The Vietnam War still haunts America. Maybe it always should, says former Sen. Gene McCarthy.
“I don’t think we should get over it. If we ever get over it, we could make an even worse mistake,” the former presidential candidate said Saturday.
But the man who helped topple Lyndon Johnson with his fight against the war takes little comfort that a new book by one of Johnson’s top advisers suggests war protesters were right.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in his book “In Retrospect,” says the war was a mistake - that the United States misunderstood the people, the politics and the conditions in Southeast Asia.
“If it makes him feel better to say that, I guess that it’s all right to (write) it,” McCarthy in an interview in Spokane.
“But it’s not a revelation. As early as 1966, it was clear he didn’t know what he was talking about or that he was lying to us.”
Relaxing in the South Hill home of friend and former student Tom Westbrook, McCarthy recalled the pressure he and other senators experienced when they opposed the war.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey called them racists, unwilling to fight a war to protect Asians, he said. Secretary of State Dean Rusk denounced them as unpatriotic, people who caused joy in Hanoi.
He recalled McNamara, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, as a man always ready to provide figures and formulas to prove the war was necessary.
“You couldn’t argue with them. Henry Jackson said ‘If you knew what McNamara knew, you’d be with us,”’ McCarthy said with a wry smile.
As McNamara’s book makes clear, neither he, nor the Pentagon nor Johnson knew anything different than the protesters. “We were saying then what he’s saying now. The evidence was always there.”
The book may make it easier to talk about Vietnam, but he disagrees with McNamara’s contention that the lessons of that war should be applied to current world events such as Bosnia or Chechnya. Instead, Vietnam should prompt a discussion about the character of the nation, he said.
McCarthy believes that the war damaged American society.
It generated dishonesty and deception in the military and the administration, with false body counts and unrealistic projections of when the war would end. It damaged the news media, which printed the official version without question for years. It ruined the draft system by encouraging people to find ways to avoid the war.
It created fiscal problems for a nation that wanted both guns and butter. It tore apart the Democratic Party, which has yet to recover, he said.
While McCarthy has little sympathy for McNamara, he has even less for some who are now the former defense secretary’s harshest critics.
Journalists around the nation have be excoriating McNamara. The New York Times blasted McNamara in an editorial last week. For years that paper backed the war, as did nearly every paper in the country, he said.
Although McCarthy’s anti-war presidential campaign forced Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, the Minnesota Democrat did not receive the nomination in 1968. He ran for president again, as either a Democrat or a third party candidate, in 1972, 1976, 1988 and 1992.
Now 79, he still gets letters from supporters and is working on a book of essays on government. He also lectures, as he will later this week at Lewis and Clark College in Portland.
He remains persona non grata in the Democratic Party, and has never been asked to address the national convention.
“I told the Democrats long ago I’d say I was sorry I was right if it would help them,” McCarthy said. “Now I don’t have to say I’m sorry - I can be with McNamara.”