Reclaiming McGovern: A Legacy on the Left

By Tom GallagherJanuary 30, 2017

Reclaiming McGovern: A Legacy on the Left

The Rise of a Prairie Statesman by Thomas J. Knock

FOR AT LEAST A FEW in attendance at the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention, the most poignant moment may have been when the roll call reached South Dakota. Before reading the state’s vote tally, the state chairwoman noted that it was home to the party’s 1972 nominee, George McGovern. This would be virtually the only official mention of the man whom Richard Nixon beat to win his second term — a term he could not complete due to the discovery of the depth of his involvement in the Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the many other efforts to sabotage McGovern’s candidacy. Although there had been that famous post-Watergate poll showing a majority claiming to have voted for McGovern — a substantial number of respondents presumably feeling compelled to lie to a pollster about their true choices — by and large McGovern’s party has chosen to treat his loss to Nixon as if it were legitimate and turned its back on its ’72 nominee and, more importantly, on his ideas.

This time there was a touch of irony in the missing memory of McGovern, as 46 percent of the elected convention delegates (disclosure: myself among them) were, in a sense, his spiritual descendants. Today they were pledged to Bernie Sanders, who had just conducted the most successful presidential campaign that any candidate of the left had run since McGovern. All of which would seem to make this prime time to reconsider the career of the one-time senator from South Dakota. Will Sanders voters return bigger and better next time? Or will Berners just now reaching the legal drinking age have to wait until they qualify for Social Security (assuming it survives) before they see again the likes of his campaign — as was the case for McGovernites?

No book can answer this question, of course. Nonetheless, these recent events suggest that it’s a fine time for a new biography of McGovern, which Thomas Knock, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University, has written (the reader should note that Knock aims for a definitive biography, meaning this volume is the first of two, and only takes us through the 1968 presidential campaign — in which McGovern was drafted at a late hour by supporters of the recently assassinated Robert Kennedy). Unfortunately, however, the book has thus far attracted but a modest amount of attention, with one of its few reviews referring to McGovern’s ’72 campaign as “historically quixotic.”

For the moment, we’ll make do with the first volume, which shows that, for whatever similarities there might have been between the Sanders and McGovern campaigns, they surely did not extend to the personalities of the candidates themselves. So far as I know, no one has ever claimed that the brash Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland reminded them of the soft-spoken Methodist minister’s son from Mitchell, South Dakota — the city that proclaims itself the home to the “World’s Only Corn Palace.”

For readers who know McGovern for his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, this book’s first surprise may come with the author’s judgment that “[a]mong presidential candidates in the twentieth century, none save Eisenhower could boast of a more impressive combat record.” Like most American men of his era — he was born in 1922 — McGovern served in World War II, in his case flying 35 missions as a bomber pilot. He later reflected that “I so detested the whole Nazi system that […] I always thought in terms of hitting strategic targets” and “was never aware it was killing large numbers of people.” That changed, however, on a flight when crewmembers succeeded in loosing a 500-pound bomb stuck in the racks just at the moment that an Austrian farmhouse suddenly came into view. A crewmember later recalled that the bomb “looked like it went down the chimney.” McGovern checked his watch and saw that it was noon, time for the main meal at a typical farm, and “got a sickening feeling. It just withered the house […] Everything was just leveled.” Later, he said, “If I thought about the war […] almost invariably I would think about that farm.” That same day he learned that his wife, Eleanor (whom he had met in a college debate — which she won), had borne their first child.

After receiving his degree from Dakota Wesleyan College after the war, McGovern tried his hand at his father’s work as a student pastor in Illinois. But he soon decided it was not for him. Instead he entered the graduate history program at Northwestern University, where he wrote a 470-page dissertation on the “Colorado Coal Strike,” the 1913–1914 struggle between the United Mine Workers and John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron company — ever after remembered for the “Ludlow Massacre,” in which wives and children of miners died in tents set afire by the Colorado state militia. Knock writes that this publication,

was (for many years) the definitive work on the single most deadly labor conflict in the history of the United States, and a pioneering contribution to the field of labor history, which then was in its adolescence.

