The Cold War on TV: Joseph McCarthy vs. Edward R. Murrow

In the heat of the Cold War, Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade became a media sensation.

Senator Joseph McCarthy used bold accusations and populist appeal to fuel Americans’ fear about the spread of communism in the 1950s. He met his match in a hard-hitting journalist, Edward R. Murrow, whose television commentary was sharply critical of McCarthyism.

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Sr. Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Brian Kamerzel

For Educators


This eight-minute video contextualizes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade that became a media sensation during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. McCarthy used bold accusations and populist appeal to fuel Americans’ fear about the spread of communism. He met his match in a hard-hitting journalist, Edward R. Murrow, whose television commentary was sharply critical of McCarthyism.

This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.

Background reading

By the end of the 1940s, Americans were growing increasingly unsettled by Cold War events. The Soviets had developed their own A-bomb. Nationalist China had fallen to the Communists. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee aimed to root out Communist subversion in the United States.

So when the junior U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, gave a speech at Wheeling, W. Va., on Feb. 9, 1950, he found a ready audience for his message: America was being betrayed by government officials who had sold out their country to the Communists.

Overnight, McCarthy became a populist hero. He deftly waged his battles in print and on camera against “traitors” in government he said were aiding the spread of international communism.

Along the way, McCarthy subverted Constitutional protections by interrogating his opponents using unnamed sources, casting their political leanings as criminal activity and treating their right not to answer his questions as an admission of guilt. He perfected the art of the smear: attacking suspects and foes with innuendo, rumor, outright lies.

He created a climate of fear called McCarthyism that would ultimately ruin thousands of lives. The movement seemed terrifying and unstoppable for years because many politicians felt they couldn’t take a public stand against him.

But in 1954, after several newspapers had begun to question McCarthy’s methods, the intrepid CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow broadcast a devastating indictment of the Wisconsin senator and won resounding support among viewers.

McCarthy’s problems only worsened that summer when he was singled out during a nationally televised Senate hearing for trying to turn his smear tactics against members of the U.S. Army.

The media attention that had fed McCarthy’s rise to power, now opened the door to his demise. By the end of the year, McCarthy’s behavior led the Senate to censure him. He died three years later at the age of 48.

Lesson Plan 1: McCarthyism – Populism and the Press

Students will learn how Joseph McCarthy rode to power on a wave of anti-communist fears, and how television contributed to both his rise and fall.


Students will:

  • Analyze primary and secondary sources related to the McCarthy era to explain the main ideas presented.
  • Apply evidence from primary and secondary sources to support responses to the essential questions.
  • Explain how the historical documents and ideas connect to today’s political climate and discourse.
Essential questions
  • How did McCarthyism affect American society?
  • What role did television and the American news media play in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rise to political power and eventual downfall?
  • Do the Internet and social media platforms help or hurt populist leaders seeking to gain power?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.3: Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4:Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.6:Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.8:Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1:Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on…topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1:Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.10.6-8.Explain the relevance of personal interests and perspectives, civic virtues, and democratic principles when people address issues and problems in government and civil society.
    • D2.Civ.1.9-12.Distinguish the powers and responsibilities of local, state, tribal, national, and international civic and political institutions.
    • D2.Civ.5.9-12.Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
    • D2.His.16.6-8.Organize applicable evidence into a coherent argument about the past.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.5.9-12.Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.16.9-12.Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.
    • D3.1.6-8.Gather relevant information from multiple sources while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.
    • D4.1.6-8.Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the arguments.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 8: 1945-1980
  • AP Human Geography
    • Unit 4: Political Patterns & Processes