McCarthyism And The Crucible Essay

Introduction

Arthur Miller’s, The Crucible, is an allegory of the Red Scare that impacted society mentally, physically, and spiritually. The play displayed a series of abnormal occurrences that followed a similar social and political fallout that was seen prior in the seventeenth century. It was also a means to represent the ridiculous and mob-mentality constructed accusatory atmosphere that suffocated the 1950’s during which it was written. The play itself, The Crucible, follows the tragic historical events that took place back in Salem, Massachusetts during the year of 1692.

The play doesn’t follow any one specific person like Abigail Williams or John Proctor, as it may suggest, but rather the town as a whole as the distress of the situation tears them apart from the inside. The narrative that is seen throughout the play can be interpreted in two ways: the first being a direct representation of the witch hunts that occurred in Salem and the second being the subtle correlation to what the fear-mongering that McCarthyism caused within the U.S. population. During the entire duration that the trials covered, Abigail Williams and her other accusers provided only false testimonies and spectral evidence against those they accused to get them all hung. The children, being consumed by their power and authority they now handled, accused hundreds of townspeople with twenty or so being condemned to death by hanging and one being crushed by stone. The events that transpired in Salem during 1692-93 were thus known as the Salem Witch Trials and became tantamount to what becomes of false accusations, mob-mentality, and mass hysteria mixed in one.

Biography

Arthur Miller was a man from humble beginnings. Known for his popular plays and novels, he was born to an immigrant family of three, soon to be five with his younger sister, in Harlem, New York on the 17th of October in 1915. His father, Isidore Miller, ran a “successful coat manufacturing business” for women, while his mother, Augusta Miller, “was an educator and an avid reader of novels” (biography.com). His family appreciated a life luxury due to the success of his father’s company, until the sudden Wall Street Crash of 1929. This unforeseen development in his life forced the family to move from Manhattan to Flatbush, Brooklyn. Arthur later graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1933 to then apply to both the University of Michigan and Cornell University.

Neither of the two Universities accepted him which led to take on several different jobs: “jobs ranging from radio singer to truck driver to clerk in an automobile-parts warehouse” (NEH). Arthur, in 1933, was later accepted to the University of Michigan when he applied again where he got his degree and started his playwriting. He then joined the Federal Theater Project in New York where he created and displayed his first play The Man Who Had All The Luck. It had a rather rough start, only going for four performances, but that didnt stop him. Arthur then went on to write the plays All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), both winning the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Death of a Salesman winning a few more. This all leading up to him writing The Crucible, one of his most well known works.

The Crucible, as he exclaimed himself, “was an act of desperation” (The New Yorker). Miller was frightened by what was happening around with McCarthyism. He was scared that if he voiced his disapproval too loudly and indiscriminately he, along with his work and family, would be condemned as Communist supporters. He wanted to find a means to show how crazy everything was, but he couldn’t find any reference point until he read “Charles W. Upham’s 1867 two-volume study of the 1692 Salem witch trials” (The New Yorker). Upon reading this, Miller could establish a relationship and link between both set of trials: the Salem Witch Trials and the Second Red Scare. He then went to Salem in 1952 to read the transcripts where he could connect with John Proctor in that both tried to fight the utter madness that surrounded them. Miller understood John Proctor’s confusion to their situation at hand and felt for him.

Finding the perfect representation, Miller wrote the play in about a year. The wrongful convictions made from spectral evidence became a perfect reflection as the what McCarthy was doing as he himself had no real evidence but hearsay. The Salem Witch Trials represented all the flaws and the madness that was concocted because of McCarthyism spreading: mass hysteria and fear.

