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Civil Liberties and McCarthyism

180 min

How did laws enacted during national security crises affect liberty and security in America?

  • Students will learn the historical background of the Cold War and McCarthyism.
  • Students will analyze documents related to anti-communist legislation.
  • Students will evaluate the threats to civil liberties, especially free speech, free press, and freedom of association, during national security crises.

Review the text of the First Amendment on Handout A: First Amendment, U.S. Constitution, 1791 and discuss the questions provided.

Have students independently read the following documents and conduct a whole-class discussion of the documents and the questions provided.

  1. Handout B: Liberty and Security: Civil Liberties and McCarthyism
  2. Handout C: House Un-American Activities Committee Mission Statement, 1948

Assign students to small groups and distribute one pair of the remaining Handouts to each group as shown. Allow time for students to analyze their assigned pair of documents and then have each group report on their work. Recommendation: make groups small enough that you have at least two of each of the groups. This will encourage a higher level of participation within the small group. It also allows groups who worked with the same document pair to compare and contrast their reasoning with one another.

  1. Smith Group:
    • Handout D: The Alien Registration Act of 1940, also called the Smith Act
    • Handout G: Dennis v. United States (1951) Chief Justice Vinson; a 6 – 2 Decision
  2. McCarran Group:
    • Handout E: Internal Security Bill of 1950, also called the McCarran Act
    • Handout F: Truman’s Veto of the Internal Security Bill, September 22, 1950
  3. Journalist Group:
    • Handout H: “McCarthy Cries Again,” Collier’s, August 2, 1952
    • Handout I: Edward R. Murrow, See It Now, March 9, 1954

After all groups have reported and answered any questions posed by classmates, then provide Handout J: Follow-up for whole-class discussion.

Have students compare and contrast Cold War Era restrictions on civil liberties with those that were enacted by the Patriot Act in 2001.

Student Handouts

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Due Process and Fair Trials