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The anti-war candidate

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A soldier takes shelter in a church in Vietnam.
Photo: Special Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries

Vietnam was becoming an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in 1967 and 1968. Protest songs were critical of U.S. policy and the loss of life. Throughout the nation, thousands of people participated in sit-ins, anti-draft rallies and peace demonstrations.


There were nearly 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam in early 1968. The monthly cost was more than $2 billion. The American combat death toll was climbing toward 20,000.

President Johnson tried to reassure the nation of his resolve in Vietnam, during his State of the Union address in January 1968. 

"The enemy continues to pour men and materiel across frontiers and into battle, despite his continuous heavy losses," said Johnson. "He continues to hope that America's will to persevere can be broken. Well, he is wrong."

Peace poster
Anti-war activists were solidly behind McCarthy's campaign.
Photo: Special Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries

"There was a radical shift in the very beginning of 1968," said author Mark Kurlansky, who was a college student in Indiana in 1968. He later wrote a book titled "1968: the Year that Rocked the World."

"There was a strong anti-war movement going into January. But at the end of January, the Tet Offensive made the war look more disastrous than most people had thought it was," said Kurlansky. "Early 1968 had a much bigger, much stronger anti-war movement than Lyndon Johnson or most people would have predicted."

More Americans were having doubts about Vietnam and Johnson after the offensive named for the Vietnamese New Year of Tet. During that attack, communist troops hit 30 cities in South Vietnam at once. The city of Hue fell, and was eventaully won back. In one week, 416 Americans died. 


The nation's anti-war activists were pushing for a change in policy and a change in leadership. 

"We we're looking for some political figure about whom to rally, so that we could inject the issue of Vietnam and a change in American foreign policy into the American political mainstream," recalled Jerome Grossman, a businessman and peace activist from Massachusetts. 

McCarthy was an oddly removed sort of politician. And quite often, people weren't really sure about what he was talking about.

Grossman was part of the so-called Dump Johnson movement that recruited McCarthy in 1967 as a presidential candidate. Grossman was interviewed in 1969 for the McCarthy Oral History Project.

"We had no illusions at that time about forcing a president not to run for office, or even being major factors in the decision itself as to who was going to be president. What we were looking for was a base from which to continue our propaganda against the war," said Grossman.

McCarthy served the role of anti-war candidate well. But he was a far more complex character than many peace activists had bargained for.

McCarthy was smart and articulate. But he often frustrated supporters by what appeared to be a lack of passion. Mark Kurlansky says McCarthy saw himself as a poet and intellectual. He simply didn't act like other candidates.

"He was an oddly removed sort of politician. And quite often, people weren't really sure about what he was talking about," said Kurlansky. 

Making campaign calls
This worker was making campaign calls on behalf of Eugene McCarthy.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries

McCarthy was questioned about his campaign style in an interview on Boston radio station WBZ. 

"You have been criticized in the press and by some of your supporters for your low key campaigning," the host said. "Now, why have you chosen to campaign in this manner?"

"Well, I really haven't chosen to campaign in that way. That's the way I campaign," McCarthy responded. 

"I hope that it isn't necessary to stir the people of this country up to be concerned about 20,000 American deaths in Vietnam, and 100,000 casualties and 200,000 Vietnamese deaths -- and probably 300,000 or 400,000 Viet Cong deaths over a period of two or three years, and the destruction of whole cities, like the destruction of Hue," said McCarthy.

"I don't think we're so jaded in this country, and so indifferent and so hardened, that people don't respond with some emotion to the simple presentation of facts of this kind."