Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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War, Civil Liberties, and Security

In this activity, students will look at images from 1919 to explore the nature of the "Red Scare" of the World War I era, and think about it the context of current attitudes toward civil liberties since the September 11th attacks.


To explore the tension between civil liberties and security during the "Red Scare" of 1919-1920

To use that past experience as the basis for a deeper understanding of present debates over the "war on terrorism"


Step 1: Have students individually fill out the War, Civil Liberties, and Security Opinion Poll. Then briefly discuss:

• Which questions were hardest to answer and why?

• How do your answers compare with the survey results?

• To what extent should Americans be willing to give up their civil iberties during times of national emergency or war?

Step 2: Have students select one of the images from the year 1919 and fill out the Image Analysis Worksheet. 

Step 3: Have students read the Timeline of Key Events of the World War I Era Red Scare.

Step 4: Ask students to pretend they are one of the following characters:

• A character who is pictured or mentioned in their image

• The person who created the image

• A person reading or viewing the image in 1919

Students should use the information in the image and the timeline to write a brief story, diary entry, or letter to the editor from your character's perspective. Make up a name for your character and a date that falls sometime between 1919 and 1920.

Step 5: Have students swap their images and writing with each other and discuss similarities and differences between the images and the perspectives they represent.

Step 6: Relate the Red Scare of 1919-1920 to the Constitution by having students read the first and fourth amendments to the Constitution. Ask students to rephrase the amendments into everyday language to gauge their understanding. Ask students which key words seem most open to interpretation.

Discuss Attorney General Palmer's actions in December 1919 and January 1920 (described on the timeline). Did he violate the Constitution? As a group, decide yes or no, then compile three pieces of evidence (from the images, the timeline, and/or the Constitution) to support your position.

Ask students to think back to their initial discussion about the problems of balancing liberty and security in the current "war on terrorism." What is similar about the situation in the United States in 1919-1920 and in the years since September 11, 2001? What is different? How well have citizens and government officials learned from the past?

Source | American Social History Project
Creator | American Social History Project
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project, “War, Civil Liberties, and Security,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 22, 2023,

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