Skip Discover Education Main Navigation
Skip Discover Education Main Navigation

Home> Teachers> Free Lesson Plans> Eisenhower: The Contentious 1950s

Eisenhower: The Contentious 1950sEisenhower-The-Contentious-1950s

  • Subject: U.S. History
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Three class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. The United States faced several significant domestic and international problems in the 1950s.
2. The population and politicians held conflicting opinions on these issues.


For this lesson, you will need:
Access to reference materials about the United States during the Eisenhower years


1. Introduce or review the concept of role-playing as a means for exploring characters in a piece of literature or identifying with people who lived through a historical period. Announce to the class that you are going to divide them into "families" of three to five students each. Each group will need two students to take on the roles of adults (parents, grandparents, other relatives, or family friends) and one to three students to take on the roles of children of various ages. The assignment is for each group to work together to identify at least one issue of the 1950s that it will discuss in front of the rest of the class as if the actors were a family around a table at dinnertime in the 1950s.
Clarify for students that in role-playing they will not work with scripts per se but that they will have to plan within their groups (see below) before attempting to role-play for three to five minutes in front of others.
2. Ask the students to suggest pressing concerns of the 1950s—concerns that might have made their way to family dinner tables and that led to contention (which you can define as "discord," "squabble," "dissension," or "conflict")—within the country at large and also within families. Perhaps introduce this activity by quoting John Chancellor, who has said, "Nothing seemed to be going right at home or abroad." Topics that caused contention and that students should suggest include the following:
  • The McCarthy hearings
  • Battles in courts and schools over civil rights
  • War fatigue resulting from World War II and then the Korean War
  • The nation's struggle with economic problems
3. Each group should research one of the issues through printed sources, the Internet, and interviews with family members who remember living through the 1950s in the United States. The goal of the research is for the students to identify the range of Americans' positions on the issue under investigation. What were the two or more sides on this issue? Who took which side, and why?
4. Each group of students should outline how the dinner table conversation will proceed. Encourage the groups to consider questions such as the following and to prepare notes to keep in front of themselves during rehearsal and performance:
  • At the beginning of the dinner, what are the moods of the various members of the family? Are they glad to be together, or do some seem to resent the others?
  • Who will bring up the issue (political, social, or economic) that the family members will talk about at dinner? What will that family member's position be?
  • Who will challenge or refute the first speaker? If more than one person wants to respond at the same time, how will that conflict be settled? What will the challenger(s) say?
  • Who in the family will agree with the position of the first speaker? What will he or she say?
  • How will the first speaker react to the challenges and the support of the other family members?
  • Will the discussion be civil, or will family members start squelching one another? If the members start fighting, how can the actors calm tempers so that the dinner doesn't totally fall apart?
  • How will the dinner discussion end?
5. After each group has had a chance to rehearse its dinner conversation without an audience, give each group a chance on center stage in front of their classmates.
6. After all groups have performed, lead a discussion in which students analyze how the role-playing was similar or different across groups and what techniques were most or least effective.

Back to Top


Younger students will benefit from your viewing and culling Internet articles for them rather than leaving the research entirely to them.

Back to Top

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the problems facing the nation which led many Americans to look to their war hero Eisenhower as a possibility for the presidency.
2. Analyze how Eisenhower was able to win the Republican nomination for president.
3. Discuss Eisenhower's views on McCarthyism and how they explain his actions at the height of McCarthy's power.
4. Analyze Eisenhower's role in the civil rights movement.
5. Compare and contrast how Truman and Eisenhower responded to economic problems facing the U.S.
6. Explain Eisenhower's relationship with the Democratic Congress.

Back to Top


You can evaluate your students' performances using the following three-point rubric:
  • Three points: role-played conversation based on facts as well as opinions; equal distribution of the role-playing among all "family" members; logical ending to role-playing session
  • Two points: role-played conversation based on facts as well as opinions; poor distribution of the role-playing among members; logical ending to role-playing session
  • One point: role-played conversation not based on facts, only opinions; poor distribution of the role-playing among members; inconclusive ending to role-playing session
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by having them determine the minimum number of facts that should be covered in the course of each role-playing session.

