The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism

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For five long years in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s  anti-Communist crusade dominated the American scene, terrified politicians, and destroyed the lives of thousands of U.S. citizens.
In The Age of Anxiety, now updated with a new afterword, Johnson tells this monumental story through the lens of its relevance to our own time, when the current administration has created a culture of fear that again affects American behavior and attitudes. He believes now, as then, that our civil liberties, our Constitution, and our nation are at stake as we confront the ever more difficult task of balancing the need for national security with that of personal liberty.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For five years in the early '50s, America was held hostage by the fear of extremism. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-Communist crusade dominated the national scene. Even politicians who loathed the Wisconsin populist would not attack him; other office seekers rode his coattails to victory. Not even President Dwight Eisenhower felt that he could speak publicly about the menace of the senator's Washington witch hunt. In Age of Anxiety, Haynes Johnson revisits a time when a perceived external menace threatened to undermine American institutions.
From the Publisher

"All of [Johnson’s books] are worth reading, but The Age of Anxiety stands out. It is a superb book, not only because it is skillfully reported, clearly written and timely, but also because Johnson employs controlled outrage to demonstrate that the administration of George W. Bush is relying . . . on the same sort of civil liberties violations, scare tactics and big lies as U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy and his fellow Republican politicians used 50 years ago to damage American democracy."—The Denver Post

"Excellent . . . Johnson's book may have the prescription for righting ourselves this time."--The Seattle Times

Publishers Weekly
Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt was one of the darkest chapters in our nation's history, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Johnson brings that story-along with some disturbing comparisons to our current political climate-startlingly to life. Conservatives may take umbrage with Johnson's criticism of President Bush's regime and the comparisons to McCarthyism, but no matter one's political affiliation, one cannot help being ashamed and horrified that such sinister machinations have happened-and may be happening again-in our nation. Approximately three-fourths of the book is devoted to a historical recounting of McCarthy's crusade, with the remaining quarter spent comparing McCarthyism to present-day politics. This production is so expertly abridged, listeners get the complete picture without feeling like anything has been left out. Narrator Tabori, in his deep, resonant and impassioned voice, authoritatively relates this brilliant piece of journalism in a style reminiscent of the voiceovers used in historical documentaries or by wartime news anchors. Tabori's diction is precise and compelling, and adds a memorably emotional impact to this already powerful work. Simultaneous release with the Harcourt hardcover (Reviews, July 25). (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Johnson (The Best of Times) scrutinizes and compares the McCarthy era of the 1950s with our own time, ultimately noting that the government's restrictive reactions to 9/11 indicate that "McCarthyism remains a story without an end." Most of Johnson's book looks at the rise and fall of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who transformed himself from a little-known senator from Wisconsin to the volatile politician who dominated the American political scene in the early 1950s by building on the American public's fear of communism. Johnson notes that President Eisenhower hated McCarthy but refused to confront him, and he covers the other familiar personalities in the story, including Edward R. Murrow, whose radio broadcast triggered the senator's downfall, and Joseph Welch, the honorable attorney who finally ended McCarthy's seemingly unopposed anticommunism crusade. Assessing the subsequent years, Johnson makes a strong case that in responding to national threats toward our country, the covert actions and reactionary behaviors of those in government have changed very little from McCarthy's time. In the world today, he points out, we have learned that the Age of Anxiety does not belong to just one generation and that the government continues to play on people's fears, divide the country, and limit civil rights in the name of fighting an enemy. Recommended for all public libraries.-Nancy Larrabee, Greenburgh P.L., Elmsford, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Give a demagogue a pliant press and colleagues fearful of losing power if they protest his excesses, and you have McCarthyism-or perhaps the current Congress. It only seems, writes Johnson (The Best of Times, 2001, etc.), that America "entered an unprecedented era of stress and danger-an Age of Anxiety unlike anything experienced before" after the 9/11 attacks. But the early Cold War years were more dislocating: Fear was everywhere in the air, and all a power-hungry politico like Joseph McCarthy, literally schooled in Mein Kampf, had to do was find the right nerve to probe. He found it in the widespread fear that Commies lurked under every bed and in every closet, and for a couple of years he ran the nation. "In retrospect," writes Johnson in this incisive portrait, "it's incredible to recall the depths to which McCarthyism descended and the damage it wrought." But, Johnson adds, McCarthy would not have succeeded had he not been backed by "an ever-expanding network of anticommunists," including conservative media commentators, think-tankers and clerics, to say nothing of employers and advertisers who withdrew support from those whom McCarthy denounced. The parallels are evident; what is absent from the modern stage, Johnson suggests, is a strong moderate Republican wing of the kind that eventually turned against the red-baiters and restored order. Johnson might have forged the linkage of the McCarthy era to the current days of Gitmo and the Patriot Act more strongly, and the genesis-of-fear thesis could have used some grounding in the terrible Reagan-era days of Ground Zero, but overall his point holds: The current political climate is much more reactionary, he writes, than that ofMcCarthy's time, and it wouldn't take much to break a democracy that in so many ways already appears broken. A well-crafted book full of pointed lessons in how not to run a country-and sure to rouse suspicions of sedition in certain quarters.
From the Publisher

