Eugene Mccarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism

Eugene Mccarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism

by Dominic Sandbrook


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Eugene Mccarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism by Dominic Sandbrook

Originally a New Deal liberal and aggressive anticommunist, Senator Eugene McCarthy famously lost faith with the Democratic party over Vietnam. His stunning challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary inspired young liberals and was one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history. But the 1968 election ultimately brought Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to power, irrevocably shifting the country’s political landscape to the right for decades to come.

Dominic Sandbrook traces one of the most remarkable and significant lives in postwar politics, a career marked by both courage and arrogance. Sandbrook draws on extensive new research – including interviews with McCarthy himself – to show convincingly how Eugene McCarthy’s political experience embodies the larger decline of American liberalism after World War II. These were tumultuous times in American politics, and Sandbrook vividly captures the drama and historical significance through his intimate portrait of a singularly interesting man at the heart of it all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400077908
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/12/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 1,113,599
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Born in Shropshire in 1974, Dominic Sandbrook studied history and modern languages at Oxford University. He has a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews and a doctorate from Cambridge University. He taught American history at the University of Sheffield from 2001 to 2004, and has held a Senior Fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford.  He is the author of Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, and lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
The Watkins Wonder

Eugene Joseph McCarthy was born in the small town of Watkins, Minnesota, on 29 March 1916. Although he was half German by blood, McCarthy always presented himself as an Irishman, relishing his frequent trips to Ireland and long conversations about Irish literature over a glass of whisky. His mother's parents were in fact German Catholics, while his father's family was Irish. His paternal grandparents, Michael McCarthy and Mary Harbinson, hailed from County Cork and County Antrim respectively; they had met in Quebec and moved to Minnesota in the 1870s. There was said to be much of the elder Michael McCarthy in his grandson. "He was always real interested in politics, and in reading the newspapers and finding out what was going on," recalled Eugene's elder sister Mildred. Eugene noted that his grandfather was said to have been "especially learned about and agitated by the British treatment of the Irish over the centuries." Eugene's father, also named Michael, was born in 1875, one of eleven children. Eugene's mother, Anna Baden, was the daughter of a Bavarian miller and blacksmith who had moved to Minnesota during the great surge of German Catholic immigration after the revolutions of 1848.

Eugene was Anna's third child. He had two older sisters, Mildred and Marian, and when he was two his mother gave birth to another son, Austin. Anna was forty when Eugene was born, and took responsibility for the four McCarthy children, since their father, a cattle buyer, was often away for months at a time. "Mother was the one who really raised us," explained her second son, Austin. She rarely raised her voice to her family, and was devoutly religious, walking every day to Mass whatever the weather and also leading the children in prayers at home. Eugene's mother, like her elder son, rarely showed anger or open emotion. He later wrote a poem entitled "Mother," celebrating her qualities "of tolerance, of strength, of gentleness / Of quiet voice, certainty, security." Not only did Eugene inherit Anna's reserve and patience, he also absorbed her religious passion. His mother dearly hoped that he would become a priest, and his wife, Abigail, later wrote that Anna had viewed the appearance of a girlfriend as a threat to her cherished dream. He may even have been his mother's favorite; his sister Marian remembered that "if she was sick or there was a crisis, she always wanted Gene to be with her."

Eugene's father, Michael, was a very different character. He had been born in central Minnesota in 1875, into "a wilderness of meager hopes," and had endured an austere childhood. A staunch Republican, he had been the Watkins postmaster until displaced by Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in 1913, and by the time Eugene was born he was a cattle trader, buying cattle in Minnesota and the Dakotas and shipping them to the stockyards in South St. Paul. Michael always regretted his son's choice of a political career; on one occasion, he complained, "Gene is a good boy, but he's in the wrong party." Eugene was evidently in awe of his father, and he recorded his precepts in a series of poems with titles like "Wisdom" and "Integrity." Michael was hot-tempered, gruff and caustic, "a strong Irishman and quite domineering," in the words of one Watkins neighbor. "Dad would flare up and shake you by the back of the neck when he got mad," recalled his second son, Austin. If Eugene did not inherit his father's temper, he certainly inherited his sense of humor. Michael McCarthy's wit was famous in the family: it was dry, bitter, unsentimental and even cruel. He was, his son later wrote, "doubtful of politicians," "suspicious of doctors" and "slow to take pride in sons or daughters." While the children admired him, Eugene's wife, Abigail, wrote that Michael "seemed to look on any show of tenderness and emotional dependence as weakness . . . his appraisal of his fellow men was almost universally sour and he had the habit of limning them unforgettably with biting, homely witticisms." He belonged, she concluded, "to that generation of men for whom the Depression was the last defeat." As later events were to demonstrate, Eugene's own personality owed as much to his father's hard-bitten cynicism as it did to his mother's gentle reserve.