But academia, too, lost its hold on McGovern with the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, a man who, Knock writes, “bounded almost literally out of the cornfields of Iowa to become the greatest secretary of agriculture in American history.” The historical resuscitation of Wallace’s career is one of the great virtues in this book. Wallace created “the first and ultimately the most commercially successful hybrid seed corn ever developed,” generating 80 percent of the nation’s corn by 1942 — the beginning of the “green revolution.” As Agriculture Secretary, he developed a program of government buying in surplus years and selling in lean years dubbed the “Ever-Normal Granary,” whose “contribution to national security ranked second only to the vast war industries.” When John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, objected to a third term in 1940, Wallace replaced him on the ticket and would himself have become president upon FDR’s death, had not a core of party-regular types prevailed upon the president to dump him in favor of Harry Truman in 1944. Remarkably, Wallace then rejoined the cabinet as Secretary of Commerce, continuing on as the last FDR appointee until Truman fired him in 1946. Two years later, he ran against Truman as the Progressive Party presidential candidate.

McGovern became an enthusiastic Wallace supporter due to what he considered Truman’s “aggressive anti-Soviet policy, which seemed very dangerous, threatening war.” He was also no fan of Truman’s proto-McCarthyite federal loyalty program. Equally important was Wallace’s ground-breaking work in the Agriculture Department and McGovern’s developing belief in the crucial role the American farmer might play in a foreign policy that built American prestige by feeding poor nations around the world. Much like Ralph Nader’s 2000 run, the Wallace campaign started out much stronger than it finished. McGovern would not even get to vote for him because Illinois, where he was then registered, denied Wallace a place on the ballot. But McGovern soon found his calling, and in 1952 he agreed to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party, a job that entailed driving from town to town, gathering 40,000 names on 3-inch-by-5-inch file cards in an overwhelmingly Republican state. After Democrats made significant gains in the state in ’54, McGovern ran in ’56, and ousted a Republican incumbent.

From the time of McGovern’s arrival in Washington, Knock doubts that “the citizens of any other congressional district in the United States heard from their representative the kind of message that McGovern’s heard from him.” He urged his constituents “to expand their capacity for critical thought while they served their own interests through commonsense humanitarianism.” He decried the way “[w]e have allowed ourselves to become identified with those who seek to freeze the status quo” in a 1958 floor speech on the Middle East. Taking issue with the Eisenhower administration’s farm policy, he continually asserted his regard for “the productive power of America’s farms as a blessing instead of a curse,” arguing that rather than arming the world we might better “use our food abundance to fight human hunger.” In other words, “raise food to fight the cold war.”

On the domestic front, testifying on behalf of 100 percent parity and the adoption of a food stamp program, he told the 1956 Democratic national platform committee, “It is ridiculous that the farmer and small businessmen should be in trouble at the same time that big business is making the largest profits in history.” The food stamp idea was adopted in the platform and became law a few years later, while the party opted for 90 percent parity. (An obscure concept to most outside the farm belt, parity, or “a farm dollar that is in harmony with the city dollar,” as McGovern once put it, is a program of farm subsidies designed to raise farmers’ earnings to the level of industrial workers’. McGovern’s continual advocacy on behalf of this program — and the family farmer in general — was a constant source of his political strength, including one last hurrah in which he topped the then-more-prominent Alan Cranston in the 1984 Iowa Caucuses because the senator from agribusiness-dominated California did not adequately understand the issue.)

As it turned out, McGovern would soon get to work on the matter full time. After he failed to oust incumbent Republican Senator Karl Mundt in 1960, newly elected President John Kennedy named him to run the start-up Food for Peace office, which, Knock writes, would eventually “become the most extensive foreign aid program of its kind of the twentieth century.” Two years later, however, he would succeed in winning South Dakota’s other Senate seat. Showing little fear of alienating the Kennedy White House, he made an upper-chamber maiden speech that The New York Times Magazine would publish in expanded version as “Is Castro an Obsession with Us?” He also proposed a $5 billion cut in a $53.6 defense budget in 1963. He lost 74 to two, yet he was not crying in the wind. Given President Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent escalation of the Vietnam War, it may come as a major surprise to the reader when Knock writes that,

after Kennedy had increased defense expenditures by 10 percent for fiscal 1964, to $54.8 billion, LBJ had brought them down for fiscal 1965, to $50.6 billion. Through commonsense economies, he actually had put into effect McGovern’s “radical” proposal for a 10 percent cut.

But, of course, Vietnam did happen. Knock notes that FDR once said, “France has milked it for a hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.” But:

FDR’s impatience with colonialism would soon give way to Truman’s anxieties about revolutionary upheaval in Southeast Asia and China at the end of the war […] In 1947 Truman implemented the containment doctrine, and he needed to have France firmly in the Atlantic alliance […] the Truman administration resolved indirectly to assist in returning Vietnam to imperialist rule.

