Talking to Eugene McCarthy again after an interval of a couple of years, one is first of all impressed with the absence of any effect the momentous events of this year have had upon his personality and behavior. Most public men—and, for that matter, most private men as well—play roles which either they or others or events have assigned them. Their dreams or their ambitions or the functions they are called upon to perform compel them to make it appear that they are different from what they actually are. Look at Humphrey, Nixon, Reagan, Rockefeller, Wallace (the order is strictly alphabetical): they all play, in different mixtures, the roles of leader, savior, man of action. I know a public figure of great eminence who is famous for his humility, whom another public figure of equal eminence has called the proudest humble man in America!

What has always struck me in Eugene McCarthy’s personality and what struck me again the other day with renewed force is the complete absence of any visible contrast between the public role he plays and the man himself. There is no pretense, not even the intimation of an attempt to impress, and there is in consequence the impact of an extraordinary measure of poise, serenity, and inner strength. For only the man who is either not sure of himself or seeks rewards beyond his merits is compelled to conceal his true self and deck it out in borrowed robes. More particularly, those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of power and compete for the highest political prize must make it appear that what they are seeking is power not for its own sake but only as an instrument for the attainment of different and higher goals.

What the other candidates for the Presidential nomination are compelled to pretend is an obvious fact in McCarthy’s case. It would certainly be false to say that McCarthy has no sense of power. He would have liked the Vice-Presidential nomination in 1964, and he would like the Presidential nomination in 1968. But he wants the nomination this year not because he has dedicated his life to the pursuit of supreme power but because the events of this year have shown him that he can perform three functions for America no other candidate appears to be able to perform. He can restore a philosophy of government and of the American purpose which suits the genius of the American people. By doing this, he can move large masses of Americans and, more particularly, of the younger generation back into active participation in the democratic processes. Finally, he presents clear-cut alternatives to the policies of the present Administration as well as of his competitors, especially in the field of foreign policy.

Once he has achieved these goals he would, as he made clear to me, be willing to relinquish supreme power; that is, he might not seek reelection after one term. Immediately after the New Hampshire primary and before Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy, McCarthy tried to persuade Kennedy to stand aside, arguing that he wanted the Presidency only for one term and that Kennedy would have his chance four years later. This instrumental and restrictive conception of supreme power, an authentic expression of McCarthy’s ethos, was met with startled disbelief by his rival, whose conception of supreme power was quite different.

It is in accord with these personal qualities that what McCarthy has to say about foreign policy is far from startling. It is common sense restored to its rightful place. The unspectacular character of McCarthy’s foreign policy is moreover accentuated by the combination of neglect and misguided activity which is characteristic of the foreign policies of the present Administration and which results from the lack of a sense of national priorities. A bloody anti-Communist crusade in Asia is obviously more spectacular than its liquidation, as an insane act is more spectacular than a sane one. To advocate the latter is not a mark of originality. Rather it is a mark of that very sanity which we tend to take for granted and which we miss and long for only when it is conspicuously absent.

THE GENERAL TONE of McCarthy’s foreign policy is indicated in the title of his book The Limits of Power as well as in its first sentence:

If this book has a principal theme, it is that our foreign policy should be more restrained and, insofar as prudent judgment can determine, more closely in keeping with the movement of history.

McCarthy does not believe in the philosophy of American supremacy as propounded by Professor Brzezinski, until recently an enthusiastic supporter of the Vietnam War and the principal foreign policy adviser of Vice President Humphrey. This philosophy has whittled down Henry Luce’s “American Century” of twenty years ago to “the American Decade,” during which the United States is supposed to have a preponderance of power sufficient to provide stability and order to the world. McCarthy does not see the United States standing outside history, a chosen nation, enabled by a unique combination of virtue and power to reform the world. Rather the United States is the creation of history, as are the other nations, and therefore must try to change the world from within the historic process.


In this view, the solution of our domestic problems is in the long run more relevant to our ability to change the world than the power we are able to bring to bear directly upon other nations. Thus we better serve the goal of promoting racial justice throughout the world by setting an example in our race relations at home than by exerting pressure on South Africa. The American mission is not to dominate but to lead. Leadership for McCarthy does not mean to impose one’s will upon unwilling citizens and nations but to educate and persuade, thereby releasing the energies of peoples and institutions.

