Feldman, a freelance writer whose previous books are “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards” (2005) and “Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream” (2006), doesn’t tell us anything new in “Manufacturing Hysteria,” as all the cases about which he writes have been thoroughly documented, investigated and, by and large, discredited. Still, it is useful to have the entire history outlined in a single volume, for as more recent events have made plain, the susceptibility of the American populace to appeals based on fear and prejudice has not been eradicated. Indeed, the incredibly mean political mood of the moment leaves no doubt that fear and resentment — of Latino immigrants, of Arabs and Muslims, of homosexuals — remain powerful resources for unscrupulous politicians, whose numbers have not noticeably diminished since the days of McCarthy.
That World War I was the turning point is beyond question. Woodrow Wilson may have won the presidency on a progressive platform, but he was far from immune to racial and ethnic prejudice, and as American entry into the European conflict grew near, he laid “a foundation of intolerance and suspicion” toward real or imagined disloyalty. The anti-German frenzy that was ignited by his speeches around the country and by his supporters at the Committee on Public Information, “the official state organ of propaganda,” spread deep into American society and ruined the lives of innumerable ordinary, patriotic Americans who had the misfortune to bear German names. As one official of the Justice Department put it: “No other one cause contributed so much to the oppression of innocent men as the systematic and indiscriminate agitation against what was claimed to be an all-pervasive system of German espionage.”