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What we learned about America from George McGovern

Posted on November 17th, 2012 in Biography,Culture,War by Robert Miller

George McGovern

When George McGovern passed away a few weeks ago (October 21, 2012), my thoughts raced back to his campaign for the Presidency in 1972. By winning the Democratic Party nomination that year, McGovern began his campaign with a 3:00 AM acceptance speech that, perhaps like some of you,  I stayed up to watch.  I thought at the time that his successful nomination would lead to a competitive race and that he had a chance to unseat his opponent, Richard Nixon who was elected in 1968. At the time it seemed to me that Americans had a real choice that year for the Presidency and I hoped that McGovern’s views would lead to a political victory in November. I never anticipated the magnitude of the loss that McGovern would experience, the outcome of which began to radically change my views on the American electorate. Has the election of 2012 given us hope for a more liberal and progressive shift in American politics? Did McGovern arrive on the political scene one generation too early to properly resonate with the American public? McGovern’s promise to end the war in Vietnam was convincing enough that you had no doubt he would do it. In contrast Nixon had promised peace during the campaign of 1968,  but he secretly expanded the war. McGovern also talked about the elimination of poverty in America, something that seemed politically achievable and realistic then, but  is completely off the radar screen today. Those were the days of America’s great innocence, before we started to disassemble our manufacturing capacity, before the financialization of America created the financialization of our politics (though this process actually began in the election of 1896), before we were deeply polarized, before religious fundamentalists began insisting that America was a Christian nation and before we began to systematically destroy labor unions, including the importation of cheaper goods to undermine labor organization.  If my memory serves me correctly McGovern was the last Presidential candidate to talk about poverty and the poor: nowadays our candidates talk about the Middle Class primarily because they are falling into poverty, but those who are already there no longer get attention from politicians at the national level—it’s all about the fading Middle Class. The Census Bureau data released last year revealed that in 2010 the poverty rate in America was 15.1% or 46.2 million people (for a family of four that translates to an annual income of about $23,000).

McGovern in WW II He was a genuine American hero, who flew B-24 planes over the war theater in Europe. The early versions of those planes were difficult to fly because they lacked hydraulic controls and it took great strength to manage the slow lumbering, highly vulnerable planes. Coupled with long 8 to 9 hour bombing runs, crews would be exhausted and the flights were extremely dangerous. McGovern turned out to be a highly skilled B-24 pilot. On December 20, 1944, while flying a bombing mission over Czechoslovakia, his plane was hit by flak, with one engine out and another on fire (the B-24 had four engines), he managed to successfully land his plane on a small British Island airfield off the coast of Yugoslavia, saving the lives of his crew. He was eventually given the Distinguished Flying Cross for that landing; many previous attempts to put a large plane down on that airstrip had been unsuccessful. McGovern completed the 35 missions required for a combat tour and after the war, he piloted his plane back to the U.S. with his crew. It was during the war that McGovern decided he would become a history professor if he survived.  Wikipedia has a nice long history of George McGovern from which these facts were taken. As I was reading Wikipedia, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t really follow McGovern much after the 1972 campaign, though he continued to be against all wars and periodically spoke out defiantly on them (see below). But the Vietnam war, which served as the main basis for McGovern’s Presidential candidacy was over as Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. As our memory of McGovern began to fade, we were launched into the forces of Reaganism and Reagonomics that still grip our political and economic values of today.

Post-war and politics After WW II McGovern completed his undergraduate degree, supported by the GI Bill and obtained a Master’s Degree in history, followed by a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1953. His thesis was a 450 page recounting of The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913–1914 where he expressed his passion for the coal miners against the Rockefeller interests; his thesis adviser, noted historian Arthur S. Link, later said he had not seen a better student than McGovern in 26 years of teaching. McGovern returned to his roots and taught history and political science at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. He had a highly successful teaching career. Although he was Republican-leaning by the nature of his family background, he had admired FDR during the war and gravitated towards more progressive, liberal politics, created by the gravitational forces of the time.  He helped revitalize the Democratic party in South Dakota and became a shrewd political organizer; in 1956 he entered politics by running for Congress and was elected by a narrow margin, the first Democrat elected to Congress from South Dakota in 22 years.

