Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005
Hubert Humphrey, mayor of Minneapolis, vowed to drive the Communists out of the DFL in 1948--and Gene McCarthy was recruited as part of that effort. The campaign was ruthless; the Communists were denounced as subversives and appeasers. The liberals' success was total, and the group that drove the reds out of the party went on to dominate the DFL for a generation, producing two vice presidents and three presidential candidates--Humphrey, McCarthy and Walter Mondale.
Over the next decade, Republicans tried to challenge McCarthy as insufficiently anti-Communist but never succeeded. "I have supported the un-American activities committee and every basic piece of legislation directed to control subversive activities," he told the press during the 1952 campaign. He was right about that.
The Democrats dominated Congress during McCarthy's years in Washington, which made it seem like a good time to be a liberal there. In 1959, when he went to the Senate, the Democratic margin was 65 to 35; in 1965, it was 68 to 32. That seems unbelievable today. But the liberals had a hard time, because the Solid South was still Democratic, which meant conservative Southern Democrats headed all the key committees. Soon McCarthy became bored with the Congressional world of "protocol, alcohol and Geritol" (Adlai Stevenson's description of the diplomatic world). That boredom eventually contributed to his willingness to run for President in 1968.
McCarthy gained national fame at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, when he opposed Kennedy and nominated Stevenson in an uncharacteristically passionate speech on national TV: "Do not turn away from this man. Do not reject this
man.... Do not leave this prophet without honor in his own party." In 1968 the Stevenson people remembered, and provided him with key financial and tactical support. And of course the Kennedys remembered too.
McCarthy's transformation from militant cold war anti-Communist to critic of the Vietnam War provides a fascinating lesson in how people can change their minds. In 1960 he said, "Our policy must be to assist within all possible means the liberation of people who are subject to Communist tyranny." He never questioned the morality of intervention or the limits of American power. Between 1961 and 1964, his colleagues Wayne Morse, Ernest Gruening and George McGovern began to question White House Vietnam policy, but not McCarthy. In 1964, he voted for LBJ's Gulf of Tonkin resolution, authorizing the President to use "all necessary measures" in Vietnam.