Today, November 30, is the fifty-first anniversary of Gene McCarthy’s announcement that he would run for president of the United States in 1968. In late fall of 1967, he said he would run in the Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oregon, and California primaries. He said maybe for New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He did not announce, “I am a candidate for president of the United States.” Rather, he wanted to end the Vietnam war.
McCarthy recognized something about the Vietnam war before many others did. A democracy cannot fight and win a war without support from the people who fight it. That’s actually true for non-democracies as well, but non-democracies can pretend otherwise. Democracies cannot. Democracies must maintain public support throughout the struggle, or they will lose.
Citizens do not trust leaders who operate in secret, or who lie about what they have done.
Public support depends on trust and openness. Citizens do not trust leaders who operate in secret, or who lie about what they have done. In that way, the Vietnam war started out poorly. The CIA mounted a secret war in Laos, then Vietnam, during the 1950s. Then President Johnson lied about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. In fact, lies infused the entire war effort. No wonder 55,000 American soldiers died for nothing, at least nothing related to their country’s aims. No wonder the United States lost.
Ronald Reagan said American soldiers fought for a noble cause in Vietnam. He might be right. The cause can be noble even if you lose. Yet no country plans to lose that many young men in a lost cause. You sacrifice that many young men when you expect to win. Why did the liars who ran the war expect to win? Did pride make them take leave of reality? When they predicted victory, did they expect reality to overtake their misconceptions and deceit?
When they predicted victory, did they expect reality to overtake their misconceptions and deceit?
In the end, McCarthy opposed the Vietnam war on moral, not practical grounds. For him the war was wrong even if we could win it. He knew for certain, though, we could not win. Betrayal never gains anything. He brought this message to a generation who had not been involved in politics before, many of them too young to vote in the ’68 election. He was not a revolutionary, but a Catholic seminarian who decided to go into politics rather than the priesthood. To the end of his life, he believed the American people were better than their leaders.