Espionage and Its Impact on the US Government in the 1950s
by Lilith M. Waters
March 7, 2001
History of the 50s, 60s and 70s
K-W-L+ Lesson Plan on United States Espionage during the 1950s
For this lesson module, I would use the K-W-L+ reading procedure to initiate a discussion about the history of US espionage and treason. The K-W-L+ reading procedure determines what my students already know about spies in American history and builds upon that knowledge through pre-reading discussions, silent reading, and after-reading activities that reinforce what the students have just learned about the topic. It also makes connections between what the students already know about the topic and what they don’t know.
In addition to my class and guest lectures notes, I’ve selected three elementary-level books on famous American spies as appropriate reading material for my students at the shelter. My lesson is based on selected chapters from the following books: Spies Among Us: The Truth About Modern Espionage by Herma Silverstein; The Rosenbergs by Anita Larsen; and Infamous Trials by Bruce Chadwick. This lesson is most appropriate for students between the fourth and sixth grade reading levels, but it can be adapted for younger or older students.
I would begin this lesson by asking my students open-ended questions to spark their interest in the topic as well as elicit their background knowledge of famous American spies. For example, I may introduce the topic by asking one or more of the following questions: “Have you ever spied on someone, and how did you feel about it?” “Do you know any famous spies or traitors in American history?” “Did you know that the United States government created a special ‘spy’ unit designed to protect American citizens in the middle of the twentieth century? It is called the ‘CIA,’ but the responsibilities of the CIA are not limited to just spying. What do you think those responsibilities might be and how have these responsibilities affected the United States government policy and actions throughout history?”
During these discussions, my students would create a chart divided into three categories labeled “K,” “W” and “L.” They then would write their responses to the above questions under the category “K,” which refers to what they already know about the topic. When each student has finished his or her list, he or she can share it with the other students in the group.
The responses to these questions usually differ. For example, I might ask the following question: “Do you know any famous spies or traitors?” The purpose of asking this question is to connect what the student remembers about American history and facetious spies to the motives of more recent spies such as Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, Elisabeth Bentley, and the Rosenbergs. Examples of responses might include the following: One student might say James Bond. Another student might say Austin Powers. Another student might say Benedict Arnold and so on. All student responses, accurate or inaccurate, are recorded on the chart and used to answer questions about the motives of the infamous atom spies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. For instance, “What motivates people to spy against their own country?”
In the second category, I would ask my students what they want to learn about this topic or what they think they will learn about this topic based on the discussion. My students would list their questions about this topic under the category “W,” which means “what they want to learn.” Allowing my students to form their own questions gives them an incentive or purpose for reading; in other words, it motivates them to read because they are looking for the answers to their own questions. The interaction between the students and the teachers usually creates even more questions and ideas. It also allows students to understand the topic from another person’s point of view. When my students have finished writing their questions, they again share them with the group. All of their responses will be recorded under the category “W,” which stands for “Want to Learn,” on their charts. These charts are then set aside and referred to after silently reading the selection.
Before my students actually read the selection on spies, they learn important vocabulary to facilitate their understanding of the reading material. To teach this new vocabulary, I would use the context clue procedure found at the end of this lesson module. For each unknown word, I would instruct the students to read the sentence or passage from the beginning to the end and ask themselves the following questions: “What is the meaning of the underlined word?” “Does the meaning of the word make sense in that sentence?” “What clues did you use in the phrase, sentence, or paragraph to figure out the meaning of the word?” Then I would model sentences using this procedure until my students felt comfortable enough to complete the assignment on their own.
When reading, it is important for students to use different strategies to figure out the meanings of unknown words; therefore, a dictionary won’t be present as they are completing this assignment. Sometimes a dictionary or pictures are not conveniently available to assist the student while he or she is reading and it interrupts the reading process; therefore, it might be necessary for the student to learn these words using other strategies such as sounding out the word or figuring out the meaning of the word from the clues provided in the passage. Teaching students how to figure out the meaning of unknown words without resorting to a dictionary can improve a student’s reading level. It has been proven that many excellent readers use this strategy for understanding unfamiliar vocabulary, whereas poor readers are less inclined to use many different reading strategies.
