Witch hunts, past and present

Senator Joseph McCarthy
A few nights ago, I went to a trivia contest at the local Elks. One of the questions was to name the senator involved in the “anti-communist witch hunts” of the 1950s. (It was Joseph McCarthy) A bonus point was awarded if you knew his nickname. (Tail-gunner Joe). Now, a Trivia contest, particularly one for charity, is not the place for a political argument, so I didn’t object, but I found the characterization both inaccurate and annoying.
Nowadays, of course, pretty much any inquiry into something you disagree with is often termed a witch hunt to dismiss it as a fantasy at best and a persecution at worst. The allusion, of course, is the Salem witch trials of 1682-3. People were ruined and even executed based on hysterical unsupported testimony and superstition.
Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist investigations and hearings of the 1950s are often compared to the Salem trials by commentators and politicians, but that is a poor comparison. The anti-communist investigations and hearings associated with Senator McCarthy were conducted in ways that were much more in keeping with the rule of law and the rights of the accused, but did result in a lot of loose talk and accusations about who might be a communist and who might not be. And some people did suffer unwarranted damage to their reputations as a result. The hearings were marked by wild and unsubstantiated accusations based on limited evidence.
But here is the real problem with referring to the McCarthy hearings as a witch hunt; WITCHES DIDN’T EXIST. They never did. All the evils attributed to them were in the imagination of the witnesses. The trials were pure hysteria and superstition.

Communists, on the other hand, did exist, and did have agents working in the United States, as corroborated by the Verona transcripts years later. At the time McCarthy launched his anti-communist crusade, communism had just triumphed in China, Soviet spy Claus Fuchs had confessed to supplying the Russians with atomic secrets, and the Rosenbergs were on trial for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets as well. So the “witches” were very real, very active, and very dangerous. For the US Congress to be concerned and to investigate was a natural thing to do. The problem was that McCarthy took a legitimate concern and attacked it in a destructive and irresponsible way that undermined any public support the effort might have had. And so his name is now associated with witch hunts. But even though he chased them in an irresponsible and counter-productive, way, the “witches” he hunted were real.
Even a trivia contest can’t get it right.

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