Remembering (and Forgetting) George McGovern

McGovern campaigning in 1972
Sen. George McGovern (D-South Dakota) campaigning for president in 1972 – University of Houston

I don’t have all that many memories of the former senator and presidential candidate — I was only five when he was voted out of the Senate in 1980, after three terms representing South Dakota — but as a historian I know enough to find interesting what’s being remembered, and what’s being forgotten, as journalists and others responded to his death yesterday morning.

Obituaries like the one in the New York Times understandably focused on McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his embarrassing defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, also making room for his longtime efforts to combat hunger around the world and his daughter’s tragic death in 1994. They even mentioned that he had a PhD in history and had taught at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University (“I was the best historian in a one-historian department,” he joked), before entering politics.

But of course, even a lengthy obit omits or glosses over details that strike some as interesting. Two that caught my eye by their absence:

First, that he was the son of a rather strict Wesleyan pastor is familiar, but the Times failed to note that McGovern initially attended Garrett Seminary in Chicago, intending to become a Methodist pastor, before he went back to his first love and studied history at Northwestern University. As he recalled in an online profile by the United Methodist Church,

It was a kind of an experimental move on my part to see what would happen if I went into the clergy and went to a first-rate seminary and then became a preacher. Could I… could I use my long-time training in high school and college and speech and history and so on and my experience in war to somehow reach people on these great life and death issues that now confronted us. So I enrolled in Garrett…. I liked every minute of it. And so…. But I just couldn’t…. I couldn’t let go of this long-term desire to go into history. And I… I also thought that my temperament was better-suited to being a college prof than to being a minister. I felt especially uncomfortable as a young guy just out of the Air Force, you know, administering the ritual part of the church—the baptisms, the funerals, the communion. The… they were so kind of foreign to my own experience that I thought I’ d be more comfortable and maybe even more effective as a college prof and a writer.

McGovern at a labor rally, 1972
McGovern addressing a labor rally in 1972 – Creative Commons (Kheel Center, Cornell University

Though what is described as his “faith story” says little about Christianity, he makes clear its significance in his life and work in the conclusion:

“…whosoever would save his life shall lose it; whosoever would lose his life for my sake shall find it.” [Matt 16:25] I think that the life well lived is the life spent in service to others. That verse I’ve just quoted suggests it also has to be in service to God. But there’s another verse that says, “if you don’t love your fellowman who you have seen, how can you love God whom you’ve not seen?” [1 John 4:20] So I put the emphasis on public service to others, maybe being a teacher, being a clergyman, being a doctor, being a journalist, being an honest day laborer. Service to others is the key in my opinion to the good life, and that verse says it all.

At the same time, though influenced by liberal Protestantism and best known for opposing a war, McGovern was no pacifist. A bomber pilot during WWII, he told the UMC interviewer,

I believed in World War II. I still do. I think that Hitler was actually a mad man that was out to just take over western civilization.

I felt that to really smash that war machine you had to have heavy bombers. And I recognized that sometimes the bombs went amiss and hit houses and public buildings and lots of civilians were killed. But that was not [our] intent….

And while McGovern courageously questioned American involvement in Vietnam from near the beginning of his Senate career, he did not reject American military intervention elsewhere.

The seemingly comprehensive Wikipedia entry on McGovern notes his famous retort to fellow Democrat John Stennis, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who suggested in 1971 that American troops might have to return to Cambodia: “I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight. If he wants to use American ground troops in Cambodia, let him lead the charge himself.” What Wikipedia (like every obituary I’ve seen so far) failed to note is that before that decade was out, Sen. McGovern did lead a futile charge seeking to insert American military forces in Cambodia… to stop the genocide being inflicted on that country by the Khmer Rouge.

McGovern visiting South Vietnam in 1965
McGovern on a visit to South Vietnam in 1965 – Wikimedia

In her incisive review of American inaction in the face of genocide, A Problem from Hell,” Samantha Power recalls that in August 1978, McGovern became the only prominent American official to call for American intervention, asking Pres. Jimmy Carter, “Do we sit on the sidelines and watch an entire people be slaughtered, or do we marshal military forces and move in quietly to put an end to it?” While fully aware that his stance confused longtime admirers (and opponents), he saw the rise of the Khmer Rouge as one particularly awful result of American involvement in Vietnam, and argued that “to hate a needless and foolish intervention that served no good purpose does not give us the excuse to do nothing to stop mass murder in another time and place under vastly different circumstances.”

As Power notes, McGovern’s experience in World War II had left him (like fellow veteran and senator Bob Dole, who eulogized his friend in the Washington Post) keenly sensitive of the cost of the Holocaust, as he explained at a Senate hearing:

I am the last person to be enthusiastic about military intervention except under the most extreme circumstances, but it does seem to me that these are the most extreme I have heard of. If anything close to 2.5 million people have been killed in a few years’ time out of a population of seven million, percentage-wise that makes Hitler’s oppressions look rather tame. (on McGovern and Cambodia, see Power, pp. 132-36)

In the end, McGovern was unable to change public opinion or that of the State Department or Carter Administration, and it took an invasion by the Vietnamese military to end the genocide.


2 thoughts on “Remembering (and Forgetting) George McGovern

  1. Wow. My ignorance of George McGovern has been exposed, and I DO remember him. I came of (political) age during Watergate and wished mightily for a stronger Democratic candidate to oppose Nixon. I am ashamed of how little I know now, or knew then, about McGovern.

    1. Well, as several obit writers have noted, McGovern didn’t do a great job of helping voters get to know him, partly out of the reticence to talk about the war typical of most WWII vets at that point.

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