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Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005 | The Nation

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Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005

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McCarthy was not pushed toward an antiwar position by his constituents, nor was he influenced much by the growing antiwar movement on college campuses. Instead, he learned a different way of looking at the war--from J. William Fulbright, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, to which McCarthy was appointed in 1965. The committee became the most important institution in Congress for criticism of the war. By 1966, McCarthy had figured it out: The conflict in Vietnam, he declared, should not be understood as a cold war confrontation but rather as "a South Vietnamese civil war." (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara apparently wasn't listening; he told Errol Morris in the film The Fog of War that he didn't hear that idea until two decades after the war's end.)

In this 2004 review of Dominic Sandbrook's biography of McCarthy, Jon Wiener assesses the man and his impact on liberal politics.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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The most important influence on McCarthy after Fulbright seems to have been antiwar Catholic writers. They drew on Pope John XXIII's 1963 antiwar encyclical "Pacem in Terris," in which the Pope declared, "We must obey God rather than men." They also revived the "just war" theory, which required a proportionality between means and ends. Commonweal magazine, which McCarthy had been reading all his adult life, in 1966 called the war "unjust," "immoral...a crime and a sin."

McCarthy's antiwar position in 1967-68 was hardly radical--he offered the basic liberal fare that dovish senators had been promoting for two years: stop the bombing of the North, negotiate with the National Liberation Front, withdraw troops in phases and support a coalition government in Saigon. Nevertheless, those proposals were strikingly different from Humphrey's--the Vice President and fellow Minnesotan called Vietnam "our great adventure, and what a wonderful one it is!"

While Johnson's withdrawal from the 1968 race was a triumph for McCarthy, it was also a disaster--because now he had to run against Bobby, who was also against the war. Sandbrook agrees with Ronald Steel, who wrote in his book In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy that in 1968, "McCarthy was by far the more radical candidate": McCarthy said Vietnam "was no accident"--he no longer viewed it as a blunder or tragedy of good intentions. He went on to challenge the entire cold war orthodoxy, arguing that the United States should recognize Communist China, open relations with Cuba and abandon the notion of Manifest Destiny.

Then Bobby was shot, followed by Chicago and Mayor Daley's police, and Humphrey's nomination. Sandbrook argues that McCarthy "deserved to lose" the nomination, because his campaign after New Hampshire was so "inept" and "chaotic" and because his public statements were so "willful and obscure."

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