[Note: Some of the most interesting “interdisciplinary” projects I undertook were the result, not of a school-wide mandate, but a request from a colleague for a little help in approaching a knotty subject. Such was the case when an English teacher asked me if I would talk to her sophomores about the historical and intellectual background of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. Would I ever! I knew enough about Miller and his drama to realize that both played a role in one of the topics in modern American History that, at that time, drew me most strongly: the nation’s post-World War II descent into the “Red Scare” and “McCarthyism.” What follows is based on the outline I created then. It is important to keep in mind that, as sophomores, these students probably had last encountered American History in seventh grade.]
I want to discuss with you the historical background of two events, separated in time by 250 years, yet each relevant to Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible: the first, the trials of alleged “witches” at Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, furnished the setting for the play itself; the second, the hysterical anti-Communist crusade that rocked the United States after World War II, affected playwright Arthur Miller in such an intensely personal way that he was moved to write The Crucible as a sort of allegory of man’s intolerance to man.
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The witchcraft “delusion” in Salem Village apparently began as a prank by a group of impressionable teen-aged girls carried away by tales of voodoo told them by a West Indian Black woman, the household servant of a local minister. When the girls began to behave oddly, a local physician diagnosed their “illness” as possession by witches. Upon examination in public by magistrates sent from Boston, the girls screamed, shouted, and pointed to several local residents as their tormentors. Once these neighbors had been accused, their only hope lay in confessing their guilt and then naming other “witches” for local authorities.
Between June and September 1692, twenty Salem residents were convicted and executed as witches, and, since the witchcraft craze had spread throughout New England, some 150 other accused persons were in various jails awaiting trial. By that time also, intellectuals and members of the governing classes, who had been either silent or supportive of the “witch hunts,” began to speak out against the flimsiness of the evidence and the brutality of the punishments. Although the trials continued into 1693, the atmosphere had changed: several of the girls who had begun the craze in Salem admitted they had lied, and one of the judges publicly confessed his errors, as did a local minister. Moreover, even some who refused to recant publicly were bothered by private doubts.
One part of the explanation for this event lay buried in the Puritan mind. The clergy worried about the decline in old-fashioned piety and had been warning congregations God would soon send a sign to indicate his displeasure. The Puritans were among the most intellectual American colonists, but they, too, shared the almost universal belief in witchcraft. Even an early colonial “scientist” like John Winthrop, Jr., Governor of Connecticut and son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had in his library a dozen volumes on witchcraft, astrology, and the occult. In other words, we are dealing here with a “pre-modern” worldview, one largely unaffected by the Scientific Revolution.
Moreover, times were especially ripe for a “witchcraft” craze in Salem Village, which had been settled for fifty years but had barely escaped from the frontier stage of development. Wolves and bears still roamed the area. Only three years earlier, an Indian raid had resulted in the deaths of several village residents. By 1692, the original settlers had mostly died off; new leaders had only scant education; several were unable to write. For a number of reasons, there was tension between residents of largely agricultural Salem Village and those in the more commercial Salem Town.
In such a setting, primitive, jittery, and lacking in direction, the writings of leading Massachusetts clergymen attesting to the reality of the Devil and his agents received a ready hearing. There also was a “generation gap” in Salem Village: accused “witches” were chiefly middle-aged women, while their accusers were teen-aged girls. Furthermore, belief in witchcraft also probably served as a type of social control, a way to enforce conformity—those accused of being witches were either eccentric, conspicuously anti-social, or both, and the entire Puritan social experiment was based on the need for strong bonds of community and obedience to authority.
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Webster’s Dictionary defines “McCarthyism” as “a political attitude of the mid-twentieth century closely allied to know-nothingism, and characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive, and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.” This definition essentially summarizes the tactics employed by United States Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Republican, Wisconsin).Between 1950 and his eventual downfall in 1954, Senator McCarthy went on a rampage, accusing government officials and intellectuals of being “card-carrying agents of the international Communist conspiracy.” His charges were not proved, but they ruined many reputations. Because his crusade was popular, McCarthy was seldom criticized by his fellow Republicans–or by conservative Democrats. He was a masterful manipulator of print and electronic media. When one of his victims tried to reply to his slanders, McCarthy would casually call a press conference and release a new series of charges so sensational that he was sure to be featured on the front page of major newspapers, while the responses of his earlier victims were relegated to the inside pages.
Senator McCarthy’s appeal was especially strong among conservatives who formed the backbone of the surging Republican Party, which had been trying since 1932 to win back the confidence of the American people. In the Communist issue, Republicans felt that at last they had a weapon with which they could discredit Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Other congressional leaders quickly adopted McCarthy’s tactics. Ironically, McCarthy’s downfall came when he trained his anti-Communist guns on the very institutions his conservative followers loved and respected the most: the U.S. Army, the Senate, and the Republican Party. He was censured by the Senate, removed as chairman of his subcommittee, and died in disgrace (except, of course, in the eyes of “true-believers”).
