Szplug's Reviews > A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy

A Conspiracy So Immense by David M. Oshinsky
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Apr 02, 2011

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I have always been fascinated by the meteoric rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the early days of the Cold War in general. Oshinsky sets out to present a fair and balanced portrait of the much-maligned progenitor of the communist witch hunt, seeking out interviews with childhood friends, neighbours and co-workers of the Wisconsin politician in an effort to better understand his formative years. The result is a well-written, if dry, account of an intensely ambitious and patriotic man, like so many politicians able to be fair and vindictive, loyal and conniving, cautious and careless with little awareness of the contradictions in his words and actions.

McCarthy was not an unfeeling monster, but he was responsible for ruining the lives and reputations of those he impugned with his reckless accusations. Scorning those who adhered to a strict party loyalty to advance their careers, he was a born demagogue, whose ambition and power-hunger were apparent to all except the man he saw daily in the mirror. A drinker and ladies-man when single and a relapsed drinker and faithful husband when he married late in life; an early proponent of treating woman equally under the law as a Wisconsin judge, a finger-pointing anti-communist who condemned based upon association and hearsay as a ranking senator. McCarthy was able to tap into the outrage and bewilderment over China's fall to the communists—to a certain segment of the population, only treachery made this catastrophe explicable—and sensed an opportunity to advance both what he perceived to be the security interests of the United States and his own unfocussed political career. Once the Truman administration had been succeeded by that of the Republican Eisenhower, McCarthy became enmeshed in the need to escalate his condemnatory efforts in order to remain in the national spotlight whilst simultaneously losing the easy target of a Democratic White House—and in opting to attack the Army itself, made what proved to be a tactical blunder from which he would not recover.

Information recently obtained from the KGB archives show that McCarthy was not wrong in suspecting that communists and fellow-travellers had infiltrated the federal government bureaucracies: but the specific individuals that he accused were, with a few exceptions, entirely innocent; and the actual moles and traitors managed to escape his investigations. It is almost certain that he genuinely believed in the peril of communism to the West and the need to take a hard line at home; it is also almost certain that he never fully understood the damage he caused in his efforts to combat it. His overzealous and heavy-handed tactics proved to be terribly divisive and counterproductive, hastened his rapid fall and demise, and attached his name permanently to the procedure of trial by innuendo.

Oshinsky lays the entire story out, attempting to be even-handed even if he cannot conceal his distaste for his subject at certain times. He also clearly distinguishes those actions - like the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee - in which McCarthy took no part; indeed, he chronicles several attempts by the senator to undo the personal and professional damage caused by his fellow anti-communists. An interesting and informative biography—IMO a better treatment of this polarizing Fifties political powerhouse than the earlier effort by a uniformly hostile Richard Rovere.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by James (new)

James I enjoyed Oshinsky's book, Polio: An American Story. Based on your review of his book on McCarthy he took the same comprehensive approach. For Polio it was the story of the "March of Dimes" and then the battle between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. The history was made even more compelling by my memories of living through the initial phase of the actual vaccine.

message 2: by Szplug (last edited Apr 09, 2011 12:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Szplug Oshinsky definitely made an effort to dig deeper into what made McCarthy perform as he did than the earlier biographers—the observations of his Wisconsin neighbors and associates presents him in a different light, and, notwithstanding his unsavory character as a communist witch-hunter, his actions were as distorted by the biased lenses of reportage back then as are those of politicians of today.

Thanks for the information about Oshinsky's other book, of which I was unaware. I've never read anything in detail covering Polio, which, as you say, occurred within living memory. I will add it to my list of tomes to watch for.

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