Red Parallels

The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism by Haynes Johnson (Harcourt, 624 pages, $26.00)

A major threat to the United States suddenly seizes national attention. Alongside some levelheaded responses, many public figures -- motivated by fear, displaced resentment, or opportunism -- magnify and exploit the menace in ugly ways. Pandering to an angry, chauvinistic populism, they brand opponents, especially liberals, as unmanly, naive, or traitorous. They scorn civil liberties as luxuries in a national crisis. Meanwhile, security drills and government advisories, designed to help citizens protect themselves, re-instill anxiety whenever relaxation promises to return. The news media, for their part, squirm under political pressure, with reporters taking refuge in a warped definition of “balance” that often gives slander or propaganda the same weight as the truth.

So it was during the 1950s, and so it is today. Yet as the longtime Washington journalist Haynes Johnson notes in The Age of Anxiety, references to the McCarthy years only intermittently inform coverage of contemporary events. He therefore uses the parallels between the Red Scare and our own terrorism scare to frame a book that is largely a biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy -- a promising approach that yields mixed results.

It's imperative, of course, not to overdo the comparison between the two eras. The perils posed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and al-Qaeda today differ enough to limit the coherence or usefulness of any analogy. A superpower that vied with the United States for the loyalties of peoples around the globe, the U.S.S.R. never attacked this country; al-Qaeda, a terrorist network that already has struck our soil and probably will again, nonetheless hardly rivals the Soviet Union in might. And whereas communism, at least in the 1930s, did command the allegiance of many Americans, especially in intellectual circles, the number of Islamist radicals here has always been negligible. It is primarily in the realm of domestic politics -- in the rhetoric of politicians and in the fights over such issues as civil liberties, patriotism, and press coverage -- that terrorism has become the new communism.

Johnson appreciates another key difference between then and now. “While America's freedoms have been under assault, and in some cases abridged,” he writes, “basically they remain intact. Darkness has not descended on the land.” But his purpose seems to be to remind readers of the dark times of the McCarthy years, perhaps to help us avoid repeating the errors of the past as we address the urgent need to stop terrorism today.

Unfortunately, for that purpose, The Age of Anxiety is a peculiar book. Despite the title and a prologue about September 11, Johnson doesn't closely examine the relevance or resemblance of McCarthyism to our own anti-terrorism mania. Apart from the prologue, the book relates the story of Senator McCarthy -- the most notorious of the Red-baiters, to be sure, but one who, as Johnson correctly states, simply sat atop “an ever-expanding network of anticommunists.”

And McCarthy has hardly lacked for biographies. From the standpoint of civic education, it's difficult to object to a scrupulous and appropriately critical life of the Wisconsin senator, especially after the recent issue of some heavily publicized pro-McCarthy tracts. All the same, Johnson doesn't revise or amplify substantially the scholarship of historians such as Robert Griffith and David Oshinsky (both of whose work he draws on and duly credits).

This is something of a disappointment from Johnson, who is about as eminent and experienced a journalist as Washington has to offer. A political correspondent since the 1950s and for decades a heavy hitter in The Washington Post's all-star lineup of national reporters, Johnson can draw on both his wealth of personal familiarity with American politics and the narrative skills he has honed over 10 or so previous books. He recounts the McCarthy story with his customary clarity and judiciousness and with much interesting detail. But without any revisionist argument, it feels listless to a reader acquainted with these facts.

As a result, The Age of Anxiety's claim on our attention as readers lies all the more in the connections that Johnson promises to draw between McCarthy's time and our own. Yet here, too, the book doesn't quite deliver. Again, Johnson will have rendered a service if his inventory of post–September 11 civil-liberties infringements alerts a wide audience to the horrors occurring in the name of anti-terrorism -- not just the well-rehearsed provisions of the PATRIOT Act but also less well-publicized problems such as the Kafkaesque treatment of foreign students and government spying on benign political dissenters. Johnson's heartfelt, sober cri de coeur should join the writings of Anthony Lewis, David Cole, Mark Danner, and others whose recent alarums, if unavailing, put them in the noble tradition of Alan Barth, Henry Steele Commager, Edward R. Murrow, and the Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, the coiner of the word “McCarthyism” and the dedicatee, significantly, of this volume.

Yet despite Johnson's passion, good intentions, and able distillation of research, the book's key chapter, titled “Parallels,” doesn't really lay out how people might combat such violations of our freedoms, what the balance between liberty and security might be (or even if the assumption of a trade-off between the two makes sense), or how the McCarthy years might fruitfully inform our anti-terrorism cause.

An opportunity remains for a writer as comfortable with history and as steeped in Washington politics as Johnson to think through and identify those perdurable aspects of American political culture that allow for frenzies like McCarthyism and today's terrorism scare to take hold. The common explanation, which Johnson casually endorses, is that politicians exploit fear as a political tool. While there's obviously some superficial truth to this idea, I don't think it goes deep enough.

Did fear lead Americans to vote for George W. Bush in 2004? Did our dread of another 9-11 lead us to rally around a president who seemed to stand tall and tough? Not quite. Most of us, quite appropriately, don't live in terror of another al-Qaeda strike. (If we did, the New York real-estate market certainly wouldn't be as high it is.) Rather, talk of terrorism, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden -- or for that matter of Iraq and Saddam Hussein -- triggers for many people a set of associations, from vulnerability and anger to bravado and desire for revenge, that culminates in an emotional, defensive patriotism.

Bush solidified his popularity after 9-11 because he did what Ronald Reagan had done after the Iranian hostage crisis. Both men drowned the feelings of shame, vulnerability, and impotence that followed from a collective humiliation in a warm bath of nostalgia, militarism, and folksy swagger. Reagan reached back to the 1950s for his bogeyman, summoning antipathies toward Soviet communism that had been fading since the 1960s. With the U.S.S.R. dead, Bush lacked that option; for him terrorism, or, more precisely, Islamist fanaticism, played a similar role in the national demonology. The dangers that al-Qaeda poses are real, and Bush was able to turn the resulting public distress to political advantage.

This is why, during the 2004 election, news stories about the problem-plagued Iraq campaign helped Bush as much as references to the war on terrorism did, even though pollsters and commentators understandably categorized the two undertakings separately. Voters didn't distinguish sharply between these enterprises; both were expressions of military might and national pride that gave people confidence that America remained exceptional, powerful, even ascendant in the world.

A comparable dynamic also underpinned support for, if not McCarthy himself, the countless McCarthy-like Red-baiters who ran amok in the 1950s. In those years Americans also felt vulnerable -- about Korea, assorted geopolitical crises in Europe, and the Soviets' first nuclear capability, as well as about the true loyalties of their fellow citizens. Johnson does not distinguish as carefully as perhaps he should between fear and anxiety (which are related but not identical). But in various places, including his title, he suggests that the latter, not the former, lies at the root of political “scares” that have periodically fueled our brash jingoism and stigmatized liberal prudence. Fear is immediate; anxiety is amorphous, elusive, and vaporous -- and also more insidious.

As was clear to mid-century thinkers such as Erich Fromm and W. H. Auden (who wrote the original Age of Anxiety in 1947), anxiety stems not from external threats but from our internal, psychological efforts to cope with existential circumstances -- freedom, technology, modernity. If that explanation is right, it suggests that just as victory in the Cold War offered only brief relief before the war on terrorism, so victory in this twilight struggle, should it come, will surely give way to a new fight and to another anxious age.

David Greenberg is a professor of media studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. He is writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge for the American Presidents Series from Henry Holt.

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