Eighty-six years ago today, in the little town of Avon, South Dakota, George S. McGovern was born.
The son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, McGovern entered college at Dakota Wesleyan Univertisy in Mitchell, South Dakota in the fall of 1940, where he began a degree in history that was interrupted by his deployment as a B-24 bomber pilot to the European theater in 1943. He flew thirty-five missions, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during a flight in which his plane was seriously damaged.
After the war, he returned to finish his degree, then briefly studied for the seminary at Northwestern University before returning to his first interest: history.
For a few years, he taught at Dakota Wesleyan, the school where he met his wife, Eleanor, during the war, but in 1953 he accepted the challenge of the state Democratic chairman to rebuild the party in solidly Republican South Dakota.
A short stint in the House and his political work led to President John F. Kennedy appointing him as the country’s first director of the Food for Peace program. He ran for and won the 1962 Senate campaign in South Dakota while suffering from an attack of hepatitis picked up from a contaminated needle used to give him a yellow-fever injection. In the White House.
In the Senate, McGovern used his sense of history attempt to affect the conventional wisdom held by both Democrats and Republicans with regard to foreign policy. His first floor speech in 1963 — coming just a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis — was titled “Our Castro Fixation versus the Alliance for Progress.” It concluded with these words:
It is no longer possible to separate America’s domestic health from our position in world affairs.
Yet he’s been labelled as an “isolationist” for the past 45 years.
McGovern voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson the authorization to use force against North Vietnam. This is how he described the incident in his 1976 autobiography, Grassroots.
I was uneasy about the request, despite private assurances that it was primarily a ploy to defuse the Vietnam issue during the presidential campaign. As I walked to the Senate floor with Gaylord Nelson he showed me an amendment which said in effect that nothing in the resolution should be construed as changing the American policy of limited intervention. NElson and I went to see Senator J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the floor manager of the resolution. Fulbright reiterated the plea that we had to help Johnson against Goldwater. We were just backing the President on his Tonkin response, not giving him a blank check for war. The resolution was “harmless,” Fulbright insisted. It would have to go to conference if there was an amendment and that would frustrate Johnson’s purpose — “to pull the rug out from under Goldwater.” Nelson agreed to withdraw his amendment in return for a colloquy on the floor in which Fulbright emphasized the resolution’s limited effect.
I accepted ther scenario, though I was still disturbed. Only Senators Wayne Morse and Earnest Gruening voted against the Tonkin Resolution; they were truly right from the very start. My vote for the resolution is the one I most regret during my public career. It violated my own record against the Eisenhower resolution authorizing American action at presidential discretion in the Middle East. I should have known better than to rationalized out of my conviction in the Tonkin case. Later I commisserated with Bill Fulbright; he was just telling Nelson and me what Johnson had told him. He was more than to make up for his own mistake in the turbulent years ahead. The lesson the Tonkin vote taught me — never to trade what I see as a truth for a winking assurance in a back room — probably explains why I now have a habit of speaking out publicly what some of my colleagues in the Senate prefer to say privately.
McGovern, of course, lost the 1972 general election to Richard Nixon. Many say that the reason he lost is precisely because wasn’t willing to compromise on some issues. But a lot of the blame for his loss can be placed on the lack of vision the leadership of his party, who didn’t grab that brass ring when it went by 36 years ago. preferring instead to hunker down and try to be more “tough” than the criminal enterprise that was the Nixon administration. There was an opportunity nearly four decades ago to change the way America interacted with the rest of the world, and George McGovern pointed the way.
At 86, he’s still pointing, but I don’t know if the chance is still there.