“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History is a “chronological record of events.” These events, whether positive or tragic, often repeat themselves. The McCarthy Hearings that took place in the 1950’s are a good example of this. The accusations of communism led to a nation-wide hysteria and fear of who was going to be named next. When this was over, the hope would be that nothing like it would ever happen again and nothing like it had ever happened before. However, we have not only repeated it on various occasions, but through Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, we also see the parallel of the event with the Salem Witch hunts that took place years before the hearings. The connection between The Crucible and the McCarthy Hearings is not an isolated one, but can also be made with other historical and current events that are happening today.
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in response to The McCarthy Hearings. These two events can be connected in many ways; for example, people in each situation used hysteria for their own good. “Joseph McCarthy was a flagrant self-promoter” and extremely power-hungry. (Schrecker 242) He believed that by accusing people in high positions of having ties with communism that he would become a more respected figure. McCarthy’s accusations were based upon little to no evidence and of the tens of thousands accused, only a handful was actually persecuted. (Fried) “Throughout the early 1950’s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government, though he failed to provide evidence… These charges received extensive media attention, making McCarthy the most famous political figure in the nation after President Harry Truman. He was also one of the most criticized.” (Appleton History) McCarthy’s claims were giving him his desired attention and praise.
He was already at a respected level in the government, however he desired more. In October 1953, McCarthy began investigating communist infiltration the United States Military. (Fried) When Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley was accused, McCarthy’s popularity went down. Omar Bradley was a highly respected man and a true patriot. This can be connected to The Crucible because of what the main character, Abigail, does to get what she wants. Originally, all Abigail wants is a man, John Proctor. She accuses John Proctor’s wife of witchcraft in order to have him all to herself. As Abigail realizes the empowerment she has gained, she begins blaming other innocent people of witchcraft. Eventually she becomes mad with power and blames Judge Hawthorne’s wife. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” McCarthy and Abigail both gained power through their accusations, and their desire for more power led to their demise.
Another similarity between McCarthyism and The Crucible is that in both situations, people blamed others to save themselves. During the McCarthy Hearings, the only way to lower the charges against you was to expose another person working for the communists. Because of this, people were wrongly accused and punished. In the Salem witch trials, people were also released if they revealed someone who has “made a compact with Lucifer.”
An additional similarity between McCarthyism and The Crucible was that there were explainable events that sparked the hysteria. In the McCarthy hearings, McCarthy’s false accusations sparked it. The hysteria could have been prevented simply if people were not so easily scared by the accusations and they took the time to examine their validity. In The Crucible, the event that sparked the hysteria was when the girls were dancing in the woods. This event could have been easily explained without tying it to witchcraft and many lives could have been saved.
McCarthyism and The Crucible also have many differences. For example, the witchcraft in The Crucible was unbelievable and the testimonies were from children. If people in the village used reason, they could have determined the accusations were false. Joseph McCarthy was a respected general and had ties to the government. This made his claims very convincing and much more believable than the allegations made by children.
Another difference was that the McCarthy hearings were on much larger scale than the Salem Witch hunts. In the McCarthy hearings nearly 10,000 people were affected, many of whom lost their jobs and their lives ruined. (Schrecker) The Salem Witch Trials were on a much smaller scale; only about 140 were affected. (Boyer)
A third difference was that anyone who was accused of being a witch and did not confess or expose someone else was hung. Although more people were affected, no one was ever killed during the McCarthy Hearings.
Hysteria is defined as “behavior exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic.” The McCarthy Hearings and the Salem Witch Trials were both hysterias. “McCarthy did not create the communist problem, but he exploited it shamelessly for political ends, accusing the Democrats in general with baseless, sweeping, shotgun allegations. He was a master of the sound bite, and played the press like a harp”. (Pinto) This was a time when people were afraid of war and the spread of communism.
