Quantcast

Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005 | The Nation

  •  

Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Eugene McCarthy has always been a mysterious and frustrating figure. Nothing he did before 1968 hinted that he would become the liberals' antiwar leader and challenge an incumbent Democratic President; nothing he did after 1968 accomplished much of anything. Dominic Sandbrook skillfully conveys the events and the experience as well as the arguments of that year. Although he is a Shropshire lad born in 1974, Sandbrook argues like my father, born in Duluth in 1921 and a good Minnesota Democrat: He insists we focus on how the story of 1968 ended. The split among Democrats led by McCarthy ended up with Nixon in the White House. Nixon kept the war going for another five years, during which 15,000 more Americans were killed, and--we might add--during which Americans killed something like a million more Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.

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...

Also by the Author

The New York Times columnist discusses his new book, Fire Shut Up in My Bones.

If '68 ended badly, it began with "a triumph of heroic magnitude"--Newsweek's description of McCarthy's showing in the New Hampshire primary that February. The senator from Minnesota had been the only one willing to challenge Lyndon Johnson, to make Vietnam the issue in the upcoming presidential election. Although McCarthy didn't win the popular vote--he got 42 percent in the Democratic primary--he did win twenty of the state's twenty-four convention delegates. Johnson saw the writing on the wall, and rather than lose to McCarthy a few weeks later in the Wisconsin primary, he announced he was withdrawing from his own re-election campaign. Nothing like it had ever happened before in American politics, and nothing has since.

There are some surprises, Sandbrook shows, in the story of McCarthy's 1968 triumph in New Hampshire: First, the vote for McCarthy was not primarily an antiwar vote. Exit polls suggested that most voters didn't know where he stood on it. That's because his TV ads made it impossible to tell whether he was for or against the war. Pollsters concluded that "his vote was an anti-Johnson vote, not an antiwar vote." Voters were anti-Johnson because of urban riots and "crime in the streets" as well as because of Vietnam.

Another surprise: the media liked McCarthy in New Hampshire in 1968. In the Democratic primaries this year, the media killed Howard Dean after he led a youthful antiwar insurgency within the party that had some similarities to McCarthy's. But back in 1968, the national press was "extremely generous" to McCarthy--Sandbrook couldn't find any hostile coverage. He doesn't try to explain why.

In addition to the surprises, there are also some secrets behind the 1968 McCarthy campaign. The first is that it was not a grassroots, shoestring volunteer effort. In fact, it was the most expensive and best-financed campaign in the history of Democratic primaries until that time. McCarthy's money came primarily not from small donations but rather from big contributors--especially from Wall Street. Why so many on Wall Street wanted to dump Johnson in favor of an antiwar liberal is a question Sandbrook does not consider. The five biggest contributors, at $100,000 each, included Martin Peretz, then a young Harvard instructor married to the Singer sewing machine heiress, and later publisher of The New Republic; he would remain a supporter of McCarthy's presidential campaigns on and off for the next twenty years.

The other secret of New Hampshire in 1968: McCarthy never intended to drive Johnson out of the White House. As George McGovern explained in a 1970 interview, "They were looking for somebody to frighten Johnson into changing his policy. They never thought in terms of actually taking the nomination away from him."

Why did McCarthy challenge Johnson? He had never been a maverick, a rebel or a peacenik. Throughout his career in the House and Senate before 1968, Sandbrook shows, he had been a conventional cold war liberal, fiercely anti-Communist and voting the AFL-CIO line on domestic issues. His transformation into the standard-bearer of the liberal antiwar movement is the central story of the book.

Unlike the other Catholic antiwar senator of 1968, Bobby Kennedy, who joined the race four days after the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy experienced little in his early life to suggest he might end up in Washington. He grew up in a farming town in southern Minnesota suffering through the Depression but got the best education rural Catholic Minnesota could provide: He was sent to the Benedictine monks at St. John's Abbey and university. St. John's had an "enormous impact" on him and "irrevocably molded his character." Later, when he went to Washington, McCarthy still went to mass every day.

The Catholic intellectual world of the 1930s in which McCarthy grew up was committed to a radical vision of social justice. McCarthy's mentor at St. John's wrote in 1938 that capitalism was dying, "and should die." McCarthy's impulse at this point was to separate himself from a sinful bourgeois world. In 1941 he decided to study for the priesthood at St. John's, but the life of the novitiate didn't work out; he spent the war years working in the War Department in Washington; then got married and with his wife, Abigail, founded a Catholic anticapitalist rural commune in Minnesota. That didn't work out either, and McCarthy ended up teaching sociology at St. Thomas, a small Catholic college in St. Paul, where he found happiness at last.

