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History repeats itself. A line so commonly quoted; one
would assume that people work to prevent events similar to past cataclysms from
occurring. Yet, if that were to be true, one would be at lost as to explain how
the McCarthy Era in the 1900’s transpired after the tragic witch trials in
Salem in the 1600’s. The events of the McCarthy Era are so similar to those of
the Salem Witch Trials, that it has been named ‘the modern day witch trials.’ Although
there are a few differences between the two, there are similarities between
them, leading many to wonder how America did not see ‘red flags’ in the rise of
the McCarthy Era. 

The greatest contrast between the Salem Witch Trials
and the McCarthy Era is the difference in time period. The witch trials in
Salem began in 1692. At that time, most of the people in Salem were devout
Puritans with a fear of the devil and witches. The Church encouraged the fear
of evil, causing many to be swayed easily by claims of witchcraft, especially
spectral evidence. (Brooks)
Spectral evidence is a claim made by the victim that he saw or was attacked by
the ghost of the accused. According to Puritan belief, Satan cannot take the
form of any unwilling person. Therefore, if a person would claim to see the
ghost of someone else, it must be that the accused was involved in witchcraft. ( As there was no way
to disprove spectral evidence, it was the most convicting source of evidence in
the 1600’s. In modern times, or even in the times of the McCarthy Era, spectral
evidence would hold no place in the category of evidence, and certainly not
enough to condemn someone. In addition, in the 1600’s, Britain’s policy towards
its American colonies was one of salutary neglect. It was too costly for Britain
to enforce their laws overseas, so they left the colonies to establish their
own courts and laws. However, the courts set up were not sufficient and were
inclined to accept spectral evidence as a main source of proof. (Henretta) (Staff, Salem Witch Trials) Even after receiving
orders to stop allowing it, there was no one to enforce the orders, and the
courts did not listen. The time period of the Salem Witch Trials enabled the
inadequate courts, encouraged by the beliefs of the Puritans, to condemn many
innocent people.

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The McCarthy Era occurred in the 1950’s during the Cold
War. During WWII, America and the Soviet Union fought together against the Axis
Powers. However, their relationship at that time was strained. America was
distrustful of the Soviet communism along with their leader Joseph Stalin,
while the Soviet Union resented America for refusing to acknowledge them as a
part of the international community and their policy of isolationism in the war
until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When the war ended, and the Soviet
Union disregarded their promise to hold free elections in the freed countries,
the fear of communism, which had been mitigated during the war, flared up once
again. The fear was exacerbated by the disclosure of the Soviet Union spying on
America, both during the war and after. Republicans, whom had been powerless
during the Roosevelt Era, took advantage of the fear in order to retake hold of
office. They red-baited the democrats labeling them as ‘soft on communism’,
gaining the support of the people and winning office. This red-baiting further
intensified the fear of communism and caused a distrust of many government
officials labeled as communists. (Barnes) (Staff, Cold
War History)
The republicans in office during a time in which suspicions of communism were
heightened made it very easy for the McCarthy Era to occur.

The factors that led to the Salem Witch Trials and the
McCarthy Era differ entirely. The witch trials in Salem were caused mainly
because of religious and economic conflicts within the village. Salem Village
was split between those who wanted to join Salem Town and its thriving economy
and the farming families who wished to remain separate. The ones who wanted to
join felt it would benefit the poor economy in Salem Village, while the farming
families felt that they would not benefit from the manufacturing in Salem Town
and did not appreciate its materialism. In addition, economic strains began to
progress when many refugees, attempting to escape King William’s war in Canada
and New York, came and claimed ownership over large portions of land. Many of
the original residents of Salem were resentful and wanted the land returned to
them. When the witch hunt began, the citizens of Salem Village were all too willing
to accuse others of witchcraft if their views differed from their own or if
their land was coveted, causing the witch trials to explode out of proportions. ( (Blumberg)
In addition, religious conflicts over Reverend Samuel Parris contributed to the
trials. There were controversial views on his position of authority; many in
the village did not agree with Parris’ extreme religious views. Many believed that
he was driven by greed and saw his position only as an economic opportunity and
not as a religious duty he had to the people. There were those, however, who
believed passionately in him and considered anyone against him heretic. (Wallenfeldt)The dispute over
Parris quickly spiraled out of control, and anyone who supported Parris were
eager to help him in his hunt and accused those who did not share their views
on Parris. The tension in Salem led many residents to condemn others whose
beliefs differed from their own, even without concrete proof, provoking a
rampant witch trials. (

