have developed atomic bombs since. In this way, Eisenhower was successful.

The Atoms for Peace made atomic energy much safer all around the world. It led to rules for using and handling nuclear material and creating nuclear power. Today, over 440 nuclear reactors in 31 countries make about 11% of the world’s electricity. In the United States, 99 reactors make about 19% of our electricity. Atomic technologies have been used by doctors to diagnose illnesses and treat cancers, in farming to get rid of pests, and in industry to make smoke detectors.

Primary Source: Photograph
The Grafenrheinfeld Nuclear Power Plant in Germany. The steam rising from the cooling towers is non-polluting. The use of nuclear technology for civilian purposes was an important product of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program.

The Atoms for Peace speech and program helped Americans, and the rest of the world see the good, and not just the bad side of nuclear power. However, Atoms for Peace did nothing to slow the arms race. The idea that to keep a nuclear war from starting, the United States must be ready to attack at any time, meant that the arms race was key to protecting our country. The same idea is the reason that the Soviet Union would not give up its atomic bombs. In fact, during Eisenhower’s time in office, the United States went from having just over 1,000 nuclear bombs to over 20,000.


Before World War II, the United States did not have factories that only made things for the military. In times of war, companies that built cars, refrigerators, and other things for regular people just switched to make tanks, airplanes and bombs. This was what President Franklin D. Roosevelt meant when he called America the Arsenal of Democracy.

However, the Cold War was different. The nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union meant that the United States could never go back to a time when the government was not inventing, making, and buying new weapons. And so, complicated and permanent connections grew between the military who needed the best, newest weapons, the companies who invented and made those weapons, and Congress, which voted to spend tax money to buy them.

President Eisenhower warned Americans about the danger of this relationship, which he called the Military Industrial Complex. He saw a future when members of Congress would need the votes of workers at factories such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or Raytheon that made things for the military. These members of Congress would make sure that the military bought new aircraft, bombs, and guns from these hometown factories so they would win the votes of the factory workers. In the end, the government would spend tax dollars, not because the military really needed something, but because these deals were important for creating jobs.

Since the 1950s, many leaders have tried to stop spending so much money on weapons.  But they almost always find that the Military Industrial Complex that was created during the Cold War has forever changed the way our country spends tax money and gets ready for war.


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Suddenly, it looked like the Soviets were better at science, engineering, and mathematics than the Americans. To fix this problem, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act.

Since nuclear weapons were key to protecting America, there was a great need for scientists and mathematicians who could invent new atomic weapons. For years, the United States had used scientists and mathematicians from Europe. But now it was time for the United States to teach its own people these skills. So the law tried to get American schools to do a better job of teaching math and science.

The law gave money for schools to improve their science labs and train new math and science teachers. It gave loans for students to attend college. It gave money for students to study languages that might help the government like Russian. The law started a search for talented students, which was the start of gifted and talented programs in public schools.

Perhaps most importantly, however, was that the Cold War changed Americans’ ideas about science in public schools. In the 1920s, a great debate happened between modernists who liked science and traditionalists who thought that the Bible told the truth about the world. The 1925 Scopes Trial is evidence of how strong the anti-science feelings were in America at the time. In the 1950s, all that changed. Studying science, not the Bible, was important to protect America. The traditionalists did not go away, but at least while the Soviet Union’s missiles were aimed at America, science and mathematics ruled the public schools.


Another important change that happened after the Soviets launched Sputnik was that Americans started to worry that their country was falling behind the Soviets in our total number of airplanes or missiles. By this time, the real number of nuclear missiles and bombs each country had was not important since they could destroy one another many times over. Still, the fear of being somehow behind our enemies was great.

In the early 1950s, American magazines began writing stories about nuclear powered or nuclear-armed Soviet bombers crossing the Arctic and raining bombs down on the United States. Although these stories were mostly made up, stories of a bomber gap got members of Congress to act. They spent tax money to buy more than 2,500 new planes for the air force, way more than was needed to fix a problem that was not even real to begin with.

Fear of a bomber gap was soon replaced, however, by fear of a missile gap. Missiles were far more scary than bombers since they could strike with less warning and covered the distance from the Soviet Union to the United States in minutes rather than hours. Soviet bomber airplanes might be shot down by American planes. But no one had any way to stop missiles. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy helped make this idea popular in speeches as he got ready to run for president in 1960.

President Eisenhower knew that there was no missile gap, and he did not like Kennedy’s speeches. He knew that fear could lead to problems in society. Eisenhower tried to help people stay calm, but the public seemed to believe in the idea of a missile gap. Once again, Congress tried to fix things by spending money for more missiles that were not needed.

In the end, Kennedy talking about a missile gap probably made America less safe.  Soviet leaders got the idea that Kennedy wanted to go to war. When Kennedy gave the ok for the Bay of Pigs attack on communist Cuba in 1961, what they thought seemed to be true. Kennedy’s speeches about a missile gap, which he had known was not true, ended up making the Cuban Missile Crisis much more dangerous than it had to be.

Whether they really thought there was a bomber gap or missile gap or not, Americans had good reasons to be afraid when it came to a nuclear attack. What could a regular person do if the Soviets decided to use their nuclear bombs? The answer was nothing, but this did not make people feel better. A big business started during the 1950s to build bomb shelters in backyards and under houses. Complete with beds, food and water, these shelters were advertised in popular magazines and newspapers. While a personal shelter might save a family from the blast and radioactive fallout of a nuclear attack, it is hard to imagine what sort of world they might climb out to find after eating their supply of old crackers.


Shortly after becoming president in 1953, President Eisenhower had given a speech in which he warned about the cost of having a large military. A former general and hero of World War II, Eisenhower surprised many with his speech. He said that every gun, missile, bomb, ship or airplane that was built was taking money away from people who needed homes, food, hospitals, roads and schools.

