"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood...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."
-George McGovern, US Senate floor, 1970
The battle between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman in Connecticut is nothing new. It's a continuation of a 35-year battle between those Democrats who would sell out the Party for personal power and treasure, and those who would keep the Party as the true voice of the people. It's extremely telling to me that so many in the liberal commentariat are using the spectre of 1968 and 1972 as compelling reasons to fear a Lamont challenge. Via Digby, the Dean of the Washington press corps makes it explicit:
The people backing Lamont are nothing if not sincere. But their breed of Democrats -- many of them wealthy, educated, extremely liberal -- often pick candidates who are rejected by the broader public. Many of the older Lamont supporters went straight from Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern in the 1960s and '70s to Howard Dean in 2004.
It always goes back to George McGovern. For Jonathan Chait and David Broder and Jonathan Alter and so many more in the Beltway, McGovern represents the worst of the Democratic Party: the "hippie candidate" who's strident antiwar stance led to one of the most crushing defeats in the history of Presidential politics and the destruction of the Democratic Party as a whole.
How dare they besmirch the honor of this patriot, who ran against two parties in 1972, not one. Proven right by history, and only taken down by a combination of corrupt politicians on the take and the nascent neoconservative movement, George McGovern represented what Beltway politicians obviously see as a real threat: the triumph of people over a failing establishment in thrall to the trappings of power. He's exactly what our democracy needs today, and this narrative of him as a disaster must be challenged, now more than ever.
FACT: Far from being a Birkenstock-wearing peacenik, George McGovern was as decorated a soldier ever to win his party's nomination for President. He flew 35 B-24 missions over enemy bases in North Africa and Italy as a member of the US Air Force. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. He was passionate about war because he knew war intimately. That's as true today as it ever was in the Vietnam era. Here's a recent quote from McGovern.
"Let me say that one thing that Richard Perle and Dick Cheney and George W. Bush have in common is that none of them have ever been near a combat scene. They're perfectly willing to send younger people -- other people's sons -- into war. They're very generous with that blood of the young men and women that they throw into combat so casually. But they've protected their blood and their limbs by never serving near a battlefield. That's true of the President. It's true of the Vice President. It's true of Perle and Wolfowitz -- that whole crowd of neo-conservatives that have the ear of the President."
(McGovern didn't talk much about his war hero record on the '72 campaign trail because he has said “it was not in my nature to turn the campaign into a constant exercise in self-congratulatory autobiography.” He talked about the issues facing that country at the time from the moral authority of someone who's experienced the horrors of war and knew that there had to be a damn good reason for committing American sons and daughters to a battlefield.)
FACT: McGovern was right about Vietnam from pretty much the very beginning. He voted against the 1957 "Eisenhower Doctrine" that would commit the United States to facing Communist uprisings anywhere in the world without equivocation. He understood the importance of Congress' warmaking powers. He reluctantly voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (which he called the "biggest mistake of his career") but even before that, in 1962, was decrying the military buildup in South Vietnam, and the propping up the corrupt and ruthless Diem government. He was maybe the only person in the government at that time to understand the particular historical realities of Vietnam (as befitting a former professor, and the only Ph.D. I can remember to run for the White House). He explains in this great Buzzflash interview:
George McGovern: Well, you're absolutely right about that -- that as far back as 1945, Ho Chi Minh tried to work out a negotiated deal with the United States to support the movement that he led for an independent Vietnam. He didn't want to be controlled by the French, which they were for a hundred years. He certainly didn't want to be controlled by the Japanese. And he and his men helped spirit some of the American pilots who were shot down over the Vietnamese jungle in World War II back to their homeland -- some of my fellow pilots that survived the War because of Ho Chi Minh's cooperation were with us in slowing up the Japanese.
At that point, we should have recognized him. We'd have had the same kind of constructive and peaceful relationships at that time that we now have going on, but without killing 2,000,000 Vietnamese and losing 58,000 young Americans.
I'd add that the Chinese were historical enemies of the Vietnamese, who merely wanted to shake off the binds of colonialism and were loath to enter into any arrangement with their mortal foes to their north. This renders moot the Domino Theory, and it's why McGovern was, in the words of his fellow University of South Dakota history professor Herbert Schell, “The only nominee of either major party since World War II who has not accepted the assumptions of the Cold War." That is to be celebrated, not demonized.