McGovern in the Senate In 1962 he ran for the U.S. Senate and won his seat by 597 votes. As the Vietnam war gained momentum under Johnson in 1968, McGovern was asked if he would run against Johnson in the primary, but he turned that offer down. But when he saw that Nixon (who was elected in 1968 against Humphrey) still pursued the war, he came out against the Nixon administration. The McGovern–Hatfield Amendment was a rider to the annual military budget bill, sponsored by McGovern and Republican Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Its purpose was to terminate funding for the war and bring the troops home by the end of 1970. During the floor debate of the bill, McGovern said

  • Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

One can only imagine the impact that this statement had on McGovern’s fellow Senators, most of whom supported the war. When one member of the Senate told McGovern that he was offended by his remarks, McGovern shot back “That’s what I meant to do.” Not surprisingly, the amendment was defeated, but McGovern became even more radicalized by the defeat and was more determined to end a war which he considered immoral, shedding innocent blood and a bad policy of needless exploitation. The bill came up again in 1971 and McGovern took his name off the bill because so many Senators had been offended by his previous remarks. Although the American public was by then in favor of the bill and against the war, it was voted down with very little change in votes from its first defeat. It was the second defeat of the bill that convinced McGovern the only way to end the war was to replace the President (Nixon).

A run for the Presidency of the United States McGovern announced his candidacy for the United States Presidency in January, 1971, a year earlier than most candidates would typically declare. At that time, a Gallup poll ranked him fifth among Democratic candidates for the nomination. He announced early to give him time to overcome the obscurity that any Presidential candidate from South Dakota would face. Senator Gary Hart was McGovern’s campaign manager. His plan was to confront the leading candidate (Ed Muskie from Maine) in only a few primaries. As Muskie’s campaign faltered, Hubert Humphrey joined the race and George Wallace became a factor when he won a big primary in Florida. But McGovern’s victory in the Wisconsin primary expanded his appeal to blue-collar workers and he gained in visibility with the victory. McGovern won in California and appeared to clinch the nomination with delegates picked up in the New York primary. It was a bruising campaign and along the way Humphrey labeled McGovern as favoring “amnesty, abortion and acid,” and his polling numbers against Nixon started to decline. McGovern won the nomination, but due to challenges and delays in selecting a vice-presidential candidate, his acceptance speech was delayed until 3:00 AM and his television audience had declined from 70 million to about 15 million. It has often been said that McGovern gave his best-ever speech early that morning.

McGovern’s Vice President McGovern wanted Ted Kennedy as his running mate, but Kennedy turned him down. He selected a relatively unknown Senator, Thomas Eagleton from Missouri (about whom I have written previously) who was in his first term in the Senate. Just a few weeks after the Democratic convention, it came to light that Eagleton had suffered from depression and had been treated with electroshock therapy. Initially, McGovern announced that “I am 1,000 percent for Tom Eagleton and have no intention of dropping him from the ticket.” But pressure from party insiders, doubts expressed in the press and consultation with psychiatrists led McGovern, 6 days later, to drop Eagelton from the ticket, replacing him with Sargeant Shriver, Ted Kennedy’s brother-in-law (and future father-in-law to Arnold Schwarzenegger). McGovern himself said that he never recovered from his “1000 percent” statement; the election that year was one of the most lopsided in American history, in which McGovern won only Massachusetts: the final electoral college result was 520 to 17. By the time the election took place it was clear that McGovern had no chance of an election victory; many Southern Democrats denounced him.  Meanwhile, Nixon had already sealed the fate of his Presidential future with the Watergate break-in of the National Democratic Headquarters in June of 1972, but the significance of that event was not explored by the press until after the election; yet Nixon resigned his office in 1974. McGovern successfully ran for the Senate in 1974, but was defeated in 1980 as the conservative movement began to assert itself in American politics. It was the start of Reaganomics.  During the 1972 campaign when I was passionate in favoring McGovern over Nixon, I was shocked to see that many of my academic colleagues thought I was crazy, yet I couldn’t help but wonder whose political views were misaligned. After McGovern’s defeat, the Republicans tried to use him as the poster child for all Democrats, painting them as incompetent and out of step with mainstream America. In this respect there are many similarities between McGovern’s campaign of 1972 and John Kerry’s campaign of 2004 and the swift boat campaign that helped destroy Kerry’s candidacy.

