George McGovern’s uncommon decency: A personal remembrance

Few people under the age of 40 have any profound memory of former Sen. George McGovern, who died early Sunday at the age of 90.

English: Senator George McGovern speaking at t...
Senator George McGovern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s a shame because the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee should be remembered as one of the more courageous men ever to have served in public office.

In an era when many presidential candidates have conveniently declined, as young men, to serve in the wars they fervently supported, McGovern was perhaps the truest and bravest war hero to run for president in the 20th Century.

There are several candidates for that distinction, including Sen. John McCain, shot down over North Vietnam and held for years in Hanoi as a prisoner of war. There was also John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush — both sunk or shot down in World War II. And John Kerry, who earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam. And then, of course, there was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general who commanded Allied troops in Europe, but never saw battle as a junior officer.

There’s also the pseudo war heroes. Lyndon Johnson accepted a Silver Star for riding as a passenger on one flight in the Pacific Theater during World War II. And George W. Bush went to great lengths to avoid the draft during Vietnam, but still boasted of his

George McGovern, in Congress
George McGovern, in Congress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

nonexistent military record by landing a jet fighter on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to prematurely signal “Mission Accomplished” in the Iraq War.

But it was McGovern, while not wounded or shot down, who may have them all beat in the category of war heroics.

As the pilot of a B-24 Liberator (741st Squadron of the 455th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force), McGovern flew an incredible 35 missions over hostile German-occupied Europe during World War II.

How hazardous was this line of work? About 1,000 of the aircraft were shot down in Europe during the war. Ten thousand airmen died. McGovern’s own plane was shot and gravely damaged. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism in landing the plane and saving his crew.

B-24: Damaged in flak alley, but homeward bound
B-24: Damaged in flak alley, but homeward bound (Photo credit: Konabish ~ Greg Bishop)

Simply put, the B-24 bombing sorties were very close to being suicide missions. You can read about it all in Stephen Ambrose’s book, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany, 1944-45.

Even if you are old enough to remember McGovern’s ill-fated 1972 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, you probably didn’t know about his war record. There’s a good reason for this. McGovern, like many heroes of his generation, didn’t spend much time bragging about it.

Imagine that as you contemplate Bush strutting around the deck of an aircraft carrier in military garb. Or John Kerry saluting delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and “reporting for duty.” Or Kerry, John McCain and George H.W. Bush each featuring their war exploits in campaign ads.

There’s nothing wrong with discussing one’s war record in a campaign. It’s been done since George Washington, the first military man to ride his war record into the White House. Add to that list, to name just a few, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and James Garfield.

It’s just that McGovern was too modest to do it.

Imagine a Democratic presidential candidate today — under attack as a weak-on-defense, unpatriotic, Democratic liberal — refusing to play his own military hero card.

Who would do such a thing? George McGovern, that’s who.

In a high-stakes profession filled with enormous egos and shameless self-promotion, McGovern stands in stark relief as that rare individual who exhibited modesty, self-effacement, unusual self-awareness and genuine compassion for his fellow human being.

He was, simply, an extraordinary man.

I experienced that for myself in April 1997 in Washington, D.C., at the National Archives. I was invited to participate in a symposium marking McGovern’s 75th birthday, organized by my friend, the historian Douglas Brinkley. As I was then working on my political history of the Vietnam War, A Grand Delusion, Doug invited me to deliver a lecture on McGovern’s role as an opponent of the Vietnam War.

Senator George McGovern during his first trip ...
Senator George McGovern during his first trip to South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being new to such symposia, I was not fully aware that my fellow presenters would be discussing, almost without exception, the unparalleled beauty of McGovern’s record on the respective issue areas.

However, I approached my presentation as a historian and after thoroughly researching McGovern’s record, and interviewing him at length, I arrived at several major conclusions, which included that McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s was truly heroic.

To the audience, including of course McGovern — seated on the front row of the Archives auditorium — I even read aloud the celebrated “this chamber reeks of blood” speech that the South Dakota senator delivered to a stunned Senate in September 1970. You can read about this remarkable speech at this link.

