The following remarks were made at a dinner for Senator Eugene McCarthy, in Newark, New Jersey, February 29, 1968.
It is now several years that our country has been heavily involved in the war in Vietnam. During most of this time, it has been inescapably evident that the entire venture was in several ways grievously unsound. It was unsound in the first place because it was devoid of a plausible, coherent, and realistic object. The regime in South Vietnam has been throughout too weak, too timid, too selfish, too uninspiring, to form a suitable or promising object of our support. And even if this regime had been a most vigorous and effective one, we would still be faced with the fact that the methods to which we have found ourselves driven, in the effort to crush by purely military means an elusive and disguised adversary, have been so destructive of civilian life, even in South Vietnam itself, that no conceivable political outcome could justify the attendant suffering and destruction.
And that’s not the only way this effort has been unsound. It has also been unsound in its relation to our own world responsibilities and to our responsibilities here at home. It has represented a grievous disbalance of our world policy. It has riveted an undue amount of our attention and resources to a single secondary theater of world events. It has left us poorly prepared, if not helpless, to meet other crises that might occur simultaneously elsewhere in the world. And finally, it has proceeded at the cost of the successful development of our life here in this country. It has distracted us and hampered us in our effort to come to grips with domestic problems of such gravity as to cry out, as we all know, for the concentrated, first-priority attention of both our government and our public.
These are indeed grievous drawbacks to any sort of military effort. They were all clearly visible a long time ago. It did not take the agony and the grievous human losses of these past two to three years to make them evident to anyone who wanted to see.
Nevertheless, in the face of all these elements of unsoundness, the Administration, as we also know, has pushed stubbornly ahead with the prosecution of this military effort, steadily increasing the degree of our commitment, rendering any peaceful liquidation of the conflict steadily more difficult, burning one bridge after another behind itself and ourselves, cutting off one after the other of the possible paths of retreat. It has done this in the face of a long series of pleas and warnings from wise and experienced people in many walks of our own life. It has done it despite the clearly expressed misgivings of a great many of our friends and allies throughout the world. It has done it in disregard of the friendly suggestions and recommendations of the greatest political and spiritual leaders of the world community. It has acted as though it had never heard the suggestion that a country such as ours owed “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
It has persisted, furthermore, in the face of the fact that the war was obviously splitting American opinion in the sharpest and most unfortunate way, that it was having, in particular, a seriously disturbing effect on large sections of our student youth. It was, and is, filling many of our young people with bitterness and bewilderment, poisoning their relationship to the very society of which they and we are a part—the very society to the successful development of which their faith and enthusiasm are essential. In the face of all these warning voices, and all these warning signals, our governmental leaders, I reiterate, have pushed stubbornly and heedlessly ahead, like men in a dream, seemingly insensitive to outside opinion, seemingly unable to arrive at any realistic assessment of the effects of their own acts.
You all know the results, to date, of this long and fateful effort. Things have now been brought to a pass where we are more heavily engaged than ever before. Our effort has clearly become as much of a burden, if not more, for those it was supposed to benefit as for those it was supposed to punish. Less than at any time in the past is any favorable outcome visible. It is difficult, in fact, to see anything ahead except either an indefinite escalation, very probably culminating in the entrance of the Chinese or the Russians into the struggle against us, or, if the ground continues to give way beneath us as it has showed signs of doing in recent weeks, a frustration and humiliation unique in our national experience. It is not an exaggeration to say that today, after four years of this dreadfully misconceived effort, we are in a situation more serious than any we have known since the first months of 1942, and in some respects more serious than that.
My friends, when we add up this list of circumstances, I do not see how we can view what our government has done with relation to Vietnam as anything other than a massive miscalculation and error of policy, an error for which it is hard to find many parallels in our history, an error rendered doubly serious and difficult to excuse by the number and quality of the warning voices that have been raised against it.
NOW IT IS FORTUNATE for us—if anything about this tragic situation can be described as fortunate—that the crisis in Vietnam is occurring in the year of a presidential election. It is fortunate, first of all, because if any serious attempt is ever to be made to resolve this conflict by peaceful means, the chances for success will be far greater if our part in it is carried forward by fresh faces—and particularly by people who have sought and obtained a clear electoral mandate to bring the conflict to an early end, to an end short of national humiliation but short, also, of the fateful chimera of total victory. And secondly, the reason why it is fortunate that this is an election year is because there might otherwise be no opportunity at all for that portion of our electorate which views the war with alarm and foreboding to voice its disapproval through the normal political process.
But in order that this possibility may have reality there must be at least one presidential candidate who is prepared to make himself the spokesman of the feelings of such people. If the only candidates at this stage are ones who either are already committed by their previous conduct to the indefinite and uncompromising prosecution of this struggle or ones who equivocate in the hope that they can straddle the issue and attract votes from both wings of opinion, then the anguish experienced by a large part of our public over the present policy will find no political expression at all, and many of us will have no choice but to be swept helplessly into disasters against which we have never had the opportunity to register an electoral protest.
It seems to me that in a situation of this sort a man who will stand forth in public life and offer himself as a spokesman for the millions of Americans who would like to see this war terminated as rapidly and as peaceably as possible is rendering an important service to the clarification of great national issues and to the vitality of the democratic political process in our country. This is why I deem it a personal honor and pleasure to be among you tonight and to have the privilege of presenting to you a distinguished American, a man of long and deep political experience, a man who by the courage and consistency of his conduct and by his readiness to place the public interest ahead of personal advantage has staked out a heavy claim on our admiration, our sympathy, and our support: the senior Senator from Minnesota, Senator Eugene McCarthy.