In 1968 a reporter visited Watkins and noted that it had changed little since McCarthy's childhood. It lay seventy miles west of the Twin Cities, across a flat, sullen landscape "deserted except for silos, cylindrical wire corncribs, fishing huts scattered across a frozen lake, black-and-white cows brooding or loping over a glassy coat of snow." Then, suddenly, he saw "a little huddle of buildings dominated by the spire of a redstone church." It was a railroad village, established during the building of the Soo Line across Meeker County in the 1880s, and had been named after a Soo railroad official. By 1930 its population had grown to 512 people, most of them connected with the railroad or dairy farming. "Its stability and growth," Eugene wrote in 1939, "is due to the character of its citizenship which is largely of German extraction with the exception of a scattering of Americans of Swedish and Irish descent. These citizens are thrifty, strongly attached to the soil and progressive in thought and action." All but a tiny minority were Catholics. Watkins and the surrounding area actually contained the highest concentration of German speakers in the state, many of whom had moved to the area even before the building of the railroad. Social life was based on the church and the local beer taverns, and the children studied German for several years at the parochial school. Visiting baseball teams from villages to the north often spoke German, and as Abigail McCarthy reported, "at church the people prayed in German and the sermons were often in German." Watkins, she thought, "seemed almost transplanted from rural Germany to rural Meeker County, Minnesota."

The German Catholics of Watkins attracted little attention from other groups in the state. They were middle-class farmers who kept to themselves and provoked no great nativist animosity. "I don't have to recall how my grandmother was maid to the Saltonstalls as Kennedy did," McCarthy remarked decades afterward. In the early 1930s, however, the Depression hit the farmers of central Minnesota very hard. Farmers rushed to form cooperatives and sometimes violently resisted attempts by businessmen to close down the creameries on which they depended. By convention, the Watkins Germans were mostly Democrats, partly because they disliked the nativism of the Republican Party, and partly because they opposed Prohibition, which they cheerfully ignored after it was enacted in the county in 1915.

While Eugene was growing up, however, the county was gripped by an atmosphere of increasing fear, agitation and class consciousness, exemplified by the popularity in the county of agricultural cooperatives and of A. C. Townley's Non-Partisan League, which paved the way for the success of the radical Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in the 1930s. The sense of despair and hardship had a powerful impact on the young McCarthy. In 1961 he recalled watching Minnesota farm auctions with his father: "hardworking and honest" neighbors forced to sell all they had for shatteringly low returns. "The experience helped to teach me that we must look first to the needs of the people, and that when these needs are great, we should survey our private and public resources and then determine a policy and work out a program of action," he explained. "Our society cannot operate well if each person and each family is left alone against the world." Michael McCarthy gave up handmade shoes and tailored suits and spent eight weeks at a time on the road, making only $150 a month. His son later wrote of "the spring of no hope . . . the winter of despair," and

. . . the cries of women gone mad on the prairie being taken away in spring wagons because, they said, the grass did not turn green in May.

