The Paul Johnson Phenomenon

By Harold Frost, 2008

Paul Johnson, journalist and historian, achieved international bestsellerdom in the 1980s with “Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties,” one of the most readable works of history ever published – fast-paced and vigorous, with rich anecdotes and crisp assertions, offering a definite point of view. Among the book’s admirers in the ’80s were leaders of the Reagan and Thatcher movements, who regarded the work as an intellectual underpinning for their efforts.

Paul Johnson

Johnson was born in 1928 in England and educated in his early years by Jesuits. He graduated from Oxford University in 1950 with honors in history. In the ’50s and ’60s he worked as a journalist, including a long stint at the left-wing journal The New Statesman in London. Active in the British Labour Party for many years – “I was almost a socialist,” he recalled – he shifted to the Conservative Party in the ’70s. He said, “I once thought that you could have very great personal liberty within the framework of substantial state control of the economy….I was quite wrong.” He was a whirlwind of writerly activity through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, as if trying to make up for lost time. Author Norman Podhoretz said in 1998, “It’s not the writing; I can just about see how he manages the writing. But how does he manage the reading?” Among Johnson’s books: “The Offshore Islanders, England’s People From Roman Occupation to the Present” (1972), “A History of Christianity” (1976), “Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration” (1982), “A History of the Jews” (1987), “Intellectuals” (1988), “The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830” (1991), and “A History of the American People” (1997).

Here are observations about the man and his work.

Comments on ‘Modern Times’

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, August 22, 1983:

“Having shoehorned most of the 20th century into one volume, Johnson can hardly object to its being summarized in one paragraph. Here goes: after World War I, the principle of relativity contained in Einstein’s famous scientific theory was twisted to apply to morals and values. Politics replaced religion as the world’s major form of zealotry, and totalitarian gangsters like Lenin and Hitler became the high priests of the new order. The growth of the state – and the accompanying vogue for ‘social engineering’ – worsened life or caused mass deaths in countries across the world. Only a few 20th-century leaders – Winston Churchill for example – have understood the proper limits of government, the need to stand up to totalitarian regimes and the primacy of liberty over equality and man over society.

“Johnson is literate and often compelling. But when he piles assertion upon unproven assertion, the zeal of the recent convert quickly wears thin. Instead of weighing conflicting evidence and interpretations, he simply roars through at 200 mph….Johnson’s book is not simply a bundle of acerbic assertions. There are also thousands of supporting facts that are lively, intriguing, informative – everything but uniformly true….More important than the accuracy of details, however, is their selection. One’s confidence on this score is directly related to the volume of audible ax-grinding. In the sections on Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, for instance, the stories seem straightforward – and fascinating. But….a detailed attack on Fidel Castro makes no mention of the important fact that in 1960 the U.S. government made a crucial decision to stop buying Cuban sugar; a chapter featuring a description of Japan’s postwar economic miracle stresses free enterprise while hardly mentioning MITI or other signs of government intervention in the economy, which the author dislikes. This and dozens of similar examples cheapen the flashes of brilliant insight that (Johnson) occasionally manages.”

Stephen Spender, The Atlantic, August, 1983:

“Seeing (Johnson) on television, I sometimes get the impression of an immensely energetic, flamboyant fellow, bursting from the seams of his tweed jacket and hurling invective at any leftist who happens to be in sight. ‘Modern Times’ reveals that there is much more to Mr. Johnson than his splenetic outbursts or even his conservatism. This is a work of intellect and imagination, in which the author shows a strong grasp of complex material and a remarkable ability to fit into a unity the interacting forces of political and social movements all over the world during what is effectively the whole post-1914 period….What stands out is his dark, almost apocalyptic, Churchillian vision of what he regards as perhaps the most terrible century (if measured by its inhumanity and acts of violence) in the history of mankind….(He) rises above his prejudices and shows the kind of imagination that can see beyond the calamitous results of political actions to the roots of evil in human beings.”

Noel Annan, The New York Review of Books, October 27, 1983:

“His book is in fact an astonishing attempt to rewrite the history of the world to justify the new conservatism….Roosevelt and Kennedy, Gandhi and Nehru, Hammarskjold, Eden, and Brandt are mountebanks who did untold harm, and are put up against the wall. The great American Presidents now become Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower because they did not interfere with the beneficial processes of capitalism and therefore presided over great eras of prosperity. Why (Johnson wonders) is this fact not recognized? Johnson is a Catholic and to him the answer is simple. Men no longer believe in religion. Its decline was accelerated, he declares with awe-inspiring simple-mindedness, by Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which encouraged moral relativism….Johnson’s central thesis about religion is rubbish. From Mexico to Patagonia lies the largest block of states in the world whose citizens are mostly Catholics. Are they notable for their stability or freedom from assassination, torture, dictatorships of left and right? The Church is as powerless to stop barbarism as it was in the Dark Ages when it proclaimed the Truce of God….But then Johnson’s book is a polemic….An account of the recent past which so smoothly glides over the misjudgments of the right arouses irritation.”

