The late George McGovern will probably be most remembered as the man who suffered the worst defeat of any presidential candidate in United States history. In 1972, he lost 49 states, including his home state of South Dakota, to the incumbent Richard M. Nixon.
The electoral drubbing would make McGovern the butt of more than a few political jokes, and it led many to dismiss the ideas that motivated his ill-fated presidential bid. That is unfortunate, because as American history has clearly demonstrated, the best man does not always win.
By 1972, the American people had grown weary of war, and in fact the man occupying the White House had campaigned four years prior promising peace. Nixon had claimed in 1968 to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, and when no immediate withdrawal materialized after his inauguration, huge antiwar protests ensued.
After his election, on November 3, 1969, Nixon addressed the nation, saying that an immediate withdrawal “would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership.… A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends.”
Nixon did drastically reduce troop levels during his first term, but he and his national-security consigliere Henry Kissinger also expanded the war by ordering a savage and illegal bombing campaign in an attempt to wring concessions out of Hanoi.
The result was much carnage and destruction on the ground in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But then as now, the suffering of foreigners did not have much impact on American domestic politics. The suspension of the military draft and the dramatic reduction in American casualties had deflated the antiwar movement, the remnants of which were mostly hardcore leftists, who often acted in ways that dismayed and alienated the general public. Nixon adroitly exploited the cultural divide and social upheaval created by the war by posing as the law-and-order candidate and appealing to the “great silent majority” for their vote.
This was the political and cultural milieu in which George McGovern campaigned for the presidency in 1972.
Having flown 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II, McGovern had witnessed firsthand the death and destruction of war. He believed war should only be waged when the country was genuinely threatened and when all diplomatic options had been exhausted. Needless to say, he did not think those conditions had been satisfied in regards to the Vietnam War.
In 1970, McGovern delivered a passionate speech on the Senate floor in support of an amendment (the McGovern–Hatfield Amendment) that would cut off all funding for the U.S. war in Vietnam. He said,
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.
So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.”
McGovern’s words were greeted with stunned silence. Speaking such truth to power was not considered fitting in the decorum of the United States Senate. A McGovern staffer later recalled, “You could have heard a pin drop.” As the Senate prepared to vote on the amendment, one indignant senator approached McGovern and told him that he had been personally offended by the speech. McGovern replied, “That’s what I meant to do.”
McGovern had also championed reforms within the Democratic Party that “democratized” the delegate-selection process. These reforms supplanted the traditional party bosses and urban political machines by imposing effective quotas for women, minorities, and young people. The result was a swing to the Left that allowed McGovern to emerge victorious from a contentious primary season. Sadly, it also allowed the Republicans to characterize the Democrats as the party of “amnesty, acid, and abortion.”
But McGovern was no radical leftist. His politics were more reflective of the progressive populism of the American Midwest than of the radicalism of Columbia or Berkeley. Sure, more raucous elements had gotten a foothold within the Democratic Party, but they were rallying behind a man they thought was right on the critical issue of the day: America’s ruinous war in Vietnam. McGovern himself was rather conservative in his lifestyle, demeanor, and overall outlook. He was in many ways the embodiment of the conservative ideal. As Bill Kauffman wrote in the American Conservative (TAC):
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.”
McGovern had this to say about war and the state:
All my life, I have heard Republicans and conservative Democrats complaining about the growth of centralized power in the federal executive. Vietnam and Cambodia have convinced me that the conservatives were right. Do they really believe their own rhetoric? We have permitted the war power which the authors of the Constitution wisely gave to us as the people’s representatives to slip out of our hands until it now resides behind closed doors at the State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon and the basement of the White House.
At the Democratic National Convention in 1972, George McGovern made the Vietnam War the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. He told the delegates:
I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.
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.
And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong.
And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.
At the time, the speech was condemned as “appeasement” and cited as evidence that McGovern was ill-suited for the presidency. But compare McGovern’s speech to the puerile, bombastic, and bellicose rhetoric of today’s politicians. McGovern’s words were an expression of his humility — a virtue that should be considered a prerequisite, not a handicap, for holding political office.
In many ways McGovern’s ’72 presidential campaign could be considered the left-wing analogue to Barry Goldwater’s in 1964. Each man had outmaneuvered his respective party’s establishment to win the nomination, and both suffered crushing defeat in the general election. While Goldwater was by no means a peace candidate in 1964, like McGovern, he stood for ideals rooted in American history. He spoke of small, accountable government, community versus corporate power, and the rights of the individual versus the state.
Bill Kauffman made this very point in his TAC profile of McGovern:
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.”
“[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.’”
Whereas Goldwater sought to dismantle the then-burgeoning welfare state, McGovern chose to take on the already bloated and blood-drenched warfare state. In their own way, both stood athwart the big-government rail line, yelling, “Stop!”
There was a joke in the 1960s that went something like this: “In ’64, I was told that if I voted for Goldwater, we’d be at war in Vietnam. And they were right; I voted for Goldwater, and we went to war in Vietnam.” Well, a similar joke could have been made regarding the ’72 election: “In ’72, I was told that if I voted for McGovern, we’d retreat from Vietnam, the welfare state would expand, and the economy would tank. And they were right; I voted for McGovern, and we retreated from Vietnam, the welfare state expanded, and the economy tanked.”
The gripe libertarians and other small-government advocates had with McGovern was his enthusiastic support for the regulatory and domestic welfare state. Such criticism was justified. McGovern was in many respects a typical big-government liberal. But he appeared to have an epiphany of sorts regarding government meddling in the economy after he acquired an inn in Connecticut and was unable to cope with all the regulations the state, local, and federal governments imposed on him. McGovern wrote of his experience,
In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business, especially during a recession of the kind that hit New England just as I was acquiring the inn’s 43-year leasehold. I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.
This was a man who even late in life was willing to learn. That is a rare and admirable quality. Even more rare is a politician who cares more for his country than for his ambitions. George McGovern was such a man. May he rest in peace.