A Conspiracy So Immense

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David M Oshinsky. A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. pp. 597. Cloth: ISBN 0029234905

Summary

David Oshinsky presents a comprehensive look at the life of Joseph McCarthy in his biography A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. From Oshinsky we get a portrait of an opportunistic man who sought popularity and the spotlight, and for a brief time held both on a national scale, and when he lost his stature he was able to drink himself to death in nearly an equally short time. He recounts McCarthy's life in painstaking detail, from his Wisconsin childhood when he was "a vigorous, extroverted, ruggedly handsome boy," through his times in the Army, as a judge, and finally a Senator.(4) Throughout the book, Oshinsky repeatedly challenges the claims of other McCarthy biographers, whom he often feels were unfair or misleading in their efforts to paint McCarthy in a negative light. While he is not sympathetic to McCarthy, he goes through great pains to appear even-handed. At times, however, he seems too close to the subject, extrapolating, "While Joe still preferred life's simpler pleasures--a good card game, a day at the track, a thick steak in the Grill Room of the Carroll Arms Hotel--he was obviously impressed by the people he met at Bazy McCormick's Maryland horse farm..."(301)

What Ohinsky ultimately insists on, is that McCarthy was not the utter failure others have indicated. Instead he stresses that it could be any number of other name-isms, but it's McCarthyism for reasons such as his boldness, intelligence, manipulative skills, and media savvy. He was an excellent performer and was able to leverage an ideology that had been long building in America into personal success, however brief. As Oshinksy notes, "Above all, the senator provided a simple explanation for America's 'decline' in the world."(507) Here Oshinsky is convincing, for in simply dismissing McCarthy as a crackpot who failed to ever identify one Communist, we run the risk of marginalizing the process by which federal power can destroy lives. While McCarthy's actual power was limited, his cultural reach went far beyond his interrogation rooms.

Commentary

KA Fall 2009

Oshinsky does not thoroughly take on the world of anti-Communism through its namesake. Instead, he is most effective at showing that despite his high profile, McCarthy was a man of limited power and effectiveness, and that the bulk of anti-Communist actions were carried out by others. He does, however, effectively demonstrate that although McCarthy was a confirmed opportunist, he was also devoutly dedicated to his anti-Communist ideas. Oshinsky does maybe too good a job in his attempts to treat McCarthy even-handedly, and the impact and aftermath of the McCarthy era are left somewhat untouched. This is an entertaining read, but it is difficult to tease out Oshinsky's larger ideas on anti-Communism.

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