But instead of living an uneventful life as a Catholic intellectual in St. Paul, he was recruited in 1948 to run for Congress and fight the Communists in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. During the hard years of the Depression, Minnesota radicals and progressives had flocked to the left-wing Farmer-Labor Party, which had held the governorship from 1931 to 1936. The Minnesota branch of the Communist Party was one of the country's most active in the 1930s and '40s, and even though it had only 300 members, they played a strong role in the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1944, with the Communists and the CIO in pursuit of the Popular Front alliance with liberals, the Farmer-Labor Party fused with the Democratic Party. Even today the Minnesota Democrats call their party "the DFL."

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.

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.)

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."

On Election Day, Humphrey lost to Nixon by 500,000 votes. McCarthy was partly responsible for Nixon's victory, Sandbrook suggests, because he did not endorse his old Minnesota mentor until a week before the election, and he failed to campaign for the Democratic candidate or rally his supporters in key states --New Jersey, Illinois and California--that Nixon carried by small margins.

But the problem was not just Nixon's razor-thin margin of victory. The larger problem was that the Democrats lost 12 million votes between 1964 and 1968--"the greatest electoral disaster of the century," Sandbrook calls it--and he again holds McCarthy partly responsible. He cites Joseph Rauh, who warned in October 1967 that an antiwar challenge to LBJ would break "the liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s." Of course, that turned out to be true. The argument here is that the McCarthy campaign, in concentrating on Vietnam, turned away from the white working-class voters drawn to the "law and order" issue--which was what got Nixon elected.

And even on Vietnam, Sandbrook argues, McCarthy was a disaster: Instead of ending the war, he helped prolong it. If Humphrey had been elected, Sandbrook thinks, he almost certainly would have ended the war sooner than Nixon did. Sandbrook quotes Blair Clark, who helped run the '68 McCarthy campaign (and who later became editor of this magazine); he said in 2000 that the campaign "definitely had a deleterious effect on America."

It's a harsh judgment--the same judgment that Humphrey Democrats, like my father, offered the day after Nixon won in 1968. What the antiwar sons told their DFL fathers in 1968 is still true today: McCarthy was not wrong to challenge Johnson on the war. Johnson was wrong in not shifting his Vietnam policy to negotiations and withdrawal. Humphrey was wrong in failing to come out against the war soon enough to win over the antiwar Democrats. Had Humphrey won, he might have ended the war sooner than Nixon, but who knows? And thirty-five years later, both the sons and the fathers can agree that any Democratic President would have faced the split between antiwar reform Democrats and working-class whites who voted for Wallace in 1968 and eventually for Reagan. That split was hardly Gene McCarthy's creation.

After 1968, McCarthy began a long downhill slide into "irrelevance and obscurity." He ran for President again and again, getting fewer votes each time. In 1976 The New Republic, run by his old supporter Martin Peretz, endorsed him for President against Jimmy Carter, but he won less than 1 percent of the vote. However, McCarthy fought in the courts to get independent candidates on the ballot, and his success paved the way for Ross Perot and then Ralph Nader. In 1980 McCarthy hit bottom when he endorsed Ronald Reagan--because he hated Carter. In 1982 he ran for the Senate again in Minnesota, explaining, "I've suggested to Democrats that if they'll forgive me for being right, I'll forgive them for being wrong." He lost the primary.

Sandbrook's massively researched and footnoted book is soft on the larger socio-political context, and hard in its conclusion: McCarthy wasted his talent. The potential he demonstrated in New Hampshire to become a great liberal leader was undercut by his vanity, his arrogance and his personal vendettas. He never injected new ideas into political debate, he sponsored no significant legislation and his one great moment--New Hampshire in 1968--ended in disaster for his party, his country and, we could add, for the people of Vietnam as well.

Readers may disagree about 1968, but Sandbrook is effective in conveying the sense of a wasted talent. Garry Wills said it best: "Eugene McCarthy spent a good deal of his time trying to prove that he was too good for politics. What use was that? Most of us are too good for politics; but we do not make a career of demonstrating it."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.