The McGovern-Hatfield bipartisan amendment to end the war in 1970 generated more mail in the Capitol than any legislation up to that time. I've already cited his amazing speech on the floor of the Senate in favor of that amendment. It increasingly applies to the present day. McGovern does that parallel himself:
I think the same procedures could have been used in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a miserable S.O.B. We all know that. But he wasn't much of a threat to anybody after he was thrown out of Kuwait. And for the next 10 years, he never stuck his big toe beyond the borders of Iraq. So I think we should have tried to work out some kind of an understanding with him while strenuously objecting to the way he treated his own people, but not to put an American army in there.
The President keeps talking about the Iraqi terrorist danger. It's a danger because we have an American army in Iraq to be shot at by the guerillas and by the terrorists.
FACT: McGovern has done more for restoring American credibility in the world than a bomb or a gun barrel can ever do. He spent the early 1960s in the Kennedy Administration as director of the "Food for Peace" program, which distributed US crops to impoverished civilians around the world. He's continued to advocate against the needless scourge of world hunger in the United Nations ever since leaving the Senate in 1980. As a prairie state populist, he's understood the needs of working farmers as much as anyone on the national stage, and how their efforts could be used to advance American foreign policy and national interests. He helped establish the National School Lunch program, incidentally.
FACT: If it weren't for George McGovern, there wouldn't be anything close to democracy in the Democratic Party primary system. If you think the primary system is broken now, go back to 1968, where Hubert H. Humphrey received his party's nomination without winning a single state primary. In the wake of that election, McGovern chaired a 1969 Reform Commission which led to reducing the role of party officials in the nominating process, and foregrounding the role of the primaries and caucuses. It also required proportional delegate representation. McGovern brought thousands of committed Democrats into a process that was completely closed off to them.
FACT: The McGovern campaign of 1972 had its most vociferous opponents on his own side of the aisle. Ed Muskie was the favorite going into that year's election. The DLC's Al From was running a subcommittee for him at the time. Henry "Scoop" Jackson was one of his opponents that year. Jackson's top campaign advisor was Richard Perle. It was Jackson, not the Republicans, who used the phrase "acid, amnesty and abortion" to describe the McGovern platform. His people-powered campaign represented a major threat to the institutional forces of the party (sound familiar?). After winning the Wisconsin Primary, the powers that be drafted Hubert Humphrey and sent him into the race as the "Anyone But McGovern" candidate. In a famous debate, Humphrey suggested very directly that McGovern's plan to reduce defense spending would "sweep the Army and Navy off the table." ALL of these smears and slurs were used by the Nixon campaign in the fall. They ALL came from inside the party, from the wing that is now largely the modern neoconservative movement.
Establishment Democrats never came on board with McGovern's campaign, fighting him at the convention tooth and nail. The reason McGovern's amazing "Come Home, America" nominating speech happened at 3am ET was because of the massive floor fight engaged to knock him out of the race. Humphrey supporters tried to change the rules with respect to California's delegates after agreeing to the rules in the first place. This futile attempt took up weeks leading up to the convention, and lasted all night on the floor. Party rules mandated that a Vice Presidential candidate come out of the convention, and honestly the McGovern campaign was too busy securing the nomination to even consider it. They went through many choices because establishment figures were pressured not to join up with him. Boston Mayor Kevin White was on the verge of receiving the nod, but the Kennedy clan found him unacceptable. This chaos led to the choice of Maryland Senator Tom Eagleton, who had a history of mental illness and was eventually dumped from the ticket. More than anything, this stalled any momentum they could have gained. Intra-party squabbling was a major part of all of this. George Meany, an old lion of the establishment, refused to let the AFL-CIO endorse McGovern. Labor was a far bigger factor in elections at the time.
The Democratic Party had a vested interest in sandbagging the McGovern campaign then, as surely as its offspring today have a vested interest in using McGovern as an example of a liberal hippie counterculture that would destroy the party. It was done to protect little fiefdoms, to ensure corporate dominance and to keep intact the warmaking machine.
FACT: There were two antiwar candidates that year. Nixon never ran as a "stay the course" candidate. He announced just days before the 1972 election that "peace is at hand" and that negotiations were about to commence. Between that, McGovern's mistakes in running the campaign, and the bounty of Democratic attacks at his disposal, it was enough for victory. George McGovern ran against two parties in 1972 and got a respectable 38% of the vote. This of course was the year burglars broke into the DNC offices, leading to Watergate. Why is MCGOVERN used as the boogeyman in that scenario? All he did was lose an election. Pretty much everyone on Nixon's staff went to jail or resigned in disgrace.
