Historical Context

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McCarthyism and the Cold War
In the two decades before the writing of ‘‘‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,’’ a series of events occurred in the United States that marked the culture for years to come. In 1945, the Second World War ended. The Potsdam Conference effectively divided up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Consequently, the Soviet Union gained control over large sections of the area and quickly closed down access and communication to and from those countries. Winston Churchill in a famous speech referred to this part of the globe as the ‘‘Iron Curtain,’’ and this metaphor persisted until the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later.

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Thus, the ‘‘hot’’ Second World War degenerated into a cold war, a time when Western nations vied with the Soviet Union for power and control. Because both sides were developing considerable nuclear arsenals, the cold war was in deadly earnest; during the 1950s and 1960s, Americans lived with the very real fear of nuclear annihilation.

The fear of the Soviet Union and the fear of communism led to what has been described as ‘‘The Red Scare’’ in the United States. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy began widespread accusations and investigations of suspected communist activities in the United States. He and his followers managed to elicit great support. Not only were government workers required to take loyalty oaths to keep their jobs, ordinary citizens were called upon to testify against their neighbors, coworkers, and friends. Many businesses and firms refused to hire anyone who had been accused of being a communist, even if they had not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. This led to what has been called a ‘‘blacklist.’’ Many writers, actors, artists, and directors found themselves on this list and out of work for many years.

At the height of McCarthyism, the hearings were televised and viewed by Americans all over the country. Many people cooperated with the investigations and accusations as a way of keeping themselves safe from suspicion. Those who chose not to testify and who spoke out against McCarthy’s group were often punished through the loss of jobs and income. Like the conformists of ‘‘‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,’’ many American citizens strove not to be noticed, rather than to stand up for what was right. Ellison came of age during the McCarthy era; his steadfast support of the individual’s duty to resist oppressors of any persuasion reveals the deep impression this period had on him.

The Vietnam War
In 1954, the French defeat at the battle Dien Bien Phu ultimately led to American involvement in Vietnam. In response to a vacuum of power quickly filled by communist nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh, American presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, fearful of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, sent first advisors and later troops to prop up a faltering and corrupt government in South Vietnam in their fight against the communist nationalists.

In 1965, American public opinion, while still largely in support of the Vietnam policies of the American government was beginning to turn. As more men were drafted for service in Vietnam, and as the casualty lists grew larger, Americans began to question American involvement.

In many ways, ‘‘‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman’’ reflects the growing unrest with the Vietnam War. Ellison’s use of Thoreau initially recalls Thoreau’s own stance against the Mexican War. His refusal to pay income taxes used to support what he considered an unjust war landed him in jail. Likewise, Ellison reminds his readers that unthinking conformity and support of repugnant government decisions leads to a society where the government controls all. The Harlequin in many ways resembles the anti-war protestors of the 1960s...

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