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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 Josef Stalin’s power. Every time Americans read their newspapers, there seemed to be something new, more scary and more dangerous.

These fears changed the way Americans thought about freedom and safety, and protection. Sometimes they became paranoid and stopped thinking about basic freedoms as they fell over themselves to find communists hidden in America. Other times, a will to protect themselves and stay ahead of the East’s rising danger led to amazing progress in science and engineering.

While the face-to-face standoff between the 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 provided work for women. Many brave American leaders advanced to the civil rights movement for African-Americans.

Was this true of the Cold War? Did this long period of living on the edge of war make life at home better, or did the Cold War hurt America?


Are you, or have you ever been, a communist? In the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of Americans who worked in the government, served in the army, worked in the movie industry, or came from any number of other walks of life had to answer that question under oath.

It did not take long for the Cold War showdown in Europe and Asia to come home. In 1947, President Truman had ordered background checks of every government worker to make sure they were not secretly supporting communism or Nazism. When Alger Hiss, a leader at the State Department who had been helping Roosevelt at Yalta and been involved in creating the United Nations was charged as a communist and arrested for spying, Americans panicked. The Hiss trial ended in 1950 with Hiss going to jail.

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 been involved. All the same, they were both convicted and put to death in the electric chair.

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin added to this fear by saying that communists were everywhere and that he was America’s only protection. Historians often call his work a witch hunt just like the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s because many people were accused without proof.

At a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, McCarthy started his attack. He said that he was 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. McCarthy began to get the attention of newspapers and the Senate asked him to show his proof. As it turned out, McCarthy was never able to give any evidence to support his claims.

On February 20, 1950, McCarthy made a list of people he thought were communists. At first he gave 81 names but lowered that number later. For most cases, he used the same weak evidence. He proved nothing, but other Senators were suspicious enough to call for a full investigation. McCarthy had the country’s attention.

Staying in the news was a full-time job. After accusing low-level officials, McCarthy went for the big names. Even questioning Dean Acheson and George Marshall’s loyalty, two of the most respected Republican leaders of the day.

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 an tool 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 a master of 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 was did not want to attack McCarthy because it might split the Republican Party. McCarthy’s charges went on into 1954 when the Wisconsin senator turned on the United States Army. For eight weeks, on television, McCarthy questioned army leaders, including many war 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, leading up to one of the most memorable lines in government history. Joseph Welch, a lawyer for the army, told McCarthy, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” Then Welch went on, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?

Americans agreed. McCarthy was a jerk, and Welch and television proved it. The American people could see McCarthy old lies. Poll after poll showed that Americans did not like attacks on the brave men and women of the military.

Fed up with the embarrassing show, other senators attacked McCarthy for making the Senate look bad. 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 stopping the red threat.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) went after Hollywood. Actors, writers and producers were all were asked to appear before the committee 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 were allowed to return to business as usual. Those who refused to talk to the committee were put in jail. Since 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.

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, noting their first amendment rights, they were put in jail. This was not really legal. Since Congress does not have the right to question anyone’s political beliefs, but in the craziness of the early 1950s, even being accused of being a communist was like to a social death sentence.

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 passed before they could work again.

Americans had mixed feelings about Hollywood 10. Some people admired them for standing up to government officials who were violating their rights. Others felt that communism was such an important problem that bending the rules was needed to protect the nation.


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 sure, yes. Some of the people who are attacked had attended communist events many years before . In fact, it had been popular to do so in the 1930s.

Although Soviet spies did get into the American government, most of the people hurt in the Red Scare had not done anything wrong. All across America, state governments and school boards copied McCarthy and HUAC. Thousands of people lost their jobs, their friends, and their good names.

Unions were often targets of communist hunters. Because of this, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) joined in 1955 to protect themselves. 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 selected by Eisenhower to be vice president. 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 get rid of 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. Ultimately, 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 criticize 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 been used only for developing new bombs. President Eisenhower wanted to change that. On December 8, 1953, he delivered a speech to the United Nations that has become known as “Atoms for Peace.”

Eisenhower wanted to find some way for the great new atomic science to be used for good, not just for making bombs. Basically, Eisenhower said that the countries of the world should share the discoveries they were making in atomic energy so that inventions for war could also be used for peaceful reasons like producing electricity and medicine.

Atoms for Peace opened up nuclear research to people and countries that did not have nuclear bombs. This made it possible for some countries to develop bombs. However, the Atoms for Peace program that Eisenhower talked about also had good changes for the world.

Atoms for Peace got people thinking about having fewer nuclear bombs and led to the International Atomic Energy Agency and 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 program also created rules for the use and handling of 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 the industry to make smoke detectors and, maybe someday, automobiles.

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 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 strike at any time, meant that the arms race was key to protecting ourselves. The same idea is the reason that the Soviet Union would not give up its atomic bombs either. In fact, during Eisenhower’s time in office, the United States when from having 1,005 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 sold to regular people simply changed their factories to produce tanks, airplanes and bombs. This was what President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 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 when the government was not inventing, making and buying new weapons. And so, a complicated and permanent network grew up between the military who needed the latest weapons, the companies who developed and built 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 realize that they needed 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. In the end, the government would spend tax dollars, not because the military needed a new weapon, but because these deals were important for creating jobs.

Since the 1950s, many leaders have tried to reduce the number of weapons we have or stop buying new equipment. They say these are not needed, but come up against the Military Industrial Complex and find that the needs of the Cold War have forever changed the way our country produces the tools of war.


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Suddenly, there was clear evidence that Soviet school might be better than schools in the United States, and Congress reacted by passing the National Defense Education Act to bring American schools up to speed.

Since protecting America was based on nuclear weapons, 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 such as Russian. The law started a search for talented students, which was the start of gifted and talented programs in public schools.

Perhaps most important, 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 had shown this conflict. In the 1950s, all that changed. Studying science, not the Bible, was important to protect America. The traditionalists did not disappear, 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 when the Soviets launched Sputnik was the growing idea that the United States was falling behind in its total number of missiles. By this time, the real number of nuclear missiles and bombs each nation 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 carrying stories about nuclear powered or nuclear-armed Soviet bombers crossing the Arctic and raining bombs down on the United States. Although these stories were exaggerated, stories of a bomber gap got members of Congress to do something. In response, the air force added more than 2,500 planes its own bomber fleet, 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. Incoming bombers 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, who knew that there was no missile gap, 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 reacted by spending money for more missiles that were not needed.

Ironically, talk of a missile gap probably made America less safe since Soviet leaders began to view Kennedy as a leader who wanted to go to war. When Kennedy gave the ok for the attack of communist Cuba in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, 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 bought into the idea of the bomber gap and 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 launch a nuclear attack? The answer was nothing, but this did not make people feel better. A whole industry grew up 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 is built is like taking money away from people who need 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 seen a great economy and also a huge buildup of the military. 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, a name he invented for the speech. He also warned that when the government gave money to scientists to do research for the military, it limited what kind of new ideas might be discovered.

He encouraged leaders in America and the world to be careful, to keep an eye on the distant future, to not do things suddenly that might seem important at the moment but might harm people in the future.

Years later, 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 true today as they were in 1961.


Every war America has fought has changed live 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 produced results 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 the bad side of nuclear weapons into good changes for the world, so many things about fighting the Cold War were bad for everyday Americans.

Of course, what was the other option 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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