Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Echoes of McCarthyism bring book back to relevance

Book Review: A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, by David M. Oshinsky. 597 pages. Oxford University Press.

To the modern ear, "McCarthyism" is synonymous with "anti-Communist witch hunt." In truth, when the euphemism was current it meant more than that. Harry Truman defined it as “the corruption of truth, abandonment of the due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism of security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of our society” (348-9). If Truman’s definition is accepted, “McCarthyism” becomes familiar in 2016. While the witch hunts and shaming are no longer aimed at Communists, Senator Joe McCarthy’s tactics seem to be coming back into style, as if they’re a clothing style that has just been rediscovered.

A Conspiracy So Immense, Professor David M. Oshinsky’s tome on McCarthy and his “-ism,” delivers a detailed account of the American mood in the first half of the 1950s. With chapters on the history of American communism and journalism (which may have worked equally well as appendices), Oshinsky succeeds brilliantly at keeping the many balls in the air that brought the notorious Senator to power and eventually to censure and death. He paints a picture of a man who seemed to plan on taking power but not knowing what to do with it, almost like Heath Ledger’s analogy of a dog chasing a car in Dark Knight. If it seems long and at times disjointed (and it is almost 200 pages longer than most other academic biographies of McCarthy), it is because the extra details, explanations, and anecdotes not only make the story richer, but add a deep context that holds the attention of someone well versed on the subject while also keeping the leisure reader--a staple in the Oxford University Press market--involved no more strenuously than the most meager intellectual jog through the park.

McCarthy’s career was complicated. Chroniclers of the famed demagogue have had trouble weeding out the legends from the facts, while many revisionist apologists have attempted to contribute to something of a reclamation project of the late Senator, based on new claims that McCarthy was right about some of his victims. If new evidence has been presented on McCarthy and the subjects of his victims, that evidence did not make its way into Oshinsky’s 2007 reissue of the 1980s watermark high treatment of McCarthy. What might be more significant is that without addressing whether or not McCarthy was “right” about alleged Communists, Oshinsky seems to be arguing that whether these people were Communists or not was immaterial. What the author, and the Senators who finally stand up to McCarthy, seem to be saying is that is that while Communist subversion may be a problem, that problem can not be solved by oppression of free speech and free thought. The author is also careful to highlight, without overstating, the significance of identity politics, pointing to McCarthy’s not-so-subtle association of Communist sympathy with Judaism and “sexual perversion.”

Oshinsky manages the people of his story well, for the most part. Much like in McCarthy’s hearings, almost nobody comes out of A Conspiracy So Immense looking particularly good. President Truman appears partisan and bulldogish; President Eisenhower weak and more concerned with the image of the presidency than the state of the nation. The Democrats are presented as aware of McCarthy’s excesses early on, but fail to act in any substantial way, whereas the Republicans, equally concerned with McCarthy’s behavior, see it as a wave they can (and did) ride to the majority. Once in power, they found they couldn’t control the monster they’d made, and so most of them continued to stand by him in public, even as they grumbled in private. Even Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont, the author of the resolution that ultimately censured McCarthy in 1954, is quoted as not wanting to help the Democrats by going after a fellow Republican. For his part, Lyndon Johnson sees McCarthy as “the Republican’s problem,” and remains silent until the last possible moment, when the die of McCarthy’s censure was already cast. All in all, McCarthy’s contemporaries struggled with a combination of disbelief, denial, party loyalty, political opportunism, and self preservation. This kind of behavior may have been hard to believe in 1983, when the book’s first edition was published, or even in 2005, when the new edition was released. It is no longer so difficult.

If A Conspiracy So Immense has shortcomings, they are few. The many characters involved in the multilayered tale drop in and out, and often disappear entirely without explanation. Senator Margaret Chase Smith, so central early on for being the first Republican to publicly denounce McCarthy in 1950, disappears from the narrative in 1952, simply declared as “probably need[ing] a rest.” Likewise, G. David Schine, the friend of McCarthy staffer Roy Cohn and apparent catalyst of McCarthy’s downfall, vanishes with the Army-McCarthy hearings. Oshinsky also makes an assertion about McCarthy’s mindset during the buildup to censure. He writes that McCarthy “had begun to think in terms of a third party movement with Joe McCarthy as the presidential nominee. He wanted his enemies to see this groundswell, and he needed to see it himself” (485-6). This assertion, while certainly good for the story, appears unsubstantiated and never again addressed. On the contrary, in the book’s conclusion Oshinsky states that McCarthy “had no desire to lead a movement, to run for higher office, or to formulate a program that went beyond the simple exposure of Communists” (507). These two seemingly contradictory statements, which are presented not as possibilities but equal truths, leaves the reader wondering which McCarthy they’d been dealing with the whole time: the scheming opportunist or the dedicated red-hunter.

The cliches that history repeats itself and that we can learn from our past to the benefit of the future are always appealing. Though, as British historian A.J.P. Taylor has suggested, trying to make judgments on the present and future based on the past is dangerous business. That said, if there is a moment where the past at least rhymes, the rise of a bombastic outsider in American politics whose arsenal consists not of actual votes or authority but bluster, smear, and vague generality devoid of evidence, it is today. In this regard, Oshinsky’s well-regarded biography, an accepted standard on McCarthyism for over thirty years, is worth dusting off, if only to show readers how far we’ve come, and how easily we can slip.