George McGovern lived his public life with an integrity that in these rancid political times, all of us might envy. He unfortunately is remembered most for his overwhelming defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1972, but it is worth noting that Nixon resigned in disgrace, the only president to ever abandon his office. McGovern was a historian, undoubtedly with profound respect for the presidency; it is difficult to imagine his obstructing justice or abusing his power in the Nixon manner.
As we count the dwindling numbers of World War II veterans, we recall McGovern’s heroic service in that conflict. He piloted the lumbering B-24, the slowest of our combat bombers, through 35 hazardous missions over numerous targets in Nazi-occupied southern Europe. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for one mission in which his navigator was killed, yet he safely landed his crippled plane on a small Adriatic island.
After World War II, a combination of his religious background, his studies for a Ph.D. in history, and a rising call for American leadership in the world profoundly touched McGovern. He turned away from his parents’ Republican roots and embraced the idealism of Woodrow Wilson’s worldview.
The American failure to assert a leadership role in world affairs after 1918 convinced him and so many of his generation that the United States had an obligation to lead a mission of collective security to ensure world peace. That notion served him well throughout the 1950s and 1960s as he rose to political prominence. He probably embraced John F. Kennedy's clarion call in his 1960 inaugural address to ”let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
In the late 1950s, South Dakotans elected McGovern to two terms in the House of Representatives, a somewhat remarkable feat for a Democrat. In 1960, however, the state stayed true to its form and McGovern lost his first bid for a Senate seat. The newly elected John F. Kennedy chose McGovern to direct the Food for Peace Program. He actively promoted the creation of the U.N.'s World Food Programme in late 1961, which distributed food throughout the world and became the largest agency fighting worldwide hunger. Near the end of his life, he suggested his own epitaph: "He did the best he could to end hunger in this country and the world."
McGovern did not stay long in administrative work, and in 1962 he was elected to the Senate. He served three terms and from there, he catapulted into national prominence as a leading opponent to the Vietnam War. Throughout his subsequent political career, McGovern identified himself as an heir to the Kennedy legacy, but there is a certain irony for his Vietnam stance clearly put him at odds with Kennedy's expansive posture. It is too late in the day to disentangle Kennedy’s role and responsibility in the Vietnam War from his successors’ policies.
In its obituary, the New York Times apparently did not believe that it was "fit news" to dwell on McGovern’s significant role in a bipartisan group of senators who sought an end to our intervention in Vietnam -- "Mr. McGovern left no special mark in his three terms ...” the newspaper said. Is it too embarrassing – too painful – to remember McGovern’s role and that of other opponents who helped force an end to our military role in Vietnam?
Alas! We forget and we foolishly repeat our mistakes -- and at a cost. McGovern deserves our warm memory as among the precious few public figures to consistently and sensibly dissent from the reckless course of American foreign policy in the later Cold War years, and even afterward. He disavowed his vote supporting the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1965, authorizing a large-scale expansion of American involvement, and he was among the first to say that the Senate acted on the basis of misleading intelligence reports.
Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (with an important assist from Dwight D. Eisenhower) justified the Vietnam adventure with the “domino" theory, insisting if Vietnam fell to the Communists, then nations throughout Southeast Asia would topple like dominoes – presumably then the "Reds" would be in Hawaii, if not on the beaches of La Jolla, Calif. Richard Nixon burnished his Cold War credentials and eagerly embraced the "domino theory" and insisted he, too, would prevent Communism from engulfing Southeast Asia.
For the past four decades, opposition to the Vietnam War has become a blurred, faded memory, exploited and belittled for self-serving partisan and policy reasons. The unspoken suggestion is that critics of the war had undermined desirable American interests, and advocated a diminished international role for the United States. What we seem to learn from history is to forget it. George McGovern’s opposition to America’s unrelenting imperial course consistently remained his message, but all too often he delivered it to an unsympathetic, even deaf, nation. McGovern’s efforts rested on the assumption that American foreign policy must recognize limitations of our power – a rejection of Kennedy's determination to exercise American power anywhere. And no dominoes fell when we left Vietnam.
McGovern's wartime experience provided a certain authority as he became increasingly critical of American foreign policy during his years in Congress and beyond. When he assailed George W. Bush’s decision to attack and invade Iraq, McGovern bravely rejected the ludicrous proposition that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction," with mushroom clouds looming on our horizon. There was no national interest to be served, McGovern said. Vice President Dick Cheney – the Bush administration’s leading dissembler – mocked McGovern's softness in foreign policy, and for his “defeatist” opposition to the Vietnam War. McGovern, always with a disdainful eye for chicken hawks, retorted by reminding us that Cheney "had other things to do" than serve in Vietnam. He noted that Cheney had five deferments and never served a day in the military.
History is memory, and what we remember and what we choose to forget tells us much about ourselves. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger – he of the Nobel Peace Prize – connived and purposefully avoided a peace settlement in Vietnam before the 1972 election. Nixon in one voice used his Quaker upbringing to declare "blessed are the peacemakers," while in another voice he resolutely declared he would not be the first president "to lose a war," however unwinnable the war had become, as he well knew. We celebrate McGovern for he actively sought to force the president's hand to end that costly war in lives and treasure, and which, above all, had diminished American power and influence.
Nearly a half-century later, we pursue more monsters abroad, and we have political candidates who favor more American expansionism. The lessons and meaning of the tragedy of Vietnam are all too apparent; yet we have learned no lessons or meaning. We ignore George McGovern's message at our peril.