Sunday, August 22, 2010

McCarthyism and The Crucible

After World War II, America and Russia began to view one another uneasily. The two countries were based on opposing ideologies, namely capitalism and communism. In addition, each country was rapidly expanding its political influence throughout Europe and the Third World. In 1947, the Cold War began, and the two powers began to treat one another as deadly enemies. In America, anyone who had ever flirted with socialist or communist beliefs was suddenly seen as a traitor to the American way of life.

Although the persecution of leftists took its name from the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s, it actually began with the publication of the Attorney-General’s List in 1947 by the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC). This list con­tained names of people with ties to subversive or communist organizations. Later, this list expanded to become the notorious Black List, by which thousands of people were forbidden to work in their professions. In addition, HUAC held hearings to investigate charges of “Un-Americanism.” These hearings con­tinued through the McCarthy era and were often more damag­ing than the McCarthy hearings themselves.
In 1950, the Chinese Revolution had just been won, the Russians had exploded their first atomic bomb and the Korean War had just begun. The time was ripe for an explosion of anti-communist feeling. Overnight, Senator Joseph McCarthy became famous with his accusation that, for 20 years, the Democratic government had been nurturing the growth of com­munism in America. Under McCarthy, Senate hearings were set up and the wholesale persecution of leftists began.
It should be remembered that during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, many people had worked with socialists and leftists to fight fascism. Indeed, only a few years before, America and Russia had been allies. Under McCarthyism, however, anti-communist hysteria became so intense and so irrational that even moderate liberals referred to it as a witch hunt. As Miller states in his notes to The Crucible, “in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell... a political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.”
The McCarthy and HUAC hearings followed a similar pat­tern. As each “witness” took the stand, he would be asked whether he had ever had any dealings with communists. If he refused to answer, he could be arrested. If he denied the charge, he would be asked to prove his innocence by giving the names of those who did have communist connections. If he confessed to having once attended a leftist meeting or contributed to a leftist cause, then he was asked to show that he had reformed by naming others who had attended that meeting or worked for that cause. Those who were named were then called to the hear­ings as new witnesses.
Unfortunately, few witnesses had the courage to stand up to the McCarthy and HUAC committees. Most willingly gave the names of friends and colleagues who had at some time been associated with leftist causes. If they didn’t know any names, they often repeated rumors or simply lied. And, as one critic commented in disgust, “they lied, not to save their lives, but to save their swimming pools.”
The McCarthy hearings particularly focused on the arts in America. Between 1950 and 1954, several artists and intellec­tuals were imprisoned for refusing to testify, including Dashiell Hammett and the famous “Hollywood Ten.” In addition, thousands of writers, musicians, actors and directors were “blacklisted” and forbidden to work. Some left the country, others changed professions, and still others changed their names. Some resumed their careers when the blacklist was lifted in the 1960s, but for most the damage was permanent.
Eventually, McCarthy’s power collapsed under its own weight. As the government and the arts were purged over and over, the old lists became tired and worn. McCarthy became wilder and wilder in his accusations, claiming that the American army had become disloyal and that powerful generals were traitors. The public became increasingly skeptical of McCarthy’s charges and began to press for the truth. Public opposition increased as a number of well-known witnesses, including Arthur Miller, challenged the authority of the HUAC and McCarthy hearings.
The Crucible was first performed in January of 1953. It must have seemed like a slap in the face to McCarthy by a leading American playwright. McCarthyism had been called a witch hunt, and here was a play about the real witch hunt. Parallels between the Salem court and the McCarthy and HUAC hearings were clearly drawn.
During the hearings, as in Salem, due process of law was abandoned and hysteria was spread through lies and rumors. Witnesses were trapped into dishonest confessions and forced to falsely accuse their friends and neighbors. Those who opposed the hearings were accused of working for the Red devil, rather than simply the Devil, as in Salem. In Washington, as in Salem, many innocent people suffered. As Miller says of the victims of the witch hunt, “one can only pity them all, just as we will be pitied someday.”
Today, the Salem witch hunt is far behind us and the McCarthy era too is history. Nonetheless, The Crucible still has political meaning for our time. In his notes to The Crucible, Miller points out that “the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.” Every age and every society has its repres­sions. In the past few years, members of the “Moral Majority” have increasingly tried to limit various freedoms in the United States. Quite possibly, Americans will soon have to choose once more between authority of the state and freedom of the indiv­idual.
The Crucible’s themes, then, are timeless. As long as governments continue to distort the truth, individuals with courage and integrity will continue to challenge them. The choice between freedom and repression is always with us.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!