During the 1960s and 70s McCarthy assumed more of the role of a public intellectual in her outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam. While many New York intellectuals were critical of U.S. military action in Vietnam, they were wary of the consequences of unilateral withdrawal to supporters of anti-Communism in South Vietnam. For McCarthy the 1960s brought a revival of her more radical, utopian impulses of the forties. Having abandoned the possibility of forming small, libertarian communities with the failure of Europe-American Groups in the forties, she retained the ideal of “libertarian socialism” or “decentralized socialism”, though she conceded little possibility of actually attaining such an ideal.
McCarthy wrote a series of articles for The New York Review of Books between 1967 and 1972 based on her reporting in Saigon and Hanoi which were printed as pamphlets, Vietnam and Hanoi to raise public awareness and opposition to the war. McCarthy’s writing on Vietnam is an indictment of what she sees as the corrupting influence of American capitalist culture on a rural, agrarian folk culture. She further critics the hypocrisy of intellectuals and experts for their equivocal language, their hedging policies for “limited war” and “Vietnamization”, and their incorporation into government in seeking to find “solutions” to crisis in Vietnam.
McCarthy then covered the Medina trial (1971) for The New Yorker, in which commanding officer Ernest L. Medina was accused of ordering the destruction of a Vietnamese village which resulted in the My Lai massacre of 1968. Medina (1972) explores the danger of ideology, both from the Right in its defense of U.S. military policy and from the Left in its indictment against the U.S. military –industrial complex. McCarthy’s writings on the war in Vietnam were collected and reprinted in The Seventeenth Degree (1974), reinforcing her reputation as a public intellectual engaged in radical politics. In 1973 McCarthy covered the Watergate hearings for the London Observer and The New York Review of Books, considering the hearings somewhat dubiously to be a public act of “atonement and purification” for guilt over the war in Vietnam.
While McCarthy’s politics in the sixties and seventies were more radical, her late fiction is “conservative” in the literal sense of “preserving the past” against the encroachment of modern, industrial society. In Birds of America (1971) set against the backdrop of the student protests and social upheaval of the 1960s, McCarthy’s protagonist is confronted by the moral failure of mass, industrial society in his search to restore a natural, ethical past. His egalitarian principles are tested by the mass industry of tourism and in particular by the mass consumption of art in expressing the liberal dilemma between High Culture and Mass Culture, between quality and equality or between aesthetic values and egalitarian principles. In Cannibals and Missionaries (1979) McCarthy uses a terrorist hijacking en route to the Middle east as a forum to discuss the conflict between liberal, egalitarian principles and aesthetic values. When a team of liberals on a humanitarian mission to Iran are taken hostage with a group of wealthy art collectors on a cultural expedition, it raises a number of interesting questions about the value of art versus life and the ability to put one’s principles into action.