On February 9, 1950, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) made a historic speech in which he declared that 205 Communists were working within the State Department. This speech is generally considered the beginning of the period known as McCarthyism, a term used to describe unsubstantiated accusations of political subversion and disloyalty. Communism, which first appeared on the international political stage during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution (1917), was regarded with deep suspicion by the mid-twentieth century. This was due, in part, to strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II. The United States supported war against North Korea (who were supported by Communist China and the Soviet Union), believing that communism posed a threat to democracy. Despite the official government position against it, many Americans were intrigued by communism, including Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman. However, as the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union developed during the 1950s, communism became synonymous with a lack of patriotism. Espionage cases such as that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who in 1951 were found guilty of leaking state secrets to the Soviet Union, supported the idea that communism was unpatriotic.
Senator McCarthy’s accusations came at a time when people were already fearful of further war and, on a personal level, of losing their jobs for being unpatriotic. They were therefore ready to blacklist (refuse to allow access to employment), imprison, or exile anyone who might pose a threat to the safety of the nation. No one was exempt from scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which singled out members of the Hollywood film community because of the content of some films. Suspicion alone was sufficient to jeopardize one’s livelihood; once a job was lost through blacklisting, it was difficult to find employment in the industry again. McCarthyism waned in the mid-1950s as public opinion turned against the senator and the courts began to rectify the damage done by false accusations fueled by McCarthyism. Senator McCarthy died in disgrace in 1957.
For fifty years, the Korean peninsula was occupied by Japan, with Korean nationalists attempting to undermine Japanese rule. Upon the defeat of Japan in 1945, Korea was divided into two halves, with the Soviet Union claiming the northern half and the United States the southern half. In 1948, the United States returned control of South Korea to the Koreans after making sure the seated government for the Republic of Korea was pro-democracy. The Soviet Union established a Korean-run Communist government in North Korea. Initially, the intention was to unify the nation, but revolts, failed treaties, and the mounting cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union led to all-out war in June 1950. Both governments wanted a unified Korea, albeit with very different political ideologies. The Republic of Korea in the south was supported in the war by the United Nations and its member countries, including the United States. In Jackson’s short story, Mrs. Johnson tells her husband about harassing a bus driver by asking him why he did not enlist in the army, which may be a veiled reference to the escalating presence of U.S. armed forces in South Korea.
After three years of war, in July 1953, a U.N.-sponsored armistice was signed by North Korea and the United States. Although the Republic of Korea refused to sign, a tenuous peace was established. In May 2009, amid worldwide concern that North Korea would begin to stockpile a nuclear weapons arsenal, North Korea withdrew from the fifty-six-year-old armistice leaving the area’s future in jeopardy.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Shirley Jackson, Published by Gale Group, 2010