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This period is marked by the term McCarthyism because of the zealous role Senator Joe McCarthy played in the hunt for American Communists. A particularly analogous incident during this period was the Hiss-Chambers case as it went before the HUAC. Former Communist Whittaker Chambers sat in the witness chair in a hearing room inside the New House Office Building in Washington, DC, prepared to testify to the Communist activity of others who wished to overthrow the American government.
"For a year I lived in hiding, sleeping by day and watching through the night with a gun or revolver within easy reach. I had sound reason for supposing that the Communists might try to kill me. For a number of years I had myself served in the underground, chiefly in Washington, D.C. I knew it at its top level, a group of seven or so men. A member of this group was Alger Hiss."
McCarthyism and Communists
Although this hearing was held behind closed doors, the news of Chambers accusations against Hiss spread quickly, as did the fear of being accused as well. Even those who had not been cited or convicted feared trouble for themselves because the search for Communist sentiment had become the rage.
Many news stories questioned the loyalty of innocent people, most of whom had no way to challenge such charges. Once the finger of doubt had been placed, it was virtually impossible to prove American loyalty.
- For those who were accused, the refusal to answer questions resulted in a charge of contempt and possible imprisonment.
- Those who were indicted and did testify were coerced to reveal the names of others that may have taken part in Communist activity.
The example of the Rosenbergs offers another alarming comparison to the events that occurred in the Salem witch trials and Miller's play. In 1950, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested on charges of espionage, accused by Ethel's brother David Greenglass who had already admitted his own guilt as a spy for Russia. This is not where the similarity lies however but in how the Rosenbergs were accused. The FBI only investigated and arrested the Rosenbergs after a lengthy period of probes and arrests finally led to Greenglass' implicating them.
After a notorious and much publicized trial, the Rosenbergs were found guilty, sentenced to death and electrocuted three years later. Some critics have blamed the competitive climate between America's conservative and liberal elite for contributing to the anti-Communist hysteria that propagated such events. Despite who was responsible, they also contend that McCarthyism was a menacing societal tendency that produced mass demonstration and suspicion against Communist sentiment.
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