Obit Desk

A Real American Hero

Remembering George McGovern.

Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images
Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images

George McGovern’s father was a miner turned Methodist minister, and the future senator grew up poor. No matter, perhaps: There are children of ministers who grew up poor in once-populist strongholds during the Great Depression and then devote their lives to forgetting where they came from or priding themselves on having pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and left the losers trailing in the dust.

There were no doubt other 19-year-olds beside George McGovern, who, on hearing the news from Pearl Harbor, rushed off to enlist in the Army Air Forces.  There may even have been one or two others who decided, in the course of 35 bombing missions over wartime Europe, that the appropriate sequel to the fear and trembling of wartime was to finish his college degree (on the same G. I. Bill that many today consider a contemptible element of the nanny state) and then become a professor of history. Along the way, influenced by the Social Gospel, he went to divinity school. About his war service, he rarely spoke — even during the presidential campaign when he was savaged for insufficient respect for the divinity of an American war cause. When he returned to school — Northwestern — to write a dissertation on the Colorado coal strikes, his adviser was Arthur Link, the biographer of Woodrow Wilson. Had McGovern won election in 1972, he would have been the first president since Wilson with a Ph.D.

He was a liberal, not a radical, and he trusted in liberal leadership. In August 1964, against his better judgment, at the behest of the usually astute Sen. J. William Fulbright, he voted for President Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf resolution, and quickly regretted it. What made him an old-fashioned sort of liberal was his moral directness. When, in the Senate of 1970, he rose in favor of the McGovern-Hatfield bill, which would have cut off American military operations in Vietnam and withdrawn all the troops, he said this:

"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."

These were not the words of a communist but a moralist.

The bill went down, 55-39.  Many more thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians went down before President Richard Nixon had the grace to resign, and even then, the bill of impeachment failed to cite Nixon’s secret (from Americans, that is) bombing campaigns in Cambodia (Rep. John Conyers of the Judiciary Committee moved an additional article of impeachment, charging truthfully that Nixon submitted to Congress "false and misleading statements concerning the existence, scope and nature of American bombing operations in Cambodia.") Many thousands of tons more napalm and Agent Orange (among other incendiary and poisonous weapons) rained down on Southeast Asia because, as McGovern would put it in his ringing acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention of 1972, "during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors."

That notorious speech became, to the neoconservatives, emblematic of American gutlessness. The neocons, then and since, did not pay so much attention to this line: "In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins." Or this, in a reference to Nixon’s campaign of lies in 1968: "I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day." Or this: "There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the north."

Or this:

"America must never become a second-rate nation. As one who has tasted the bitter fruits of our weakness before Pearl Harbor in 1941, I give you my pledge that if I become the president of the United States, America will keep its defenses alert and fully sufficient to meet any danger."

No, what freaked them out was three words: "Come home, America." The refrain was embedded like this:

"From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

"From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

"From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick — come home, America.

"Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream."

"Isolationist," they called him, shuddering at the South Dakotan who devoted much of his life to shipping American food around the world. To people exhausted by years of wretched, indefensible war–like me, for the first time granted a presidential candidate I could zealously vote for — these words were so, so long overdue. In many ways, they still are.

For his nobility, McGovern has been cursed for decades. When Newt Gingrich was riding high after his victorious off-year elections of 1994, the worst thing he could say about Bill Clinton (who had indeed, with Taylor Branch, run McGovern’s Texas campaign) was that he was "an enemy of normal Americans" and a "counterculture McGovernik." The real George McGovern, crushed by Richard Nixon in 1972, must be remembered as the man who stood up to recover America’s honor. R.I.P.

Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology and Chair of the Ph. D. Program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of many books, most recently Occupy Nation:  The Roots, The Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.