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The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government Paperback – January 1, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0226401904 ISBN-10: 0226401901 Edition: Reprint

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The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government + Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 + Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (January 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226401901
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226401904
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #270,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"A valuable contribution to our understanding of the Cold War and those who became victims of the national security state. It highlights well, and in a very readable form, the origins and continuity of the gay rights movement which are located in the fight against the federal government''s anti-gay policies."—H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences

--(H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences )

"Dr. Johnson has provided today''s generation with disturbing details of the maltreatment that U.S. security agents visited upon thousnads of loyal American citizens, people who endured vile campaigns against their well-being, conducted by their own government. The Lavender Scare has great current significance as a work of history because it exposes the anti-gay fear-mongering that Republicans initiated during the Cold War Era....a stellar work, one of the most important published gay histories there is."
—Gay Today (Raj Ayyar Gay Today )

"A gripping study of sanctioned homophobia in the McCarthy era and a celebration of the stubborn fight by a pre-Stonewall few that ultimately won rights for many, and of a cultural and sexual underground that survived even at the height of an unrelenting homophobia spanning the presidencies of Truman through Nixon."
-—Richard Labonte, Book Marks

"David Johnson''s engrossing study of the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Cold War, complete with a comprehensive picture of the gay culture that flourished in Washington, is an important addition to a subject all too often ignored."
-—Dallas Morning News

"The hoary rhetoric about the supposedly treasonous/treacherous nature of homosexuality that the historian David K. Johnson documents in his fine new book can initially strike a reader as amusing. The homophobic fulmination of varoius McCarthy-era senators and representatives he quotes are fatuous, if not ludicrous. But as The Lavender Scare goes on to reveal, the jaw-dropping extent of the federal government''s persecution of its gay and lesbian employees in the ''50s and ''60s turns amusement into rage."
—Kevin Riordan, Washington Blade 

"By demonstrating the extent to which gay history is part of mainstream history, [Johnson] continues the important academic endeavor of bringing the margins to the center."
-—Fiona Paton, American Quarterly

"The Lavender Scare provides a superb overview of this period in American history. . . . It''s a must-read for gay and lesbian federal employees, and would serve as an excellent text for college or graduate-level courses in history, sociology, political science, or gay studies."
—Lawrence Reynods, Gay & Lesbian Review

"Keenly observed and elegantly written, with a sense of mystery and suspense indicative of the era, Johnson''s book will reorient scholarship on the Cold War as it models a more complex method for integrating queer community history with economic and political history."
—John Howard, GLQ

"The Lavender Scare is a very readable and valuable work that clarifies the relationship between the Cold War and national security interests, and those victimized by the need to preserve said security. . . . This work will take its place beside those of George Chauncey and Allen Berube, and every serious student of 20th century American history should own it."
—Aaron L. Bachhofer, Archives of Sexuality

"What does it say about the historical profession that it has taken nearly 30 more years to tell this story? Fortunately, David K. Johnson has done so with intelligence, sensitivity, and grace. We are all in his debt."
—Ellen Schrecker, American Communist History

"Johnson''s work assures that we shall never again be able to think about the anticommunist crusade without acknowledging its fierce counterpart that affected the lives of so many people."
—Leila J. Rupp, Journal of American History

“Fifty years ago, gays ‘confronted a degree of policing and harassment that is almost unimaginable to us today’ and which now is almost entirely forgotten. David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government is a heart-wrenching reminder that homosexuals faced brutal employment discrimination and endless police hostility.”
—David J. Garrow, Los Angeles Times

"A riveting history of gay-baiting in the McCarthy era"—In These Times (In These Times ) "Johnson''s dazzling social and political history puts the Cold War persecution of gays and lesbians center stage to highlight how the social and cultural anxieties around gender and sexuality dovetailed with the nation''s state-building project in the post-World War II era."
—Steve Valocchi, American Journal of Sociology

 "An important book, one that promises to reorient the historical scholarship on the Cold War."
---Robert J. Corber American Historical Review

“By utilizing an impressive array of primary sources and integrating political, social, and cultural history, historian David Johnson provides us with a much needed, in-depth analysis. . . . A valuable contribution to our understanding of the Cold War and those who became victims of the national security state. It corrects certain misconceptions about the targets of McCarthyism to reveal that homosexuals were a unique focus in a parallel witch hunt to those who did not conform to 1950s society and beyond."
--Douglas M. Charles, H-Net Reviews

“An important work of gay scholarship that proves, once and for all, that the Lavender Scare was not a minor adjunct of the Red Scare, but a major government campaign in its own right. . . . The Lavender Scare is more than a great work of history. It is a cautionary tale.”
—Jesse Monteagudo, The Weekly News

From the Inside Flap

The McCarthy era is generally considered the worst period of political repression in recent American history. But while the famous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" resonated in the halls of Congress, security officials were posing another question at least as frequently, if more discreetly: "Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment do you care to make?"

Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a "Lavender Scare" more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy's Red Scare. Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.

The Lavender Scare shatters the myth that homosexuality has only recently become a national political issue, changing the way we think about both the McCarthy era and the origins of the gay rights movement. And perhaps just as importantly, this book is a cautionary tale, reminding us of how acts taken by the government in the name of "national security" during the Cold War resulted in the infringement of the civil liberties of thousands of Americans.

