… and we are going to answer that question today!
Who is Eugene McCarthy?
Eugene McCarthy was a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, having served in both the House of Representatives (from 1949 to 1959) and the Senate (from 1959 to 1971). He made five unsuccessful bids for the presidency, the most noteworthy of which was in 1968. He ran against sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic primaries on a platform of ending the war in Vietnam, and his unsuspected strong showing ultimately spelled the end of the Johnson administration.
Early Life and Political Career (1916 – 1968)
McCarthy was born on March 29, 1916, in Watkins, Minnesota. He was known to be an avid reader. McCarthy attended St. John’s University, and was known for being a brilliant young man: due to his intelligence and wit, his friends referred to him as the “Watkins Wonder.” After graduation, McCarthy spent some years as a public school teacher, eventually earning his masters and become a professor of economics at his old alma mater. At one point, he even seriously considered becoming a Benedictine monk, spending nine months as a novice but ultimately deciding not to continue. He became involved in politics in 1949, being elected to the House of Representatives where he served for ten years. In 1959, McCarthy was elected to the Senate, where he would serve for nearly another decade. This brings us to 1968.
McCarthy and the 1968 Presidential Election
1968 was a crucial year in American history. This was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the year of the Tet Offensive (which strongly damaged Johnson’s reputation) in Vietnam. The country was divided, in large part over whether or not the war in Vietnam was justified. This division extended into the Democratic Party.
Some Democrats, such as sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson, were for the war, whereas others, like Eugene McCarthy, were against it. It’s this anti-war conviction which drove McCarthy, reluctantly, into the national spotlight in 1968 He had actually wanted Robert Kennedy to run on an anti-war platform, but Kennedy wasn’t interested, and so McCarthy stepped up to the plate.
The 1968 New Hampshire primary was a surprise for the Johnson administration. Johnson won, and this was expected as he had all the advantages. The problem for Johnson was that he won only by a relatively narrow margin, even with everything in his favor: 49% to McCarthy’s 42%. Robert Kennedy, who had not originally wanted to run, now saw an opportunity and announced his candidacy, and what happened about two weeks later stunned the country: Johnson announced that he intended not to run for president. This was something unprecedented for a sitting president. Although McCarthy would ultimately withdraw from the race, his anti-war line of thinking triumphed, showing that people did not want more of the Johnson administration’s foreign policy. Kennedy, of course, would be assassinated before he had a chance to become the Democratic Party’s nominee.
Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice-president, became the Democratic Party’s nominee. Humphrey’s connection to Johnson helped ensure that Richard Nixon, who ran on the promise of “new leadership” in the war, would win the election. Anti-Johnson sentiment was very high in America in 1968, too high for Humphrey to win.
Later Life and Summary
McCarthy would run for the presidency four more times after 1968. He never received the nomination of his party, however, and became less and less politically relevant as the years went by. Eugene became a bitter man, always complaining about how Robert Kennedy had stabbed him in the back by seeking the nomination. In his years “in the political wilderness,” McCarthy published over 20 books of poetry.
If he had been successful in the 1968 election, the war in Vietnam could have ended earlier. Ultimately, tens of thousands of American lives could have been saved from a war that would eventually end with victory for North Vietnam anyway. Therefore, McCarthy’s legacy is a powerful one. He had the conviction to stand up to his own party, against all odds, and brought down a sitting president with his strong showing in New Hampshire.