Teaching McCarthyism to my students is difficult. I mean, teaching the concept of McCarthyism to anyone is hard enough, but most of my students don’t know much about communism, the Soviet Union, or even World War II. (Some of them believed that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Chinese. But don’t snicker. This is why you teache.)
So you have to go way, way back whenever you teach something as complicated as McCarthyism, and it takes tremendous effort. You find your class discussing Marx and Engles, the distribution of wealth, organized labor, and then getting around to Governor Bill Haslam, who took away the collective bargaining rights of Tennessee teachers such as myself. And then you stop yourself and remember that you have a standardized test coming up in a few months, and your students are supposed to be able to tell the difference between a summary and a paraphrase. Your job’s on the line, after all.
So, usually, you stop.
But this year, I didn’t. I decided to go trolling around youtube to see if I could find real testimony from the Hollywood Ten in front of the H.U.A.C. And what do you know? It took me a while, but I found a few short clips, which I showed the students.
You should have seen their jaws drop. They couldn’t believe they were watching grown men act this way. Some of them giggled at how preposterous the entire situation was, but when I reminded them that these people spent a year in prison for refusing to incriminate their friends, they snapped back to. And this certainly informed our study of The Crucible, in which John Proctor goes to the gallows before he names names and endangers the people who are closest to him.
Here are some of the clips I showed them:
1. Howard Lawson, one of the “Hollywood Ten,” answers questions of the H.U.A.C. and, like John Proctor of The Crucible, is outshouted by the presiding interrogator:
2. Herbert Biberman yells back at the interrogators who will not listen to his answers. Like Giles Cory (and later Arthur Miller himself), he is found guilty of contempt.
3. Finally, here is Walt Disney, (or is that Roy Walley?), the good old boy who has all the right answers for the H.U.A.C.