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History Professor Op-Ed in New York Times: George McGovern, Vietnam and the Democratic Crackup

New York Times

Originally Posted: December: 5, 2017

On Sept. 24, 1963, George McGovern, the junior senator from South Dakota, addressed a full chamber on America’s growing entanglement in Southeast Asia. His words rang like a fire bell in the night. “The current dilemma in Vietnam is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power,” the 41-year-old Democrat declared, just before the vote on a record-breaking defense appropriation. “There in the jungles of Asia, our mighty nuclear arsenal, our $50 billion arms budget, and our costly ‘special forces’ have proved powerless to cope with a ragged band of illiterate guerrillas fighting with homemade weapons.”

Even worse, in Saigon, American resources were being used “to suppress the very liberties we went in to defend,” he continued. “The failure in Vietnam will not remain confined to Vietnam. The trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world if we do not properly appraise its lessons” and “rely less on armaments and more on the economic, political and moral sources of our strength.”

McGovern’s prophetic warning was among the earliest of such trenchant commentaries in either house of Congress. It was a prelude to his impassioned opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war, an opposition that would split the Democratic Party in two. Though the rift between liberal hawks and antiwar activists is often depicted as a generational struggle, between New Dealers and cold warriors on one hand and the student activists of the New Left on the other, it was also between men like McGovern — principled, veteran politicians — and a White House that they believed had led their party, and the country, toward disaster.

McGovern was no pacifist. As a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II, he had flown 35 missions over Germany and Austria and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those combat experiences, which placed him at the center of world-changing events, motivated him to pursue a doctorate in history and stoked his ambition to run for Congress. His political career was marked by humanitarian efforts and legislative expertise in agricultural and education. In 1961, President Kennedy had appointed him director of the Food for Peace program. Marshaling huge volumes of surplus food and fiber, McGovern engineered a vast expansion of an overseas school-lunch initiative that would soon be feeding tens of millions of hungry children around the world.

In fact, McGovern wasn’t all that different from Johnson, at least on domestic issues. Both embraced civil rights, education and expanded health care; McGovern considered Johnson the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. But a fundamental difference separated them. Johnson believed that to conduct his War on Poverty and build his Great Society he must fight communism in Southeast Asia. McGovern believed that to achieve a truly great society, the United States must curtail military interventionism in the name of anticommunism and pursue a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. READ MORE