It is natural that when humans are faced with a fear that they do not totally comprehend, that they look for someone or something to blame or to explain that fear. It happened during the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693. The fear of witches was so strong, that a simple accusation was enough to cost an accused witch her life. The reaction was the result of mass hysteria and serves as a vivid example of what can happen when society throws out the simple rules of due process. More than twenty people, mostly women died as a result of the irrational fear. More recently, the fear of Communism created a similar fear that took hold in the United States during the Cold War of the twentieth century. Many powerful lives were shattered by accusations of being communist sympathizers. One of the more powerful agencies to pursue Communists in the United States was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The HUAC pursued Communists as if they were witches, and many lives were destroyed, just as those of accused witches were lost, simply because of unproven accusations.
The HUAC was established in 1938, a reorganization of the Fish Committee and the McCormack-Dickstein Committees. Its initial attacks on the Roosevelt administration in its early days were not very successful since most Americans were loyal Roosevelt supporters. However, after World War II, the Cold War created an environment of fear and hatred of anything Communist. The HUAC began to flourish, getting popular support and a lot of national headlines.
The most powerful weapon that the HUAC had, was its subpoena power. It was able to call anyone to testify in its high profile hearings in front of Congress. It’s most controversial tactics included antagonistic questioning about an individual’s personal political beliefs and activities. Then each individual was asked to provide additional names of other communist sympathizers. Anyone who refused to answer or who answered differently than the committee wanted, or who refused to provide names of other communist sympathizers, could be indicted for contempt of Congress, and sent to prison. Anyone who tried to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights was automatically assumed to be guilty.
The HUAC focused much of its attention on the powerful men in Hollywood. Because they did not want to get on the bad side of Congress or the public, most of the film executives did not fight the Committee’s investigations, as they were afraid of being targeted themselves. Instead, a policy of blacklisting any actors, directors, writers, or any other personnel who was implicated by the HUAC was used to pacify the Committee. This “witch hunt”, as it has been categorized, led to the events that created the “Hollywood Ten”. This was a group of writers and directors that were called by the HUAC to testify in October of 1947. They were all male, all producers, screenwriters and directors. They all refused to cooperate, and instead used the opportunity to criticize the HUAC and its tactics. Each of these men were cited for contempt of Congress, sent to prison and blacklisted from ever working in Hollywood again.
Hollywood was not the only target, however. The HUAC also investigated the possibility that Communists were working in the federal government. The most famous case of this was that of Alger Hiss, a former official in the State Department. He was accused of being a communist by Whittaker Chambers, who had confessed to being a part of the American Communist Party. Chambers accused Hiss of being a spy for the Soviet Union. Based almost solely on Whittaker’s accusations, Hiss was found guilty of perjury for denying his guilt to the HUAC. He served 44 months in prison. He denied his guilt to the day he died.
The HUAC’s successful prosecution of Hiss proved to many that the Committee was performing a valuable service by uncovering Soviet spies. The case served to heighten the fears of Communist infiltration, proving that it was a serious national threat. A few years later, the HUAC served as the blueprint for the hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
More recently, the country has seen similar reactions to Muslims following the attacks of 9/11. Many people have been harassed and accused of being radical Islamists simply because of their names, their religion, and their native nationality. Mosques have been vandalized and individuals have been attacked simply because they represented the Muslim community. Even our President has supported unequal treatment of anyone from Muslim countries.
Once again, Hollywood is under attack. Many powerful producers and newsmen and actors have been accused of inappropriate treatment of women. While the problem does exist and something needs to be done to fix the problem, the accusations are starting to become a daily ritual. No evidence other than that supplied by the women involved has been presented. No one yet has been prosecuted, though there is talk of possible charges against Harvey Weinstein. Yet many men have had their careers destroyed. Many have not denied the accusations, but some like Scott Baio have claimed innocence. The tone has become almost as hateful as the anti-communists of the HUAC era. What if someone just wants to be get back at someone who didn’t give her a part? How does someone who is innocent prove that innocence?
Fear is a powerful weapon when it is used to create an atmosphere of mass hysteria. It is a weapon that has been used throughout history. Many politicians use it to create distrust of their competition in elections. Many governments have used it as a tool to control the attitudes of the masses. It has proven to be very effective because it is based on exploiting real fears held by almost everyone. Unfortunately, the masses are usually blind to the problem until years later, after it has done its damage and cannot be undone.
Society claims to have evolved over the last three or four centuries, but when fear takes hold, we seem to be no different in our responses. If we are to be better than the early settlers of Salem, we need to fight those fears. We need to enforce the “innocent until proven guilty” policy that we expect to live by every day. We need to remember that tomorrow it might be you or me that is accused.
Article by John Freeman
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“Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, Jan. 2002, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/venona/dece_hiss.html