Opposing Vietnam War, McCarthy Inspired a Movement Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy died Saturday at the age of 89 at an assisted living residence in Washington, D,C. In 1968, the staunch opponent of the Vietnam War challenged President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination, forcing LBJ from office and inspiring the antiwar movement.
NPR logo

Opposing Vietnam War, McCarthy Inspired a Movement

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5048037/5048038" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Opposing Vietnam War, McCarthy Inspired a Movement

Opposing Vietnam War, McCarthy Inspired a Movement

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5048037/5048038" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Former Senator Eugene McCarthy died yesterday at an assistant living home here in Washington. He was 89 years old. McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota, served five terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the Senate. A staunch opponent of the war in Vietnam, in 1968, McCarthy challenged President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Johnson won the New Hampshire primary that year, but McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote, a showing that embarrassed Johnson politically and led to his dropping out of the race. Johnson gave his support to then Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, another Minnesotan.

Senator Robert Kennedy, of New York, also entered the presidential race. Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles the night he won the California primary. When the Democrats met for their convention in Chicago that summer, the gathering was marked with rhetorical confrontations inside the convention hall and violent confrontations on the city streets between anti-war protesters and police.

(Soundbite of protest)

HANSEN: Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination, leaving Eugene McCarthy to pick up a bullhorn outside the Hilton Hotel in Chicago to speak to his youthful admirers and supporters, many of whom had cut their hair and changed their clothes to get clean for Gene.

(Soundbite from vintage speech)

Senator EUGENE McCARTHY (Democrat, Minnesota): I think we've proved something about the people of this country. They made a judgment which the politicians were afraid to even face up to before we took it to the people. Maybe the--in the midst of this war, they were ready to say that we were wrong and that the policy ought to be changed. That was the judgment of the people of this country.

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: In August, 1993, on the 25th anniversary of that convention, I spoke with then former Senator McCarthy and asked him whether the strife at the convention and the internal conflicts within the Democratic Party at the time led to a Republican-dominated political era.

(Soundbite from vintage 1993 interview)

Mr. McCARTHY: It wasn't the convention that did it. I think it was the war. Even without the convention, if you had had a peaceful convention, I think, and with--just with opposition and defeat of it. But the reality of the war was the overwhelming fact, I think. The public began to realize that they hadn't been told the truth about the war--by '68.

HANSEN: But what happened to the Democratic Party at that point?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, the party had had two severe tests in my time of Wash--one was '48 on the issue of civil rights. In '68, I faced a similar moral challenge, I think, and a challenge to the integrity of the party which was: `Will you now say that the war which you're primarily responsible for is one that ought to be ended?' In '68, they wouldn't do it. So the party has really--as a kind of unified force has been without any kind of principled motivation since '68.

HANSEN: What lasting effect, if any, do you think the 1968 Democratic Convention had on the American political process?

Mr. McCARTHY: Well, it wasn't just the convention. I think, if you take the whole campaign--what came out of it--it's generally agreed, I think, that no president will feel that he can develop his own war and not expect it to be challenged from--even though it was a very limited challenge--from--by the people or by the Congress. I think, if you want a very particular thing, I think giving the vote to 18-year-olds came out of it. They haven't used it very effectively. But if they'd had it in '68, it would have made a difference. So it's important that you have it on the books so--the time came again.

HANSEN: Journalist Albert Eisele wrote a dual biography of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey. From 1994 until August of this year, Eisele was editor of The Hill, a daily newsletter about Congress. And he's on the phone from his home in suburban Virginia.

Thanks for your time, Mr. Eisele.

Mr. ALBERT EISELE (Journalist, McCarthy Biographer): Yes, certainly. Good morning.

HANSEN: Good morning. Eugene McCarthy's presidential bid in 1968, that's the most famous moment in his very long political life. Can you give us just a broader perspective on his career, please?

