The Cold War in the 1950's, Sputnik & the National Education Act: High School History

The Cold War in the 1950's, Sputnik & the National Education Act: High School History
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During the early 1950’s America endured some of the most objectionable excesses of the Cold War. After the trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of atomic espionage, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin led a baseless witch hunt to root out supposed Communist sympathizers. The international situation impacted travel with the creation of the Eisenhower Interstate System. Finally, the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik changed public education with the enactment of the National Education Act. The Cold War significantly affected Americans domestically over the decade of the 1950’s.

Objectives: Students should be able to evaluate the impact of the Cold War upon the lives of many Americans though the decade.


  • Classroom computer with projector and speakers.
  • Class copies of the documents detailed below.

Lesson Procedure

1. Set up the Rosenberg trial by discussing the advent of atomic weapons at the end of the Second World War and the HUAC hearings on the Hollywood Ten and Alger Hiss. Convey the trepidation that Americans felt when the Soviet Union started testing nuclear weapons of its own. Distribute and have students read the New York Times article from the day that the Rosenberg’s were sentenced. It can be found here:

Discuss the verdict and the lack of hard evidence connecting the couple to any espionage activity. Try to relate the atmosphere of fear and near panic at the time.

2. Show the following clip from a Smithsonian documentary on the McCarthy hearings.

Discuss what the phrase “big lie” means and how Senator McCarthy played upon the fears of the public in the wake of the Rosenbergs and previous public hearings. Explain that McCarthy was eventually exposed as a fraud and censured by the Senate.

3. Show students a map of the Eisenhower Interstate System, which can be found here:

Ask students why both Republicans and Democrats would have supported the creation of a project that would spend tremendous amounts of tax dollars. Initially the system was planned to be able to both move American armies internally in case of Soviet invasion and to be able to evacuate cities in case of nuclear attack.

4. Ask students about their current math and science courses and your school’s requirements in those areas. Explain that requirements in both math and science can be traced back to the launch of Sputnik. Students can read about the launch here:

The launch of Sputnik convinced many Americans that the country had fallen behind in both mathematics and hard sciences and convinced Congress to pass the National Education Act, which raised requirements for both so that young Americans could be equipped to compete, especially in the burgeoning space race.


Students can access a timeline of the cold war here.


  • Photo of Julias and Ethel Rosenberg by Roger Higgins, photographer from “New York World-Telegram and the Sun” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This post is part of the series: The 1950’s: Culture, Conformity & Civil Rights

This series of five high school lesson plans teaches your students the highlights of the decade of the 1950’s in America. From middle class culture, to beatniks, rock and roll and the beginning of the civil rights movement.

  1. High School Lesson Plan: Conformity in the 1950’s
  2. High School Lesson Plan - Counterculture and Criticism in the 1950’s
  3. High School Lesson Plan - The Birth of Rock n' Roll
  4. High School Lesson Plan - The Cold War at Home
  5. High School Lesson Plan - The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s