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National SecurityNational-Security

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

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Cases involving a breach of national security, such as the Rosenberg case, tend to be very complicated.
2. Problems with national security continue in the digital age.


For this lesson, you will need:
Access to articles and books on recent U.S. espionage cases


1. After a discussion of the Rosenberg spy case during the Cold War, bring the issue of international spying up-to-date by asking students to prepare research reports on a recent or current investigation into espionage by people working for the U.S. government. Students may want to conduct research on the case involving one of the following individuals:
  • Aldrich H. Ames, the CIA official sentenced to life for selling to the Soviet Union the names of Soviet and East bloc officials spying for the United States
  • Jonathan Pollard, the naval intelligence specialist sentenced to life for passing classified documents to Israel
  • Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos scientist under investigation in early 2000 for copying to his computer information about nuclear weapons and allegedly releasing the information to China
2. Direct students to find out what they can from newspapers, magazines, and books about the basic facts of the case they choose to study. Alert students that each side in the case may see the basic facts differently than the other side does. It is each student's responsibility to lay out in his or her report both sides' claims as clearly as possible.
3. Assign students the additional task of comparing and contrasting the case they are investigating with the case involving the Rosenbergs. Some of the questions you may ask students to address in their reports follow:
  • According to experts, did the release of secret information in the more recent case hurt the United States as much as the release of information by Julius Rosenberg?
  • What internal problem or deficiency in U.S. security systems contributed to the release of important information in this case and in the Rosenberg case?
  • In each case, who besides the person found guilty or the person under investigation for spying has suffered greatly? How?
  • What doubts, if any, remain in the more recent case and in the Rosenberg case about the guilt of the persons accused or under investigation?
4. Review with students the two common systems for laying out an analysis of similarities and differences within a piece of writing:
  • The block method, in which the writer gives all the information about one item (one spy case) and then all the information about the other item (the other case)
  • The alternating method, in which the writer focuses on one feature—say, the seriousness of the espionage—of each subject before going on to focus on another feature—say, remaining doubts
5. Remind students to follow the writing process—prewriting, drafting, and revising and editing.

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Simplify the assignment by summarizing for students all the spy cases—the Rosenberg case as well as the more recent cases. Ask students to write their thoughts and feelings about these cases in their journals.

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Discussion Questions

1. Communism can be defined as both a social or economic system and a political system. Communism, with a capital C, is the system that a government tries to impose on its people, while the "small c version" is a way of life that people engage in. In your opinion, what is communism? Describe its political, economic, and ideological characteristics. Why do you think Americans objected so strongly to communism after World War II?
2. Is it possible for Communism to exist in the form of any meaningful movement in the United States? Do the ideals of America and those of communism (the socioeconomic system) mutually cancel each other out, or can they co-exist in our society?
3. What factors do you think led Julius Rosenberg and others to become involved in espionage? If you believe he was guilty, describe the factors you believed it took for him to become attracted to Soviet-style communism and to betray his nation. If you believe he was innocent, what factors do you think led him to fall under suspicion of espionage?
4. Is it possible for such a case of domestic espionage to take place today? Which of America's foreign enemies might attempt to recruit American citizens to betray their nation? What do you think it would take for the average American citizen to become involved in espionage against the United States?
5. How did the development and testing of the atomic bomb change the world? What effect did the testing have on the balance of power in world politics at the time? Do you think the test changed the lives of average Americans who were living during this period? If so, how were their lives affected? If not, why were their lives unaffected by the testing?
6. Do you feel the sentence given to the Rosenbergs was a just one? Support your response with logical reasoning.
7. Make a case in favor of or against the death penalty. Relate your position to the facts in the Rosenberg case.
8. Should the Rosenbergs be judged by history as heroes or traitors? Consider the following debate: were their actions motivated by a genuine interest in achieving a balance of power between the superpowers during the Cold War, or were they traitors who heightened the possibility of nuclear war, thereby putting millions in needless danger? Was Julius Rosenberg's apparent commitment to the cause of socialism one he apparently was willing to die for — analogous to dying for the cause of democracy and freedom as America's founders did during the revolution against Great Britain? When Julius and Ethel refused to implicate individuals who had been brought into the Soviet spy circle, were Julius' actions admirable?
9. It is apparent that Ethel Rosenberg was not involved in the Soviet spy circle with which her husband was associated. Was Ethel a hero for dying with her husband because she failed to convince the jury that she was not involved?

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You can evaluate students' comparison-contrast essays using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: concise and accurate summary of the more recent case; clear organization of the comparison-contrast part of the essay; error-free grammar, usage, and mechanics
Two points: adequate summary of the more recent case; disorganized presentation of the comparison-contrast part of the essay; some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
One point: missing or inadequate summary of the more recent case; disorganized presentation of the comparison-contrast part of the essay; many errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining the minimum number of features students should include when comparing and contrasting the two cases.