The Depression notwithstanding, Eugene McCarthy had a happy childhood. Watkins was a quiet town of small, neat stucco houses, proud of its church, its school, its baseball field and its hockey rink. He later wrote fondly about its rituals and seasons, attributing its contented character to four factors: nature, the church, baseball, and the railroad, the Great Soo Line, which sliced through the town and passed right next to Watkins' principal landmark, a bustling grain elevator. Growing up, Eugene and Austin fought and played together, and Eugene, who was older, taller and more aggressive, usually won. He played at emulating his father, selling toy horses to imaginary farms; he wrestled with his little brother and the other local boys; he flew kites and competed hard at baseball and hockey. He adored sport, not least because he was an excellent athlete. Indeed, while he was playing baseball in the Great Soo League, rumor had it that "Mac," as the locals called him, was even scouted by the Chicago White Sox, though an offer never materialized. Eugene thought his childhood was "disconcertingly normal" for a politician who later came to pride himself on defying common conventions. His poems about life in Watkins are gentle, nostalgic celebrations of spring days fishing, running and playing. He was, however, slightly unusual in two respects: he was extremely bright, and he was very well behaved, a "very clean-cut boy, didn't drink, didn't smoke," according to one neighbor. Unlike many of his peers, he loved reading: his favorite books were conventional children's classics such as Tom Sawyer, The Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe and Kim. His maternal aunt Mary, who lived next door, owned a collection of Dr. Eliot's Harvard Classics, and the young Eugene worked his way through them one by one. According to Austin, he would "sit there reading them for three or four hours without saying a word." Not surprisingly, he was the academic star of the local parochial school, a staunchly Catholic institution teaching the children of Watkins until the age of about fifteen. McCarthy wryly recalled the fierce Benedictine nuns who administered both education and discipline. But Eugene had little to fear from them: he was an excellent student and the sharpest boy in town.7

At fifteen Eugene left Watkins and moved twenty-five miles north to the little town of Collegeville, where he enrolled in St. John's Preparatory School. Tuition and board cost less than $400, not an enormous amount, but even so his father had to rely on contributions from Eugene's sister Marian and a generous uncle to send his son north. The school was administered by the Benedictine monks of St. John's Abbey, and was attached to a university, which McCarthy entered the following year. It was rare for boys from Watkins to go off to college, but if they did, it was either to St. John's or to the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. St. John's had an enormous impact on McCarthy, and it irrevocably molded his character and opinions. The university had been founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks from the Bavarian monastery of Metten, who petitioned the territorial legislature for a charter in order to fight off Methodist inroads into the hearts of German Catholic immigrants. The abbey and university enjoyed splendid isolation, lost in the middle of 2,480 acres of central Minnesota woods and lakes. Benedictinism remained the guiding spirit of the institution, which was renowned for its moderation, reasonableness and sense of community. Its ethic, wrote one member of the order in 1930, was "a kind of spiritual tolerance and ease, a spiritual elasticity and receptivity." The monks also prided themselves on their German traditions of scholarship; indeed, only a handful of monks were Irish rather than German Catholics.

The university was in a period of transition when McCarthy arrived, transforming itself from a school for German pioneers to a haven for Catholic intellectuals. As one alumnus put it, its atmosphere in many ways epitomized "the rough camaraderie of an all-male universe," including the revelation that "Benedictine monks are human and can curse as imaginatively, drink as ruinously and laugh as uproariously as their secular counterparts." But the monks took their spiritual devotions extremely seriously, and the same writer also remembered "the medieval rhythms of Benedictine monasticism" and "the haunting, other-worldly sound of Gregorian chant and the awe-inspiring procession of black-robed figures filing two by two into the Abbey Church." For the 460 students who filled the classrooms of the school and the university, the Catholic influence remained extremely strong. Attendance at daily Mass was not obligatory, but most still came, and many groups of students also recited Compline in their own residences. Moral standards were still rigorous: fifty years after the event, Eugene still recalled the outraged reaction of the monks to a singer who appeared with her shoulders uncovered at a concert by the St. Paul Post Office Symphony.