Primary Source: Document
Page 15 from Eisenhower’s copy of his farewell address that he used during the television broadcast

During his eight years as president, Eisenhower had watched as America’s economy grew and the country did well.  But he had also led during the Arms Race. A few days before he handed off power to John F. Kennedy, the young new president, Eisenhower gave one last speech. In this farewell address he warned of the danger of the Military-Industrial Complex. He also warned that when the government gave money to scientists to do research for the military, it limited the scientists by focusing them only on military needs.  Some discoveries might be missed, he cautioned.

He encouraged leaders in America and the world to be careful, to not do things suddenly that might seem important at the moment but could hurt people many years in the future.

Today, we can look back and see the wisdom that the old president showed. The lessons he told about trying to get along, staying out of unnecessary fights, being careful about the Military Industrial Complex, and trying to find ways to have a smaller military are still as true today as they were in 1961.


Every war America has fought has changed life back home. People make sacrifices to support the troops or take jobs in new places to fill in for workers who have joined the military. No war led to changes at home quite like the Cold War. We changed our economy. We learned to live in fear. In some cases, we turned on one another. Although President Eisenhower did his best to turn nuclear power into something good, so many things about fighting the Cold War were bad for everyday Americans.

Of course, what was the other choice if we did not fight the communists? Letting them win? That would have been terrible! Certainly, saving freedom was worth any price we had to pay. What do you think? Did the Cold War hurt America?



BIG IDEA: Fear of communism led Americans to turn on one another and changed the relationship between the military, government and defense contractors. However, the Cold War also led to improvements in education and new technologies for civilian use.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a second Red Scare swept the United States. People in both the House of Representatives and especially Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated suspected communists. Many people’s careers were ruined by false accusations since few real communists were ever found. Those that did, such as spies who had given nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, fueled fears that gave power to the accusers.

President Eisenhower wanted to find ways to use nuclear power for good, not just for weapons of destruction. His Atoms for Peace program encouraged the sharing of nuclear technology to support things such as medicine and nuclear power stations to generate electricity.

When he left office, Eisenhower warned America about the danger posed by the Cold War’s long period of military readiness. Unlike past wars that ended, the Cold War was always about to begin. This meant that the government was always spending money to have the latest military technology, and the companies and workers that supplied those weapons relied on tax money being spent for their jobs. Eisenhower warned that this would lead to unnecessary spending in the future, which has turned out to be true.

In fact, during the election campaign of 1960s, Kennedy encouraged this sort of spending by claiming that they United States had fewer missiles than the Soviet Union. This missile gap did not actually exist, but many people were so afraid of communists that they believed it anyway and their fear encouraged politicians to vote to spend money on the military.

Fear that the communists might be more advanced in the fields of science and math, and therefore might be able to surpass the United States in weapon design, led to spending in education. Science education became important again and many colleges and high schools built new science labs and hired science teachers.



Alger Hiss: American diplomat who had advised Roosevelt at Yalta and was involved in the creation of the United Nations. He was denounced as a communist during the Red Scare. He was convicted but evidence of his guilt is inconclusive.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Julius Rosenberg was scientist who gave nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. He and his wife Ethel were tried, convicted and put to death during the Red Scare.

Joseph McCarthy: Senator who became famous as an accuser during the Red Scare. He rarely presented evidence and was eventually discredited.

Reds: Derogatory nickname for communists.

Hollywood 10: A group of ten Hollywood writers, producers and directors who were accused of being communist. They refused to answer questions from HUAC and were blacklisted.


Military Industrial Complex: President Eisenhower’s term for the relationship between the military, weapons manufacturers, and lawmakers who allocated funding for weapons systems.

Bomber Gap: A perceived lack of long-range bombers capable of striking the Soviet Union in the early 1950s. There was no gap – the United States had a roughly equal number of bombers as the Soviet Union. Concern, however, meant an increase in spending for bomber aircraft.

Missile Gap: A perceived lack of ICBMs compared to the Soviet Union. There was actually no gap, but the public became concerned with Senator Kennedy repeatedly used the term to stoke fear during his 1960 presidential campaign.

Bomb Shelters: A place that would be safe during an atomic attack. They were often stocked with food, water, and medical supplies.


McCarthy’s 205 Communists: McCarthy claimed to know of 205 communists working in the State Department during a speech in 1950. He never provided evidence but his claim and subsequent Senate hearings made him famous.

Have you no sense of decency?: Famous line from Army lawyer Joseph Welch during the Red Scare. His televised question helped discredit Joseph McCarthy.

Atoms for Peace: A speech given by President Eisenhower in 1953 (and the government programs that followed) that encouraged the civilian use of nuclear technology.

Eisenhower’s Farewell Address: Televised address by departing President Eisenhower in 1961 shortly before Kennedy took office. Eisenhower warned of the dangers of all-or-nothing thinking and the growing influence of a military industrial complex.


Second Red Scare: The period in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the fear that communists were infiltrating America drove wild accusations and political investigations.

McCarthyism: Another term often used for the Second Red Scare which refers to the unfounded accusations common of the time.


Second Red Scare: The period in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the fear that communists were infiltrating America drove wild accusations and political investigations.

McCarthyism: Another term often used for the Second Red Scare which refers to the unfounded accusations common of the time.


Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: A treaty signed in 1968 by all but four countries in the world. Nations promise not to acquire nuclear weapons (if they don’t already possess them) and in exchange they may use nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

National Defense Education Act: Law passed in 1957 after the launch of Sputnik. It provided funding for science and mathematics education in schools and universities.

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