I was recently reading Noam Chomsky’s Towards a New Cold War, a collection of his essays originally published in 1982. In one essay, 1977’s Intellectuals and the State, I discovered, to my surprise, a scathing denunciation of Eugene McCarthy, who many remember as the anti-Vietnam War candidate in the Democratic presidential primary. Chomsky observes that McCarthy’s commitment to that cause was quite shallow, if it even existed at all (from pages 83-85 in the New Press edition):
The rewriting of this history too deserves serious attention -- more than I can give it here. To illustrate with just one case, consider the current (December 10, 1977) issue of the New Republic, still more or less the official journal of the liberal intelligentsia. The lead editorial, entitled "The McCarthy Decade," is an ode to Eugene McCarthy, who "changed the landscape of American politics" when he challenged Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential campaign. The McCarthy campaign, the editors allege, "seeded the political system with men and women schooled in dissent" and introduced "a streak of unpredictable idealism" into American political life. "The most obvious postscript to the McCarthy campaign was the ending of the Vietnam war," as McCarthy "and his cohort established a consensus on the need to end that war." The editors quote with approval John Kenneth Galbraith's statement on the aforementioned BBC program that McCarthy is "the man who deserves more credit than anybody else for bringing our involvement in the war to an end," and they proceed to laud McCarthy for his modesty in refusing the mantle of hero. McCarthy, they conclude, "has insured that no President ever will feel again that he can carry on a war unaffected by the moral judgment of the people."
Compare this analysis with the facts. By late 1967, the mass popular movement against the war had reached a remarkable scale. Its great success was that the government had been unable to declare a national mobilization. The costs of the war were concealed, contributing to an economic crisis which, by 1968, had brought leading business and conservative circles to insist that the effort to subdue the Vietnamese be limited. The Pentagon Papers reveal that by late 1967 the scale and character of popular opposition was causing great concern to planners. The Tet offensive, which shortly after undermined government propaganda claims, enhanced these fears. A Defense Department memorandum expressed the concern that increased force levels would lead to "increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities," running the risk of "provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions." Mass popular demonstrations and civil disobedience were a particular concern, so much so that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to consider whether "sufficient forces would still be available for civil disorder control" if more troops were sent to crush the Vietnamese.
The unanticipated growth of protest and resistance was largely leaderless and spontaneous. It took place against a background of considerable hostility in the media and the political system, and of occasional violence and disruption. One can identify deeply committed activists -- Dave Dellinger, for example -- who worked with tireless devotion to arouse and organize the public to oppose American aggression, with its mounting and ever more visible atrocities. There were some, like Benjamin Spock, who supported the young resisters, and even a few who joined them; for example, Father Daniel Berrigan, who offered "our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children," when he and six others destroyed draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. But one will search in vain for the contribution of Eugene McCarthy to "establishing a consensus" against the war or arousing opposition to it. In the difficult early period, he did not even rise to the level of insignificance. There were a few political figures -- Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse, for example -- who condemned the escalation of the American war. McCarthy never joined them.
After the Tet offensive of January 1968, it was generally recognized that the United States must shift to a more "capital intensive" effort, relying on technology rather than manpower. The American expeditionary force was beginning to collapse from within. The American command was coming to learn a familiar lesson of colonial war: A citizen's army cannot be trusted to conduct the inevitable atrocities; such a war must be waged by professional killers. After 1968, the war dragged on for seven long years, with unspeakable barbarism and major massacres, such as Operation speedy express in the Mekong Delta in 1969. Popular opposition peaked in the early 1970s, and continued, despite press efforts to conceal U.S. initiatives, until the very end. Throughout this period, too, there was barely a whisper from Eugene McCarthy.
Why then has McCarthy been elevated to the liberal Pantheon? The reason is simple. His brief appearance in 1968 symbolizes quite accurately the opposition to the war on the part of the liberal intelligentsia. Riding to national prominence on the wave of mass opposition to the war, McCarthy slipped silently away after failing to gain the Democratic nomination at Chicago in August 1968. He did succeed, briefly, in diverting popular energies to political channels, and came close to gaining political power by exploiting the forces of a movement that he had played no part whatsoever in mobilizing. His utter cynicism was revealed with great clarity by his behavior after he lost the nomination. Had he been even minimally serious, he would have made use of his undeserved prestige as a "spokesman" for the peace movement that he had so shamelessly exploited, to press for an end to the American war. But little more was heard from McCarthy, who demonstrated by his silence that he cared as little for the issue of the American war as he did for his youthful supporters who were bloodied by police riots in the streets of Chicago as he was attempting to win the Democratic candidacy, through their efforts on his behalf. He is, in short, a proper figure for canonization by the liberal intelligentsia.