McCarthyism to Terrorism

By Haynes Johnson

Harcourt. 609 pp. $26

On Feb. 9, 1950, the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, gave a radio speech in Wheeling, W.Va., in which he charged that . . .

I can barely bring myself to type the next words -- not because what happened was so awful (although it was) but because what happened is so mind-numbingly familiar to anyone cognizant of the barest outlines of U.S. history.

For those who aren't: McCarthy, an obscure freshman Republican senator, alleged that the State Department was full of communists and that President Harry Truman had no interest in cleaning them out. McCarthy went on to say more or less the same thing (although the details kept changing) to an ever-expanding audience. Almost instantaneously, he became a symbol of zealous anticommunism, pummeling the Democrats -- such as Truman, who first stood up to Soviet communism -- as, at best, weak sisters in the struggle and, more and more frequently, as traitors. Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block added an "ism" to the senator's name, and a phenomenon that had been bedeviling American politics had a name that stuck.

McCarthy made a lot of noise for the next couple of years. When the Republicans gained control of the Senate in 1953, he used the chairmanship of a subcommittee to launch a Red hunt that found more headlines than communists. After he began spewing vitriol on his own party, McCarthy's Senate colleagues united to censure him in 1954, and he dropped from the headlines as suddenly as he had appeared in them. A few years later, he drank himself to death.

"That brief paragraph," Haynes Johnson writes about the Wheeling speech in "The Age of Anxiety," "was enough to change the course of history." But was it really? It certainly became one of the most infamous speeches in U.S. history, but to assess the impact of that speech would require a careful parsing of history that, lamentably, Johnson never performs.

Johnson, a longtime Washington Post columnist and the author of "The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years," has written a curious book. On its own terms, there's nothing wrong with "The Age of Anxiety." It is well researched and decently written. But McCarthy (and McCarthyism) has produced a vast literature, and this effort adds very little to either subject.

To start with, the title is misleading. Johnson has written a biography of McCarthy (not exactly a novel idea) that hews closely to the senator's life, and it only faintly touches on the age in the title. A few chapters tacked onto the end deal with George W. Bush's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and make a cogent case that the president has aped the techniques and tropes of McCarthy -- whom Bush's grandfather Sen. Prescott Bush had opposed. Johnson savages the younger Bush for trampling on civil liberties after 9/11 and having "the Bush camp and its cable TV allies" wage a campaign of "coordinated attacks on [the] patriotism" of Sen. John Kerry. "The McCarthyistic tactics of 2004 were more disturbing than those of half a century ago," Johnson writes, "for this time they were employed by the president of the United States."

Of McCarthyism itself, Johnson has little to say. This is a shame, because a fever chart of McCarthyism shows that the phenomenon spiked with the start of the Korean War and dissipated rapidly once a truce was declared. And while McCarthy was a genius at grabbing headlines (no politician ever played the press better), the infrastructure of Cold War repression was built and maintained by politicians and civic leaders of both parties. In an early chapter, Johnson acknowledges the roles of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Truman's own creation of a loyalty-security program as causal factors in the postwar Red Scare, but his McCarthy-centered narrative conflates the man and the ism until decades of scholarship on the broad-based nature of McCarthyism are reduced to one man's peculiar personality. "McCarthy was the beneficiary, not the leader, of the anticommunist movement that wrought a political revolution in America," Johnson writes.

True, but Johnson's relentless focus on McCarthy obscures and undermines the author's linkage of the post-World War II period with the jittery present day. Moreover, while Johnson asserts that the Wheeling speech changed history (as opposed to having just nudged it in a direction it was already headed), he never explains how the period that bears the senator's name would have been much different if McCarthy had never left Wisconsin.

At a conference at the National Archives on the 50th anniversary of the Wheeling speech, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed that McCarthyism was essentially war hysteria. This suggests, unfortunately, that lacking a victory (or even a truce) in the war on terror, the current age of anxiety may be a long one.

Patrick Anderson's reviews will return next week.