Hugh Thomas, The Times Literary Supplement (London), July 8, 1983:

“….A powerful, lively, compelling and provocative political history of the world since 1917….The great merit of the book considered as political history is that it makes the historical record since the Second World War exceptionally interesting and diverting, even enthralling: a really remarkable achievement, even if the effect is obtained largely by dwelling on the evils of our time.”

John Vincent, The Sunday Times (London), May 1, 1983:

“Perhaps some of his material is incorrect, some distorted; how could it not be? Probably he has done as much research as one man could practicably do. No professional historian (i.e., academic historian) has done it, could do it, would wish to do it; which speaks volumes about the professionalisation of history.”

Robert Nisbet, The New York Times Book Review, June 26, 1983:

“A bold and capacious mind is required for what Paul Johnson has undertaken in this book: a history of the world during the last 60 years, taking in all continents and major countries. Fortunately, the author possesses in abundance the qualities necessary to the enterprise. (He is) an able practitioner of the historian’s craft (and has) the mind of a well-informed and unyielding social critic. ‘Modern Times’ unites historical and critical consciousness….We can take a great deal of intellectual pleasure in his book, which is a truly distinguished work of history.”


Comments on ‘Intellectuals’

(This book is a critique of the modern secular intellectual, who in Johnson’s opinion has achieved entirely too much sway in public discourse. The author profiles and analyzes such figures as Rousseau, Marx, Ibsen, Brecht, and Sartre, who, he says, had screwy public ideas, which can be attributed in part to their private excesses and eccentricities. For example, Rousseau “enjoyed being spanked on his bare bottom” and Hemingway sloshed his way through a lot of booze. [Johnson himself was caught up in a small personal scandal in 1998.])

Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times, February 21, 1989:

“The reader….suspects that most ‘intellectuals’ in this volume were chosen on the arbitrary basis of having difficult personalities and a taste for radical ideas that Mr. Johnson, a former editor of The New Statesman turned conservative, apparently finds distasteful. Why else include Marx, but neither Darwin or Freud? Why focus on Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Shelley, who are respected as writers, not as thinkers or theoreticians?….In the end, the reader can only conclude that Mr. Johnson has focused on the peccadillos of various intellectuals in lieu of the more difficult task of rigorously reexamining their ideas. It’s an approach that undermines not their credibility but his own.”

Joseph Sobran, National Review, April 21, 1989:

“I have no affection for any of (Johnson’s) targets, and he persuades me that most of them are as despicable as he thinks they are. But this proves nothing about ‘intellectuals.’….There is something wrong with a writer who arouses in me the impulse to defend Lillian Hellman. Bitch, slut, liar, tyrant, crypto-Communist, self-deluded fool, yes. But is it fair to pile on the rumor that she once made herself the prize in a poker game?….Johnson’s bag is mixed, but not mixed enough. He should have complicated it with a few unpleasant ‘right-wingers.’ If he couldn’t find them, he wasn’t really looking.”

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1989:

“It is certainly noteworthy that Mr. Johnson does not discuss any of the intellectuals on the far right, such as Heidegger, Pound and Paul de Man, whose lives are currently the subject of much heated debate.”


Comments on
‘A History of the American People’

James Q. Wilson, Commentary, April, 1998:

“Some readers and reviewers will pick over (various minor mistakes) in an effort to dismiss Johnson’s book. But they will be wrong. Whatever the trivial errors, Johnson gets the larger message quite correct as he tells us in these 1,000-plus pages how America became huge and teeming, endlessly varied, multicolored and multiracial, immensely materialistic and overwhelmingly idealistic, ceaselessly innovative, thrusting, grabbing, buttonholing, noisy, questioning, anxious to do the right thing, to do good, to get rich, to make everybody happy….Whatever our complaints about this country, our attachment to it cannot but be vividly reinforced by Paul Johnson’s deeply insightful, eloquently expressed account of its triumphs and its failures. Those who insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that somewhere else, or in some imaginary world of which visionaries dream, life is or can be better, will not like this book. Everyone else will love it.”

Kenneth Auchincloss, Newsweek, March 2, 1998:

“If you despise the media, distrust intellectuals and resent received opinion of almost every stripe, you will almost certainly like Paul Johnson….Why do we need another one-volume history of the United States? Because the task generally falls to academic historians, and that caste has been dominated, for most of this century at least, by people of the center or left. Johnson is unabashedly a man of the right….But this is no right-wing tract, though Johnson is never shy about offering his own opinions; he carves them like initials onto the tree trunks of nearly every page. They are never less than refreshing, even at their most contrarian. He’s particularly good – take that, secular historians! – on the centrality of religion in the American experience.”

