McCarthy Takes on the Vietnam War

McCarthy Takes on the Vietnam War


Perhaps the most controversial and incendiary topic of the 1960s (which is saying something, considering this was the decade that birthed the Civil Rights movement, the Space Race, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy), the Vietnam War incited heated words and emotions across an entire spectrum of opinion. On December 2, 1967, Minnesota Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy presented a bold and powerful speech denouncing the Vietnam War and America’s place in it. Emboldened with the passion of an angry nation, McCarthy contrasts the different versions of America before and after the war, drawing sharp attention to the damaging effects the Vietnam War has had on the country as a whole.  In addition, McCarthy also uses personification and chiasmus to effectively deliver his cry to a nation in turmoil, asserting his anti-war position, and inviting others to heed his call and speak out with him against the war.

Throughout the speech, McCarthy repeatedly remarks on the distinct differences in America before and after we entered the Vietnam War.  He develops a glowing image of America in 1963 to repeatedly compare with the darkness and confusion of America in the current 1967. Near the beginning the speech, McCarthy characterizes the success of John F. Kennedy in setting free the spirit of America in 1963, developing a nostalgic image of pre-war happiness: “John Kennedy set free the spirit of America.  The honest optimism was released…the world looked to the United States with new hope, for here was youth and confidence and an openness to the future.” Kennedy had been assassinated four years previous to McCarthy’s speech, so by hearkening to a time where the tragically killed president still held office automatically evokes a natural sense of longing and nostalgia in McCarthy’s audience.  Following this optimistic characterization of America, McCarthy develops a dark and “joyless” image of America in 1967 – one where a mood of “frustration, anxiety, [and] uncertainty” abound. By developing two drastically different pictures of America, McCarthy highlights the stark and negative contrast that has occurred in America since entering the Vietnam War. Even further, McCarthy establishes that the war has effectively destroyed the hope of America, transforming the previously vibrant hope and joy that abounded to a nation of darkness and fear.  This drastic comparison stirs up McCarthy’s audience to a sense of awareness and worry; inciting both anger and fear in the hearts of those listening towards the destructive effects of the Vietnam War.

In addition to his use of vivid contrast, McCarthy employs personification to make the issues at hand seem more immediate to his audience.  For example, when describing the difference of America in 1963 versus America in the current 1967, McCarthy states: “Here was a country not being held by the dead hand of the past, nor frightened by the violent hand of the future which was grasping at the world.” Here, McCarthy personifies both the past and the future by describing them as a hand, albeit with different characteristics for each.  The past he personifies here as a “dead hand,” establishing the point that the past is deceased and gone, and cannot be resurrected anew. In 1963, America understood this concept, and refused to be held by the past, moving ever onward, choosing instead to progress forward in brightness and hope. However, contrary to the hand of the past, the hand of the future is seen as powerful and energetic; here McCarthy uses the words “violent” and “grasping” to illustrate that the future was a force that would ensnare us if we were not careful.  In 1963, McCarthy states that America was not “frightened” by the future, and by so doing, implies that America in 1967 has given in to this fear, and is now living in the consequences of that fear. Additionally, the effect of giving human characteristics to the inanimate ideas of the past and future makes these ideas seem more immediate, personal, and even dangerous. McCarthy effectively suggests that just as humans are terrorizing and killing other humans out in the Vietnam War, so, by extension, the future of 1963 is terrorizing and killing America in 1967.

Finally, McCarthy uses a chiasmic structure in forming his speech.  This is seen primarily in his anecdote of the “clear sound of the horn and the…beat of a steady and certain drum” that America marched to under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, placed at the very beginning of the speech.  McCarthy then proceeds to give his argument against the war, progressing from the steady beat of the drum to the loss of it entirely (as seen in the apex of his argument, which specifically delineates the war in its military engagement).  The second half of the speech then reverses this argument, progressing from the specifics of the war to his pleas that we return again to “the trumpet and the steady drum.” As an additional example of this chiasmic structure, McCarthy places several anaphora at both the beginning and ending of his speech: the anaphora at the beginning of the speech replaces the positive aspects of 1963 with the negative aspects of 1967, e.g. “In place of the enthusiasm of the Alliance for Progress, we have distrust and disappointment,” etc.  The anaphora at the end of the speech essentially reverses this idea, offering in place of the negative elements of 1967, positive elements that they can be replaced with now and in the future: “In place of disunity, let us have dedication of purpose. In place of near despair let us have hope,” etc. By punctuating the chiasmic structure with anaphora, the parallels between the beginning and ending of the speech are made even clearer. The overall effect of forming a chiasmic structure creates hope for the future while placing emphasis on the present time.  Because the elements of the chiasmic structure meet in the middle of the argument, focus is given directly to the specifics of the war, suggesting that this is the most immediate concern of the country at the present moment. On the fringes of the war, the past and future branch out of his argument. Both more hopeful than the present day, this structural element allows for hope to follow the dark and despairing topic of the Vietnam War. The hope of the future shines brightly ahead, if only America will rid herself of the darkness of the war and forge ahead peacefully into the future.

With a passionate argument strengthened by powerful imagery and contrast, personification, and chiasmus, McCarthy effectively delivered his words to a nation torn within the throes of a controversial war.  Clearly an anti-war advocate, presidential candidate and senator Eugene McCarthy made clear his case to the Democratic Party and the broader audience of the United States the effects the war has had on America’s present, and the destructive potential it could have on America’s future.  With words of warning, and yet words of hope, McCarthy closes his argument by offering America a bargain, the price of which would be her withdrawal from the war: “In place of doubt – trust… In place of disunity, let us have dedication of purpose. In place of near despair, let us have hope.”


Works Cited

McCarthy, Eugene. “Eugene McCarthy “Denouncing the Vietnam War” Transcript.” Eugene McCarthy “Denouncing the Vietnam War” Transcript. Speeches-USA, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.


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