Philip Jenkins wants us to stop using the phrase "witch hunt" to describe American investigations into communism during the Cold War. The phrase, he argues, should be removed from political discourse. Here is a taste of his piece at Real Clear Religion:
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.