Two closely related events on two close-by days:
It was on 8 February 1692, in the small village of Salem, (now Danvers) Massachusetts, that Abigail Williams and Betty Parris were declared by a competent physician to be under the spell of witchcraft, thereby launching the most famous – really infamous – “Witch Hunt” in History. In 1949, Marion Starkey published her powerful and influential work The Devil In Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into The Salem Witch Trials. Though the work has been criticized as offering no new research findings about the historical events, Starkey’s book is notable in applying 20th Century psychological interpretation to the events of 1692.
The Devil In Massachusetts was a great influence on Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece, The Crucible, which is usually interpreted as a thinly-veiled expose of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s then-current “Witch Hunt” for Communists in the United States government. I find it most interesting that Starkey, in the introduction to “The Devil,” makes a strong case for studying the Witch Trials as a means of helping to forfend against a modern day repetition. Starkey notes that the upheavals and wars of the 1930s and 1940s had produced many a Witch Hunt, and she expresses her hope that by 1949 the world will have grown more mature, and somewhat wiser.
How terribly ironic it is then, that less than a year after the publication of The Devil In Massachusetts, on 9 February 1950 that Senator Joseph “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy made his first public assertion that the U.S. State Department was completely infiltrated by known Communists. During the next four years, McCarthy would repeat this charge over and over, changing the numbers, and eventually changing his focus from the State Department to the Army, yet managing to retain a high profile in the public eye despite his inability to identify a single “Fellow Traveler” in his investigations.
Speaking before the Wheeling Women’s Republican Club in West Virginia on 9 February 1950, McCarthy made the shocking claim that the State Department was then employing “204 known Communists.” At first there was little media attention paid to this speech; the only first-hand account of it appeared in the local Wheeling paper. But McCarthy was asked about his claim a few days later back in Washington, D.C. and he asserted that there were “at least 81 Known Communists” in the State Department. In the next few weeks, the stated number fluctuated between a low of 10 and a high of 205.
It seems inexplicable in light of what we know today, but the mainstream media did not call McCarthy to account for his wildly varied numbers; the media did not then even request a jot of proof to support the claims. The unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions were repeated as if factual, and many came to believe them. Indeed, the question became not, “Are there Communists in the State Department?” but “How many Communists are there in the state Department?” As my older sister told me many years ago, this was precisely what McCarthy had intended. The “Big Lie,” as some political savant once observed, is more easily sold than the small one. It would seem the absurd and ever-morphing lie is even more readily saleable.
Hundreds of careers were destroyed in the course of nearly four years of fruitless investigations. Hundreds of lives were upended and shattered by the baseless and invidious claims made by McCarthy and his staff. His key lieutenant Roy Cohn made an especial point of exposing homosexuals – generally believed to be especial security risks whatever their politics – as a part of the investigations. Ironically, after Cohn’s death from AIDS in 1986, it became public knowledge that he himself was homosexual.
So fervid was the McCarthy team in its unsubstantiatable attempts to locate subversives within the U.S. government, and so pointless was their probing, that the term “McCarthyism” has become synonymous with “Witch Hunt” to mean a frenzied search for a non-existent threat. Nevertheless, their tactics had a chilling effect on political debate in America for years.
McCarthy’s political downfall came in 1954 after ABC television, alone among U.S. networks, decided to televise McCarthy’s hearings into the affairs of the United States Army. Though the audience share of the broadcast of the hearings was rather small, the impact from those who watched McCarthy and his hatchetmen at work was great. A watershed moment was when the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch, turned to McCarthy and demanded: “Have you no sense of decency, Senator?!?!! At long last, have you left no sense of decency???!??!” McCarthy was revealed to be a bullying grandstander without substance to his claims. The 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck focusses on these events.
Later in 1954 the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy for his vicious tactics. President and Mrs. Eisenhower forbade him to attend White House functions. It is hard to appreciate the impact of this seemingly social ban, but it signaled the end of McCarthy’s influence. McCarthy’s political heyday had passed decisively, though the ruined lives and careers he left behind took decades to rebuild, and many never could recover.
Yet, whatever the current assessment of McCarthy’s tactics and impact may be, it must be acknowledged that he acted from a very real and pure motive: McCarthy really, really, REALLY wanted to be politically powerful, and to have his views dominate the political process. From that, it can be seen, as is always the case in politics, any excess is excusable. Or at least explicable. And it is ever thus. It is ever thus …
Flower Mound, Texas
I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.
— Lillian Hellman,
to the House Committee on un-American activities, 1952