More About the Author

Born in New England, David received his B.A. in history from Georgetown University. After studying in Paris, working for a Washington, D.C.-area research firm, and freelancing for the Washington Blade, he returned to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Now an associate professor in the history department at the University of South Florida, he teaches courses on the post-1945 U.S. and the history of gender and sexuality. His first book, The Lavender Scare, won The Herbert Hoover Book Award, the Randy Shilts Award, and a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. A documentary film based on the book is in production. To view the trailer, check out

His second book, The U.S. Since 1945, is an edited anthology of key speeches, articles, and government documents from modern American politics and culture. His current research, "Buying Gay," explores the history of gay consumer culture before Stonewall and the origins of the gay rights movement.

Customer Reviews

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It seems well researched and a work of solid scholarship in addition to being a very readable book.
W. V. Buckley
This book provides very interesting information about the politics of gay persecution during the 1950s.
Rodney L. Johnson
Both make great gifts and recently my book club decided to make The Lavender Scare our monthly read.
J. Fried

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Rarely does a work of history both capture a particular moment in time and resonate so deeply with issues alive in contemporary public culture. As the country debates the possibility of gay marriage and the possible meanings of these unions, David Johnson's The Lavender Scare reminds us that homosexuality has at least one other time been conjured up as the nation's "bugaboo" during a period of political shifts and broad cultural change. In an account that is as riveting as it is sobering, Johnson shows how "containment of sexuality was as central to 1950s America as containment of communism." The issue of homosexuality sat at the center of discussions about "national security" during the Cold War period, resulting in the persecution and ouster of hundreds of gay (and suspected gay) federal workers.
The book is written with marvelous grace and sensitivity. Johnson's brilliant skill at research and powers of analysis are in evidence on every page. Much to his credit, Johnson has used those skills to give voice to those from whom otherwise we might never have heard. The impressive narrative structure of The Lavender Scare makes it read like a fine novel. And the callous devastation, the lives lost and ruined by the tactics of a government in search of a moral center after WWII, makes one wish it were a work of fiction. But it is far from that.
The Lavender Scare, rather, is a work of consummate historical research and writing. The enduring contribution of the book is that it shows how the "McCarthy Era" had much less to do with "the Communist threat" and much more to do with homosexuality and "moral panic" than we could have possibly imagined. We will never again be able to think of the Cold War period in quite the same way. Johnson has complexified and clarified perhaps the most vital time in Post WWII American history. The book is certain take its place alongside George Chauncey's magisterial Gay New York.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on January 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Cold war and McCarthyism are familiar topics from historians as America's fear of Communists and its reaction to this fear are interpreted from every side of the political spectrum. David K. Johnson does something different and, in its special way, far more important. The author, in The Lavender Scare, looks at how the cold war fears were used to hound gay men and women out of the federal service and how this continued unabated long after the Communist hysteria died down. It is fascinating, and horrifying, to witness how politicians used their fear and ignorance of "the perverts" for their own political ends and used the fear of Communists as a cover for their attacks. The case presented in this book is well researched and the voices from both sides are used, even from those voices of the gay men and lesbians which had to be silent at the time. This books holds valuable lessons (and warnings) for our own fraught times. A valuable addition to the literature of the history of the Cold War.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Chris on October 18, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book is an excellent piece of history and well written. The author extensively researches private correspondence involving homosexuals and homosexual activists, newspaper reports, congressional reports and so on. The author makes use of the records of the most extensive congressional investigation into homosexuality among government employees, the Senate committee chaired by Senator Clyde Hoey, records which were closed to researchers until 2000. He also makes use of personal interviews and other biographic records that gives a picture of what homosexual life was like in Washington D.C from the 1940's to 1960's.

An important point the author makes is how previous historians have usually downplayed or, more often than not, completely ignored, the prominence of the homosexual issue during the McCarthy era. Part of the reason for this, the author suggests, is that historians have used Senator McCarthy's public pronouncements to provide them with a measure of the public focus on gay people. In his initial speeches in early 1950, McCarthy linked homosexual behavior with adherence to communist doctrines, but then, for no clear reason, ignored the homosexual issue for the rest of his career. Dr. Johnson shows what he says other historians have ignored, that other politicians picked up the issue and were successful in using in it. The Lavender Scare picked up steam in early 1950 when under-secretary of state John Peurifoy stated before a Senate committee that 91 employees from the State Department had been fired for homosexual activity. Pretty soon, newspaper reports indicated that while a quarter of the letters to McCarthy's office were about communists, the other three quarters expressed fear and anger about homosexuals employed by the federal government.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Johnson does a great job of reporting on the horrible way gays and lesbians were treated by the federal government during the McCarthy era. He puts the action of the government in the context. And, by recounting the personal stories of many of the federal workers who lost their livelihoods during these purges, Johnson adds depth and feeling to what otherwise could have been a dry academic work.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By QWilson on March 16, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I got my degree in history, and yet somehow I managed to make it until my senior year before I even discovered that this event happened. The Red Scare is a well-known period, but this book illuminated another side of it that is severely overlooked in most courses, lectures, books and documentaries. I would have to rate the book highly just for bringing it to light, but the fact that it's well-written is a nice bonus, too.
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