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49. The McCarthy Crusade

The presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy has tapped a great deal of enthusiasm among considerable segments of American life. Particularly is this true of the nation’s campuses, for students and faculty alike. His lone courage in launching the race against overwhelming odds and against the displeasure of the President, combined with his opposition to the Vietnam war and his scholarly tone and style, have won the hearts of almost the entire American college community, as well as other middle-class Americans. Not only has he tapped rising opposition to the war, but his professorial and low-key qualities (he used to be a professor of political science) and his storybook victories have generated a personal commitment to McCarthy among surprising numbers of people.

Take a few portents: At Columbia University, members of the two highly conservative campus organizations, the Douglas MacArthur Club and the Conservative Union, have shifted to McCarthy. At the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, with a student body so conservative that Goldwater won an overwhelming victory there in a straw poll in 1964, there is only one presidential campaign organization, and that is for Senator McCarthy. Innumerable conservative friends of mine have enlisted in the McCarthy movement, including some who until recently had been advocates of the war in Vietnam.

Yet, if we dig below the surface attractiveness of the McCarthy campaign, we find that there is precious little sound reason for all the enthusiasm. A critic of Johnson’s Vietnam policies Senator McCarthy may be, but his position on Vietnam is not really that different; what he wants is not immediate withdrawal, but a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, and negotiations with all parties, including the National Liberation Front. Now that President Johnson seems to have virtually adopted this position, there is little of fundamental criticism of the war that McCarthy can still offer. Furthermore, McCarthy is in favor of continuing the slavery of the draft; the furthest he has gone on that issue is to offer alternative slave-service instead of jail to draft-refugees who might decide to return from Canada.

For, in the last analysis, Senator McCarthy is not a libertarian to any extent, but a liberal, albeit a member of that wing of liberalism which is far more intelligent and sophisticated than the brute wing headed by President Johnson. McCarthy saw that the Vietnam war was hopeless for American imperialism, and favored phasing out, not because he is opposed to imperialism, but because he realistically sees that its cause there is hopeless and not worth continued warfare. This is a more intelligent and reasoned view than that of Johnson-Humphrey-Rostow, and it may well be better to have McCarthy in the White House than Johnson, but it is hardly a view that should send libertarians into gales of enthusiasm. Let us reserve our enthusiasm for better causes.