Eugene McCarthy showed war critics sometimes right
Eugene J. McCarthy, who died Saturday at age 89, shows the value of thinking critically, speaking out and doing something. Specifically, he shows that it is sometimes wise to question a president's war policy.
Mr. McCarthy was a U.S. senator from Minnesota in 1968 when he ran against a fellow Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson, in the New Hampshire primary. Mr. McCarthy was a one-issue candidate, opposing the Vietnam War.
In that primary, momentum counts more than who gets the most votes. Mr. McCarthy received 42 percent to Mr. Johnson's 49 percent, and two things resulted: Robert Kennedy entered the race, also as a war opponent, and the president made a stunning announcement: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Later in that tumultuous year, Mr. Kennedy was murdered hours after defeating Mr. McCarthy in the California primary. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee, then lost narrowly to Richard Nixon.
Mr. Humphrey got little campaign help from Mr. McCarthy, and we don't know whether Mr. Humphrey would have ended the war quickly if he'd won. It dragged on for seven more years.
Mr. McCarthy died at the time that the baby boomers — some of whom worked in his "children's crusade" of 1968 — are turning 60 and reflecting on their youthful idealism and nonconformity.
In light of current events in Iraq, it is notable that many, perhaps most, Americans eventually came to agree with these renegade critics of the Vietnam War.
Mr. McCarthy ran for president because, he said, the war was escalating and the Johnson Administration "seems to have set no limit to the price which it is willing to pay for a military victory." If more people had listened to him or he had been a better politician, the final price might have been lower in both lives and money.