"Beautifully written [and] as full of juicy tidbits as a cherry cake. [Johnson shows] how witty, perceptive and morally grown up American political journalism can be at its best."—The Economist

"An informed, balanced and . . . passionate catalog of the national indulgence and an examination of the forces that fed it. . . . Gripping. A vivid and reliable reminder of what we have been through."—The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156030397
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 672
  • Product dimensions: 1.50 (w) x 5.25 (h) x 8.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Haynes Johnson

Haynes Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the bestsellers Sleepwalking Through History and The Bay of Pigs. He is a regular on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

The List

I have here in my hand.

Thursday afternoon was overcast, the temperature hovering just above freezing, when the black-haired, heavyset man carrying a bulging, battered tan briefcase boarded a Capital Airlines plane for the two hundred-seventeen-mile flight from Washington's National Airport to Wheeling, West Virginia. "Good afternoon, Senator McCarthy," he heard the stewardess say after he took his seat. He looked startled, then pleased, not realizing the stewardess had been waiting to greet him after noticing a senator's name on her passenger list. "Why, good afternoon," he replied, flashing a broad smile. "I'm glad somebody recognizes me."

There was no false modesty in his remark. On February 9, 1950, Joe McCarthy was neither a household name nor a recognizable public face. In four years as a freshman senator, a position he held by virtue of the 1946 Republican sweep of both houses of Congress, his record was so undistinguished that in a recent poll Washington correspondents had voted him America's worst senator.

As he boarded the plane, McCarthy's career was in shambles. In his home state of Wisconsin, critics were calling him the "Pepsi-Cola kid" because of reports that he had taken $10,000 from a manufacturer of prefabricated housing and obtained an unsecured loan of $20,000 from a lobbyist for Pepsi-Cola. Then it was disclosed that he recklessly lost the money speculating on soybean futures.

A year prior, McCarthy, a lawyer, had come close to being disbarred by the Wisconsin State Board of Ethics Examiners; he had run for the U.S. Senate while holding a state judicial office, a practice deemed both unethical and illegal. The board found that he had acted "in violation of the constitution and laws of Wisconsin," but dismissed a petition to discipline him by concluding that his infraction was "one in a class by itself which was not likely to be repeated."

McCarthy's reply was contemptuous. Paraphrasing the board's ruling, he mocked, "Joe was a naughty boy, but we don't think he'll do it again."

He was also in trouble in Washington.

In a clubbish Senate that relied on hoary tradition and deferential collegiality, on rigid seniority and elaborate courtesy, his repeated violations of Senate rules and customs had lost him the respect of influential colleagues in both parties and denied him a place among the players who would shape the legislative future. Already he had alienated both Republican and Democratic colleagues by lashing out during floor debates with false accusations against them. Once, in the spring of 1947, he so enraged two fellow Republicans, Ralph E. Flanders of Vermont and Charles W. Tobey of New Hampshire, that both arose in protest and, claiming personal privilege, accused McCarthy of having falsified their positions. This came after McCarthy told the Senate that both Flanders and Tobey had just informed him that they intended to introduce a "fictitious amendment" designed to "deceive the housewife" on a bill to extend wartime sugar controls for a year. So furious was Tobey that, red-faced and shouting, he accused McCarthy of lying and attempting to confuse the Senate.

