February 12, 2005


We Now Know (Roger Kimball, September 2000, New Criterion)

Some myths die hard. One of the most recalcitrant in recent times has been the myth of McCarthyism—the myth that America in the late 1940s and early 1950s was in the grip of a fearsome, paranoid “witch-hunt” against supposed Communists and other alleged traitors. According to this myth, the assault was fearsome because it blighted thousands of careers and lives, and it was paranoid because it was essentially groundless. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee ranted on about Communist spies, but really, the myth of McCarthyism maintains, there were no spies to speak of, only liberals like … well, like Alger Hiss.

You might think that by now liberals would have given up on this one. After all, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of many Soviet archives, there is indisputable evidence—a mountain of it—for what had long been alleged by cold warriors. The liberal line had always been that the American Communist Party was basically an expression of home-grown radical sentiment; in fact, it had from the beginning been a tool of Moscow; moreover, many of the radical “martyrs” of the period were hard-core Stalinists and KGB operatives. This is not speculation: it is hard and fast historical fact. As the historian John Gaddis put it in the title of his 1997 history of the Cold War: We Now Know.

Or so we would have thought. But what is evidence in the face of self-righteous political animus? Not much, if Arthur Miller’s breathtaking expostulation about the origins of his play The Crucible is any guide. Entitled “Are You Now or Were You Ever … ?,” Mr. Miller’s latest exercise in self-congratulation appeared in—it is almost too good to be true, but is is true—The Guardian, the most predictable left-wing “quality” paper in London. There had, of course, long been speculation that the activities of Sen. McCarthy and HUAC had been the chief inspiration for The Crucible; no one, we think, will accuse Mr. Miller of having been overly subtle in his deployment of symbolism. But he has now for the first time cleared up any remaining doubts: “It would probably never have occurred to me to write a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692 had I not seen some astonishing correspondences with that calamity in the America of the late 40s and early 50s. … I refer to the anti-communist rage that threatened to reach hysterical proportions and sometimes did.”

Mr. Miller has always been a reliable source of radical-chic clichés and he does not disappoint in this new recollection. We can well believe him when he remarks that “Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Communist party members, some were fellow-travellers, and most had had a brush with Marxist ideas or organisations.” But is it naïveté or something else when he goes on to declare that “I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations.”

I still fondly recall reading The Crucible in 8th grade. Our teacher of course wanted to use it to show precisely the point that anti-Communism was mere hysteria. She'd not counted on someone arguing that witches and Communists should be tried and burned.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2005 6:12 AM

If The Crucible hadn't somehow become mandatory for all jr. high schoolers, no one would even remember it, not even those sympathetic to its repulsive politics.

Posted by: carter at February 12, 2005 2:53 PM

Were you ever a child OJ?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 12, 2005 11:33 PM