McCarthy studied at St. John's from 1932 to 1935. He was, said one of his teachers, "an outstanding student." English was Eugene's favorite subject, and he remembered with particular fondness his courses on English grammar, the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, and the development of the novel. McCarthy's brother recalled mournfully that classes consisted of "a discussion between Father Dunstan Tucker, the teacher, and Gene." Eugene graduated cum laude with a major in English and an A in every course except Plane Trigonometry (C) and The Modern Novel (B). In 1933 the "Watkins Wonder," as his classmates called him, broke the university record by amassing eight consecutive As in his year's coursework. When he graduated in June 1935, the college newspaper reported that his professors were "mourning the loss of one of their chief joys in life"-a student who had finished the BA course with over three times the credits needed for a degree. Father Dunstan Tucker, his English teacher, wrote in 1970 that the "brilliant" McCarthy had set a standard that was "still one of our all-time records." He also noted that the young man had a sardonic streak: "He enjoyed it when someone made a fool of himself in class."

McCarthy was equally renowned for his competitiveness on the sporting field. Sport was central to American Catholic life in the 1930s, and McCarthy excelled at it. In baseball, he was an excellent first baseman; in hockey, he made the first team at center for three successive years and was the top scorer in the conference championship team in 1935. Everyone remembered Gene McCarthy as a mean, rough opponent. "He was an expert needler," remarked his coach. McCarthy himself wrote proudly that if an opponent dropped his mask, he would kick it away: sportsmanship was "a sign of weakness." Abigail McCarthy observed that her husband "played with ferocity and a passion to win and would advance threateningly and vocally upon the umpire at the slightest provocation." At an alumni gathering in the late 1980s another old student accosted him. "He said that he had hated me for 30 years or so," McCarthy explained. "I asked him why, and he replied, 'You never played fair on face-offs.'" Indeed, McCarthy was no shrinking violet. He was a tough and passionate competitor, with a burning desire to win and no great regard for the finer points of the game.

Table of Contents


The Watkins Wonder

The Education of a Catholic Politician

The New Liberalism and the Election

The Quiet Congressman

Patronage and Principle in the Eisenhower Era

The Politics of Ambition

Rethinking the Cold War

The Limits of Power

A Footnote in History: New Hampshire, 1968

The Road to Chicago

The Aftermath of Defeat

The Long Exile




Q: Why did you decide to take Eugene McCarthy on as a subject for your biography?
A: I first read about Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign when I was an undergraduate studying American history at Oxford, and I was immediately fascinated by what appeared to be a particularly dramatic, even romantic story that had this uniquely elusive and enigmatic man as its central character. When I came to choose a subject for my Ph.D. a few years later, McCarthy was the first thing that sprang to mind. Nobody, or at least nobody since the early 1970s, had made any great effort to tell McCarthy's story, and it struck me that he would make a fantastic subject for a biography. But there was also more to it than that: I wanted to write a book that showed how the Democratic party itself had changed between the 1940s and the 1970s, and I especially wanted to look at the evolution of American liberalism during the postwar period. The beauty of picking McCarthy as a subject was that it allowed me not only to tell his personal story, but also to show how and why the liberal consensus rose and fell between, say, 1948 and 1980.

Q: Briefly tell us why McCarthy had a major impact on the Democratic party in the 1950's and 1960's.
A: McCarthy's career really encapsulates the story of liberal politics in the postwar decades. He came into politics as part of a new liberal Democratic generation in the 1948 election, and he
defined his liberalism in two ways. First, he supported social reform at home, including civil rights and welfare; and second, he was all for the Cold War and vigorous anti-Communism abroad, an example being the Korean War. He was a verysuccessful congressman, popular with the
Democratic party barons and widely regarded as a coming man, and it was no surprise that he moved to the Senate after 1958 and became close to Lyndon Johnson. But then in the 1960s it all seemed to go downhill for McCarthy; he fell out with Kennedy and Johnson, and found himself rather on the fringes. By 1968, however, the Democrats were tearing themselves apart over the conflict in Vietnam, and there was a real rift between the party's white- and blue-collar elements over the war. McCarthy emerged as the champion of the former: he struck people as the quintessential high-minded moral reformer, leading a principled crusade against the war. The problem for McCarthy, however, – and for the Democratic party right up to the present – is that it proved terribly difficult to bridge that gulf between the middle-class reformers and activists on the one hand, and the great mass of ordinary voters – the silent majority, if you like – on the other. So not only did McCarthy's 1968 campaign have a major impact on American politics, his career also provides an excellent example of the enduring difficulties of the Democratic party and American liberalism.

