In early 1953, just two days after Dwight Eisenhower had been sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, a new play appeared on Broadway. Set in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, “The Crucible” focused on the hysteria and kangaroo trials that had resulted in the deaths of nearly two dozen individuals accused of being witches or their accomplices.
Through the use of a powerful analogy, playwright Arthur Miller sought to awaken the national conscience to the devastating impact of the fear that was being engendered by the rumors that communists had infiltrated the United States.
Miller used his talents in an effort to bring to an end the relentless pursuit of purported communist sympathizers that had begun to rage throughout the country and in the halls of Congress after the end of World War II. That pursuit, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, evolved into a veritable witch hunt, with anyone suspected of being even remotely in support of communism or any left-wing political philosophy facing ostracism and worse.
From his perch in the U.S. Senate, McCarthy commanded considerable influence and the media willingly gave him a soap box from which to spread his ideas. With fear of communism widely disseminated in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a kind of hysteria fueled by McCarthy spread throughout the nation.
The fear engendered by McCarthy and his followers made it very difficult for Americans to espouse any kind of left-wing opinions. An accusation of support for socialist or communist causes was a clear path to employment termination, social ostracism and worse. Hollywood led the way. Many actors, writers and other industry employees were dismissed from their positions and blacklisted so as to make certain that they would not be employed anywhere else.
Over the course of several years the anti-communist hysteria flourished. And as time passed, the accusations against those suspected of sympathy for the Soviet Union and its ideology grew. Cascading fear and a belief that America was being betrayed by domestic spies deeply embedded in our society accelerated the paranoia and the hysteria.
Seeking to put a halt to this scourge, Miller used the Salem witch trials of 300 years earlier as a prism through which mid-20th century America could see the danger that irrational and unchecked fear could pose to a society. He did so brilliantly. His play became an important part of the effort to bring “McCarthyism” to an end. He reminded the nation of one of the worst episodes in its history and powerfully suggested that America was in the process of replicating that era.
Ultimately, McCarthy’s wide-spread and unsubstantiated accusations became completely irrational and contrary to some of the most fundamental principles underlying American democracy. Notably, in 1953, McCarthy held televised hearings in the Senate in an effort to further popularize his hunt for communists. In doing so, as he launched an unfounded attack on a young lawyer, he was confronted by Joseph N. Welch, who, disgusted by McCarthy’s relentless and unsupported attacks, responded to the senator’s barrage by making an impassioned plea which concluded with the rhetorical question: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
Just like the exclamation of the little boy in the story about the emperor’s new clothes, Welch’s anguished utterance seemed to take the air out of McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. Although it would require a number of years, the obsession with removing every last communist sympathizer from American society, with its accompanying unsubstantiated personal attacks and unparalleled attempts to repress freedom of opinion, steadily dissipated.
Ultimately, “McCarthyism” was relegated to being a mid-20th century aberration. Within a decade, it would be totally discredited and McCarthy would come to be viewed as a demented obsessive.
Although today McCarthyism is considered to have been aberrational, in its time it was not only respectable but it was considered essential to the protection and purification of the nation. It was accepted generally and few openly opposed it. Future leaders, such as Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, either did not voice any concerns with, or fully endorsed, McCarthy’s philosophy. Even the popular Eisenhower would become tainted by his refusal to condemn the excesses of McCarthyism.
Recalling the extremism of McCarthy and his followers serves as a powerful reminder that a seemingly good cause with masses of followers does not ensure moral correctness. Indeed, it actually reminds us that a belief in the purity of our thoughts and actions may very well be sorely misplaced; that repression of ideas, even if those ideas seem offensive or subversive, is by far the greater danger to our society.
It is in that context that we should examine the current intolerance and the efforts to purge our society of so much of our past and to extirpate so many of the pillars of Western society, efforts that have spread relentlessly across our nation. We should be wary of the fervor of those who vociferously seek to purge anyone and anything which is not in keeping with the new morality.
While it may take some time before we have our “have you no decency moment,” it will assuredly come because America is a fundamentally decent and tolerant nation. In the meantime, we can hope that, the new revival of Miller’s “The Crucible” at London’s National Theatre will serve as a powerful reminder of the evils of fanaticism and intolerance.
• Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of a national law firm. His book, “Lobbying for Equality,” was published by HUC Press earlier this year.
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