New York Times
December 15, 2005
Former Senator Eugene McCarthy, who died last Saturday at the age of 89, was an unusually thoughtful politician whose flaky behavior too often got in the way of the important things he had to say.
An early and courageous critic of the war in Vietnam, he reserved a spot in the history books with his decision in the fall of 1967 to challenge President Lyndon Johnson, who was thought to be invincible, in the 1968 primaries.
In those days, as now, opponents of the war were demonized. As McCarthy would later recall:
"As [the war] continued to go badly, its advocates became more defensive. The motives of those who spoke out against the war were questioned, as was their patriotism, and in the case of the Democrats their loyalty to the party. Critics were called 'nervous Nellies' and 'special pleaders,' and, in the language of cattle handlers, as ready to 'cut and run.' "
The hawks in those days insisted that anything short of complete victory in Vietnam would put the United States in "mortal danger."
The ones in mortal danger, of course, were the young, healthy soldiers and marines that the U.S. kept pouring into the war zone. Johnson made a surprise visit to Vietnam in 1966 and urged the American boys to "bring home the coonskin." Thousands upon thousands of them died trying.
In his 1975 book, "The Hard Years," McCarthy wrote:
"Too little has been said about the responsibility of the state to the soldier. This goes beyond the obligation for the soldier's welfare if he is wounded or when he retires. It goes beyond the obligation for the care and support of his dependents. The state has a more fundamental obligation to look to the justice and wisdom of the cause in which the soldier is committed."
McCarthy was thin-skinned, petulant and petty, and his commitment to even his most important causes was never single-minded. He was understandably angry at Robert Kennedy, who jumped into the presidential race just four days after McCarthy demonstrated Johnson's vulnerability by running a close second to the president in the New Hampshire primary.
But even McCarthy's staunchest supporters groaned when he publicly crowed that he had gotten better grades than Kennedy in economics, and that his supporters tended to be better educated than his opponents'.
And while many of McCarthy's supporters saw the opposition to the war almost as a crusade, McCarthy himself seemed to lose interest after his defeat in the primaries. During the general election campaign, he accepted an assignment to cover the World Series for Life magazine.
His saving grace was always his thoughtfulness and insight on matters of paramount importance to the nation. McCarthy was not just opposed to the war on moral, legal, military and political grounds. He felt that it was eating like a cancer at the character of the United States.
The war contributed to the feeling among ordinary Americans that they were politically helpless, that they had no real say in the great issues facing the country. It drained money and diverted attention from important domestic matters, including Johnson's Great Society programs. And it was tragic evidence of what McCarthy saw as the "increasing militarization" of U.S. foreign policy.
McCarthy wanted the nation to be better than it was. He wanted it to resume the pursuit of greatness embodied in its founding ideals. Vietnam, he felt, blocked that pursuit.
"This need not be a nation in anxiety and distress," McCarthy said. "This need not be a nation of distrust and fear. We can return to what we have promised to be."
In an address at Berkeley in October 1967, before he announced that he was running for president, McCarthy explained why, in terms of foreign policy, it was important to view the war in a context that was much larger than Vietnam.
He said the debate over Vietnam was really about "a kind of projection of American foreign policy over the next 40, 50 or 100 years in which, I think, we're called upon for the first time to make a kind of decision as to whether or not we conceive of our role as a kind of continuous performance demonstration that we can police the planet, or whether we're prepared to try to direct it by way of the influence of our ideas and of our nonmilitary potential."
"This," he said, "is the substance, I think, of a greater debate than Vietnam."