Searching for witches

Today, November 14, is the 101st anniversary of the birth of Joseph McCarthy. A lawyer from a farming background, McCarthy was elected a US Senator in 1947, an office he held until his death ten years later. After an initial period in the Senate during which he was largely unnoticed, he shot into fame (and then notoriety) in 1950 by launching accusations of communist sympathies and treachery against various state officials and, later, army officers. He then presided over the Senate Committee on Government Operations, in which role he again made accusations of subversion and espionage against a number of people – generally without presenting any evidence to substantiate his claims. Eventually his methods brought about growing popular disapproval, and in December 1954 he was censured by the Senate. After that he slipped into obscurity and alcoholism, until his death in 1957.

McCarthy’s activities gave rise to the term ‘McCarthyism’, still much used, though often I suspect by people who have only a vague or even no idea where it comes from.*  His accusations and investigations stimulated Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, which is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials. Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate, is a fictionalised account of McCarthy.

But what Joe McCarthy should still be teaching us is that witch trials corrupt any society in which they take place, even where the concerns on which they are based have some validity. A mature democratic society must learn to deal with its problems without resorting to McCarthyism, and we should all become alert to the danger when we are found dismissing or criticising whole groups of people within the community – not even excluding bankers and politicians. This is a lesson which every generation has to absorb and live out. McCarthy has at least taught us that much.


* This includes my spellchecker, which recognises ‘McCarthyism’, but not ‘McCarthy‘.

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4 Comments on “Searching for witches”

  1. Vincent Says:

    A Few years ago John Bowman described a meeting of the Irish Communist Party. Two from the CIA, two from special branch, one each from MI5 and MI6 reflecting the ambiguous nature, two reporting back to the Archbishop. Remembering that most meetings were in camera and small, about five people tops. It would seem that being a Communist in Ireland was an well payed profession. As with America, here the furthest left would be a Liberal leaning Trade Unionist. Charlie Chaplin, FFS, a Communist.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    I never realised my colleagues in the Foundation for Fiscal Studies were a bunch of commies.

  3. Andrew E Says:

    For anyone interested in the whole McCarthy debacle I recommend the documentary “The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and the drama “Good Night, and Good Luck” which portray different aspects of the trials.

  4. Neil M Says:

    Don’t forget “On the Waterfront” as a direct influence of McCarthy – Kazan, Miller (Who wrote the original screenplay) and the fella who wrote the end result, whose name escapes me, were all McCarthy’ed.

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