Nixon’s election in 1968, running against Hubert Humphrey, was also a national loss, though Humphrey, until very late in the campaign, was under orders from President Lyndon Johnson to keep his alignment in support of the Vietnam war and only in the last month or so of the campaign was he given approval to voice his true opposition to the war, something he felt from the beginning of his Vice-Presidency (1964). But the election of 1968 was a bitter and confused election for Democrats. The street fighting during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago had shattered the party and it was difficult to sort out the motivations behind the vote outcome. The election of 1972 was different: Nixon was a corporatist war-monger and McGovern wanted to end the war and bring the troops home.  Yes, Nixon had been to China and broke the ice for future relations, but that was to solve the Vietnam War, as it became apparent to Nixon and Kissinger that a negotiated peace with North Vietnam would have to go through China. Nixon had promised peace in 1968, which may have accounted for his narrow victory, but once elected he expanded the war and initiated secret bombing in Laos and Cambodia. When Nixon was elected, the Paris peace talks were already underway. What Nixon did achieve is that after he was elected 21,000 more American soldiers would die and today no one can really say what they died for. The Right, looking to blame someone on the Left for the loss, concluded that defeat in Vietnam was the direct result of the liberal cowards and peaceniks at home.

After McGovern left the senate he lived an exemplary life. He never surrendered his opposition to war. He fought the battles as best he could and didn’t realize until after his failed Presidential election, that he was fighting the corporatist control center of America, those who intended to create an American hegemony, to rule the world generate new markets for the business class, interested in creating a new form of international wealth. It turned out, however, that the new wealth they created had a lot more to do with the transfer of wealth from the poor and Middle Class rather than the creation of new wealth. In that sense, Vietnam was insignificant, except that the eternal flame against communism needed to be burning bright in order for the corporatist state to maintain the level of fear required to convince Americans that we are fighting an enemy who wanted to enslave us. You can still hear these words in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—we are still supposed to be fighting communists, even though we have to overturn rocks to find them. China doesn’t qualify as a communist threat, simply because communism is a system that wants to destroy capitalism, not to tame it.

McGovern as a writer McGovern wrote seven books during his lifetime. One of them, Out of Iraq by William R. Polk and George McGovern was a book that I commented on previously; it was a highly readable book, one which gets right to the point of disengaging from Iraq, something that is now underway through the combination of Obama’s political commitment to end that war in favor of the “right war,” and the insistence on the part of Iraq not to agree to a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) so U.S. troops could stay indefinitely.  McGovern never gave up his distaste for war or his dislike towards those that pursued them.  In January 2008, he wrote an “Op-ed” in the Washington Post in which he called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, charging that they had violated the U.S. Constitution, transgressed national and international law, and repeatedly lied to the American people. The subtitle of the article read “Nixon Was Bad. These Guys Are Worse.” Who better to understand warfare than a genuine American WW II hero, the last war in which America could claim victory, unless you want to include the invasion of Grenada or Panama to catch Noriega? If we accomplished victories as a result of Gulf War I and II, someone needs to point out what we won (evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait (I) and then forcing him into a rabbit hole (II)?). McGovern’s last book What It Means to Be a Democrat was published earlier this year and during the book promotion tour, McGovern entered a hospice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where he died October 21, 2012 at age 90. Buried somewhere along side him is my naivete about the goal of American politics as it was his campaign that educated me to a better understanding that we live in a culture that wants to rule the world rather than one that wants to adapt to it. Those that put us on our current trajectory of American hegemony will have to explain why the Earth seems to be going through an immune response to reject the human species from the planet.


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