Dominic Sandbrook. Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. xiii + 397. $25.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4000-4105-3.
Reviewed by David Stebenne (Department of History, Ohio State University)
Published on H-1960s (August, 2005)
Famous for Fifteen Minutes
Most people who remember Eugene McCarthy do so for one brief moment in his long life. Thanks mostly to the spotlighting power of the mass media, McCarthy lives on in popular memory as Clean Gene, the White Knight, who went up into the snowy hills of New Hampshire in the winter of 1968 to speak truth to power about Vietnam. He and his followers, an unlikely combination of college students and suburban women, were rewarded for their efforts with one electric night (March 12th) when McCarthy came within five hundred votes (out of fifty thousand cast) of defeating Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary. By the end of that same month, Johnson formally abandoned his bid for another term, and McCarthy had entered the popular imagination as a modern-day giant-killer.
Dominic Sandbrook's new biography of McCarthy seeks to use his life and career as vehicles to explain the changing fortunes of American liberalism since World War II. Sandbrook, an independent scholar with an M.A. from St. Andrews and a Ph.D. from Cambridge, has produced a book with considerable strengths. He does a fine job of explaining the formative influences that made McCarthy who he was by the time he first won a seat in Congress in 1948. Among the most fundamental were the small-town, Midwestern environment of Watkins, Minnesota in which he grew up, and the industrious, thrifty lifestyle and traditional morality of the largely German-Catholic, lower-middle-class farmers, who made up most of the town's inhabitants. McCarthy, who was born in 1916, spent most of his childhood in Watkins, where he was the top student in school and one of the best athletes. After that came a year of college prep and then college itself, at St John's, an all-male, Benedictine institution located in another small town twenty-five miles north of Watkins. Once again, McCarthy played starring roles in both the classroom and on the playing field until he graduated in 1935.
Next came five years of teaching at public schools in other small Midwestern towns, a customary route, at that time, for a bright young man without much money. McCarthy's dislike of that life and his intensely serious attitude toward religion inspired him to enter a monastery in 1942. He lasted less than a year, having failed to demonstrate the requisite humility. Rejected for military service in World War II due to severe bursitis in his feet, McCarthy volunteered to work in the War Department in Washington, D.C., deciphering Japanese codes for the Signal Corps. In early 1945, he returned to Minnesota and married Abigail Quigley, an English teacher he had first met prior to his monastic experience. Their decision to follow the teaching of the Catholic rural life movement and try farming reflected the essentially backward-looking nature of their social outlook. Too intellectual to enjoy the manual labor this choice required, they soon moved on to St. Paul, where McCarthy took a job teaching at a Catholic college.
The moderately conservative, lower-middle-class, Catholic milieu in which McCarthy grew up had a lasting impact on his values and behavior as a politician, as Sandbrook makes clear. It made McCarthy deeply religious, emotionally reserved, skeptical about notions of progress, vaguely resentful of the wealthy and the powerful, intensely competitive and thoroughly square. As a big fish in small ponds, McCarthy also developed a high opinion of his own abilities. Had he been brought up as a Lutheran, McCarthy would likely have become a moderately conservative Republican of the Eisenhowerite variety. But his thoroughly insular, Catholic upbringing pushed him instead toward the Democrats, who historically had been far more welcoming to those of his faith. During the era of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Catholic Democrats exercised a moderating influence on their party. Though often fairly "Left" on issues of class, Catholics of that era were typically "Right" on issues of morals and hawkish on those of war and peace. McCarthy fit that profile very neatly, and as social conditions in the later 1940s moved in those directions, they made possible his election to Congress from St. Paul in 1948.
Like so many liberals of that era, McCarthy's campaign placed him at odds not just with those farther to the Right, but also--and in some ways even more so--with those on the far Left. One of the early members of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in Minnesota, McCarthy battled Communists over the divisive issues of the Marshall Plan and Truman's anti-Soviet foreign policy, which the far Left opposed. For the next twenty years, McCarthy and Democrats like him would support Containment with a zeal that a later generation came to see as excessive.
Why then, did a congressman (1948-1958) and then senator (1959-1970) who seems in many ways so typical of his times become so avant-garde in the late 1960s? Sandbrook convincingly explicates what provoked McCarthy's rebellion, although the explanation is more than a little disillusioning. McCarthy's deeply felt sense of morality did play an important part in leading him to oppose Johnson's Vietnam policy, but so too did McCarthy's exaggerated sense of his own abilities, and his envy and resentment of Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy. Frustrated at their greater prominence, McCarthy chose to undermine the political fortunes of all three. Although McCarthy's 1968 crusade helped spark a national anti-war movement, ultimately changing American foreign policy for the better, and a reform movement within the Democratic Party that made it more responsive to primary voters, his actions also helped elect Richard Nixon to two terms as president. As the nation moved to the Right during the 1970s and 1980s, McCarthy became an ever more isolated and confused person, whose ideas about politics appeared steadily less practical and relevant.
Although Sandbrook's book describes McCarthy's life and work with outstanding grace and clarity, using him as a vehicle to explain the odyssey of American liberalism since World War II poses some problems. McCarthy, like so many American politicians of his day, grew up in a world far removed from the centers of power that increasingly shaped American society. His career as a legislator but never an executive in government both reflected and contributed further to McCarthy's lack of analytic depth. Using this sort of person as a vehicle to explain basic changes in American politics and society is difficult because the subject himself never clearly understood why those changes took place. Sandbrook's analysis suggests just that, as when he notes McCarthy's shallow grasp of the inflation issue, his failure to articulate a realistic alternative to Johnson's Vietnam policy, and his increasing confusion during the 1970s and 1980s. Had Sandbrook chosen a deeper liberal thinker as his subject, the resulting explanation of liberalism's changing nature and fortunes would likely have been more powerful. That reservation aside, this is a very fine study of a significant figure that serious students of American postwar history will want to consult.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-1960s.
David Stebenne. Review of Sandbrook, Dominic, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.