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A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy
by David M. Oshinsky
597 pages
Free Press (Macmillan)
Published: January 1983

A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy” was published in 1983 and is widely considered to be the definitive biography of McCarthy. Oshinsky is a professor of history at NYU, a director at the NYU School of Medicine and the author of nearly two-dozen books including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning “Polio: An American Story.”

Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957) is infamous as the most prominent face of America’s anti-communist “Red Scare” movement in the early 1950s.  His actions were so conspicuous and controversial that the term “McCarthyism” was coined early in his rise to notoriety.

Oshinsky’s biography of McCarthy is almost exactly what sophisticated readers expect from a serious political biography: a sober, reflective, dispassionate and interesting exploration of the facts and circumstances surrounding a subject’s life. In this case, Oshinsky has nicely captured the “world of Joe McCarthy” including the factors which both enabled and sustained his political ascent and those which led to his collapse (both physical and professional).

While this biography does touch on McCarthy’s personal life (particularly during his childhood) the 507-page narrative is almost entirely concerned with his political career. The inner forces which propelled McCarthy through his friction-filled life are only partially revealed. Readers seeking a balance of focus on his personal and professional lives may be disappointed to find that 90% of the biography is devoted to just the last few years of McCarthy’s life.

But…oh, what a few years those were! The story of McCarthy’s rise from humble roots to becoming the center of an unprecedented political firestorm (which he ignited, of course) is nothing short of spectacular. Oshinsky lays out the historical record context-and-all with methodical precision – and with appropriate focus on McCarthy’s menagerie of enablers, supporters and victims.

“A Conspiracy So Immense” often reads more like an interesting history text than gripping biography. And while Oshinsky’s writing style is generally engaging, it is not brimming with lyrical flourishes or colorfully-described scenes. Instead, it is focused on delivering crisply-articulated facts in order to explain the fast-paced, fire-breathing world McCarthy created for himself.

Readers who have lived through McCarthy’s time will recognize most of the events described in this book…but with the added context and perspective Oshinsky provides. Younger readers will find that vaguely familiar history is robustly fleshed-out and analyzed. But few readers of any age will fail to notice the ominous parallels between McCarthy’s age and our own, with the most pernicious elements of his repertoire being resurrected and redeployed in today’s political climate.

Overall, David Oshinsky’s “A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy” proves itself a timeless treatment of the life of a curiously complicated and controversial political figure. Readers seeking a biography for entertainment will find this provides an educational, but not always exhilarating, journey. But anyone hoping to better understand Joe McCarthy and his impact on the US political climate will find Oshinsky’s biography close to perfect.

Overall rating: 4 stars