I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Barbara Klein with People in America in VOA Special English. Today we tell about Eugene McCarthy. His campaign for the presidency in nineteen sixty-eight increased popular opposition to the war in Vietnam. And it changed American history.
Eugene McCarthy was a quiet and mentally gifted lawmaker from Minnesota. As a young man, he was interested in being a religious worker – or a baseball player.
Later, he was a college professor. He wrote poetry. He also became active in Democratic Party politics.
In the nineteen sixties, he was one of the first Democrats in the United States Congress to oppose the party leadership. He expressed opposition to the war Americans were fighting in Vietnam. And he forced a president from office.
Eugene McCarthy was born in nineteen sixteen in the town of Watkins, Minnesota. His father’s parents came from Ireland. His father bought farm animals and was a storyteller. His mother raised four children.
Eugene completed a study program at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He continued his education at the University of Minnesota. There, he completed study programs in economics and sociology.
McCarthy taught social sciences in public high schools for a few years. Then he taught economics, education and sociology at two colleges in Minnesota. He married another teacher, Abigail Quigley. They would later have four children.
During World War Two, Eugene McCarthy worked as a technical aide for a military intelligence office of the War Department. He became active in the Democratic Party after the war.
In nineteen forty-eight, he became head of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Ramsey County, Minnesota. That year he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He served five terms.
In nineteen fifty-eight, McCarthy defeated a Republican Party Senator and won a seat in the United States Senate. Two years later, he became famous by speaking at the Democratic Party’s national nominating convention. He nominated Adlai Stevenson for president. But the Democrats chose John F. Kennedy as their candidate.
In nineteen sixty-four, McCarthy easily won re-election to a second term in the Senate. He served in the Senate for a total of twelve years.
In nineteen sixty-seven, opposition to the war the United States was fighting in Vietnam was growing. It had begun to harm President Lyndon Johnson’s popular and political support. In October, thousands of demonstrators marched in Washington, D.C. to protest the increasing conflict.
Eugene McCarthy was a leader of the anti-war movement. McCarthy announced he would show his opposition to the war and to President Johnson. He asked Democrats for their support in the party’s presidential primary elections in nineteen sixty-eight. “There is only one thing to do – take it to the country!” he declared.
McCarthy made political campaign stops across the country. He said the American people were against the war for military, economic, diplomatic and moral reasons. And he said they wanted a change. He said: “Party unity is not a sufficient excuse for silence.” He also said: “We do not need presidents who are bigger than the country, but rather ones who speak for it and support it.”
Many young peace activists and college students worked on McCarthy’s presidential campaign. During the nineteen sixties, many students wore long hair and unusual clothing. But the students who worked for the McCarthy campaign changed their appearance. They cut their hair and wore nicer clothing.
The media said these students became “Clean for Gene.” His campaign for president was also called a “Children’s Crusade” because of the many young people involved.
Nineteen sixty-eight was a difficult year for the nation. It was filled with surprises, tragedy, violence and sadness. The primary election in New Hampshire was the first step of the presidential nominating process.
McCarthy surprised experts by winning forty-two percent of the Democratic vote in the New Hampshire primary. That was just seven percentage points behind President Johnson. The results of this vote helped the anti-war movement. They showed the deep division within the Democratic Party.
A few days after McCarthy’s success, Senator Robert Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic nomination for president. Robert Kennedy was a brother of President John Kennedy, who had been murdered in nineteen sixty-three. Robert Kennedy had served as the top government lawyer in his brother’s administration. Senator Kennedy also opposed the Vietnam War. Many people were pleased when he announced his plans to be a candidate. But McCarthy and his supporters were angry that Kennedy had entered the race.
On March thirty-first, President Johnson spoke to Americans about the war in Vietnam and his efforts to limit it. At the end of his speech, President Johnson surprised the nation. He announced that he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party for another term as president.
Another shocking event took place a few days later. On April fourth, the nation’s top civil rights leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. His death led to riots in more than one hundred cities.
After the riots, Vice President Hubert Humphrey decided to seek the presidential nomination. Traditional Democrats supported him. McCarthy won Democratic primaries in four states.
On June fourth, he lost the important California primary to Senator Kennedy. Then another tragic event happened. Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles shortly after giving his victory speech.
In August, Democrats gathered in Chicago, Illinois for their nominating convention. Thousands of McCarthy supporters and war protesters also went to Chicago. Rioting and violent clashes broke out between the protesters and the city’s police force. I
Inside the meeting place, delegates voted for the party’s presidential candidate. But having forced President Johnson out of office, McCarthy failed to win the nomination.
The Democrats nominated Humphrey as their candidate to face the Republican candidate, former Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon defeated Humphrey in the election and became president. The war in Vietnam would continue for seven more years.
After losing the fight for the nomination, McCarthy did not offer to help Vice President Humphrey. In fact, he did not express support for the Democratic candidate until a few days before the election. The next year he gave up his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He separated from his wife of twenty-four years. He also announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate in nineteen seventy.
After retiring from the Senate, McCarthy moved to Rappahannock County, Virginia. He lived alone near the Blue Ridge Mountains. He wrote books, poetry and stories for newspapers.
McCarthy was a candidate for President four other times. But he was not taken seriously as a candidate. McCarthy became increasingly critical of the two-party system and traditional politicians, even Democrats. In nineteen eighty, he supported the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, for president over the Democrat, President Jimmy Carter.
McCarthy remained active until the end of his life. In two thousand five, he published a collection of stories and poems. It is called “Parting Shots From My Brittle Bow: Reflections on American Politics and Life.”
Eugene McCarthy died in two thousand five in Washington. He was eighty-nine years old.
A memorial service was held at the Washington National Cathedral. Hundreds of people came to remember him. Among them were people who had worked on his campaign as college students. They said McCarthy had touched their lives with a message of hope.
Former President Bill Clinton was one of the speakers at the service. He remembered that difficult year of nineteen sixty-eight. He said it all started when Eugene McCarthy was willing to stand alone and change history.
This program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Barbara Klein.
And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for People in America in VOA Special English.