Eugene McCarthy: War protesters deserve a monument, too

May 06, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose near-upset of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary 30 years ago effectively ended LBJ's political career, continues being a source of the unexpected and unorthodox.

In a symposium the other day on the explosive year 1968, Mr. McCarthy in his wistful way suggested that those who, like himself, put themselves on the political firing line to try to stop U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War should be honored in the way those who fought it have been.

"There should be another Vietnam monument to those who opposed the war," he said in a discussion at the Newseum, the year-old museum of the news business. There should be "a monument for everybody else that did anything about it," he said, "especially to young people who opposed the war because it was the most significant historically of any development that accompanied the war in Vietnam."

Mr. McCarthy, in whose anti-war campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination thousands of college students enlisted and pledged to be "clean for Gene," has always marched to his own drummer. After his campaign that helped persuade LBJ not to seek another term, he went on to run again as an independent and later supported Ronald Reagan for president.

Now at 82, he remains as acerbically philosophical as ever. Of his young charges in 1968, he said, "there is no real substantial recognition. What we did was to leave the responsibility for a very significant moral decision to the younger generation of society. The politicians, the press avoided it."

Mr. McCarthy charged that "politicians avoided all the institutions that had prior responsibility" so that "making decisions about the morality of the war and even about the wisdom of it fell to a large extent upon people who had no political power."

The former senator from Minnesota on another occasion has said he decided to challenge the sitting president of his own party in 1968 because "Johnson was abusing the Senate" by ignoring its constitutional role in foreign policy and because in his whole career, he himself "had been concerned with the function of institutions in government."

Mr. McCarthy said then that LBJ, his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, were contemptuous of the Senate in their misleading statements on the progress of the war and that the Senate itself failed to face up to the war. "I was frustrated," he said then. "You couldn't get the Senate to do anything, which is where the battle should have been fought, primarily."

Mr. McCarthy's latest suggestion of a memorial to war protesters, perhaps fanciful and in any event highly unlikely, was the most novel observation in the two-day retrospective in which others also paid tribute to those who opposed the war.

Todd Gitlin, a founder of the radical Students for a Democratic Society who is now a highly respected professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, argued that the picture of anti-war protesters as draft-dodgers motivated by a desire to save their own skins was wrong.

It was easy to stay out of uniform by getting a college deferment, he said, and all young people had to do was remain quiet; instead they got into trouble with the government and many jeopardized their futures by protesting.

This view was not universally shared by the symposium panelists. Maureen Reagan, daughter of the former president and a Republican Party activist, said of those like herself who supported the U.S. effort in Vietnam, "We became the warmongers, and they were the saints."

But the civil-rights movement of the time, which under the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was increasingly joining forces with the anti-war movement, "was seen as an enemy of the state," said Jesse Jackson, then a King lieutenant.

In a discussion of the counterculture in 1968, folk singer Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) argued that the protesters "sought the good fight . . . to achieve the dream" of a better society. And Country Joe McDonald, the composer and leader of Country Joe and the Fish, praised the courage of war protesters within the military who spoke up at their personal peril. A &L memorial to the protest movement certainly would open old wounds, and for that reason is itself a dream. But Gene McCarthy was never one to duck taking on the "impossible."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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