Q: Please explain McCarthy's role in unseating Lyndon Johnson.
A: Well, the two men were friends and close colleagues in the early sixties and McCarthy was actually seen as something of a Johnson protégé. But their relationship soured after 1964, when McCarthy was very hurt and disappointed that Johnson hadn't picked him as his running mate,
selecting his Minnesota colleague Hubert Humphrey instead. In the years that followed, McCarthy became a very public opponent of the administration's war in Vietnam, and pretty much severed all his links with the Johnson White House. He was very happy to be invited to run against Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries, and at first he thought he was simply raising the Vietnam issue rather than making a serious bid to topple the president. In fact most commentators completely wrote McCarthy off and expected Johnson to thrash him in the first primary, in New Hampshire. But when McCarthy came within a few hundred votes of beating Johnson, thanks particularly to the efforts of his student volunteers, the president was completely humiliated. A few days later, Robert Kennedy declared his own presidential candidacy, and with McCarthy on the brink of a tremendous victory in the Wisconsin primary, Johnson pulled out of the race to save himself further humiliation. It was an amazing outcome that nobody could possibly have predicted a few months earlier, and McCarthy had essentially come from absolutely nowhere to topple the incumbent president – a scenario unprecedented in American political history.

Q: McCarthy was considered a moderate liberal and often contradicted his stance on politics. How do you feel this reflects the collapse of liberalism?
A: McCarthy certainly started out as a liberal and he often used to term to describe himself and his colleagues. What they meant by that, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, was that they were keen not only on social reforms at home but also on aggressive anti-Communism abroad. That formula
allowed people like McCarthy to distinguish themselves from political enemies on their right – the Republicans – and left – the Communists and other radical groups. This liberal consensus worked very well for twenty years or so, and McCarthy was pretty consistent in his beliefs: things like unemployment insurance, welfare spending, civil rights reforms and so on.

But in the late 1960s, the consensus came under attack from all sides, partly because of the Vietnam War, and partly because of the domestic problems of the day like crime, cultural permissiveness and inflation. After implementing the Great Society, the liberals had essentially run out of ideas, and what was more, they were becoming increasingly unpopular as their blue-collar voters were attracted to more conservative politicians. I think all this left the liberals a bit bewildered – some of them moved to the right, others to the left, to try and find a solution. McCarthy was a classic example: he left the Senate at the end of 1970 and made a very definite move towards the radical left, but when he wasn't picked as the presidential nominee in 1972, he shifted back to the right. By 1976, when he ran as an independent presidential candidate, and 1980, when he endorsed Reagan, he had ended up as, in many respects, a very profound conservative. And by that point the liberal consensus had pretty much collapsed: the commitments that people like McCarthy had made back in the 1940s no longer seemed appropriate for the challenges of the 1980s.

Q: What accomplishments did McCarthy become famous for during his political involvement?

A: He was most famous for his challenge to Johnson in 1968 over the issue of the Vietnam War, but I think it does him a disservice to concentrate just on that. From 1948 onwards he was a very consistent champion of liberal policies at home: he voted for all the major reforms of the Sixties, and he was particularly associated with efforts to help Mexican migrant workers, who had a pretty tough time of it in those days. He was also a keen supporter of the Cold War and that makes his stance on Vietnam especially interesting.

Many of his friends and colleagues, however, felt that he should have achieved much more. McCarthy was without doubt an extremely talented man, but he was often accused of being
arrogant, lazy or waspish, and by the mid-1960s he wasn't really contributing that much to the Senate. He was evidently very bruised and disappointed by the outcome of the 1968 campaign, and he left the Senate two years later to write and teach before embarking on a series of quixotic independent presidential campaigns. Many of his old colleagues couldn't understand why he did it; people like Humphrey and McGovern stayed on in the Democratic party, but McCarthy walked away and even endorsed Reagan in 1980. A lot of political observers saw him as an unfathomable enigma; they never understood why, with all his personal gifts, he didn't leave a more lasting mark on American life.