As McCarthy was acutely aware, for these reasons and others his prospects for reelection in 1952 were imperiled. He had been consulting, in fact, his advisors about finding a cause to bolster his public standing and reverse his political slide. All this was about to change when his plane took off that February afternoon for West Virginia.

The way west is the most enduring of American legends, and in its time Wheeling, West Virginia, played a central role in that saga.

There, where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Fort Henry, a flood of pioneers and adventurers found their overland gateway west through Wheeling's gorges to claim free land beyond the Alleghenies in the Ohio River Valley. By the time Joe McCarthy's flight landed that February afternoon, Wheeling, once West Virginia's capital and leading city, had become a cultural and economic backwater. Its population had sunk to fifty-nine thousand from its peak of seventy thousand, and the exodus was accelerating. Wheeling was hardly the place for an obscure freshman senator to make his mark in history, especially at a political boilerplate event like the annual Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women's Club of Ohio County-in a state that had voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections, including Harry S. Truman's two years earlier.

As unlikely as the backdrop was, when Joe McCarthy flew into Wheeling, West Virginia, the stage for McCarthyism had already been set.

Each morning that week, citizens of Wheeling had awakened to find the pages of their newspaper filled with frightening reports of treachery, spies, Communists, terrible new nuclear weapons, and a Cold War turning hot. Everything pointed toward a war of incalculable destruction. There seemed no end to alarming news flashes. Typical was the eight-column banner headline spread across the Wheeling Intelligencer's front page, two days before McCarthy left for Wheeling:

FBI Hunts Fuchs' Aides in Atom Theft

The headline decks told the story, reported out of Washington:

Hoover Relates
Spy Activities
To Congressmen

British Scientist
Faces Trial Friday
For Betraying U.S.

Klaus Emil Fuchs, a British subject of German extraction who as a physicist had worked for three years in the United States on the ultrasecret atomic bomb project, had been arrested in London. Fuchs, "weedy, with a large head and narrow, rickety body," as the writer Rebecca West described him, was charged with transmitting to Soviet agents in the U.S. "all he knew" about America's A-bomb development. As the record revealed, Fuchs knew a lot.

Days after these shocking revelations, a federal jury found Alger Hiss, a top diplomatic aide to Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, guilty of perjury in a highly-publicized espionage trial. An ex-Communist named Whittaker Chambers had accused Hiss in House Un-American Activities Committee testimony of being a Soviet agent who passed him secret government documents. After Hiss's conviction, Secretary of State Dean Acheson drew protests for telling reporters, "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." Then Acheson made matters worse by invoking the words of a forgiving Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in connection with the case of a convicted traitor.

Coming on the heels of Fuchs's arrest, and Hiss's conviction, President Truman's announcement that the United States had begun work on the hydrogen bomb only intensified national anxiety. The hydrogen bomb was the deadliest weapon yet known to humankind. Albert Einstein, the father of the nuclear age, appeared on national television warning that "radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and, hence, annihilation of any life on earth has been brought within the range of possibilities." Einstein's conclusion: "General annihilation beckons." In this context, one of the staunchest Republican anticommunists, Homer Capehart of Indiana, cried out on the Senate floor: "How much more are we going to take? Fuchs and Acheson and Hiss and hydrogen bombs threatening outside and New Dealism eating away the vitals of the nation. In the name of heaven, is this the best the nation can do?"

Copyright © 2005 by Haynes Johnson

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

To the Reader xi
Prologue A NEW KIND OF WAR 1

1. The List 9
2. Tail Gunner Joe 30
3. Progressivism to McCarthyism 56
4. The Remarkable Upstart 75
5. The Way to Wheeling 81

The Past as Prologue
6. In the Beginning 95
7. Cold Warriors 117

Dealing With a Demagogue
8. The Press 137
9. The Politicians 149
10. The Network 162
11. The Opposition 177
12. The Demagogue 193

Prelude to Power
13. Twenty Years of Treason 211
14. Taking More Scalps 241
15. Junketeering Gumshoes 253

Witch Hunts
16. Inquisitions 285
17. The Case of Private Schine 332
18. Point of Order! 381
19. "Have You No Shame, Senator?" 413

20. Belling the Cat 431
21. Oblivion 443

22. The Politics of Fear 459
23. Parallels 466
24. A House Divided 494

About Sources 530
Source Notes 532
Bibliographical Notes 569
Acknowledgments 581
Index 583

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