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Propaganda: Name-calling - Lesson Plan

Background Notes


During the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph P. McCarthy accused many Americans of being "Communists" or "subversives." He conducted televised Army-McCarthy hearings that investigated people thought to be part of a Communist threat to American freedom. The Army-McCarthy hearings relied on the propaganda technique known as "name-calling." The accusers labeled people and ideas with feared words such as "Commie," "subversive," "Pinko," or "Red" based on flimsy, if any, evidence. They used the media as a tool to spread the fear.


First lieutenant Milo Radulovich of Dexter, Michigan, a 10-year Air Force veteran, lost his job with the Air Force when he was accused of associating with "Communists." The so-called Communists were John, his father, and Margaret, his sister. John was an immigrant who did not read English well. He subscribed to newspapers from his homeland written in his native language. One of the papers was associated with a group that the U.S. attorney general had declared to be Communist. Margaret had participated in civil rights conferences and demonstrations. She had helped picket the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit when it refused accommodations to the black singer Paul Robeson. Milo Radulovich fought his dismissal and won. You can read more about Milo Radulovich in To Strike at a King: The Turning Point in the McCarthy Witch Hunts, by Michael Ranville.


Name-calling was not new to Michigan or to the nation. During the 1930s, a Michigan priest, Fr. Charles Coughlin, had used the technique to make people fear "imported radicals" and "aetheistic Jews" during his radio broadcasts. Both Fr. Coughlin and Senator McCarthy based their views on "evidence" that either came from untrustworthy sources or that had been distorted.


In this lesson, students identify examples of name-calling-associating a person or group with a negative image. With this knowledge, students can be aware of the technique and realize that they must look behind the name-calling to learn about the real person before judging.


  • Students will identify examples of name-calling when heard or read.
  • Students will discuss how name-calling led to denial of civil rights during the 1950s.
  • Students will judge persons by what they are and do rather than by a name applied to them by others.

Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards


This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:

  • 3.2. IDEALS OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: Students will explain the meaning and origin of the ideas, including core democratic values, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other foundational documents of the United States.
  • 3.3. DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: All students will describe the political and legal processes created to make decisions, seek consensus, and resolve conflicts in a free society.

Materials Needed


Copies of the reference materials (see below); recent newspapers or news magazines.


  1. Discuss the ways in which name-calling was used by Senator McCarthy and others in the 1950s to discredit people.
  2. Read relevant parts of the Milo Radulovich story that illustrate how judgments were made about people based on circumstantial or flimsier evidence to the class. Answer: how did assertions that Milo (and others) were Communist sympathizers lead to attempts to deny their civil rights?
  3. Ask the students if they can cite ways in which name-calling is used today to ruin a person's reputation.
    • Use examples from the student's daily lives. Have they heard another student called a "nerd," "moron," "brain," "jock" or a similar term? Discuss how such words stereotype a person. Are the stereotypes necessarily true? What exceptions can be found?
    • With older students, have the students bring in examples from the media that relate to well-known political, business, or media celebrities. If writers use name-calling when discussing President Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Barbara Streisand, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Warren Buffet, or other newsmakers, how do they intend us to think of those persons? Do we succumb to this propaganda device?
  4. Finally, talk about why we need to avoid using name-calling and-when we see or hear examples of it-learn about the person so that we can make up our own minds about what he or she is like. Provide guidelines for evaluating names that include:
    • Think about what the name means.
    • Does the "name" or label really represent that person or idea?
    • Can I find other aspects of the person or idea that contradict the label? What are they?
    • Finally, what do I really think about the person or idea?

Questions for Discussion or Research

  1. The Michigan Communist Control Law, passed in 1952 and repealed in 1979, grew out of the fear of Communism after World War II. The law required that communists register with the state police. Read the law. Discuss the law in respect to the rights granted to U.S. citizens in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

  2. Investigate how the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s impacted the American film industry.
  3. What is slander? libel?
  4. Learn about the other techniques used by propagandists. (See "propaganda" in vocabulary list, below.)

At the Museum

  • See the fallout shelter ("bomb shelter") exhibit. Talk about how fear of Communist attack not only led to harassment of suspected Communists in the United States, but also to the building of bomb shelters in backyards and basements.
  • Visit the 1950s and 1960s Galleries. Compare the seeming calmness of the 1950s to the disquiet evidenced in the 1960s. Discuss: If suspected Communists were harassed in the 1950s, who were the targets of harassment in the 1960s? Why?


  • Blacklist: To put a person's name on a list of those assumed to be disloyal so that others will avoid, boycott, or disapprove of them.
  • Civil rights: Rights to which a person is entitled because he or she is a citizen or a member of civil society.
  • Communist: A member of a Marxist-Leninist (Communist) party or movement. (often, communist: a person accused of being a radical, revolutionary, or subversive)
  • Congressional hearing: A session held by members of Congress during which testimony is taken from witnesses.
  • The Left: People or organizations that support extreme measures to achieve liberal (vs. conservative) principles.
  • Left-wing ideologist: Label given a person, usually a member of a leftist group or faction, who promotes beliefs of the political or intellectual left.
  • Loyalty oath: A pledge or promise to be loyal, often required of a person upon employment with a government agency.
  • Name-calling: Applying a label that has a negative implication to a person or an idea.
  • Propaganda: The planned spreading of a doctrine or viewpoint via printed or otherwise mediated materials. Propaganda uses certain techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in the 1930s. These include: Name-calling, Glittering Generality, Transfer, Testimonial, Plain Folks, Card Stacking, and Band Wagon.
  • Stereotype (n): a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group, such as an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment
  • Subversive: Person who advocates overthrowing an established government.
  • Witch-hunt: A political campaign launched on the pretext of investigating activities subversive to the state.


  • Dieterich, Daniel (Editor). Teaching about Doublespeak. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1976. (HM263 .T34)
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997. (Especially pages 179-183 the author's childhood during the Army-McCarthy hearings. Read the pages aloud to the class-or listen to that part of the story from the audiobook, also available.)
  • Ranville, Michael. The Case Against Milo Radulovich (Part One). Michigan History Magazine, Vol. 79(1) (Jan/Feb 1995), 10-19.
  • - The Case Against Milo Radulovich, Part Two. Michigan History Magazine, Vol. 79(2) (Mar/Apr 1995), 10-17.
    - To Strike at a King: The Turning Point in the McCarthy Witch Hunts. Troy, MI: Momentum Books, 1997. (E 743.5 .R36 1997)
  • Sawtelle, Lynnda H. McCarthyism and the First Amendment. Cobblestone ("Our First Amendment: Free Speech" issue), January 1998, pp. 26-28.
  • Seldes, George. The Facts Are: A Guide to Falsehood and Propaganda in the Press and Radio. NY: In Fact, Inc., 1942. (Dewey 301.15 S46)

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/10/2010

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