Mr. EISELE: Well, certainly, his challenge of President Johnson in 1968 was the defining moment of his career. It's interesting to look back. I mean, that was 37 years ago. And he left the Senate in 1970, so he's been out of--really out of the Senate for 35 years. But he really had a second career as a kind of a gadfly and a--certainly, he ran for president three more times, each time rather more futilely. But I think he'll be certainly defined by 1968. It was his decision to challenge President Johnson, and that at the time was almost unthinkable for a Democrat to challenge a president of his own party. He demonstrated, I think, that President Johnson was vulnerable on the war, and that had a--that was a--had a catalytic effect. That drew Robert Kennedy into the campaign and led to his--to one of the most tumultuous years in American history, culminating with the violent Chicago convention and then the election of Richard Nixon in the fall.

I think in retrospect, that what stands out here is that the man who stood up at a critical moment in American history to warn the nation of what he perceived as an immoral war was McCarthy. And it's interesting that, just as Hubert Humphrey had forced the nation to confront the civil rights issue in 1948, McCarthy's stand against the Vietnam War in '68, I think, was a real act of courage that grows larger in retrospect and guarantees him a secure place in the history of the country.

HANSEN: You mentioned he left the Senate in 1970. Do you think he was an effective senator?

Mr. EISELE: I--yes, I think he was. I think, as you pointed out, he served five terms in the House and he led a group of young liberals at that time to institute a number of reforms in the House. And then he defeated an incumbent Republican in 1958 to join Humphrey in the Senate and he spent two terms in the Senate. He was a different senator. He was a very cerebral person and he--and very intelligent and took a very intelligent approach to politics, not a visceral approach as many others, including Humphrey, did. He was not a leader in the sense of having his name on a lot of legislation and so forth, but I think he was a moral and intellectual leader in the Senate.

I was coming back from the West--I was out there in Santa Fe over the past weekend, and I was flying back last night. And it occurred to me--I thought there was a great irony in the fact that, just a few hours before he died, President Bush was out in Minnesota campaigning for a Republican congressman who's running for the Senate. In fact, it's the seat that Senator Humph--Senator McCarthy once occupied. And here was the irony of the fact that President Bush was in Minnesota at the time defending an unpopular war and at the time that McCarthy was dying. And as he said in the interview you had, the public realized it hadn't been told the truth about the war in 1968. And in many ways, I think that's the situation that, maybe, we face now in the war in Iraq. And it's ironic that he was challenging a president from Texas at the time over his conduct of the war at the time that many people are challenging hi--President Bush and feeling that perhaps this war is not justified either.

And I think the broader point that Senator McCarthy made in the interview with you was that no president can wage war and not expect to be challenged by Congress or the people.

HANSEN: Did you ever ask him--I mean, for all the things that he's going to be remembered for, not the least of which may be the only politician in American history to quote Plutarch when he declared his presidency in '90-'92. What do you think he would want to be remembered for?

Mr. EISELE: I think he'd want to be remembered as a person who stood up at a critical time in American history and called attention to an immoral war and energized young people and brought young--many young--many people back to believe that they could make a change--that an individual could make a change and could force a government to listen to them.

One of the things that I think has been--history has--or a lot of people say that he caused President Nixon to be--caused the Democrats to lose the election in '68 and President Nixon to be elected. I don't think that's a legitimate criticism. There were so many other factors involved, including Hubert Humphrey's inability to separate himself from President Johnson and from the war. And, of course, there were so many other external factors, including Robert Kennedy's assassination and so forth. I was struck by the fact that Senator Edward Kennedy issued a gracious statement yesterday about Senator McCarthy's death, even though there was great bitterness between McCarthy and the Kennedy family--the three Kennedys: President Kennedy and the two Senator Kennedys. But I think that Senator Kennedy had a--was very gracious in pointing out that McCarthy was a very important influence and figure in the latter half of the 20th century.

HANSEN: Journalist Albert Eisele wrote a dual biography of Hubert H. Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. He spoke to us from his home in Virginia.

Thank you very much, Mr. Eisele.

Mr. EISELE: Thank you very much, too.

HANSEN: Senator Eugene McCarthy died yesterday at the age of 89.

(Soundbite from vintage speech)

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president. But let men everywhere know however that a strong and a confident and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace, and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require. Thank you for listening. Good night and God bless all of you.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.