George McGovern — conventional politician or nonviolent activist?

George McGovern speaks to many International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) supporters at an open-air campaign rally on October 15, 1972. (Flickr/Kheel Center, Cornell University)

When I heard that George McGovern died on Sunday, I thought about the time I saw him in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in the late 1980s. He had been stopped on the street by well wishers and they were having an amiable chat. He was genial, engaged and thoughtful. I was too reticent to join in, but, had I spoken up, I would have told him that his run for president had impacted my life deeply. His campaign had fired my imagination about the potential for change and, though framed within the traditional rubrics of political office, had planted many seeds for powerful nonviolent activism.

When I was a senior in high school in the spring of 1972, I was riveted by the momentum McGovern’s candidacy gained in one primary after another as he surged past the presumptive nominee, Senator Edmund Muskie. Though I had struggled with my position on the Vietnam War for several years, by then I had decided it was wrong, and I was astonished that someone calling for a definitive end to the conflict might become president.

In the final weeks of the election, the McGovern campaign rolled into San Diego, where I was then a first-year college student. At that point the polls signaled that McGovern would lose by a stupendously wide margin. I decided to go to the rally anyway, which turned out to be a smallish affair in one of the corners of Balboa Park.

I had brought a letter for the senator, with the one suggestion that I thought, in my freshman earnestness, might make a difference in the race: Dramatically announce that you will serve only one term. From a 40-year vantage point, the idea doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Nonetheless, it seemed to me, at the time, that McGovern needed to do something to draw a sharp contrast in the public’s mind between President Nixon’s win-at-all-cost lust for power and a contender who’s main job would be to end the war, which he could accomplish in relatively short time, and then return to the Senate or go on to do something else.

This contrast turned out to be one of the major themes of the campaign rally I attended. Though the Watergate burglary had taken place four months before, the conflagration that would bring down the Nixon presidency two years later had yet to fully catch fire. It was not the focus of the 1972 election. But the McGovern team was trying to make it the focus. Senator McGovern’s speech that afternoon was laced with numerous references to Watergate and the questionable machinations of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, which were beginning to surface through the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, and others. (By design or not, the rally closed with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” a peppy tune about a drug dealer staying one step ahead of the law.) My letter, as far as I know, never got to McGovern, and even if it had, no amount of late-inning tinkering or gimmicks would likely have stopped the Nixon landslide.

As McGovern said later in life, one never really gets over a loss like that, and both Republicans and Democrats never let him forget it. But was he the historic loser that he has been made out to be? I think it might be helpful to reframe the matter.

If McGovern’s ultimate goal was to win the White House, then this drubbing by Nixon was a disastrous loss. Neither the passage of time, nor the revelations of a dirty-tricks administration on steroids (which McGovern tried to warn the country about) that contributed to this catastrophic electoral result could lessen its sting.

But what if this wasn’t the ultimate goal? While McGovern certainly wanted to be president (the 1972 race, in fact, amounted to his second run after being coaxed into the fray at the eleventh hour when Robert Kennedy was killed), his top goal was ending the Vietnam War. The 1972 election did not achieve this objective, but it is fair to argue that this campaign played an important role in helping to create the conditions for the end of the war and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a process that began virtually on the heels of the election.

In the super-heated atmosphere of a presidential election, the McGovern campaign helped put the war front and center. Not in the way it had been in 1968 — when it asserted its centrality on the streets of Chicago — but as the focus of the nation engaging in its traditionally preeminent act of citizenship (even as that focus was distorted and muddied by Nixonian crimes and by the campaign’s own missteps, including its blunders in response to disclosures about running mate Senator Thomas Eagleton’s medical history).

McGovern’s campaign was the fruit of a grassroots movement that for nearly a decade had been alerting, educating, winning and mobilizing the public to withdraw its support for the war in Vietnam. This presidential run, while a traditional form of U.S. political expression, functioned as a form of nonviolent action taking its place alongside many other national anti-war mobilizations that helped deepen, broaden and normalize public opposition. Though it did not succeed in winning the presidency, it contributed to the momentum to begin the Paris peace talks and to finally cut off funding for the war in 1973, when Congress passed a joint resolution (H.J.Res. 636).

But this was not McGovern’s first action to stop the war in Vietnam. He had been involved in efforts aimed at this throughout his time in the Senate, culminating in his co-sponsoring with Senator Mark Hatfield of the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment in 1970, which would have ended the war. It was defeated 55-39, but before the vote, McGovern appealed for support on the Senate floor in dramatic terms:

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.”

Long-time peace activist David Hartsough, who organized antiwar campaigns with the American Friends Service Committee in the 1960s and 1970s, collaborated closely with George McGovern. The 1972 campaign was the only political campaign he ever worked on, before or since. (He coordinated the campaign in Philadelphia. While McGovern lost across the country, he won in Philly!) In one of the letters commenting on the New York Times obituary, Hartsough wrote:

George McGovern was a man of conscience who put the good of the people of this country and the whole world above his own political life. He cared deeply about the poor and the disenfranchised and felt the pain of not only the tens of thousands of American soldiers who died in the senseless, immoral and illegal war in Vietnam, but about the millions of Vietnamese, mostly civilians, who also died.

George McGovern gave tireless leadership to ending that tragic war and unlike most in the Republican and Democratic parties, saw that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were also senseless, immoral and illegal under international law. McGovern called for ending those tragic wars and bringing the troops and the hundreds of billions of dollars home to meet human and environmental needs.

If the American people had seen through the tricks and lies of the Nixon campaign and elected George McGovern as president in 1972, we might have had a completely different country today — with the American people deciding our political future rather than the military industrial complex and corporate America.

George McGovern was a politician, but even more he was an advocate for nonviolent change that put relieving suffering above his own political success. We can only hope that a few more like him come along.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.