McGovern, attentive to Vietnam since his grad school days, declared support for total military withdrawal from the country in his first speech on the topic on September 24, 1963. At this point we had only 14,000 troops there with only about 100 casualties. “None save Wayne Morse had gone as far as the South Dakotan had,” according to Knock. McGovern did, however, fail to join Senators Morse and Ernest Gruening in voting against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, after being assured by future and prominent Vietnam War opponent Arkansas Senator William Fulbright that, “You pass this thing and it gives Lyndon a tool in the campaign. I wouldn’t support it if I thought it would lead to any escalation of the war.” In a note inserted in the congressional record the next day, he said, “I do not wish my vote […] to be interpreted as an endorsement of our long-standing and growing military involvement in Vietnam.”

Following Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s December 1965 visit to Vietnam — when Knock reports that “his military hosts were unable to locate a single strategic hamlet that would be safe for him to visit” — McGovern told a January 5, 1966, NBC audience that “if we were to destroy the Viet Cong, we’d have to destroy a large part of the civilian population” — precisely what Nick Turse’s recent book, Kill Anything That Moves, reveals we actually did.

On April 25, 1967, in response to the administration’s unprecedented recall of General Westmoreland to make the pro-war case — “Never before had a field commander been summoned from a combat theater for such a purpose,” Knock writes — McGovern gave what Knock calls “one of the era’s greatest speeches about the war.” The New York Times gave the text a full page, featuring it in the Sunday “Week in Review.” Its reference to “a policy of madness” was widely quoted. The Progressive magazine published it as “The Lessons of Vietnam,” calling it “the finest single analysis of the past, present, and future U.S. in Vietnam.” On May 2, McGovern went so far as to tell the Aberdeen American News that he could envision supporting a Republican for president if he advocated a policy “likely […] to lead us to an honorable settlement of the war.” Not surprisingly, LBJ subsequently banned him from all White House functions. As one aide put it, “The boss gets wild about him sometimes.”

The arrogance and blindness of American policy would be quintessentially expressed by the American embassy in Saigon later that year when it sent out “invitations to its New Year’s Eve party that read, ‘Come see the light at the end of the tunnel.’” The January Tet offensive, when the National Liberation Front attacked 36 of South Vietnam’s provincial capitals, put out that light. Westmoreland responded by asking for an additional 206,000 troops. The nation’s most prominent newscaster, Walter Cronkite, memorably declared the war a “stalemate.” And for the first time polls showed a majority of Americans considering it a mistake.

Among those approached to challenge LBJ as an antiwar candidate, McGovern begged off due to his own reelection campaign. Wisconsin Senator Gene McCarthy would be the one to answer the call. Following McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, New York Senator Robert Kennedy also joined the race, later telling The New York Times that “he would not have become a candidate if George McGovern of South Dakota had been the dove who first challenged Johnson.” Following Johnson’s withdrawal, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the field supporting the administration’s war policy, a development discomfiting to McGovern, who was quite close to Humphrey, his next-door neighbor in Washington. Following Kennedy’s assassination, the bad blood that had built up between his campaign and McCarthy’s caused some of the former’s supporters to approach McGovern to pick up his mantle. Knock writes that McGovern’s initial reluctance was somewhat dissipated by a Senate conversation when “McCarthy said he believed Humphrey had the nomination sewn up, thus he would only be going through the motions of a campaign now ‘to keep up the spirits of my supporters.’” McGovern was incredulous. Not to continue the quest for delegates into the convention seemed to him terribly premature, given all that Bobby and Gene and their adherents had been through. It made him doubt whether McCarthy really wanted to be president or if he understood the imperative “to maximize the impact of the antiwar effort at the convention.”

And there was support: on a radio talk show, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who had previously switched her support from McCarthy to Kennedy, said, “Probably, George McGovern is the real Eugene McCarthy.” And a flurry of activity: Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff’s famous denunciation of the “Gestapo tactics” of the Chicago police during the Democratic Convention came during his speech nominating McGovern. But, as we know, the antiwar forces would not prevail at the convention, Humphrey took the nomination without ever running in a primary, and Nixon took the White House in November. McGovern’s finest hour would not come for four more years when he ran on a platform that in many respects still stands as the most radical and/or progressive major party program ever, the Sanders campaign notwithstanding. But we will have to wait for the second book to read about it, along with his highly honorable post-political career, which, in its dignity, bears some resemblance to the much more highly heralded post-White House life of Jimmy Carter. But so far as this volume goes, I started it believing George McGovern to be the greatest presidential nominee of my lifetime and I finished it considering him to be one of the most qualified people ever to seek the presidency. As much of an admirer as I was, previously I had not fully appreciated the greatness of the man. I eagerly await book two.


Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco who served as a delegate to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and to the McGovern campaign of 1984. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex.

LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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