Language speaks us. Much as I hate quoting that post-modern cliché, it captures the truth that certain words and phrases become so deeply inlaid in our everyday conversation that we are scarcely able to realize their ideological slant.
As a prime example, I offer the wave of investigations that the United States and other countries undertook into Communist subversion and espionage in the Cold War years. Well, that description is a little wordy, so let's just use the convenient short-hand that has become so standard: the McCarthy witch hunts.
It's concise, it's memorable, everyone knows what you mean by it -- and it's utterly wrong. In its way, the whole "witch-hunt" idea is a highly religious concept, rooted as it is in the history of supernatural thought and demonology. But beyond this, it has acquired the status of an infallible dogma of political faith, to err from which is damnable heresy.
For a current example, look at the most recent New York Review of Books, in which Adam Hochschild reviews a book on the FBI's war in the 1960s against student radicalism, chiefly at Berkeley. Hochschild declares that American Communism scarcely existed as a real force. It "never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature." The real danger, instead, was American anti-Communism, which "witch-hunted dissidents in Hollywood, universities, and government departments; and was a force that politicians like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon rode to great prominence."
To speak of a witch-hunt evokes a whole mythological system. In the original witch-hunts of sixteenth or seventeenth century Europe, thousands of innocent people were tried and punished for crimes of which they were not just innocent, but which were actively impossible, such as riding on the back of a goat to a personal meeting with Satan. Witch panics served to focus fears and anxieties within hungry and war-torn communities in desperate need of scapegoats.
Real witches, by definition, did not exist.
And that is the implication of the phrase when applied to the twentieth century. When Congressional committees dragooned left-wing activists before them to answer humiliating questions, they were (we think) investigating imaginary crimes by non-existent witches. This picture is consecrated in American culture by Arthur Miller's heavy-handed allegory, The Crucible. Once you accept the witch-hunt idea, you have a ready-made system of near-diabolic villains, and a heroic martyrology of saints and innocent sufferers.
In the Communist case, though, the "witches" really did exist, and genuinely posed a threat. For some thirty years now, we have had excellent historical studies by such scholars as Ronald Radosh, Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes and Hervey Klehr, and they demonstrate a picture of American Communism absolutely at variance with the myth. At its height in the 1930s, the US Communist Party had at least 75,000 open members, including many well placed in key strategic industries. There was also a penumbra of clandestine members, of unknown scale.
That party was never in any sense an autonomous political organization, as it existed as a wholly owned and lavishly funded subsidiary of the Soviet Union. Now, supporting a foreign country is one thing, but giving it active aid to the point of espionage and sabotage is another, and that was the primary purpose of U.S. Communism as a movement. (That observation obviously does not apply to the intentions of most ordinary members, who were gullible rather than malicious).
If that statement about the movement seems far-fetched, then you are probably not familiar with the evidence of VENONA, the highly successful effort of US and other Western intelligence agencies to decipher the secret communications of their Soviet counterparts from the mid-1940s onwards.
VENONA shows beyond doubt that the Soviet Union did mount a massive espionage effort against the United States, and that Soviet agencies recruited large numbers of Americans, including some at high levels of government. Alger Hiss was a spy, as were the Rosenbergs. If FDR had died before 1944, his successor would have been Vice President Henry Wallace, who identified Laurence Duggan as his potential Secretary of State, and Harry Dexter White as his Treasury Secretary. Duggan and White were both Soviet spies. Quite apart from the many known cases, VENONA reveals the existence of several hundred more Americans who worked for the Soviets, but who still remain unidentified.
The "witch hunts" of course began long before McCarthy's rise to prominence, and arguably had done far more to dismantle the Soviet spy threat than the Senator from Wisconsin. Anti-Communist purges were in fact at their height under the Democratic Truman administration. They reached new heights after 1950 not because of the rise of a new demagogue, but because the U.S. was at open war with Communist forces in Korea, with the daily expectation of an imminent escalation against the Soviets -- who had tested a nuclear bomb the previous year. In such a dire situation, it was natural to expect a domestic sabotage campaign by those Soviet assets on American soil who could most easily be found within the ranks of the Communist Party.
In the 1950s, unlike the 1650s, the "witches" were quite real and deadly dangerous, and any government that failed to seek them out and neutralize them would have been signally failing in its basic duty of national self-preservation. It made excellent sense to ask exactly who was, or recently had been, a Communist, and the obvious way to do that was to track their political views over the previous decade or so. In what sense could investigating such a record be called a witch-hunt?
Frankly, I'm not too hopeful about laying the "witch" mythology to rest, because it is so firmly established in our political discourse, not to mention in popular culture. And whether we're dealing with secular or religious believers, it rarely makes sense to argue with strict fundamentalists.