Q: McCarthy seemed to be very cautious on taking a stance on certain political issues, such as the Vietnam War. How did this affect his career?
A: McCarthy was a careful, moderate man by temperament. He never liked appealing to voters' emotions and always prized reason and intellect very highly. Indeed he thought compromise was a positive virtue for a politician, so in that respect he looks very cautious, even like a European conservative. On Vietnam that was especially marked because in the Forties and Fifties he had been a strong anti-Communist and supporter of the Cold War, and he was also close to President Johnson, at least at first. So initially he supported the war, and only gradually did he move against it. That said, only a handful of Democratic politicians opposed the war from the beginning, so it wouldn't be fair to be too harsh to him on that score. In the mid-Sixties, nobody thought of McCarthy as a radical firebrand or crusader. His friends knew that he had doubts about the war, but they saw McCarthy as a very calm, sensible politician who was unlikely to be involved in any great public crusade against it.

Q: Yet, interestingly enough, he was considered a hero. Please explain.
A: By the end of 1966 McCarthy had become a public opponent of the war, speaking out regularly against it in the Senate and on university campuses. That destroyed his relationship with the Johnson White House and with some sections of the Democratic party, but at the same time it meant that he became very popular with students, liberal activists and the peace movement. When he was approached to run for the presidency at the end of 1967, he thought that he had nothing to lose, that he would at least bring the issue to public attention, and that he would have the chance to get his own back in Johnson for having been snubbed of the vice presidency in 1964. What happened then was that McCarthy was taken up by the students and the antiwar movement, many of whom knew little about his career, and elevated into a great hero and crusader for peace. In fact McCarthy himself was very uncomfortable with all the attention; he never wanted to be anybody's hero, and his relationship with his young supporters was always rather fraught. That's what makes his reputation particularly interesting and controversial: some people still see him as an out-and-out hero, while others ended up very angry and disillusioned with him.

Q: How long did it take you to complete this biography? Where did you do your research?
A: It took four years for me to do my Ph.D., which is pretty much normal in England, and then two more years to turn it into a book, which basically meant a few tweaks here and there rather than full-scale rewriting. The research was mainly done in American archives. I was fortunate to have a studentship from the British Academy, as well as grants from Cambridge University and the Lyndon Johnson foundation, which meant that I could spend as long as I needed in the US. So I went through McCarthy's papers in St. Paul, which are fairly enormous, as well as the
collections of the Kennedy and Johnson libraries, the McGovern and Humphrey papers, and various others. I was also lucky enough to interview quite a few of McCarthy's old friends and colleagues, and McCarthy himself kindly gave me a couple of interviews. Perhaps the most
enjoyable part, though, was going to the Benedictine monastery in Minnesota where McCarthy had been a novice, and interviewing the old monks who had known him back in the 1930s and 1940s. That was a great experience and they were wonderfully warm and friendly.

Q: As a biographer, are there times when you get tired of your subject, or maybe even frustrated, particularly someone as quixotic as McCarthy.
A: They say that every biographer falls out of love with his subject, and it's true that my opinion of McCarthy did slightly change as I did more research into his life and career. But the knack of writing a successful biography is to achieve the right balance, so that readers can see why people either liked or disliked the subject. At the end of the book, I still found McCarthy a very amusing, engaging and compelling character. He did have his faults, though, and one big
surprise was to discover how many of his old friends and colleagues had very jaundiced views of him. It's striking, for example, that his old liberal comrades from the 1940s still haven't
forgiven him for his alleged betrayal of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But I was never interested in portraying him either as a saint or as an out-and-out sinner. What I'm trying to get across is the complexity of both his personality and his record, and to put that within the wider historical context of the rise and fall of liberalism.

Q: Are you working on a new book?
A: Yes, I'm working on a couple of new projects. One is a two-volume history of Britain in the sixties, which is coming out next year in London. But I suspect American readers will be more interested in the second project, which is being published with Knopf. It's a book about the 1976 presidential election, the bicentennial and the politics and culture of the mid-Seventies, and it should be coming out in a couple of years.

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