After finishing the context clue procedure, they silently read chapters on atom spies from the previously-mentioned books and check their K-W-L chart to see which questions were answered or left unanswered by the articles.
Unanswered questions serve as basis for further discussion and exploration of the topic. Then I would ask each student what they learned about espionage that they didn’t know before and focus on specific cases in American history, particularly the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers hearings and the espionage case against the Rosenbergs. My students would be divided into two groups and asked to research the following questions: Were the Rosenbergs guilty or innocent of espionage? Was Alger Hiss a Communist spy? Did the Central Intelligence Agency abuse its powers? How did the United States government limit the powers of the CIA?
After my students have researched these controversial questions and supported their points of view, they can debate the pros and cons of each side of the story. For example, it has been generally proven that Ethel Rosenberg was not involved in espionage. Did she deserve to die in the electric chair because she belonged to the American Communist Party and her husband was guilty? Even though it was proven that Julius Rosenberg was involved, did he deserve to be executed when other confessed Communists received lighter sentences or were set free? Did people deserve to be prosecuted in the 1940s and in the 1950s for their Communist affiliations during the Great Depression? American citizens were so impoverished during the 1930s that they thought Socialist/Marxist/Communist philosophies were the answers to their problems.
What price did these people pay for their alleged Communist affiliations? Teachers lost their jobs and reputations, and House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated Hollywood writers and actors. The Hollywood Ten, a group of famous writers and producers, were blacklisted from Hollywood because they were accused of being Communists. Many people’s lives were ruined, and they couldn’t find employment. On the other hand, there were Communist spies who were greedy and sneaky or who thought that spying was glamorous. Alger Hiss was probably one of those people and deserved to be exposed, but many others were falsely accused as a result of McCarthyism or the Red Scare.
By the end of this lesson, my students at the shelter should be able to identity major intelligence/spy organizations in the United States and abroad, know the difference between espionage and treason, identify at least two well-known American spies from the 1950s, understand how the CIA was created, and adequately support their opinions about government spying and eavesdropping on private citizens. “Is it okay for a government agency like the CIA or State Department to undermine the President of the United States and give him false information (during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Iran/contra affair)? Is it appropriate to spy on private citizens claiming to be looking for Communists but instead eavesdropping on their personal lives? I’m sure that this lesson will give my students something to think about. I’m sure that they will realize that spying is not necessarily as glamorous as it would be in James Bond movies but actually a mundane experience – that is, until the person is caught. Of course, catching someone in the act of espionage captured the imagination of people in 1950s and today as well.
K-W-L+ on Espionage and Its Impact on US Foreign Policy Outline
What do you know about US espionage?
What do you want to learn about US espionage?
Silent reading: Since we’ve just discussed the topic of spying and determined what you already know about its impact on American history, let’s read the following passages on American spies of the 1950s and see what we can learn about its impact on the United States government and foreign policy.
What have you leaned about US espionage?
After-reading activities: Now let’s return to our list and check which questions the passage has answered on US espionage during the 1950s and make an easy-to-read diagram of that knowledge.
Research/journal writing activity: My students will be divided into two groups or teams and asked to research and write their opinion to the following open-ended question: Was the death sentence justified in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case?
Fun Activity: Afterwards, both groups will prepare and participate in a debate regarding the Rosenbergs. One side will argue for the death penalty, and the other side will argue against it. This assignment will give students an opportunity to learn how our US court system works.
1) Why was Russian espionage ignored or accepted in the United States during the 1930s and early 1940s? Why did some Americans resort to Communism in the 1930s? What happened to change the United States’ relationship with Russia toward the end of the 1940s and early 1950s?
2) How did the United States Senate respond to the threat of Communism in the United States? Were these actions reasonable?
3) What impact did McCarthyism have on the Democrat Party, on the Screen Actors’ Guild and on educators? What did the Republican Party think of McCarthy, especially President Eisenhower?
4) What was Richard Nixon’s biggest triumph as a politician? Why did Richard Nixon believe that Whittaker Chambers was telling the truth? How did Whittaker Chambers prove that Alger Hiss was a Communist spy?