In contrast, the driving force behind the McCarthy Era
was mainly political. Anxieties during the Cold War were rising, when, in 1949,
shortly after WWII, the USSR began spreading communism to their European
satellite countries. Many Americans were afraid that communism would take over
America, because of the several government officials who had joined the
American Communist Party. ( was proud of
their culture and was concerned about spies in the government who would leak
secrets to the USSR, and aid them in the spread of communism. When the USSR succeeded
in creating an atom bomb just four years after America did, suspicions about
spies were heightened, and the House of Un-American Activities Committee was tasked
with investigating individuals suspected of pro-communist beliefs. With the war
failing in Korea, and communism spreading in Europe and Asia, America was
concerned about internal mutiny. (Staff, Joseph R. McCarthy) Therefore, when
Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list of two hundred and five people in the
State Department that were known members of the American Communist Party, he
was given unrestrained ability to investigate the possibility of communism in
the government. (Achter) The political
reality of the world during the Cold War is what enabled the McCarthy Era to

Despite the differences between the McCarthy Era and
the Salem Witch Trials, there are many more similarities between them. For
example, in both the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era, one person caused
major destruction, spreading fear and hatred throughout his environment. In
Salem, Reverend Samuel Parris is blamed for the tragic incident of the witch
trials. In February of 1692, when Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann
Putnam Jr. began behaving strangely, Reverend Samuel Parris called for Dr.
William Griggs. Unable to find any physical ailments, Dr. Griggs suggested that
the girls had been bewitched. Pressured by Parris to indict someone, the girls
accused Tituba, the Parris’ slave, and two other societal outcasts, Sarah Good
and Sarah Osborne. Although both Good and Osborne protested their innocence,
Tituba succumbed to the pressure and confessed, informing the judges that she
and several others in Salem had struck a deal with the devil. Her confession
affirmed the colonists underlying fear of witches, and then many began to
accuse others of witchcraft. (Wallenfeldt) By May of 1693,
little over a year later, over two hundred people had been indicted. Of those
two hundred, five died in custody, nineteen were hung, and a man named Giles
Corey was crushed to death by a pile of stones for refusing to enter a plea at
his trial. (Staff, Salem Witch Trials) ( Many historians
believe that the blame of the Salem Witch Trials lies mainly on the shoulders
of Samuel Parris because he forced the confessions, which sparked the Salem
Witch Trials. (Brooks) (Wallenfeldt)

Similarly, the culpability of the McCarthy Era lies
squarely on the shoulders of Senator Joseph McCarthy. On February 9th, 1950, Joseph
McCarthy was given free rein to investigate communism in America. Drunk with
power, McCarthy exploited his position, faulting many without proof. For two
years, McCarthy questioned a large number of government workers and many others
about their political past. If they admitted to having been members of the American
Communist Party at any point, without renouncing their past, they lost their
jobs. Any accused person who refused to appear in front of the House of
Un-American Activities Committee was blacklisted, costing him his job, and
making it near impossible for him to find a new one. His name would only be
removed from the blacklist when he convinced the committee that he had
renounced his communist past. Many times, in addition to proof, the House of Un-American
Activities Committee would demand names of other communist party members as a
trade for a man’s removal from the list. (Simkin) Families were torn
apart, and friendships were destroyed. Single-handedly, Joseph McCarthy spread
a fear of communism throughout America and hate towards its supporters. He
caused many Americans to lose their jobs and invoked an anti-communist hysteria,
which haunted America until the end of the Cold War.