As I told the audience, the majority of McGovern’s Vietnam record was admirable. His principled and vociferous opposition to the war had helped hasten its end.

But there was another side to McGovern’s Vietnam War record that also required attention — his stunning and troubling silence on the war throughout the momentous year of 1964 and during much of 1965, when Johnson drastically escalated the war.

After delivering a speech in the fall of 1963, critical of our deepening involvement in Vietnam, McGovern had offered only muffled criticism of the war for almost two years.

He later explained to me that he had stopped publicly attacking the U.S. Vietnam policy because he wanted to maintain his influence with President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, he knew, wouldn’t listen to those who publicly opposed him and McGovern thought it wiser to oppose the war in the Oval Office, not the Senate floor.

But, in retrospect, the Oval Office was not where a United States senator could enlighten Johnson’s thinking about Vietnam. McGovern thought he was playing Johnson, but it was actually McGovern who was being played, given access to Johnson in return for his public silence on the war.

Had he attacked Johnson’s war policies from the Senate floor, he would not have been invited back to the White House for more meetings with Johnson. But he might have made enough noise, and raised enough questions, to make it harder for Johnson to proceed.

But McGovern was quiet, or skeptically supportive, during all of 1964 and much of the following year. He not only gave Johnson his public silence on the war in 1964; he voted for the ill-fated Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964.

It was not until November 1965 that McGovern began publicly assailing Johnson’s war policies. By then it was too late. He had been party to Johnson’s Vietnam War policies for too long. By the time he began speaking out, there was nothing he could do to change Johnson’s mind.

To be accurate, in my Archives speech, I had not said that McGovern had been party to Johnson’s policies. I had actually said he was “complicit” in them.

That loaded term must have been jarring to the man’s ears. I learned later from a friend that when I uttered the word, one former McGovern staff began cursing me under his breath. When we broke for lunch, I was a bit puzzled when Daniel Ellsberg sidled up to me and congratulated me for my courage in criticizing McGovern on Vietnam. I was not yet fully aware of my offense.

I now know that my words were, indeed, quite offensive to the many McGovern friends and colleagues in the room, so much so that columnist Jules Whitcover devoted his next syndicated column to my remarks and suggested that my use of the word “complicit” was too strong.

He was correct. It was not a word I would use today in criticizing McGovern. He wasn’t complicit; he was just tragically mistaken about Johnson’s willingness to listen to wise and blunt private advice on Vietnam.

But if most of the people in the room were offended by my words, there was at least one who didn’t seem very concerned. His name was George McGovern. He was lovely and gracious to me in our encounters throughout the remainder of the day. His quote to Witcover when asked about my remarks was simply that the word “complicit” was “a bit too strong.”

Several months later, with some trepidation, I called McGovern to ask for another interview. To my surprise, he eagerly agreed and we spent several hours talking in his office about the war and then, after the interview was over, we talked for another 30 minutes about his passion for finding solutions to poverty, his interest in Middle East politics and the tragic suicide of his daughter.

Never once did he raise the matter of my unfortunate choice of words. He was gracious and kind to a fault. If I had ever offended him — and he had a right to be offended — you would never have known it.

So, in the coming days, the news media will mark the passing of a Democratic titan, a man who courageously fought one war and valiantly opposed another. Colleagues will talk about his passion for fighting poverty. Others will recount his disastrous 1972 presidential campaign, which, in succeeding years, made the man too easy to caricature.

However, I choose to celebrate the extraordinary personal qualities that distinguished George McGovern and earn him a special place in my heart.

He was a courageous man, a patriot and a true American hero.

And he was a man of uncommon modesty, decency, compassion and kindness.

2 thoughts on “George McGovern’s uncommon decency: A personal remembrance

  1. As a high school student and volunteer during Senator McGovern’s 1972 campaign, i had the opportunity to be called a commie for the first time! Talk about a badge of honor…

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