Typically referred to as the "red scare" or "McCarthy" era, the period from 1947 to 1954 was characterized by an ideological conflict which consumed all aspects of American culture. As prominent historians have argued, a salient feature of the time was the reflexive tendency of many individuals, organizations, and institutions to embrace the prevailing Zeitgeist that a serious internal threat to the United States existed. As a result, American society was propelled into a period of fervent anti-communism which produced one of the most severe episodes of political repression the United States has ever experienced. Public education was not exempt from this mounting tide of repression.

Significantly, although several historians have portrayed the "red scare's" dramatic impact on American schooling, the organized teaching profession's response to "red scare" attack has escaped serious historical scrutiny. The National Education Association (NEA), however, warrants special attention for many reasons, two of which appear salient. First, at mid-century the NEA boasted the world's largest teaching organization and claimed a membership in excess of 450,000 educators. As an organization the NEA reached into every facet of public education and touched upon concerns and issues encountered by educators at local, state, and national levels. Attention to the policies and actions of the NEA during the "red scare" era, therefore, enriches historical understanding of this vital period in postwar American education. Second, by the establishment, in 1941, of the National Commission for the Defense of Democracy Through Education, the NEA created the only educational agency explicitly and expressly charged to protect and to defend pubic school teachers from unjust attack. Close examination of the work of the Defense Commission, as it was commonly known, offers a broad and detailed perspective on the impact of the "red scare" on American public education and the effectiveness of the NEA's response to it.