Another parallel between the two is that in both the
Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era, people whose beliefs were not standard
in society were used as scapegoats and punished. In Salem, these groups
included the women, lower-class, refugees, and anyone who was against Samuel
Parris and his beliefs. Women were believed to be incapable and inferior to
men, and therefore were targeted. It was believed that because women were the
ones gathering herbs, they were using them for potions and brews used to
bewitch others. Furthermore, many of the lower-class, such as slaves and
beggars, were accused. The lower-class led simple lives, and the village of
Salem were quick to believe that they were the ones to strike a deal with the
devil in exchange for a better life. This is shown by the people of Salem’s
quick belief in the accusation of Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne by
three teenage girls without any proof. And as mentioned above, those with views
opposed to Samuel Parris were also incriminated in an un-proportionate amount. (Brooks) ( Those whose beliefs
did not conform to society’s beliefs were the most likely to be charged with

 During the
McCarthy Era, people with views different from those of mainstream Americans
were suspected of being communist. Many leftist-wing, Hollywood producers were
alleged to be communists because their movies expressed views of the communist
parties.  In 1947, the House of Un-American
Activities Committee led an investigation against the Hollywood Motion Picture
Industry, interviewing forty one volunteers working in Hollywood. This resulted
in the accusation of nineteen people. In addition, many other leftist-wing
groups and Jews were used as scapegoats. If someone did not fit in perfectly
with the American culture, they were condemned. Senator McCarthy also targeted
anyone who advocated for human equality. He believed that what they supported
was similar to the communist mantra ‘workers of the world unite.’ He targeted many
democrats, especially those affiliated with the New Deal. McCarthy helped
clinch Dwight D. Eisenhower’s win in the elections by portraying Truman as a
dangerous liberal, and accused many others in his democratic administrations of
being soft on communism. (Simkin)
Anyone with views slightly dissimilar to those of conventional American beliefs
were immediately suspected of being a communist.

Lastly, both the McCarthy Era and the Salem Witch
Trials’ downfall began when attention was turned to the wrong group of people.
The Salem Witch Trial was going full steam until the upper-class was accused of
witchcraft. At the beginning of the witch trials, only the outcasts and slaves
were charged with witchcraft. As hysteria spread, attention shifted to the
lower and middle-class members. Dissent began to stir amongst the people as
more and more were accused. The courts were ordered to stop accepting spectral
evidence as proof. However, the order was ignored, and the courts reallocated
their attention to a number of important members of the community. Many
significant people in the upper-class were accused, including Rebecca Nurse and
Martha Corey, two upstanding members of the Church and the community. ( However, on October
29, the court went too far, when Governor Phips’
wife was accused of witchcraft. Governor Phips stepped in and ordered a halt to
the proceedings of the court. He then dismantled the court, and in its place,
he established a Superior Court of Judicature, which was instructed not to
admit any spectral evidence. (Wallenfeldt) (Blumberg) Without its main
source of evidence, the courts had nothing to condemn the people accused and
the witch hunt craze slowed down.

Similarly, McCarthy’s power came to an end when he confronted
the U.S. Army. Until October of 1953, McCarthy had investigated Hollywood
producers, many government departments, Jews, and leftist-wings. Then, Senator
McCarthy moved his attention to possible communist subversion in the U.S.
military. (Staff, Joseph R. McCarthy) An outraged President
Dwight D. Eisenhower realized that he had allowed Senator McCarthy to go too
far and that it was time to bring an end to McCarthy’s investigations. He gave
the U.S. Army the go-ahead to spread information about McCarthy to reporters. Until
now, there had been many journalists against McCarthy, but they were afraid to
speak out of fear of being titled a communist. With the president’s backing,
they gained confidence in their counter-attack and condemned McCarthy with
vengeance. In addition, Eisenhower instructed Richard Nixon, his vice
president, to criticize Joseph McCarthy publicly. On the March 4th,
1954, vice President Nixon gave a speech against him.  When Nixon said, “Men who have in the past
done effective work by exposing Communists in this country…. Made themselves
the issue rather than the cause they believe so deeply in,” The Americans
understood who he was referring to, although he hadn’t mentioned any names. (Simkin) However, what clinched
McCarthy’s downfall was his investigation of army officials, many of whom were
decorated war heroes, on national television. McCarthy’s public interrogation
showed the country the cruelty of his attacks, while poll after poll showed the
disgust of the American people with McCarthy’s unscrupulous cross-examination.
Soon after McCarthy’s disastrous mistake in attacking the military, he was
censured for dishonoring the Senate, and the hearings came to a close, ending
the McCarthy Era. (

            The Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era compare
yet contrast in many ways. They are dissimilar in their time period and
underlying factors while they are similar in their main perpetuator, acts of
scapegoating, and downfall. Although there are some differences, there are many
more similarities than dissimilarities between the two.

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