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Playwright Arthur Miller's decision to write a play about the real-life Salem witch trials of 1692 was no accident. Miller was genuinely interested in that bizarre and dark period of history, but his desire to write the play owed more to his concerns about the direction in which his country, the United States, was headed. Miller wrote The Crucible in the midst of the mass hysteria that was subsuming the United States regarding the threat of communism. It was the early period of the post-World War II Cold War era, and fears about the Soviet Union, boosted by the latter nation's detonation in 1949 of its first atomic bomb, by revelations of Soviet espionage activities in the United States involving American citizens who spied for Russia, and by communist insurgencies in southern Europe, created the mass hysteria in which Miller saw a parallel with the witch trials of the late 17th century. Miller has written about the inspiration for his play that he saw in the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its Senate counterpart, dominated by the pernicious influence of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Commenting on his fears of being pulled into the hysteria that was ruining the careers of so many in the entertainment industry -- fears that would turn out to be entirely prescient -- Miller wrote in a 1996 article: "I remember those years -- they formed The Crucible's skeleton -- but I have lost the dead weight of the fear I had then."
The period of McCarthyism, named for the senator from Wisconsin, was perhaps the most prominent example of mass hysteria to sweep the nation since the 1692 witch trials. A second such wave of mass hysteria followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, although those fears of terrorism were certainly valid in the wake of the most devastating attack on the United States in its history. Wide-spread fear of additional attacks, and of the threat of terrorist cells hiding within American towns and cities, provided perhaps the closest approximation to an example of mass hysteria since the period of McCarthyism.
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