5) Alger Hiss always maintained his innocence. Was it ever proven that he was a Soviet spy? Was he guilty or innocent of being a Soviet spy? If guilty, why do you think he tried to hide his association with the Russians?
s) The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death for espionage in the early 1950s. Was this sentence justified or unfair based on what you know about Communist spies? What was the reaction of Americans and of other countries?
7) How has the CIA undermined the presidency of the United States? How has the government tried to limit the powers of the CIA? How much power should the CIA have?
Context Clue Direct Instruction Lesson Module on US Espionage
This week, you will read some articles and learn new vocabulary related to the history of spying in the United States and its impact on the American government. Today you will learn how to figure out the meaning of new words using context clues. A context clue is the setting in which a word occurs. The context clue or setting could be a phrase, a clause, a sentence, a paragraph, or even a whole passage that provides you with a clue as to the meaning of an unknown word. To figure out unknown words, you should read to the end of a sentence (further, if necessary), think about the meaning of the unknown word from the clues given, and guess the meaning of the unknown word from those clues.
Let’s read the following practice sentences aloud. Let’s see if you can figure out the meanings of the underlined words from the clues given.
1) In 1947, the United States government developed a temporary agency to prevent the spread of Communist subversion called the OSS. Eventually it became a permanent intelligence agency called the Central Intelligence Agency or the CIA.
2) Espionage means spying.
3) Until the passage of Espionage Act of 1917, there were no laws regarding espionage against the United States.
Now try to guess the meaning of the underlined words in the following sentences on your own. If you need help with any of the problems, just let me know and I will assist you.
1) Only one branch of the CIA handles spying. It is called the Office of Special Operations (OSO).
2) The CIA practices plausible deniability, denying responsibility for any embarrassing or failed operation where there is even a 1% chance of it being believed.
3) Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted, and executed under the Espionage Act of 1917.
Sometimes, you may not be able to figure out the meaning of an unknown word because there aren’t enough clues in the information given. If you can’t use context clues, you will have to use another reading strategy to figure out the meaning of a word; but first, try to guess what the unknown word means based on your background knowledge and our discussions on spying.
1) Before and after his hearing with House Un-American Activities Committee, Whittaker Chambers was afraid of the KGB.
2) Whittaker Chambers, a former American Communist, produced evidence that Alger Hiss was a spy with the Pumpkin Papers.
Sample Context Clues
1) During World War II, the USSR was considered an ally of the United States. Russian government officials were given practically whatever they asked for in terms of US goods, blueprints, and technical information because of the lend lease policy.
2) By the 1950s, US enthusiasm for the lend lease policy deteriorated because Americans were convinced that the Russians were trying to overthrow the United States government.
3) Senator Joe McCarthy headed the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate alleged members of the Communist Party in the Democratic Party, among educators, and in the motion picture industry. He launched hysterical spy hunts in America against Communism. This period is known as McCarthyism.
4) While there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict Alger Hiss of espionage, he was convicted of perjury for lying to the House Un-American Activities Committee about his involvement with the Communist Party and with Whittaker Chambers.
5) Whittaker Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss was a Communist agent on Meet the Press. Alger Hiss sued Whittaker Chambers for slander for $75,000. (A lot of money at the time)
6) Elizabeth Bentley, the “blonde spy queen,” confessed that she was previously a courier for the Soviet Union and shockingly identified 80 Communist agents in the United States. Thirty-seven were State Department employees.
7) During the HCUA investigations, those people who took the Fifth Amendment were automatically considered guilty of espionage.
8) The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and were sentenced to death in the electric chair. Their lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, tried to save their lives by citing the Atomic Energy Act of 1946; however, the Supreme Court said that the Rosenbergs committed espionage before the 1946 law was passed.
9) According to the National Security Act of 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency’s main function is to gather secret intelligence, especially on Communist activities, and report that information to the President of the United States and the National Security Council.
10) However, CIA officers sometimes abuse their powers and don’t always inform the president of their operations. For example, they were accused of eavesdropping on ordinary American citizens and lying to President Kennedy about the likelihood of success with the Bay of Pigs invasion.