Fifty years ago next week, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota scored a near-upset in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary, setting in motion Lyndon Johnson’s announcement, three weeks later, that he would “not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” It was a jaw-dropping series of events, one that gave McCarthy a near-mythic status in American political history.
Just weeks earlier, the longtime campaign reporter Theodore White observed, it had been “unthinkable that a sitting president of the United States could be unhorsed within his own party either by primaries, conventions or riot in the streets.” But McCarthy galvanized popular opposition to Johnson’s foreign policy and, seemingly overnight, turned the election into a referendum on America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War. At least that’s how it is popularly remembered.
In fact, commentators then and since have misinterpreted McCarthy’s upset performance in New Hampshire in a way that sharply misread public opinion and unfairly saddled Johnson with sole responsibility for a war that most Americans — and most American political leaders of both parties — still strongly supported on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. To understand how it happened, it’s helpful to wind the clock back to the fall of 1967.