In his new book, Haynes Johnson calls for leaders "willing to break the ideological confines that now keep our politics in a perpetual state of...

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“The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism”
by Haynes Johnson
Harcourt, 609 pp., $26

In his new book, Haynes Johnson calls for leaders “willing to break the ideological confines that now keep our politics in a perpetual state of division.” It’s hard to see Johnson’s book, “The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism,” as doing much to advance that effort.

In making the case that the politics of Sen. Joe McCarthy didn’t die with him in 1957, Johnson compares the Republican tactics in the 2004 presidential election to McCarthy’s use of fear to stay in power. He calls the Iraq war “a political, military and diplomatic blunder” and says President George W. Bush has squandered the national unity that developed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Picturing Johnson’s book outside the confines of an anti-Bush agenda will be difficult for many readers, which puts in question whether they will accept Johnson’s main thesis: that American democracy is threatened by overzealous and wrongheaded efforts to “protect” it as much now as it was when McCarthy was hauling citizens in front of his Senate committee to make reckless accusations against them.

Most of Johnson’s book is spent in giving a readable, engaging history of McCarthy and his campaign in the 1950s, ostensibly to root out Communism in U.S. society.

Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of several books on U.S. politics, presents McCarthyism as an ineffective charade that didn’t protect the country from its enemies, as well as an exercise in employing fear to gain and maintain power.

McCarthy’s crusade ruined the lives and reputations of many Americans. Tacked onto this excellent history are three chapters and an epilogue that mean to show that dangerous elements of McCarthyism are alive and well today, and that they threaten Americans’ freedom as much as McCarthyism did in the Cold War. Johnson cites the Patriot Act as an example of an erosion of freedoms. He accuses Bush of personally using the tactics of McCarthy by criticizing his 2004 Democratic opponent for a lack of patriotism and loyalty to the country.

Johnson points out that the American reaction to threats always has been to restrict freedoms and target groups suspected of being a danger to the nation. This phenomenon started in this country with the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 1700s, which were born of a reaction to fears that the French Revolution would kindle subversive ideas here.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 set off similar fears and brought on the infamous Palmer Raids, in which suspected radicals were rounded up, held without bail and often deported without trial. McCarthyism came with the Cold War, and 9/11 has brought questionable actions against Muslim males.

Eventually, the country has righted itself as each threat passed. Offending laws were removed or, in the case of McCarthy, the leading proponent of such extreme actions was discredited. Johnson gives an illuminating account of the role early television played in exposing millions of Americans to the “snarling, blustering, abusing, bullying, giggling, threatening, lying and filibustering” of McCarthy, an era vividly portrayed in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the recent film about newsman Edward R. Murrow. Then, at the end of 1954, the Senate condemned him for “conduct contrary to Senate tradition.”

Johnson’s book may have the prescription for righting ourselves this time. Americans need some way to get to know each other across the chasms that divide us (Johnson suggests compulsory national service). We need higher standards in politics and a braver media willing to take on tough issues and challenge public figures. Instead of “rigid ideological polarization” and hysteria that create abuses of civil liberties, Johnson writes that the country needs to unite “to fashion sensible policies to deal with genuine problems.”

But for many, Johnson’s book will fall into the cracks separating the country’s many ideological camps.