In the early 1950s America's endemic hatred of Communism turned into the great American red scare. It was the trauma of those years (already much discussed in these pages), that led the public to demand a response by government and throughout the nation of the radical kind McCarthy was identified with. So it was that the repression that had begun rather tentatively when the Cold War got under way increasingly took on the aspect of a generalized inquisition. And in doing so--to repeat the point often made here--it in fact exacerbated the fear that called it forth and which it was supposed to assuage. In the end, only an external force as seismic as the one that brought on the fear was able to calm the nerves and break the self-reinforcing cycle.
The various un-American activity committees, federal and local, boldly swung into action; they had been subdued for a while. The enormous publicity they generated in every community they visited was directed against the enemies of the people from whom they demanded an accounting and who were then reviled and ostracized and perhaps jailed. The function of the committees, HUAC first among equals, was to perform a community ritual that otherwise defied rationality. Unfriendly witnesses-- those who rejected the absolution that came with the confessing of sins and the naming of names--faced two choices: a contempt citation and therefore jail by talking back, attempting to answer questions on their own