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Our Security, Their Security
Ask students to compare and contrast the CIA with the Soviet-era KGB and Israel's intelligence organization, Mossad.

Careers in Intelligence Work
Direct students to learn about various careers and career paths within the CIA and FBI. Alternatively, suggest students look into intelligence work or security work in the private sector as we move deeper and deeper into the digital age.

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Suggested Readings

The Old Left in History and Literature
Julia Dietrich. Twayne Publishers, 1996.
The Rosenbergs' trial and execution are the culminating events chronicled in this sympathetic overview of various socialist/communist movements and their players in 20th-century America. The origins of communist activity in America are traced from Max Eastman's Masses in Greenwich Village in 1912 through the Rosenberg executions in 1953.

Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War
Virginia Carmichael. University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
In this volume of the American Culture series, the author allots more than half of the work to relate the story of the Rosenbergs and to attempt to uncover the untruths that have grown around their story. The second portion of the work examines the transformation of the Rosenbergs to American cultural icons of the Cold War, as manifested in American politics, media, and art.

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Famous American Trials
A faculty project by Dr. Douglas Linder at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

Rooting Out Reds
An excellent historical account with study guide.

Michael Meeropol Statement on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
A statement from the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on the guilt of their parents.

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

speaker    conspiracy
Definition: A plot or secret agreements among a group of people to commit a crime or do something harmful (e.g., commit treason or espionage).
Context: The Rosenberg case has been characterized a diabolical conspiracy against America's national security that altered the course of history.

speaker    intelligence
Definition: The gathering of secret information, usually in the areas of international politics or military activity.
Context: Recruiting agents across the country, Soviet Intelligence launched the most daring espionage operation in intelligence history.

speaker    fascism
Definition: Any system of government where one party rules the state and the economy through a combination of propaganda, nationalism, militarism, and the crushing of all political opposition.
Context: All of Rosenberg's circle of friends were worried about the rise of fascism in Europe.

speaker    espionage
Definition: The process of spying.
Context: During the fall of 1944, fate or coincidence would lead Julius Rosenberg to become involved in another Soviet spy operation engaged in atomic espionage.

speaker    The Manhattan Project
Definition: The top-secret American effort to develop and test an atomic weapon during World War II.
Context: Rosenberg was anxious to recruit Greenglass to provide information for the Soviets on the Manhattan Project.

speaker    perjury
Definition: False swearing.
Context: Sobell was not shocked because he knew that Max Elitcher, a friend of Sobell's who implicated him during the trial, had signed the same affidavit, and that Elitcher was liable for the same penalty for perjury.

speaker    Iron Curtain
Definition: Coined by Winston Churchill in a speech at Fulton College in Missouri in 1946, the "Iron Curtain" refers to the dividing line between free democracies and Soviet satellite nations that splits Eastern and Western Europe after the Soviets refused to withdraw from Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II.
Context: Before the FBI could obtain incriminating evidence against them, Joel Barr and Alfred Seurat disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

speaker    socialism
Definition: A political system that calls for the abolition of private property in favor of collective ownership of the economy by the government. The goal of such a system is meeting the needs of the members of society rather than striving for profit, which, according to the theory, results in an oppressive class system.
Context: We were helping the Soviet Union and socialism to get ahead. We were helping the enemy.

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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: U.S. history
Understands how the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic and international politics.
Understands factors that contributed to the development of the Cold War (e.g., the mutual suspicions and divisions fragmenting the Grand Alliance at the end of World War II, U.S. support for "self-determination" and the desire of the U.S.S.R. for security in Eastern Europe, the practice of "atomic diplomacy").

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands domestic policies in the post-World War II period.
Understands different social and economic elements of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations (e.g., Truman's policies in labor relations, housing, education, and health; postwar reaction to the labor movement; how Eisenhower's domestic and foreign policy priorities contrasted with his predecessors').

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).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: world history
Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world.
Understands the role of political ideology, religion, and ethnicity in shaping modern governments (e.g., the strengths of democratic institutions and civic culture in different countries and challenges to civil society in democratic states; how successful democratic reform movements have been in challenging authoritarian governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Understands how trends in science have influenced society (e.g., interconnections between space exploration and developments since the 1950s in scientific research, agricultural productivity, consumer culture, intelligence gathering, and other aspects of contemporary life; the changing structure and organization of scientific and technological research, including the role of governments, corporations, international agencies, universities, and scientific communities).

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George Cassutto, social studies teacher, North Hagerstown High School, Hagerstown, Maryland.

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