As former U.S. Sen. George McGovern celebrates his 90th birthday today, I’m going to spend some time celebrating the man’s patriotism and valor.
McGovern is a true war hero, a decorated World War II bomber pilot. You may not have known that because, like many of his generation, McGovern thought it unseemly to brag about his military service. Even when it would have helped him in his 1972 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, McGovern didn’t brag.
But what I celebrate most about McGovern today is his involvement in another war — that is his courageous efforts to end the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the late spring of 1970, after President Richard Nixon had shocked the country with news of his illegal invasion of Cambodia, McGovern and Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon moved decisively to try and force an end to the war.
They offered an amendment to the military procurement bill that would stop all funds for the war after December 1970 and require withdrawal of all U.S. troops by June 30, 1971, “unless Congress shall have declared war.”
“The way to save American lives is not by saving face or by spreading the war to yet another Asian country,” McGovern said, explaining that the amendment would force Congress to share the burden of the war with Nixon. “This amendment will place that burden on each Senator—a political risk that we should gladly bear rather than further risking the lives of our men in Southeast Asia.”
McGovern and Hatfield knew, however, that an outpouring of public opinion was their only chance for victory. Restricting Nixon’s latitude in Cambodia was one thing; cutting off all funds for the fighting by the end of 1970 was another.
Facing almost impossible odds, in mid-May the two men enlisted Republican Charles Goodell of New York and Democrat Harold Hughes of Iowa to join them in touting their prospective amendment on a half-hour program on one of the three national television networks.
Rejected by CBS and ABC, they finally approached NBC. They could buy the air time, the network told them, but only if they delivered $60,000 within three days.
Raising that amount was a daunting challenge, but McGovern quickly made the bold decision to secure a second mortgage on his Washington, D.C., home to finance the lion’s share of the cost. The rest, he borrowed from a friend.
“That certainly brought into proper focus in my own mind how strongly he felt about this thing,” recalled McGovern’s aide George Cunningham.
On the evening of Sunday, May 12, NBC aired the edited, thirty-minute result of a four-hour antiwar panel discussion by McGovern, Hatfield, Hughes, Goodell, and Church. At the end of the broadcast, the senators made an appeal for money to defray the costs of the broadcast and to continue the campaign to build public support for the amendment.
The success of the appeal exceeded their wildest dreams. For several weekends, McGovern’s staff worked overtime counting and depositing the thousands of contributions that poured into his and the other Senate offices.
In all, viewers mailed in more than a half million dollars.
The money enabled McGovern and Hatfield to create and staff an organization—the Committee to End the War—dedicated to the passage of their legislation.
Meanwhile, the two senators enlisted other Senate doves and their staffs to help lobby other senators for the amendment. “Those few months were like standing in a pile of marbles,” recalled McGovern’s principal Vietnam staff adviser, John Holum, as he described the ebb and flow of support for the amendment during the tense summer months of 1970.
For a time, McGovern and Hatfield thought they stood a chance of persuading at least forty senators to vote with them—and they made the necessary compromises to gain several supporters, including moving back the date for the cutoff of funds to support the fighting.
During the summer, the two men moved the date back several times, finally agreeing on December 31, 1971—a full year later than the original proposal—to win the support of Republican Jacob Javits of New York.
McGovern and Hatfield had hoped their willingness to compromise around the edges of the amendment would attract support from other influential senators like Kentucky’s John Sherman Cooper, George Aiken of Vermont, and Clinton Anderson of New Mexico.
But by late August, it became apparent that the amendment’s support would come primarily from the small, hardcore band of antiwar senators—and not the very desirable group of moderate Republicans and Democrats who were tired of the war, but not yet ready to force a dramatic showdown with the commander in chief.
“Well, you’re right,” McGovern heard from a colleague, “but I just can’t interfere with the president’s prerogatives.” Others told him, “You’re right on the war, but I just can’t vote to cut off the funds for our troops.”
To McGovern’s aide John Holum, the explanations were really nothing more than “lame excuses” from senators unwilling to assert the Senate’s constitutional responsibilities for the conduct of the war.
The rebuffs outraged and frustrated McGovern. “Congress just abdicated on Vietnam, beginning to end,” he later complained in an interview with me for my book on the Vietnam War, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam.
As he lobbied his colleagues, he encountered the same mind-set that had persuaded most of the Senate, McGovern included, to support the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. “Some of that same attitude was always there,” McGovern recalled many years later: “It’s up to the commander-in-chief to make these decisions, these military judgments. We don’t have the information to do this.”
Many senators, especially those facing reelection that year, were reluctant to take the bold political step of opposing Nixon so blatantly, especially in the face of potential attacks from two political influence groups sponsored by the White House.
