Educator Resources

Telegram from Senator Joseph McCarthy to President Harry S. Truman

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations

This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 9 -Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
    • Standard 3A -Demonstrate understanding of the political debates of the post-World War II era.

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.

  • Standard III.C.1. -Explain why certain provisions of the Constitution result in tensions among the three branches of government.

Constitutional Connection

This lesson relates to the interaction between the executive and legislative branches dealing with the security of our nation and acts that may be determined to be treason (Article III, Section 3, Paragraph 1).

Cross-curricular Connections

Share this exercise with your history, government, and language arts colleagues.

Analyzing the Document

  1. Provide the document into two separate parts: pages 1-5 of the telegram and page 6. First, distribute pages 1-5 to students. Read the document with the class paying special attention to the meaning of the following vocabulary as they pertain to the telegram: "fellow traveler," bed-fellow, McCarthyism, "guilt by association," "secret denunciation," blacklisting, browbeating, "point of order."

    After reading pages 1-5, ask students what they think motivated McCarthy to send this telegram. Record the results of this discussion on the board (might place focus on patriotism and hatred of communism).

    Next, distribute page 6 of the telegram and instruct students to read independently. Ask students whether it suggests any different motivations, and add the new suggestions to the list on the board.

    Ask students to write a brief response to McCarthy's telegram as though they were President Truman. Ask student volunteers to read their letter to the class.

    (Note: a copy of President Truman's unsent response is available.)

Research and Class Discussion

  1. Ask students to research the McCarthy hearings to determine the following: time frame of hearings, how they were broadcast, how the press reacted, and how the American people reacted in light of the Korean Conflict and the Cold War, and the work of investigative reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly (CBS). Instruct students to report their findings in a class discussion.

  2. Remind students that the featured document was a telegram and the hearings were broadcast by radio and early television, as well as covered by the press. Lead the class in a discussion using the following questions: Would McCarthy have had as big an impact if he had lived in the 1750s, an era with only limited press coverage, when exchanges would have been by the slow postal service? What impact might McCarthy have in today's information-saturated age, with CNN, cable and broadcast television, faxes, e-mail, and the Internet?

    Direct students to discuss Edward R. Murrow's investigative journalism, especially his 1952 expose on the vicious practices of McCarthy and the work of the CBS team Murrow and Friendly on "See It Now," a forerunner of today's program "60 Minutes."

Compare and Contrast

  1. Divide students into small groups of 4-5. Assign each group a different instance when political, racial, or ethnic minorities were persecuted by government officials. Examples include the 1692 Salem witch trials, Reconstruction-era vigilantism, and post-WWI events, such as the Red Scare, Sacco-Vanzetti trial, and revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Direct students to use library and Internet resources to determine when their instance occurred, how many people were involved, what persecution techniques were used, and what historians today say were the causes and results. Construct a chart on the board labeled with these categories and ask a representative from each group to complete the chart with the information they obtained. Lead a class discussion in which students identify similarities and differences.

Class Discussion

  1. Inform the students that President Eisenhower eventually used executive privilege and constitutional protections deriving from the principle of "separation of powers" to curtail McCarthy. As the Army-McCarthy hearings approached in 1954, President Eisenhower wrote the secretary of defense:

    "Because it is essential to efficient and effective administration that employees of the Executive Branch be completely candid in advising each other on official matters, and because it is not in the public interest that any of their conversations or communications, or any documents or reproductions concerning such advice be disclosed, you will instruct employees of your Department that in all of their appearances before the Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Government Operations regarding the inquiry now before it they are not to testify to any such conversations or communications or to produce any such documents or reproduction."

    Explain to students that later presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, had difficulty in maintaining claims of executive privilege for members of the executive branch during congressional hearings.

    Discuss the following questions with students:

    1. Was Eisenhower correct in ordering Army officers not to testify before McCarthy?
    2. Do you think that Nixon's, Reagan's, and Clinton's problems associated with executive privilege claims were related to the opposition party's having control of Congress?
    3. In what other instances in history has political control had a strong impact on decisions that have had such a strong effect on the American public?

Extension Activities

  1. Assign students to research and report on one of the following:

    1. The relationship between President Truman and Senator McCarthy from the time of the telegram until Truman left office in 1953.
    2. The effects of the McCarthy "witch hunt" on the life of a famous American who was blacklisted following investigation.
    3. The relationship between McCarthyism and Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. Collaborate with a language arts colleague to develop interdisciplinary activities on this topic.

The documents included in this project are from the Harry S. Truman Library. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifier:

The National Archives Catalog replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.

The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the National Archives Catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the National Archives Catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the National Archives Catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the National Archives Catalog will grow continually.

This article was written by Tom Gray, a teacher at DeRuyter Central Middle School in DeRuyter, NY.

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