Because of this, they were easy victims to be caught up in the hysteria. McCarthy accused people to have ties with communism based on little evidence and thousands of people were wrongly accused. “Joe McCarthy was nosier, more impulsive, and more skillful in gaining publicity than the rest of the anticommunist network.” (Schrecker 242) McCarthy was good at spreading his message and got people scared of what could happen.
The Salem Witch Hunts were also based on hysteria rather than facts or evidence. Puritans believe in The Supremacy of Divine Will in which God is absolute. (Reuben) When the girls were seen dancing in the woods, it caused panic in the town that “the devil is loose in Salem.” No actual evidence of anyone practicing witchcraft was presented, but accusations were made and the hysteria began.
McCarthyism and The Salem Witch Trials are not the only examples of hysteria that occurred in history. Other events have had similar effects throughout history, causing impacts to society and to individuals. One example is the Japanese Internment Camps of the 1940’s and 50’s that changed the lives of about 120,000 Japanese Americans. (Sakurai 16) “Frightened children clutched their parents’ hands. The adults were scared, too, but they tried hard not to show their fear. Armed soldiers herded the families onto the trains and buses that would carry them far away from their comfortable homes. The United States government was sending Japanese Americans to bleak prison camps. How could such a terrible thing come to pass?” (Sakurai 3) December 7th, 1941 Japan bombed the military base at Pearl Harbor. This began the discrimination against Japanese Americans.
Until the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, the United States had been very firm about staying out of World War II; however, this unprovoked act forced a declaration of war on Japan. This caused fear and anger against the Japanese Americans. “Japanese Americans had done nothing wrong, but they shared a common ancestry with the enemy pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor.” (Sakurai 8) In The Fall of 1942, Japanese Americans were put in permanent relocation centers, isolating them from the rest of the world. This racist hysteria discriminated people not for their actions, but because of their looks and ancestry. This compares to the McCarthy Era and to the Salem witch trials because in each circumstance people were accused of being part of something to “be feared”. The accusations did not have any basis in this situation, except the physical features of the accused.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The likelihood of hysteria, such as the McCarthy Hearings or the Salem witch trials, developing today is not only very probable, it is evident. Although there is very little chance that anyone is going to be convicted of being a witch like in Salem, people are still very scared of today’s “witches”. Since 9/11, our “witches” are those people who look different. They come from any place in the Middle East. It does not matter which of those countries they are from, or even if they were born here in the United States. Just the color of their skin, their dress, their religious beliefs, or their accents make them suspicious of being a terrorist. They have been searched, harassed, fired from jobs, physically harmed, and discriminated against. Our lives were drastically changed by what happened on September 11th, but our reaction has not changed much since the witch trials of Salem or the McCarthy Hearings.
We truly have not learned from the lessons of the past and it is impossible to say if we ever will. Whether it is the fear of witchcraft, communism, war, diseases, or terrorism, it is easy to see that people are persuaded very quickly. There is no need for fact or proof, just a convincible McCarthy or Abigail to make the accusations and start the hysteria. Perhaps that is why “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Appleton History. 21 Apr. 2003. 12 Dec. 2003 .
Belfrage, Cedric. The American Inquisition: A Profile of the ‘McCarthy Era’. New York: Thunder’s Mouth P, 1989. 183-275.
Boyer, Paul, and Steven Nissenbaum. The 1692 Salem Witch Trials: . 1997. 10 Dec. 2003 .
Fried, Albert. Learning Curve. The National Archives. 8 Dec. 2003
Pinto, Jason. The Crucible Project. 2003. 6 Dec. 2003 .
Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 1: Puritanism & Colonial Period: to 1700.” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap1/chap1.html
Sakurai, Gail. Japanese American Internment Camps. New York: Childrens P, 2002. 1-48.
Schrecker, Ellen. Impact Of McCarthyism. 1995. 10 Dec. 2003 .
Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are The Crimes: McCarthyism In America. Boston: Little, Brown, And Company, 1998. 1-550.