Americans for Winning the Peace and The Tell It to Hanoi Committee were both geared toward persuading senators that a vote for McGovern-Hatfield would be portrayed as un-American. At the suggestion of Charles Colson, the White House aide charged with coordinating the opposition to the amendment, the group described McGovern, Hatfield, and the two co-sponsors of the amendment as “apostles of retreat and defeat,” “unilateral disarmers,” “neo Neville Chamberlains,” and “salesmen of surrender, selling the ‘sell-out’ like some sell used cars or potato chips.” Playing directly to the sentiment that McGovern repeatedly encountered, Tell It to Hanoi Committee literature warned that “it is the President, and the President alone who is authorized to conduct the foreign policy of the United States.”
Vice President Agnew, displaying his legendary gift for invective and vituperation, labeled the amendment “a blueprint for the first defeat in the history of the United States and for chaos and communism for the future of South Vietnam.”
Then Agnew turned personal and told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Miami that “one wonders if they really give a damn.” Hatfield responded that Agnew’s “inflammatory” speech was an attempt at intimidation and a direct attack on the constitutional process. Said McGovern in response to Agnew: “It is not a defeat to recognize that we have been on a mistaken course in Vietnam that has needlessly sacrificed American life.”
As Hatfield deftly described it during the Senate debate on September 1, the amendment did nothing more than affirm Nixon “in his currently announced withdrawal plan, that the Congress believes that the withdrawal should be completed by the end of 1971 —an opinion shared by the majority of Americans—and that if the President finds it necessary or advisable to maintain troops beyond that time, then he should simply obtain the authorization of the Congress.”
Hatfield reminded senators that the Constitution gave them “an obligation and a duty to exercise a role in the determination of the policies guiding our Nation.” The amendment, he insisted, was in that spirit, not in opposition to Nixon, “but simply as a means to share in the responsibility that is ours. Today, we shall choose to assume that responsibility, or to continue to abdicate it.”
By the time McGovern rose to speak, he had known for days that he and Hatfield would certainly fall short of a majority and would likely fail to attract the forty votes they believed were necessary to claim a symbolic victory. Even so, he was frustrated and angry at what he saw as the Senate’s cowardly refusal to accept and exercise its constitutional responsibilities regarding Vietnam.
“He thought he saw it so clearly that he couldn’t understand for the life of him why everybody else couldn’t,” recalled aide George Cunningham.
For days, Cunningham and others on McGovern’s staff noted the anger and exasperation with recalcitrant Senate colleagues building inside of their boss. Minutes before the voting began, McGovern appealed for support with the strongest and most emotional language he had ever used regarding the war. His brief, passionate speech would stun his Senate colleagues:
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 [hospitals] 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.”
As McGovern took his seat, most senators sat in stunned silence, “You could have heard a pin drop,” recalled John Holum.
Until now, they had never heard a colleague so angrily blame them, personally, for the carnage and bloodshed in Vietnam. Other than Oregon’s Wayne Morse, who was no longer in the Senate, they had never witnessed such passion and anger directed at the members of Congress who refused to assert their constitutional prerogatives to bring about an end to the war.
As the Senate prepared to begin voting, one senator (he could not recall whom) approached McGovern and indignantly told him that he had been personally offended by the speech.
McGovern did not flinch. “That’s what I meant to do,” he told his stunned colleague.
In the end, McGovern’s dramatic speech had little or no effect. Despite a poll showing that 55 percent of Americans favored the Hatfield-McGovern amendment—up 10 percent from a poll in late July—it failed in a 55-39 vote.
In reality, the amendment, even had it passed the Senate, would have faced rough waters in the more conservative and militaristic House. Even if the House had approved the measure, Nixon could have vetoed it.
For McGovern and Hatfield, however, it was just as important to put senators on record and determine exactly where they stood on ending the war.
“I would liked to have seen a stronger showing,” McGovern said after the vote. “But I suppose it’s the first time in the history of the country that thirty-nine Senators have stood up in the middle of a war and voted to cut off funds.”
Observed Time: “The willingness of more than a third of the Senators to take the unprecedented step of handing the President a deadline for terminating a shooting war was a clear warning that senatorial patience was precariously thin.”
Holum recalled that McGovern, despite the anger he expressed in his speech, also took the long view. “We never expected to win the first time around,” he said. “We thought of it as a longer campaign.”
At the White House, Henry Kissinger worried that this was only the beginning. “The pattern was clear,” he later wrote. “Senate opponents of the war would introduce one amendment after another, forcing the Administration into unending rearguard actions to preserve a minimum of flexibility for negotiations.”
In many ways, that vote marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War.
And George McGovern’s amendment — and his courageous Senate speech — helped pave the way.
Happy birthday, Senator.
(This post contains excerpts from my book A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam, Basic Books, 2001)
In 2001, I wrote about McGovern’s dramatic speech in this New York Times op-ed.