McCarthyism

While the Cold War, a war that was between the Soviet Union and the United States, was in progression, a atmosphere full of fear and paranoia filled the United States, mainly the American Citizens, as there became a central idea that the American government was chock-full of Communist sympathizers and supporters. The fear that there were Communists in the United States grew so fast and to such an extent that it reached a point where people started to question whether they knew any and whether they even lived with or by one. People started to question if their neighbors and the people they worked with were Communist sympathizers. Because of this heightened level of paranoia and hysteria coming to be, a man identifying by the name Joseph Raymond McCarthy launched “a series of investigations and hearings during the 1950s to expose supposed communist infiltration of various areas of the U.S. government” (Britannica.com). McCarthy, elected to be a part of the U.S. Senate around 1946, slowly gain more traction and authority when he exclaimed that “205 communists had infiltrated the State Department” (Britannica.com). The more he spoke the more the issue was perpetuated and grew. He was essentially throwing lighter fluid to an open flame. His need to find more ‘Communists’ to continue his accusations, this led him to recruit the departments like the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to find more Communists. McCarthy continued his trials and questioning of several United States government departments, even after he became the chairman of the Committee on Government Operations of the Senate and of its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, for another two years. All those who were even slightly suggested to be a Communist supporter had both their life and their status ruined. The public would take the hearings as fact resulting in the accused losing their job and life. The hearsay and rumors that the cases were based upon led to McCarthy never having a substantial case against anyone, but that didn’t stop the public from going after anyone that was even slightly hinted at for being affiliated with Communism. McCarthyism, like the idea of witches being in Salem, further divided the nation on both political and social grounds.

Much like what is occurring during the Cold War in the United States with McCarthyism several parallels can be connected to that of the Salem Witch Trials. In both cases, there was already a fear directed at a certain affiliation: with Salem, the idea of witches and with the American population the idea of Communism. Like Abigail Williams in The Crucible, Joseph McCarthy abused the power that he had and allowed the continuation of the paranoia-fuel accusatory behavior that the American population had. He himself knew that it was all a masquerade so that he could gain popularity. With both set of trials, there was only false accusations being thrown around and illegitimate evidence being provided. Essentially everyone accused in both cases had their life ruined, whether it was having their image destroyed or death. In both two historical events, hysteria and fear got the better of the populations in question while the authorities in charge, the judges and government, allowed for the furtherance of such terror.

Puritanism and Communism

Arthur Miller noticed a series of parallels between the Puritan practices in the late 1600s and the Communist fears during his life in the mid-1900s. Both Puritanism and the Red Scare spread hysteria across a mass of individuals, leading to false accusations of thousands of innocent beings. The fears that were dominating these separate periods were ones that had been present for a while, such as the fear of witchcraft in the Puritan states and the rise of Communism during the first World War; however, these concerns spiraled into a state of panic at the hand of particular individuals.

During the height of the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy maliciously stated that there was an infestation of Communists hidden in the U.S. Department of State. Due to the stress of the war, even the suspecting of a potential Communist was enough to lead to trial; yet, under investigation, determining whether there is, in fact, a support for the enemy party is tricky to determine. On the day McCarthy addressed the supposed internal Communist takeover, he spoke of 81 cases. He had propagated an idea that in every branch of government, in every field of employment, there possibly lied an assembly of Communists planning to take over and corrupt the system from within. This led to the accusations spreading into other realms: “Actors, writers, and producers alike were summoned to… provide names of colleagues who may have been members of the Communist Party.

Those who repented and named names of suspected communists could return to business… those who refused to address the committee were cited for contempt” (McCarthyism). Pressure began to build on ordinary citizens to confess or point figures in the name of Communism to preserve their name and prevent them from suffering. This is precisely what occurred during the Salem Witch Trials as those who had been accused of witchcraft would have been brutally tortured until confession or diverting the blame. Abigail Williams was the primary propagator of the Salem Witch Trials, going to extreme degrees to prove a point; for example, she would mutilate her own body and act as if she was being struck by the evil spirit of a potential witch. Of course, like McCarthy, the accusations were for personal gain to obtain the favor of an audience. Other girls followed in the footsteps of Abigail, faking possession, fainting in the court, all to defend their name despite it hurting another.

Conclusion

The Crucible discusses the similarities between the infamous Red Scare and the Salem Witch Trials. The play highlights the dangerous ‘mob-mentality’ that surrounded the ordinary people at the time of Miller’s writing. The story directly demonstrates the witch hunts and how they aroused hysterical behavior across the population leading to the persecution of undeserving citizens while simultaneously explaining the occurrences in the United States during the Cold War. The way in which the Salem Witch Trials were conducted left many defenseless individuals stuck in a cycle of either falsely admitting to a lie or dragging another into the chaos to end their suffering; precisely, this is what was happening at the McCarthy era. The government had construed an inescapable series of persecution, ruining the lives of many thousands, all for a personal or political motive.

Works Cited

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  9. Miller, Arthur. “WHY I WROTE ‘THE CRUCIBLE.’” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 20
  10. June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/21/why-i-wrote-the-crucible.
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