The Wisdom of George McGovern – Part 1

Thirty some years ago I had to opportunity to meet the United States senator George Stanley McGovern. He was my senator from South Dakota. Living in what would today be called a “red state”, I was aware of what most Republican leaders had thought about George McGovern. For the love of God, he was one of those dastardly liberals! In some quarters he was thought to be a “pinko” or a “Comminust”, the venerable Republican senator from the state Karl Mundt’s description of Communist sympathizers, undoubtedly must have thought so. Nonetheless, I was a Democrat like McGovern. This post is the first of a four part series from own my experience and understanding of the George McGovern I knew.

Upon meeting McGovern for the first time, I was not overly impressed. He didn’t seem to fit my image of a United States Senator much less the presidential candidate of the Democrat Party.  He was tall and thin, balding and had a noticeable overbite. He appeared very unassuming yet quite pleasant and patient with everyone who approached him at a rally for the Democrat gubernatorial candidate in 1974. When it came time for him to speak, I was immediately taken with his oratorical skills. He gave a speech which was well crafted and reasoned, humorous and folksy, and on the whole well done. At the time I was inclined think it was quite gracious of McGovern to show up for this rally given that he was running for reelection himself. But that was how the man was.

To understand George McGovern is a little like peeling an onion. The more onion rings you remove the deeper you get. The wisdom of McGovern comes from a deep core of values and experiences. Born in Mitchell, South Dakota he grew up in a modest Midwestern home. His father was a Methodist minister and McGovern was an adherent to the Methodist beliefs of Christianity. Fundamental to those the beliefs was a strong obligation to social and economic justice.  It was not enough to simply believe in economic and social justice, but to take visible action and do God’s work in the world feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, helping the poor, standing up against injustice, speaking out against oppression and all attempts to take away or limit the freedoms guaranteed to all men and women, regardless of their station in life, by  our Constitution.

McGovern was catapulted onto the national scene at the national Democrat Convention in Chicago in 1968. Following the assassination of  Robert Kennedy in June of that year, McGovern took up Kennedy’s followers and became an outspoken opponent of the Viet Nam War and  a champion of the Kennedy campaign’s agenda of the social and economic justice. While the McGovern effort fell short giving way to Hubert Humphrey, McGovern went on to initiate reforms that allowed more grassroots Democrats to participate in the nominating process and gender equality in Democrat national and state party organizations. These reforms significantly effected and lessened the influence of the back room and smoke filled room decisions of party leaders.

McGovern kept up his opposition to the Viet Nam War upon his reelection to the Senate in 1968. He voted against any military spending bill that  funded the war, which caused the ire of centrist Democrats and Republicans in general. He didn’t buy the “domino theory”widely held by most in Congress. The idea that if North Viet Nam should be successful in taking over South Viet Nam by military force it would only be a matter of time before all of Southeast Asia would fall into Communist hands. McGovern did not see it that way. Even though both Russia and China supported the North Vietnamese, neither country had committed any troops.  In McGovern’s opinion, China and Russia weren’t interested in another land war in Asia.  In the end there were no falling dominoes. Instead, several countries formed the Association of Southeast Asia Nations – ASEAN in 1967. The initial members included Indonesia,  Malaysia, the Philippines,Singapore, and Thailand. Between 1974 and 1995  Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Myranmar, and Viet Nam became members. The ASEAN Declaration states that the aims and purposes of the Association are: (1) to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian nations, and  (2) to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries in the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. In 1995, the ASEAN Heads of State and Government re-affirmed that “Cooperative peace and shared prosperity shall be the fundamental goals of ASEAN.”

McGovern was right. There was no Communist takeover of Southeast Asia by Red China, the Soviet Union, or for that matter a war weary Viet Nam! Through all of that period, McGovern did not waver in his opposition to the Viet Name War. However, he was no “peacenik.” He was no pacifist. He was a patriot who saw the folly of his government. In reality he was a war hero!  At the time there was probably no one in the Senate who had experienced the horrors of war more than McGovern. He had flown 35 combat missions as a pilot of a B-24 destroying Nazi oil refineries, railroad marshaling yards and military ordinance factories. For his service and heroism he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three bronze stars. McGovern simply believed that war was justified as a final option when all other measures have failed and the peril to the well being of our nation needed to be engaged. This is another core experience of the McGovern onion.  It will  serve as a fundamental element of his approach to foreign policy which will be another installment of this series. Democrats would do well to heed it.

In 1996 I walked that long pathway at the Viet Nam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I could not help but wonder as I surveyed the names of who these men and women were. It was obvious many had Hispanic surnames, some appeared to be of Arab descent, others were Caucasians or were they? The legacy of slavery could easily have hidden the identity of African-Americans. 58,000 names. 58,000 men and women most of whom were in the prime of their lives gone forever. At the same time I thought about the thousands of wounded and mentally scarred survivors of the war. Like McGovern and countless other visitors to the Memorial when I reached the end of the wall I was in tears. I wonder if the current occupant of the White House has visited and walked the wall? I wonder if he was moved at all or felt any guilt when he dodged his chance to put his life in harms way?

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