In 17th century America, the belief in witches was so commonplace that anything out of the ordinary, from odd weather to a cow’s milk going sour, was explained away as “witchcraft.” In the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, fear of witches was rampant. In 1692, a group of young girls accused three women of working with the devil. The accusations soon multiplied, as those who stood accused would only be saved from hanging if they admitted guilt and provided the names of others who conjured the devil alongside them.
The witch hunt in Salem, Mass., lasted much of 1692 and resulted in the executions of 20 people and the imprisonment of approximately 200 others. The accused were not allowed access to legal counsel by the court, and the judges were able to set aside jury verdicts. Many cases relied on “spectral evidence”—belief that the devil would assume a person’s form in order to carry out his deeds. The hysteria came to an end when Governor William Phips ordered the trials halted and the court disbanded. All remaining accused prisoners were freed by May 1693.
A similar paranoia would take hold of America during the Cold War, when fears of communist infiltration into U.S. government only increased after the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949. With the 1947 Federal Employee Loyalty Program, federal employees were dragged before loyalty boards on murky charges, their names often cleared only to be charged again and again. Eventually 8,000 employees were forced to resign. At least seven committed suicide. That same year the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating communist activity in Hollywood in what critics considered an outrageous infringement of First Amendment rights, labeling the hearings a “witch hunt.”
In a 1950 speech to a Women’s Republican Club, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 communists in the State Department. Widely covered in the media, McCarthy’s oft-changing claims were never substantiated, but his influence grew. His heavy-handed style of interrogation and notorious tactic of questioning the loyalty of anyone who criticized his agenda gave ride to the term McCarthyism.
Two decades prior, during the Depression, it had not been uncommon for the many who were disillusioned with the failing capitalist system to show interest in the Communist Party. The attraction didn’t last, and by the late 1940s, communism became associated with Stalin-era atrocities and many moved on. Once HUAC hearing began, however, anyone who had ever shown the slightest interest in communism would face persecution. This included Arthur Miller.
Armed with FBI intelligence, HUAC pressured witnesses to recant wayward political beliefs and to provide names of communists and sympathizers. These hearings created an omnipresent fear that permeated everyday life. The prospect of being subpoenaed loomed over Arthur Miller. His concern for the common man and his “indictment” of McCarthy were presented through his play, The Crucible, written in 1952. Meanwhile, HUAC, McCarthy and the subsequent paranoia were growing stronger by the day. In 1956 Miller was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC. He adamantly refused to provide names and was convicted of contempt. In 1958, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Miller’s contempt conviction.
In the end McCarthy failed to produce substantial evidence of treason or domestic subversion. In 1953, McCarthy’s subcommittee held televised hearings concerning McCarthy’s unwarranted investigation of an Army dentist, Major Irving Peress. These hearing showed McCarthy’s true arrogance and irresponsibility, and his popularity waned. In 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate, but he never repented.
- “Arthur Miller.” Newsmakers 1999, 1999.
- Bartlett, Charles. “McCarthy, Joseph Raymond.” World Book Online Reference Center, 2007.
- Craker, Wendel D. “Spectral Evidence, Non-Spectral Acts of Witchcraft and Confession at Salem in 1692.” The Historical Journal, v. 40, n. 2 (June 1997).
- Cullen-duPont, Kathryn. “Salem Witch Trials.” Encyclopedia of Women’s History in America, 2000.
- “Dewitched.” People Weekly, v. 56, n. 21 (November 19, 2001).
- Kauffman, Bill. “Salem: The Case for the Prosecution.” The American Enterprise, v. 12, n. 5 (July 2001).
- Miller, Arthur. TimeBends: A Life. Penguin, 1995.
- Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. Hill and Wang, 2003.
Content last updated: October 31, 2007