Back to Top


For Further Reading
Ask students to go beyond secondary sources about the contentious 1950s, encouraging them to read and report on such primary sources as the following:
  • Arthur Miller's play The Crucible : How does a play about the Salem witch trials relate to the McCarthyism of the 1950s?
  • A speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.: What methods of persuasion did this civil rights leader use?
  • Chief Justice Earl Warren's majority opinion in the landmark 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka case: What is the most compelling piece of evidence or reasoning in the decision?


Back to Top

Suggested Readings

Eisenhower: A Centennial Life
Michael R. Beschloss, HarperCollins, 1990
"I like Ike, you like Ike, everybody likes Ike...Let's send Ike to Washington!" is the famous commercial jingle that Eisenhower used in his first presidential campaign. Relive this and other important events of Ike's life and presidency through the myriad of photographs in this pictorial work.

"Dwight David Eisenhower: 34th President"
David Rubel, Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and their Times, Scholastic Inc., 1994
To find out 1) why Republicans bombarded voters with stockings and makeup cases imprinted with "I Like Ike" in the 1952 presidential campaign, 2) who composed "The Little Rock Nine" in the civil rights movement, and 3) the reasons for the dismay of Sputnik and the U-2 Incident, see this illustrated profile of Eisenhower and his era.

Back to Top


Quick Facts: Dwight D. Eisenhower
A brief and factual summary of Eisenhower's life. It also lists all the cabinet members who served during his administration.

The Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower
This is the official White House biography of Eisenhower, with links to information about the First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.

National Aeronautics and Space Administraton History Timeline

Back to Top


Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    old guard
Definition: An experienced group of officials who adhere to a system of long-accepted standards and actions.
Context: Taft was a member of the old guard.

speaker    subversives
Definition: Those who engage in a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by working secretly from within.
Context: For almost two years the struggle went on between president and senator over the proper way a democracy should handle so-called subversives.

speaker    demagogue
Definition: A leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.
Context: McCarthy was a demagogue who kicked up a tremendous row in this country.

speaker    censure
Definition: To find fault with and criticize as blameworthy.
Context: In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy.

speaker    gridlock
Definition: A complete lack of movement or progress resulting in a backup or stagnation.
Context: There was no gridlock in the Eisenhower years.

Back to Top


This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the roles of political parties, campaigns, and associations and groups in American politics.
Understands how political parties are involved in channeling public opinion, allowing people to act jointly, nominating candidates, conducting campaigns, and training future leaders; and understands why political parties in the United States are weaker today than they have been at times in the past.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals.
Knows historical and contemporary examples of citizen movements seeking to expand liberty, to insure the equal rights of all citizens, and/or realize other values fundamental to American constitutional democracy (e.g., the suffrage and civil rights movements).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the Cold War and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts in domestic and international politics.
Understands the various anti-communist movements after World War II (e.g., causes and consequences of the second "Red Scare" that emerged after World War II, the emergence of McCarthyism and its impact on civil liberties).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
Understands how legislation and the Supreme Court influenced the civil rights movement (e.g., the social and constitutional issues involved in Plessy v. Ferguson [1896] and Brown v. Board of Education [1954] court cases; the connection between legislative acts, Supreme Court decisions, and the civil rights movement).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the legacy of the New Deal in the post-World War II period.
Understands different social and economic elements of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations (e.g., postwar reaction to the labor movement and responses of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to labor's agenda, civil rights program of the Truman administration, how Eisenhower's domestic and foreign policy priorities contrasted with his predecessors).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America.
Understands influences on the American economy after World War II (e.g., increased defense spending, the U.S. economy in relation to European and Asian economies, the impact of the Cold War on the economy).

Back to Top


Laura Maupin, history teacher, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia.

Back to Top