To understand why Senator McCarthy was able to rise so high, so fast, it is necessary to view the world as “average Americans” did after 1945. We had just won World War II, a war understood as one between democracy and totalitarianism (American propagandists tended to overlook the fact that one of our allies during the conflict, the USSR’s Josef Stalin, was a brutal totalitarian himself [i.e., “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”]). During the last year or so of the war, President Roosevelt and, after FDR’s death, President Truman, had participated in a series of conferences with Stalin and other allied leaders intended to convince the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan once Germany had been defeated, and to ensure that the postwar world would be comprised of “democratic” governments, not regimes imposed from above.
Within a few years, however, it appeared that the Russians had violated these agreements as they took control of governments in Eastern Europe. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s put it in a famous speech, an “Iron Curtain” had descended across Europe. Moreover, between 1948 and 1950, the United States was embroiled in the dispute between Alger Hiss, an aide to Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, and journalist Whitaker Chambers, who accused Hiss of disloyalty to the United States. This imbroglio provided a ladder for California congressman Richard Nixon’s climb to power, a development that would echo down the years.
In January 1949 came the so-called “fall” of China to the Communists. How had we “lost” China (a question that assumed we actually “had” China to lose in the first place)? The resulting purge of Asia experts from the U.S. State Department helps to explain the ignorance with which the United States would face the developing crisis in Vietnam a decade later.
On September 23, 1949, stunned Americans learned that the USSR had exploded its first atomic bomb, and they demanded to know how the Russians had learned our “secret.” Five months later, an answer of sorts began to emerge, when an “atomic spy” arrested in Britain implicated some Americans in an apparently successful plot to pass “atomic secrets” on to the Russians. (This led to the eventual arrest, conviction, and execution of two Americans, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.) Finally, in June 1950, the United States found itself at war again, this time leading the effort of the newly-created United Nations to oust forces from Communist North Korea that had invaded “democratic” South Korea. In reaction to all this, Congress passed the McCarran-Nixon Internal Security Act in 1950, over President Truman’s veto, requiring registration with the Attorney-General of all Communist and “Communist-front” organizations.
So, the era was one in which many Americans perceived an internal threat to our “way of life.” How else could we explain the stunning series of reverses since we had “won” World War II? Beginning in the early years of the “Cold War” between the United States and the USSR, the American government launched investigations into the loyalty of federal employees, and congressional committees began screening the backgrounds of noted Americans in all walks of life, including the creative arts.
If a witness before a congressional investigating committee took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify (or “name names” of other “subversives”), that person could be “blacklisted,” which meant that doors to future employment were closed for the recalcitrant witness because potential employers feared being criticized as “soft on Communism.” People whose careers depended to a great extent on the good will of the public—actors, authors, etc.—were especially hard hit. This was what happened to Arthur Miller: he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, refused to “name names,” and was convicted of contempt of Congress, although the conviction was later reversed.
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Arthur Miller was not alone in comparing the excesses of the McCarthy period and the Salem witchcraft trials. In fact, the term “witch-hunt” was frequently used to describe the atmosphere in the United States after World War II. The circumstances leading up to each period were similar, though the McCarthy period was the more significant in terms of the number of people involved. In a time of unrest and uncertainty, faced by an incomprehensible set of circumstances, the public sought a pat explanation for their troubles.
Likewise, the tactics employed in each case were similar: unfounded charges, innuendo, guilt by association, and pressure on the accused to “name names.” In both the late seventeenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, the tacit or overt support of the political “establishment” helped to feed an atmosphere of intolerance. The punishment meted out in Salem, death, obviously was more severe, though to a public figure whose career was ruined by Senator McCarthy, that punishment might have seemed worse than death (and there were suicides among those who were blacklisted).
It would be easy to say that the fears of villagers in Salem were imaginary, while those of mid-twentieth century Americans had some basis in fact. However, in both instances, the public responded based upon their perceptions of reality, rather than to what historians, with the benefit of hindsight, might describe as “objective” reality. While we shouldn’t avoid criticizing past examples of intolerance, we must remember that, despite our best intentions, we ourselves could succumb to this mindset.
Human nature seems to be hard-wired in this respect. During troubled times, frightened people, searching for stability and certainty, hunger for simple explanations for complex problems, usually by seeking scapegoats. Tragically, they find them all too often among “the other,” those whose race, religion, political views, sexual orientation, or immigration status differ from their own.
[Thanks to my buddy, Rick Byrd, for reminding me of a great popular song on Salem. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANTYbInzdoA]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: