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McCarthy: Symbol of the peace movement

Due to his strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, a former North Dakota school teacher caused an incumbent U.S. president to withdraw his nomination for a second term.

Due to his strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, a former North Dakota school teacher caused an incumbent U.S. president to withdraw his nomination for a second term.

In many ways, Eugene McCarthy became the symbol and standard bearer of the peace movement, which picked up steam in 1968 when he entered the Democratic Party's primary.

McCarthy was born March 29, 1916, to Michael and Anna McCarthy on his father's cattle ranch about 25 miles southwest of St. Cloud, Minn.

McCarthy was raised in a religious family and, besides being a talented baseball player, hoped to become a priest. After graduating at the age of 16, he attended St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. Each summer he returned home to play first base in the semipro Great Soo League and was reportedly scouted by the Chicago White Sox.

In 1935, McCarthy graduated cum laude with a degree in English and, at the age of 19, became principal and English teacher in the small town of Tintah, Minn. - 10 miles from the North Dakota/South Dakota border. The following year he accepted a position in Kimball, Minn., again serving as principal and English instructor.


McCarthy believed his big break came in 1938 when the school board in Mandan, N.D., hired him for $1,800 a year, twice the salary he received in Tintah and $700 more than in Kimball.

In Mandan, McCarthy could focus on the things he loved - teaching and getting involved in intellectual discussions with other faculty members - because he had no administrative duties.

While in Mandan, McCarthy met another school teacher, Abigail Quigley. She was the daughter of the Wabasha, Minn., newspaper editor.

McCarthy excelled in front of the students, but detested writing up reports and other "mundane" duties associated with teaching. He soon found himself at odds with the superintendent because his reports were either late or not completed. The superintendent criticized him for being "absent-minded" and filed a report that McCarthy "... does not always get the full measure of results that a man of his ability should."

McCarthy had asked Abigail to be his wife, but in 1940 quit his position at the high school. This caused a financial change and the marriage was delayed. Later that year, McCarthy was offered a position at St. John's teaching education and economics, and coaching the hockey and baseball teams.

After the war, McCarthy taught sociology and economics at St. Thomas College in St. Paul. He became active in the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party. McCarthy received the party's nomination to run for the U.S. House in 1948. He and his friend, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, were both elected to Congress that year, with Humphrey taking his seat in the Senate.

While in Congress, McCarthy observed firsthand the tactics of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his famous witch-hunts and was the first member of Congress to oppose Joseph McCarthy in a 1952 television debate. When Eugene McCarthy ran for re-election, his opponent's campaign manager, Warren Burger, accused him of being "soft on communism." When Burger was nominated to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, McCarthy voted against him.

After serving five terms in the House, McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. He was re-elected in 1964. During his second term, the war in Vietnam began to escalate under President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy grew to believe the war was morally wrong and, early in 1967, became an outspoken critic of the president and his war policies. When the U.S. Senate suppressed debate of the war that fall, an angry McCarthy decided to "take it to the people." He announced on Nov. 30, 1967, that he would challenge the president in the Democrat Party primary.


McCarthy was not taken seriously by many political pundits. In January 1968, polls showed him with only 12 percent support, but by March the figures were up to 28 percent. When the first primary ballots were cast in New Hampshire, McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote and Johnson 49 percent. Polls now showed that Johnson would have difficulty winning the presidential election. He made a televised announcement on March 31 that he was not a candidate for re-election.

McCarthy was joined in the primary race by Robert Kennedy. McCarthy won primaries in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Connecticut. Kennedy won in Indiana and California. After Kennedy was assassinated, the Democratic convention in Chicago gave the nomination to Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had not entered a single primary. Humphrey was defeated by Richard Nixon in the 1968 election.

Disillusioned with politics, McCarthy didn't run for re-election to the Senate in 1970. In 1972 and in 1992, he again tried to become a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, but was defeated in the primaries.

McCarthy died on Dec. 10, 2005.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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