Red Scare: The Cold War & Television

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Grades 10–12

Class Description

During the 1950s television emerged as the most powerful mass medium since the invention of the printing press. At this time, America was gripped with fear and anxiety about the possibilities of war and nuclear threat, and television reflected this paranoia. Through close examination of 1950s television, including news, public service announcements, documentaries, and science fiction programming, this class investigates the ways that television reflected and perpetuated fear and hysteria during the Cold War period, a pivotal moment in modern history.

Class length: one hour

Below are some examples of advertising from the 1950s and 1960s. The first video is a public service announcement from 1951 funded by the US Federal Civil Defense Administration called “Duck and Cover.” The second video features two different presidential campaign ads from 1964, one for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater and the second for the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat. These pieces of media capture the emotions of the Cold War exceptionally well; one can’t help feeling the stress, anxiety, and fears of the era jumping off the screen.



As a group, provide definitions for the following words and concepts, which will be referenced during the class.

BLACKLIST: A list of persons who are disapproved of or are to be punished or boycotted. An entertainment industry-wide policy of refusing to hire alleged communists, former communists, and communist sympathizers, although formal blacklists were not permitted to exist.

COLD WAR: A conflict over ideological differences carried on by methods short of sustained overt military action and usually without breaking off diplomatic relations.

COMMUNISM: A theory advocating elimination of private property; a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed. A totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production; the final stage of society in Marxist theory in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equally.

HOUSE UN-AMERICAN COMMITTEE (HUAC): A congressional committee that held hearings on the film and entertainment industries in 1938, 1947, 1951–52, 1953–55, and 1957–58. The committee also looked into alleged pro-communist activities of teachers, professors, and other individuals and organizations.

MCCARTHYISM: A term first coined in 1950 and later defined in 1954 as a public accusation of disloyalty unsupported by truth; also refers to an unfairness in investigative technique.

SENATOR JOSEPH MCCARTHY: United States Senator from 1946–1954 known for his extremist anticommunist pursuits.

RED SCARE: Anticommunist fanaticism that flourished in the United States roughly between 1947 and 1960, representing the notion that "Reds"—communists—were an overwhelming present danger to the United States and its citizens.


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For more information, visit these websites:

CNN’s interactive site companion to the 1998 series Cold War

The Cold War Museum