For most, history is something that never changes; but to some, the past is open to interpretation. The unknown world of facts and accurate accounts of past events is something that USF history professor David K. Johnson takes pride in researching.Johnson’s book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, sheds new light on the oppression of homosexuals during the Cold War and the McCarthy era. Published in 2003, his book has already received national recognition.
Johnson was awarded the 2004 Myers Outstanding Book Award from the Myers Institute in Boston. The Myers Institute distributes its yearly awards Dec. 11, Human Rights Day, to innovative studies involving bigotry and human rights. Johnson was one of 10 winners for his work uncovering atrocities against gays and lesbians during the Red Scare.
“Researching and writing a book is a very solitary process,” Johnson said. “Its nice to get some public recognition for a story that I’ve always felt is an important one.”
According to a release on the USF News Web site, The Lavender Scare documents how suspected homosexuals were forced out of positions in Washington over their assumed sexual orientation. After the New Deal, jobs flourished in the Washington, D.C. area. At the end of World War II, the Red Scare was eminent throughout American culture. McCarthyism aided in instilling a large degree of fear in American citizens about an imminent Communist invasion. It was during this time that suspected Communists questioned about their activities but several people were questioned regarding their sexual orientation, according to Johnson’s book.
“We all know that the McCarthy time was the time of the Red Scare and this fear of Communists in the country,” Johnson said. “What people don’t realize is that part of the McCarthy hysteria had an impact not only on Communists and political deviants, but also sexual deviants — homosexuals in particular — so that the whole Cold War mentality was about moral values.”
After Sept. 11, a blanket of fear enveloped Americans and national security again became a prevalent political issue, Johnson said. Evidence of the newfound interest in national security and morality could be seen throughout the entire 2004 election process.
“With the last election there was much talk about moral values and it was one of the most important issues in the election. It was treated as if it was a new issue. One of the arguments I make in my book is that moral values and debates about homosexuality in particular were very prevalent back then,” Johnson said.
With the surge of attention on national security, Johnson said he hopes his research will help history to not repeat itself. While there is no Communist threat, the Communists have been replaced with terrorists. The United States has appointed a new National Security Adviser, a position that did not exist prior to the attacks.
Johnson, who received a Ph. D. from Northwestern University, began working on The Lavender Scare before Sept. 11. He said he had noticed similarities between the Cold War era and post-Sept. 11 America.
“I had really no idea how relevant the book would be; I had completed most of my research prior to Sept. 11,” Johnson said. “The whole fixation with national security has come back, which is very reminiscent of the ’50s Cold War period that I write about. We can see that in how the ’50s the government used rhetoric about national security to justify a whole host of abuses of civil liberties. I believe that is happening again, although today’s targets different.”