Barbara Petzen, the Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1998:

“Paul Johnson likes some Americans a lot more than others, and solves his problem by simply defining those who represent less desirable characteristics – any government regulation of big business or the economy, affirmative action, women’s rights, identity politics, and ‘do-gooders,’ to name a few examples – as un-American.”

Richard Cohen, the Washington Post, April 21, 1998:

“Johnson has long fascinated me, and not just because he is something of a literary polymath – journalist, essayist, historian, columnist and television screenwriter. That would be more than enough, I grant you, but in addition to the man there is his claque – a chorus of swooning conservatives who cannot, for some reason, distinguish between a provocative point of view and the sort of stuff that gets cited in sanity hearings….The Washington Post’s book critic, Jonathan Yardley, confessing he shares ‘many of Johnson’s biases,’ nevertheless says that when Johnson reaches about 1960 (in “A History of the American People”), the author ‘goes berserk.’ ‘It is quite impossible to overstate the looniness of the last section of the book,’ Yardley wrote.”

Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post, March 15, 1998:

“….(A) massively ambitious book….Paul Johnson always aims high….Fluid prose….He has read his Toqueville and profited from it….Johnson nails down the American character with subtlety and complexity….Exceptionally good on the founding of the country….With the departure of Eisenhower and the arrival of the 1960s, Johnson goes berserk….It is quite impossible to overstate the looniness of the last section of the book….The best advice is to stop reading at page 841. Not merely is its final section ill-tempered and vituperative, but it utterly fails to confront some of the broad social and cultural developments that have taken place since 1960….In the end, ‘A History of the American People’ is deeply disappointing.”

Pauline Maier, The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1998:

“There are too many mistakes, not of interpretation (although Johnson’s explanation of the First Amendment would give James Madison apoplexy) but of fact….Some errors border on the comic: important events did occur on June 7, July 2 and July 4, 1776, but not the ones Johnson says happened. The half-truths are more troubling….(For example), for all his celebration of available land, Johnson seems curiously untroubled by the gobbling up of plots by large holders….And what about businessmen’s use of the state against unions? The book gives only a brief and inaccurate account of the Homestead strike against the Carnegie Steel Company, which was crushed in 1892 by 8,000 militiamen sent in by the Governor of Pennsylvania. Obviously, unionism sometimes failed for reasons other than, as Johnson would have it, Americans’ unwillingness to ‘subordinate their individuality to the collective interest.’

Chris Appy, Commonweal magazine,March 27, 1998:

“White folks do all the talking….Frederick Douglass does not even stroll onto the scene….Johnson makes the ludicrous claim that sit-ins and freedom rides ‘almost inevitably involved the use or threat of force, or provoked it.’….As for Malcolm X, he warrants just two words – ‘black racist. 

John O’Sullivan, The American Spectator, April 1998:

“….His whole approach challenges the present consensus of academic historians that history (pace Gibbon) is a register of the crimes and follies of dead white males and of the misfortunes of women, gays, and people of color. He depicts the history of America as the advance of a great civilization – like the rise of Islam or the spread of the British Empire – which showers benefits and curses on the peoples in its path and allows its own citizens to participate in great achievements but also in great crimes. He sees the Big Picture, but from both sides.”

Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, January 1 & 15, 1998:

“….No dull pages….”

Michael Lind, National Review, March 9, 1998:

“‘A History of the American People’ proves that history can still be literature.”


Some Comments About, and By, Paul Johnson

Jacob Weisberg, The New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1998:

“Johnson is much less a bitter ultraconservative than a professional provocateur, a controversialist. Creating outrages, he has learned, can be a good business.”

John Derbyshire, the Boston Globe, July 5, 1998:

“A devout Catholic (his people are Lancashire recusants), Mr. Johnson believes that history points a moral, and that part of the historian’s job is to illuminate that moral.”

Paul Johnson, quoted in The New York Times Magazine, 3-15-98, on his tutor at Oxford, the noted and controversial historian A.J.P. Taylor:

“He used to say to me, ‘There’s absolutely no point in writing history if those books get stuck on the shelves in university libraries. 

Johnson on not agreeing with someone, from The Spectator (Britain), March 15, 1986:

“The truth is, when we say, ‘That’s not a very intelligent remark,’ what we usually mean is: ‘I don’t agree with you. 

Johnson on terrorism, from his essay collection ‘The Recovery of Freedom’ (1980):

“Terrorism….is no longer a marginal problem for the civilised world, something to be contained and lived with, a mere nuisance. It is a real, important and growing threat to peace and legitimacy of all civilised states, that is all those states which live under the rule of law. It is an international threat: therein lies its power. That power can only be destroyed or emasculated when there is international recognition of its gravity, and international action, by the united forces of civilisation, to bring it under control.” ●