The Salem Witch Trials Vs. The McCarthy Era: Similar Ideas Presented In Arthur Millers, “The Crucible”

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

In the 1953 play, “The Crucible”, playwright Arthur Miller writes the story of a prominent member of a small community and his marital infidelity with the niece of the towns Reverend and the consequences of their actions. This drama by Miller creates an allegory to McCarthyism by setting this story in Salem Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600’s. The ideas of fear, justice, and zealotry are used by Miller to use his play’s setting and as an allegory to the missteps and injustices of the era of McCarthyism, which dominated the United States in the 1950’s.

Miller examines the driving force of fear throughout the course of the dramatic action within “The Crucible.” In 1692, the community of Salem Massachusetts was strongly driven by paranoia derived from suspicious religious beliefs. It was a time when many believed in the idea of a devil creating witches by giving certain people magical powers in exchange for their allegiance. The fear of evil supernatural forces created the witch hunt craze in Salem and by the end of the trials in 1693, Two hundred had been convicted of witchcraft, and twenty of those convicts were executed. This idea of fear being powerful is represented in “The Crucible” through the execution of John Procter. Although Proctor is a well-respected and prominent figure in Salem, once accused of witchcraft, he is imprisoned at once. The fear of this community led to the death of an innocent man. This idea of fear is also a driving force in the 1950’s McCarthy Era. “McCarthy” refers to the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the United States’ fear of communist infiltration to accuse and condemn many for supposed, “communist sympathizing.” Those accused of having a communist agenda were often fired from their jobs and blacklisted professionally and socially. “The Red Scare” is really not at all unlike the witch-hunts in Salem. Both were completely irrational movements that were given credibility by the fears of society, and destroyed the lives of many innocent people.

Another similarity between the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy era was the widespread prevalence of injustice. “Witches” were continually burned at the stake based on untrue claims of devil worshiping. This is demonstrated in “The Crucible” when Mary falsely accuses John Proctor of witchcraft and he is eventually sentenced to die. Lack of evidence was completely ignored in most court cases during the Salem trials, and many had to live with the consequences of being ruled by an incredibly flawed justice system. During the McCarthy era, there was a similar display of injustice by the authority. Many people suspected of communism were illegally wiretapped and blacklisted professionally, some even being jailed. Arthur Miller himself was blacklisted as a writer in 1956, three years after “The Crucible” was published. Miller was not the only writer affected by the Red Scare. 151 artists associated with the entertainment industry were placed on what was known as “The Hollywood Blacklist.” This blacklist originated in November of 1947 when ten writers and directors refused to testify for the House Committee of Un-American Activities in congress. These artists, known as studio executives, acting under the Motion Picture Association of America, subsequently fired “The Hollywood Ten”. The following decade was a period when many were unjustly held from work because of their supposed ties and sympathies towards communism. Again, Miller uses his play’s setting in Salem Massachusetts to highlight the strong similarities between the witch hunts in the 1690’s and the Red Scare in the 1940’s-50’s.

A third idea explored by Miller in “The Crucible” is the danger of zealotry to one’s set of beliefs. The ending of many innocent lives could have been stopped had it not been for members of the Salem society justifying executions in the name of religion. Miller displays this zealotry in the action of the “The Crucible.” Members of the Salem community turn their backs on those accused of witchcraft. This reaction is very similar to the reactions of the Americans who supported the mistreatment of accused communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era. In the years following WWII, the United States was riding a wave of national pride. American patriotism was at an all time high when accusations of communist sympathizers started to occur. Much like Salem, members of the communities in the U.S. showed contempt towards those who appeared to be a threat to national patriotism. The Red Scare captured the attention of many proud Americans, who supported the discrimination of artist’s accused of communist ties. The fear of someone threatening the red, white, and blue was used to justify the vilification of supposed communists, permanently harming the careers of many accused.

By using the Salem Witch trials as an allegory to McCarthyism, Arthur Miller is able to highlight the similarities of the use of fear, justice, and zealotry in both societies. The common themes shared by the Witch Hunts and Red Scare will continue to be relevant throughout history. Today in American society we see a strong influence from those who fear the beliefs and political systems of others. It is important the that ideas, and lessons taught in “The Crucible” continue to be examined with an open mind by the current generation before modern society succumbs to the same mindset displayed during the Salem Witch Trials and Era of McCarthyism.

Miller, Arthur; The Crucible
Smithsonian Magazine: History of the Salem Witch Trials


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