George McGovern, the prairie populist, the minister's son from South Dakota, has been vindicated by history on all levels. The only people who fail to see this are those who want to keep the status quo that has failed the Democratic Party for a generation. We shouldn't shrink from the "McGovern" label: he was honest, principled, and right. And to this very day he continues to be right, understanding the problems with using the military to achieve political solutions.
McGovern: We couldn't win the war in Vietnam, not because we lacked military power, but because we were allied with a corrupt regime in South Vietnam that had lost the confidence of the people there. And because we were trying to argue that we could defeat the guerilla forces there with napalm and with strategic bombing and using chemical warfare -- it just didn't work. Finally we decided, after many, many years, to withdraw.
In Iraq, you have a similar situation in that we have easily defeated the official Iraqi Army. But now we have this band of guerillas fanned out across the country who are picking off our troops one at a time -- sometimes two or three at a time. I think we'll eventually get tired of that and decide to withdraw. In that sense, it's quite similar to our experience in Vietnam [...]
Just about every American would now agrees that those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam, well, we were right. I don't worry about the nitpickers who go around saying that we sold out the country. I don't believe that. I think that most Americans know we were right. And what angers the Republicans is that they know that we were right.
Let me end with this incredible January 2006 article from the American Conservative Magazine, of all places, where the author completely upends the conventional wisdom on McGovern and looks at him not through the fractured prism of politics, but as a man. I quote liberally from it because it is so very cogent and relatable to our present day.
But perhaps, as George McGovern ages gracefully while his country does not, it is time to stop looking at McGovern through the lenses of Scoop Jackson and those neoconservative publicists who so often trace their disenchantment with the Democratic Party to the 1972 campaign. What if we refocus the image and see the George McGovern who doesn’t fit the cartoon? [...]
Robert Sam Anson wrote in McGovern, his fine biography, “To the extent that his vision of life is bounded by certain, immutable values—the importance of family, the dependence on nature, the strength of community, the worth of living things—he is a conservative. He seeks not so much to change America as to restore it, to return it to the earliest days of the Republic, which he believes, naively or not, were fundamentally decent, humane, and just." [...]
I suppose no Democrat could have defeated Nixon in 1972. The incumbent’s popularity was buoyed by a fairly strong economy, détente with the USSR, the opening to China, and rumors of peace in Vietnam. But still, imagine George McGovern running not as an ultraliberal caricature but rather as the small-town Midwestern Methodist, a war hero too modest to boast of his bravery, a liberal with a sympathetic understanding of conservative rural America. That George McGovern might have given Nixon a run for Maurice Stans’s money [...]
In the home stretch of the ’72 campaign, McGovern was groping toward truths that exist far beyond the cattle pens of Left and Right. “Government has become so vast and impersonal that its interests diverge more and more from the interests of ordinary citizens,” he said two days before the election. “For a generation and more, the government has sought to meet our needs by multiplying its bureaucracy. Washington has taken too much in taxes from Main Street, and Main Street has received too little in return. It is not necessary to centralize power in order to solve our problems.” Charging that Nixon “uncritically clings to bloated bureaucracies, both civilian and military,” McGovern promised to “decentralize our system.” ... He spoke of open government, peace, the defense of the individual and the community against corporate power, a Congress that reasserts the power to declare war...
“[M]ost Americans see the establishment center as an empty, decaying void that commands neither their confidence nor their love,” McGovern asserted in one of the great unknown campaign speeches in American history. “It is the establishment center that has led us into the stupidest and cruelest war in all history. That war is a moral and political disaster—a terrible cancer eating away the soul of the nation. … It was not the American worker who designed the Vietnam war or our military machine. It was the establishment wise men, the academicians of the center. As Walter Lippmann once observed, ‘There is nothing worse than a belligerent professor.’”
...At its not-frequent-enough best, McGovernism combined New Left participatory democracy with the small-town populism of the Upper Midwest. In a couple of April 1972 speeches, he seemed to second Barry Goldwater’s 1968 remark to aide Karl Hess that “When the histories are written, I’ll bet that the Old Right and the New Left are put down as having a lot in common and that the people in the middle will be the enemy.”
Source (Not the best movie, more of a polemic, but a good source of information)