This conception of the American mission abroad harks back to a concept which originally informed American foreign policy: America as a model for other nations to emulate. McCarthy’s emphasis on the American mission at home postulates a philosophy of the Presidency radically at variance with that practiced by the present Administration. Indeed this Administration has tried to dominate both abroad and at home, and failed. It has been unable to impose its will upon Vietnam, which it made the test of American power, and in the process it squandered a most precious and uniquely American asset, the moral attractiveness of America. Domestically, President Johnson has tried to dominate both the government and the people by the same methods of manipulation which stood him in good stead when he was Majority Leader of the Senate. In consequence, he lost control of the two most important congressional committees, Ways and Means and Foreign Relations, and he lost popular support to such an extent as to make an attempt at renomination and reelection too hazardous for him to undertake.

THIS PHILOSOPHY of the Presidency does not denote a weak President, nor does McCarthy’s philosophy of foreign policy argue for a return to isolationism. Both suggestions have been advanced, but they are without foundation. What McCarthy seeks is a different type of President from that to which we have been accustomed, a President who is strong in exactly those qualities in which the present incumbent is deficient. We know from experience that a hyper-active President, concerned with the details of the execution of policy, is not necessarily an effective one. McCarthy stresses the historic functions great Presidents have performed: framing and supervising long-range policies, educating the people, embodying their aspirations, and stimulating the creative forces latent in society.

As for American foreign policy, McCarthy is convinced that the great innovations which radically transformed American policy in the spring of 1947—the policy of containment, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan—are irreversible. But he also believes that these policies suffer from two major deficiencies. They have not been adapted to drastically changed circumstances, and they have been corrupted by a disproportionate emphasis upon military measures. This is particularly true of NATO. McCarthy, however, advocates our continuing military presence in Europe for political reasons, that is, in order to support the Western orientation of Germany and to prevent its isolation.

In Asia, McCarthy favors normalizing our relations with China, of which diplomatic recognition is of course an indispensable precondition. Yet in contrast to those who advocate the containment but not the isolation of China, McCarthy realizes that our relations with China must remain abnormal, carrying within themselves the seeds of war, so long as the issue of Taiwan remains unsettled. In other words, McCarthy has not fallen for the illusion that one can shove the issue of Taiwan under the rug and proceed with normalizing our relations with China as though that issue did not exist. More than a hundred conversations between our and Chinese diplomatic representatives in Geneva and Warsaw have made it perfectly clear that the issue of peace or war between the United States and China hinges upon the disposition of Taiwan. McCarthy realizes that no quick or easy formula will resolve this crucial issue. Its outcome will depend upon the internal situation on Taiwan, once Chiang has left the stage, and particularly on the nature of the over-all settlement between the US and China.

THIS ANALYSIS of our relations with China reveals a persistent quality of McCarthy’s thinking. Debates on American foreign policy are permeated with deceptive appearances, distinctions without differences, intellectual shadow-boxing, political make-believe, and phony solutions. It is intellectually easy and politically convenient to allow oneself to be deceived and partake in the deception of others. The debate on our China policy is a case in point. Official policy seeks both to isolate and to contain China within its present territorial limits. The critics appear to take a different position: they propose to end the isolation of China by establishing private and diplomatic contacts, encouraging trade, etc., while they maintain a policy of containment that ignores the issue of Taiwan. The real issue between the United States and China, however, is not isolation but containment. And since the “critics” are as unwilling as is the Administration to face the issue of containment, their policy amounts to nothing more than a more attractive-looking variant of official policy. McCarthy has not been deceived by these apparent differences between the supporters of an essentially identical position, and he has faced the reality of the central issue, however intellectually taxing and politically inconvenient it is to do so.


Another case in point is foreign aid and our relations with the developing nations in general. The history of these relations has been the story of hopes disappointed, of human and material resources wasted, of an unjust and frequently unworkable status quo supported by American resources and power. McCarthy clearly sees the inner contradiction in the attempt to stimulate radical reform through oligarchic governments which have a vital interest in maintaining the status quo. This contradiction has spelled the doom of the Alliance for Progress. McCarthy agrees with the recent declaration of Latin American bishops which proclaims the inevitability of revolution in Latin America. It follows that a rational foreign policy in many parts of Latin America will not be based on a choice between the status quo and revolution but should limit itself to preventing revolution from damaging the vital interests of the US.

McCarthy appears to think little of foreign aid as a political weapon because it can be used as blackmail by the receiving as well as the giving nation. He favors Senator Fulbright’s proposal to increase the economic effects of foreign aid as much as possible by channeling it through international agencies.

