Politically, the United States was becoming increasingly conservative. In 1948, Harry S Truman, a Roosevelt liberal from Missouri, who never attended college and had gone through bankruptcy, defeated conservative Thomas Edmund Dewey, an attorney with degrees from the University of Michigan and Columbia University, for the office of President of the United States. Although Truman had been Roosevelt's vice president and held the office since FDR's death in 1945, his victory shocked the experts. Four years later, Republican conservative General Dwight Eisenhower won easily, as he would again in 1956. Other factors affected these elections, but the shift toward conservatism was paramount.
In February of 1950, a first-term U.S. Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy accused the Department of State of employing 205 known Communists. He later reduced the number to 57. Although the accusations were never proven, McCarthy had become a national figure and the most infamous leader of a witch-hunt that rivaled that of Salem in 1692.
In the early 1950s, as head of the Senate subcommittee on investigations, McCarthy expanded his search for Communist influence, which contributed to what historian William Manchester (author of The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of American, 1932-1972, published by Bantam Books) titled "the age of suspicion." Blacklists, banning the accused from employment, appeared across the country. State legislatures demanded that college professors, a typically liberal group, for example, sign loyalty oaths pledging their allegiance to the United States and disavowing any association with Communism. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) fired 157 professors who protested that such an oath was unconstitutional. In the entertainment industry, another predominantly liberal group, some writers, directors, and actors were blacklisted for years, their careers ruined. Good reasons to be concerned about spies did exist in this time period, but too often the wrong people were accused.
This spirit of repression is the context in which The Catcher in the Rye appeared. When the novel has been banned from classrooms, it has been because school boards and administrators have objected to the language as well as the general atmosphere of subversion in the book. Officials at a high school in Nebraska (one example of many) feared that the old Pencey alum, who wants to see if his initials are still carved in a dormitory bathroom door (in Chapter 22), might encourage vandalism. The Christian Science Monitor (July 19, 1951) concluded that the novel was "not fit for children to read" and that Holden Caulfield was "preposterous, profane, and pathetic beyond belief." Ironically, Holden himself is opposed to the strongest obscenity in the novel and the vandalism that produces it. As C.V. Xiong pointed out in a lecture at Creighton University (spring 1999), the novel remains near the top of the list of banned books in public libraries in America, especially in rural areas. Reasons cited continue to be language, subversive concepts, and parental disapproval.
When the Soviet Union set off its first nuclear explosion in 1949, it was clear that the cold war could turn hot and destroy civilization. A real fear permeated American culture. Even in remote areas, ordinary people built bomb shelters in their backyards. Schools took time to instruct students on the best way to react during a nuclear attack. Although the intent was benevolent, the most likely result was fear and confusion on the part of impressionable young minds. This increased gap between adult values and childhood innocence may have affected Salinger and certainly affected his audience. Whatever Holden's politics might have been, many readers related to his resentment of the insensitive, cruel, and phony elements of life.