The red scare in Montgomery County public schools

In this lesson, students will examine anti-communist investigations of the early 1950s, using the firing of William Hinckley of Montgomery Blair High School as a case study.

Historical Background

The ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War dominated U.S. foreign policy following the end of World War II. The U.S. government sent troops and provided economic support to countries around the world in an effort to stop the spread of communism. At home, many Americans were alarmed about the threat of Communist ideas infiltrating the country, as seen by the Red Scare and Joseph McCarthy’s accusations. Although the number of actual, self-proclaimed communists in the United States was quite small, many state legislatures passed anti-subversive laws, which aimed to stop teachers, police officers, and government employees from supporting the Communist Party or attempting to overthrow the government. According to a Washington Post article published in 1949, Maryland’s subversive laws were “the toughest in the United States.” Educators were the principle targets for McCarthyism attacks in Maryland. Teachers and educators were required to sign oaths attesting to their loyalty. One man in particular, Mr. William Hinckley, an English teacher at Montgomery Blair High School, was fired for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on his status as a communist. Mr. Hinckley’s case attracted regional attention and is a prime example of Cold War anxieties.

Lesson Objective

By the end of the lesson, students will be able to explain Cold War hysteria and anti-communist investigations of the 1950s by analyzing primary source documents and writing a newspaper editorial.



  1. Activator: To begin the lesson, distribute copies of “Student Questionnaire.” In an authoritative manner, read the directions at the top of the questionnaire and do not answer any student questions. Give students 2-3 minutes to complete the questionnaire. The questionnaire is intended to replicate interrogations and can be used to peek student interest in McCarthyism and set the mood for Cold War hysteria. Note: This part of the lesson is optional. Students may feel uncomfortable putting information on the questionnaire. Do not collect the questionnaire and gauge the emotional state of your students before using.
  2. At the end of the 2-3 minute time period, tell students to stop and interrogate the students about the answers to the questions. Be sure to tell the students that the activator was a simulation. Hold a class discussion about how the simulation made them feel. Ask the students to make connections to what they have already studied about the Cold War and ask them to make predictions about why state and local governments may have started interrogating people within the community.
  3. Students will watch the video “He May be a Communist,” which was produced by the government and shows cold war anxieties.
  4. Teacher will ask discussion questions after video: Who produced this video? Why is this an issue that is important to the Armed Forces? How many people do you think were suspected of Communism? Was this a regular occurrence? What groups of people do you think were targeted as being associated with the Communist party?
  5. Inform the students that teachers were often targets during the Red Scare. Ask students why some teachers may have be seen as dangerous during Cold War?
  6. Using the Promethean Board, display Herbert Block’s political cartoon You Read Books, eh? (You may also choose to provide a copy of the cartoon to each student).
  7. Distribute a copy of the Document Analysis Packet to each student. As a class analyze the political cartoon by answering the questions for Document 1.
  8. Inform the students that they will be investigating the case of a Montgomery County school teacher, William Hinckley, who was dismissed from Montgomery Blair High School (Silver Spring, MD) during the Red Scare.
  9. Break students into pairs for a primary source analysis activity, during which the students will look at the interrogations of school teachers and the dismissal of William Hinckley from Blair High School.
  10. Each student should receive a copy of the primary sources and the document analysis questions are in the aforementioned packet.
  11. Tell students that their job is to make connections between all sources and draw a conclusion as to whether they think William Hinckley should have been fired.
  12. In pairs, students will analyze the primary sources by completing questions on each source. While students are working in groups, the teacher will circulate and check understanding.
  13. At the end of the class period the teacher will lead a short discussion about the documents that were analyzed that class period. What actions are considered to be subversive according to Maryland’s Subversive Activities Act of 1949? What is the punishment? Why was William Hinckley dismissed from his position at Blair HS? How was the federal government involved in his dismissal? What is HUAC? How do the 1st and 5th Amendments connect to the case of William Hinckley?
  14. The next class period students will continue to analyze the documents and will begin writing a newspaper editorial to be finished for homework.


Students will write a newspaper editorial expressing their opinion about whether or not William Hinckley should have been fired from his teaching position at Montgomery Blair High School for being accused of being a registered Communist. Students should write a persuasive editorial that includes information they from the primary sources along with their own personal opinions.


Teacher will work with students and informally question groups to check understanding as students analyze the documents.

Teacher will check understanding by leading a group discussion after the documents have been analyzed.

Students will write a newspaper editorial that explains whether or not they think Hinckley should have been fired. This will show understanding of the material and Cold War hysteria.


This lesson can be differentiated for on-level classes by reading and analyzing the documents as an entire class rather than as a partner or group activity.

Use scaffolding with the more challenging newspaper article by underlining the important information in the text, or in the columns of the newspaper article write the number next to the location of the analysis questions.

Enrichment activity: Students can research other examples of Cold War hysteria in education, entertainment, etc.; Students can investigate McCarthy’s attack on Maryland Senator Millard Tydings.

Enrichment activity: Students can do biographical research on Elizabeth Bentley, a U.S. spy in the Soviet Union, who investigated and brought evidence against William Hinkley and others.


Blumenthal, Ralph. “When Suspicion of Teachers Ran Unchecked.” The New York Times. June 15, 2009 (accessed December 3, 2011).

Lyons, John F. “Cold War and Anti-Communism.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. (accessed December 3, 2011).

“Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies: Elizabeth Bentley.” Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (accessed March 21, 2012).

Block, Herbert. You Read Books, eh? Political Cartoon. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post, 1949.

“Free State’s ‘Subversive’ Bill is Toughest in the United States.” The Washington Post. March 6, 1949. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. (December 3, 2011).

MauuP9. “He May be a Communist.” YouTube video. (accessed March 21, 2012).

“Montgomery Teacher Fired on Red Issue.” The Washington Post. June 29, 1950. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. (December 3, 2011).

“School Board Backs Firing of Hinckley.” The Washington Post. July 12, 1950. ProQuest Historical Newspapers (December 3, 2011).

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