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"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller and McCarthyism

Elizabeth Finley, Christina Boggs
  • Author
    Elizabeth Finley

    Elizabeth is a recent university graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Anthropology and Religious Studies, with a minor in History. She has several years' experience tutoring friends and peers in many subjects, but social sciences and history are her passions. She has a CITI research certification and has experience writing academically and creatively.

  • Instructor
    Christina Boggs

    Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Learn about McCarthyism and The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Discover its history, impact, and analysis. Read about this symbolic play with quotes from the text. Updated: 08/26/2022

Table of Contents


"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller's 1953 play, "The Crucible," centers on Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1692 witch trials. The play, which details the grisly trials, paranoia, and death that resulted from the Salem Witch Trials, is centered on a community that is ravaged by accusations of witchcraft. As Miller details the story of the people of Salem, whose lives are destroyed by the hysteria of witchcraft and the terror that turned neighbors against one another, he also evokes the political climate during the time he was writing. McCarthyism and "The Crucible" are all but synonymous.

Written in the early 1950s, "The Crucible" served as an allegory for Miller to criticize McCarthyism - a veritable "witch-hunt" of the Cold War era. McCarthyism, named for Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, referred to the panic, accusations, and trials of suspected communists in the US. Joseph McCarthy claimed that there were over 200 communists working in the US government, leading to political repression, blacklists, arrests, and trials of those accused of communist or socialist beliefs or sympathies. Miller himself was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his criticism of the practices.

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  • 0:04 Context
  • 0:41 Way Back in 1692
  • 3:03 Flash Forward to the 1950s
  • 4:21 McCarthyism & ''The Crucible''
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McCarthyism and "The Crucible"

In order to understand the message Miller was conveying in "The Crucible," background information on McCarthyism is critical. The book draws specific and clear parallels between the witch trials and the "Red Scare" of communism. The Red Scare, a broader term for the backlash against communism in the US during the 1950s, was the context in which McCarthyism developed. A senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, made a claim in 1950 that the US State Department employed 205 card-carrying communists. Immediately, panic and paranoia spread among the American people, both about the perceived threat of communism and the potential backlash of being accused.

The setting of the play in the Salem Witch Trials directly mirrors the Red Scare in the post-war era. The play follows the actual events of Salem in 1692, somewhat fictionalized, and details the interpersonal relationships of each character. As the young girls begin to exhibit signs of being affected by witchcraft, the townspeople become obsessed with finding and killing the witches who plague the town. They demand the girls confess — Betty and Abigail, the first girls to "fall victim," begin to name others who they claim are involved. The accusations fly and those accused find that they can avoid the gallows pole by confessing and repenting — even if they are innocent. The play ends with the character John Proctor, accused of being "the Devil's man," refusing to deliver a confession and accepting his execution. Proctor refuses to confess to something he is innocent of, even to save his life.

The climate in the US centuries later was very similar. After McCarthy's claim, accusations of treason and subversion were leveled at thousands of people, many of whom faced repercussions for simply being subpoenaed. Hundreds of those accused were imprisoned, with over ten thousand losing their jobs because of the accusations. Even the idea of being a communist was enough to ruin an individual's life. Those put on trial were often pressured to reveal the names of others involved in communist or socialist circles — much like the characters in Miller's play were pressured into revealing the names of other witches for lessened punishments.

Map of all world countries that have ever been ruled by a one-party Marxist-Leninist government.

A map of the world, with multiple countries highlighted in red, including Russia, China, Cuba, Somalia, and Yemen. The countries highlighted in red are countries that have at any point been ruled by a communist government.

McCarthy's methods to eliminate communism in the US were as close to a witch hunt as possible — those who were accused were often suspected without evidence, tried unfairly, and further smeared if they attempted to defend themselves. Those who were not accused rarely dared criticize McCarthy's tactics for fear of bringing his wrath upon themselves. The primary targets were people in Hollywood, political opponents, leftists, and homosexuals (creating a smaller subset of the Red Scare known as the Lavender Scare). Many prominent individuals were accused and blacklisted, including famed actress Lucille Ball, physicist Albert Einstein, and filmmaker Orson Welles.

Arthur Miller himself was brought before the HUAC after writing "The Crucible," demonstrating how criticisms of McCarthy's wild and baseless claims would bring the critic under fire. However, this factor itself was a driving force in the creation of "The Crucible," with Miller stating that the actual practice of McCarthyism was only a driving force alongside the failure of the left to speak out against the senator. In 1996, Miller said this about why he wrote the play: "But by 1950, when I began to think of writing about the hunt for Reds in America, I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors' violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly."

Analysis of "The Crucible"

"The Crucible" is an incredibly reflective and politically charged play. The message it would have carried when it was first written and performed would have affected audiences differently than any modern reader, with the context of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare no longer present in American society. Though some have likened the McCarthy era to modern issues, its separation from the era for which it was written fundamentally alters the audience's view of the characters and the story. In the 1950s, the play was received with mixed reviews; though it was an immediate success in multiple countries for its flexible way of criticizing powerful institutions, its success did not come without a price. Many audience members, critics, and politicians, including Joseph McCarthy himself, accused Miller of aiding and abetting the communist agenda in the US and degrading American values. Miller was eventually brought before the HUAC and questioned about his involvement with communism.

The play's setting and themes reveal with startling clarity the environment in the US at the time. By setting the story in Salem during the Witch Trials, Miller is able to lay bare the rampant paranoia and unfounded fears of communism in that city. Though some communists had been discovered working in the American government for foreign governments (such as the USSR), McCarthy's rampant and baseless accusations sowed seeds of fear and distrust among the populace - the end result being not that communists were removed from public life, but that leftists, activists, and many others who did not align with conservative values were falsely accused and subjected to the court of public opinion.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does The Crucible connect with McCarthyism and the Red Scare?

Arthur Miller uses "The Crucible" to explore the fear and hysteria that pervaded American society during the Red Scare and the McCarthy era by utilizing the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory. The witch trials, another case of mass hysteria and fear, summed up the emotional state of the US during this period.

What do McCarthyism and The Crucible have in common?

"The Crucible" is a somewhat fictionalized play about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. The trials, which involved paranoia, fear, accusations, and lies among the townspeople of Salem, directly mirrored the same emotions that invaded the American public during the McCarthy era. McCarthy's brutal tactics, false accusations, and life-ruining trials can be viewed in a very similar light to the witch trials.

Why is The Crucible so popular?

"The Crucible" is a popular play to this day and has been performed in multiple countries. Though McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials were uniquely American phenomena, exploring political unrest and fear-based accusations that rip a community apart makes the play almost universal.

Is McCarthyism a theme in The Crucible?

McCarthyism is allegorically represented by the events of "The Crucible." Though it is not discussed in the play, the somewhat fictionalized events in it represent the practice of McCarthyism.

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