The most spectacular case in point is of course Vietnam. It has become de rigueur among politicians who feel they must speak out about the settlement of the Vietnam War to sound “reasonable,” to support “a political instead of a military solution,” to advocate an “honorable compromise.” It has also become a political requirement for the political and academic supporters of the war to make it appear that either they never supported it or at least they haven’t done so since March 31, 1968. Since the Vietnam ship is obviously sinking, the once enthusiastic and cooperative mates are jumping overboard, and one can readily visualize Captain Johnson and First Mate Rusk (or will it be only the latter?) standing in not-so-splendid isolation on the bridge when the ship finally goes down. The most eminent defector is Vice President Humphrey. Yet, as I know from personal observation, the war could have had no more genuinely committed supporter than the Vice President. It is only now, in an election year, that the Vice President feels compelled to make it appear that this is Mr. Johnson’s, but not necessarily Mr. Humphrey’s, war. Considering the mood of the electorate, he must advocate an end to the war. We remember that in 1964 Mr. Johnson ran as the peace candidate against Mr. Goldwater.

THE MOST ELABORATE ATTEMPT to date on the part of supporters of the war to cover their tracks is Nelson Rockefeller’s four-stage peace plan of July 13, which is reported to be the brain-child of Professor Kissinger. The fatal weakness of this plan lies in its basic assumptions, identical with those that moved its authors until recently to support the war. The plan assumes that the Saigon government is the legitimate government of South Vietnam, threatened by foreign aggression and internal subversion. It invites the aggressors to leave and the subversives to disarm politically and militarily, in return for which act of abnegation the latter are “guaranteed a role in South Vietnamese politics.” It also proposes to de-Americanize the war by letting the South Vietnamese army bear its main burden.

But is it not obvious that if the South Vietnamese army were willing and able to bear that burden and if the Saigon government could rely on its support, it would not be necessary for more than half a million American troops to keep that government in power? Can the Viet Cong really be expected to lay down their arms and deliver themselves to the tender mercies of the Saigon government, which is armed to the teeth and of proven determination to use its arms against its political opponents? Is it likely that Ho Chi Minh, who has been sold down the river twice before, in Paris in 1945 and in Geneva in 1954, will put his trust in “free elections” and in an “international peace keeping force,” meaningless terms in Vietnam? Why should the Viet Cong and the government of Hanoi surrender what they have gained by force of arms in exchange for unenforceable paper promises, especially since they have not been defeated in the field.

Here is indeed the rub. The negotiating position implicit in the Rockefeller-Kissinger plan assumes, as does the negotiating position of the Administration, that we have won the war. This assumption is of course fictitious, and Governor Rockefeller has made that point himself. But President Johnson and Governor Rockefeller see eye to eye in that both would try to gain at the conference table what the United States has been unable to achieve on the battlefield: the surrender of the enemy. No wonder that peace overtures so unrealistically conceived have been still-born.

In contrast to Rockefeller’s deceptive and unworkable plan, McCarthy’s approach to the Vietnam problem is characterized by intellectual honesty and political courage. Intellectual honesty requires the admission that, as Professor Reischauer has put it, in view of our original objectives, we have lost the war. For in spite of the presence of more than half a million American troops and an annual expenditure of approximately thirty billion dollars, there is still no government in Saigon that could keep itself in power without immense foreign support, and the Viet Cong still controls the only military, political, and administrative organization which is both functioning and indigenous. From this admission McCarthy draws two conclusions, both distinguished by political courage: a broadly based civilian government must be established in Saigon; and that government must negotiate the liquidation of the war with the Viet Cong. The outcome of such negotiations is bound to be a coalition government. The success of such an experiment will depend primarily upon the distribution of power within the coalition. Such a policy would surely do more to achieve “self-determination” for the Vietnamese than our present unqualified support for a government which represents at best only a fraction of the people.

THIS REFUSAL to deceive himself and to deceive others sets McCarthy apart from his peers. It connotes honesty in judgment and courage in action. When I suggested to him a certain course of action, he replied firmly and without a moment’s reflection: “If I do that I am on my way to becoming a demagogue.” For the same reason, he has not seen fit to lure the Kennedy people to his side or to make blatant appeals to the Negroes. Such honesty honors McCarthy as a man and as a public figure. What is more important, in view of the American political character and its potentialities, is the strong possibility that this man, a world apart from what the conventional wisdom has taught us a politician must be like, could, according to some recent polls, be nominated the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party and elected President of the United States, if our institutions and political practices reflected the popular will.

That so many Americans seem willing to put their trust in a man of such qualities, who has come to them without money, without organization, and without prestigious sponsorship, honors them perhaps more than it honors him. Win or lose in August and November, Eugene McCarthy will have this historic achievement to his credit: to have made active and visible qualities of goodness and sanity latent in the American people, to have revealed a face of America that was concealed beneath the distorting mask of its political practices, and to have given us an intimation of what the American people could be like if they had a leader worthy of them.

This Issue

August 22, 1968