The Rise of a Prairie Statesman
The Life and Times of George McGovern
Thomas J. Knock
Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America Series
Princeton: University Press, 2016
Hardcover. xii+553 p. ISBN 978-0691142999. $35
Reviewed by Peter Marquis
Université de Rouen
McGovern, or The Conscience of a Liberal
What had happened if instead of 500,000 troops, we had sent 10,000 Peace Corps men with medical ability, agricultural know-how, sanitation and nutrition skills and dedicated teaching talent, and had left the Vietnamese to develop in their own way?
(McGovern. A Time of War, a Time of Peace, 1968, quoted p. 428)
American influence in the world should be measured not by the number of military ventures we are willing to undertake, but by the quality and health of our own society and the intelligence and compassion we manifest in responding to the needs of our fellow human beings around the globe. (quoted p. 429)
George S. McGovern was a quintessential American liberal. Born in a humble reverend’s household in rural South Dakota in 1922 between WW1 and the Great Depression, he is mostly remembered for being the defeated candidate in the 1972 election against Nixon. His death in 2012 sparked a newfound interest in his life, intellectual trajectory and political legacy. He was a brilliant high school debater, a valiant bomber pilot in WW2, a pastor, a GI Bill beneficiary who earned a Ph.D. in history, a college professor who quit academia to seek office to become a congressman then a senator, made a name for himself as director of Kennedy’s Food for Peace program, carried forward the ideas of the late Robert Kennedy in 1968, became the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1972 – when he made the fatal mistake of choosing a mentally sick running mate – and finished his career through the 1980s and 90s as an ambassador to the UN and a vocal proponent of liberalism. A Christian, a staunch opponent to US imperialism – especially in Vietnam – an avid defender of fairness in agriculture policies, McGovern embodies the type of liberal that has been defeated by the conservative revolution of the 1970s.
The Rise of a Prairie Statesman, by Thomas J. Knock, a Woodrow Wilson scholar and history professor at Southern Methodist University, is the first installment in a 2-volume biography. The Rise focuses on McGovern’s life from childhood to 1968, when he was defeated in the Democratic primaries. This copious 17-chapter 553-page long biography draws on McGovern’s papers donated to Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton, which includes more than 900 boxes of speeches, correspondence, photographs and legislative documentation. Knock also spent time in South Dakota at the George and Eleanor McGovern Library, which holds McGovern's private papers. To put McGovern’s life into context the author used extensive records from the papers of historians Arthur Link and Ray Allen Billington, as well as politicians Karl Mundt, Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. In addition, the book relies on over one hundred oral interviews conducted with relatives, friends, colleagues as well as twenty-three with McGovern himself (he died in 2012).
This biography complements about four monographs on McGovern, including Robert Samson’s McGovern (1972); Robert Watson’s George McGovern (2004) and Bruce Miroff’s The Liberal’s Moment (2007) as well as an autobiography published in 1977. A piece of scholarship does not seem to be cited by Knock is Jeffrey Volle’s The Political Legacies of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern : Shifting Party Paradigms (2010).
Regrettably, Knock does not clarify what his research brings to the existing scholarship and whether he takes issues with his predecessors’ interpretation of McGovern’s life and legacy. As a matter of fact, The Rise of a Prairie Statesman is very rich on descriptions, anecdotes and context, but quite frustrating in terms of analysis and interpretation. The only recognizable thesis this reviewer was able to locate comes in the epilogue: “although the campaign for the presidency in 1972 would become a unique highlight of McGovern's life, in fact all his life had been driven by a sense of duty to explore alternatives to Americanism and Cold War containment. (…) He had faith in the possibility of national redemption through internationalism, education and humanitarianism, so that America could come home” (429).
This shortcoming aside, Knock’s work is extremely well documented, sourced and written. The main character’s life is put into context whenever needed, and the author was specially good in transcribing the atmosphere of mining and farming life in the Midwest as well as the stakes of the early Cold War and intellectual debates over Vietnam in the 1960s. It not a coincidence that the book was praised by recognized political historians such as Michael Kazin, Evan Thomas and Julian Zelizer.
Chapter 1 and 2 focus on McGovern's family, his upbringing, his high school years and the influence of the Great Depression on his political training. McGovern’s grandfather, Thomas, came to America from Ireland in 1849 to escape the potato famine. He was a miner who got injured because of the bleak working conditions in Illinois mines. His son Thomas was also a breaker boy who became quickly in charge of his family because his mother died. Thomas eked out a life out of poverty by playing AAA baseball and managed to make a decent living. Around 1891, he had a complete turnover in his life when he found God. With his first wife Anna, he went to a Wesleyan seminary in New York State where he trained and became a pastor. In 1895 he was sent to South Dakota where he was a pastor for twenty years until his wife died. Joseph remarried Francis, a church attendant twenty years his junior, and had four children with her, including George who was the second oldest. The family lived in Mitchell, a town seventy miles west of Sioux Falls at the separation between East and West, on the middle border.
George's childhood was happy although his sexagenarian father behaved like a disciplinarian grandfather. George's mother was nurturing, elegant and played the piano. As a boy, George was bashful, but he found protection in her big sister who became his role model. She remembers him saying at age 13, “I would like to get into some work where I could help the largest number of people.” Both George's sisters graduated from college – one as a music teacher and the other as a nurse – so George developed an interest in books, reading Mark Twain and Willa Cather. He went to Sunday school where his father preached service rather than damnation. This was influential, because as a politician McGovern was able to quote readily from the Bible.
Mitchell was a town of 10,000 people with a liberal arts college and three theaters, but it was greatly shaken by the Depression. After 1929, its mainly rural economy collapsed: on top of the 30,000 foreclosures, the severe drought, the grasshopper invasion and the dust storms – “as overpowering spectacles as frightening as a nightmare” – made life a challenge for all. Friends of the family begged George's father for food. As he helped out, “this planted the first seed of political consciousness” in George.
Politically, South Dakota was a Republican stronghold because of the heritage of the Free-Soil Party and the Homestead Act (1862), but it was also a radical state. Statehood was obtained in 1893, just as the depression of the same year led to the emergence of the national farmers’ revolt and the creation of the People's Party. However, the agrarian populists became Democrats when they selected W.J. Bryan for presidential candidate in 1896. All the same, South Dakota remained a populist, anti-corporation, progressive, Republican state. When Teddy Roosevelt won the White House, he was much liked in South Dakota. In fact the progressive wing of the GOP wrested control from the conservatives. It believed that the role of government was to be a mediator between public and private interests. They wanted to outlaw monopolies, set maximum freight rates and have direct primaries to counterbalance machine politics. When it was time to choose a president in 1932, South Dakotans thought the cost of voting Republican was too great, so they voted for FDR. In the coming years, 65,000 South Dakotans were employed by the WPA.
In the 1930s, McGovern had a life-changing encounter with a history Professor, Bob Pearson, who took him in his debate team. Pearson was also the basketball coach and an Episcopalian who drew bad kids to basketball games with hamburgers. According to McGovern, no other person made more to strengthen his confidence. The shy student learned to research subjects, to argue the proposition and the opposition and to speak extemporaneously. Knock reminds us that in the 1930s being in the debate team was as looked up as being on the athletic team. At the end of high school, McGovern, who had by then lost his shyness, took a trip with his friend’s girlfriend named Laura and they had sexual intercourse (his first). Laura got pregnant. Both felt remorse and shame, but Laura kept the child and gave her to her sister who was looking to adopt. This remained a secret that McGovern hid even from his family until much later in his life.
Chapter 3 and 4 focus on McGovern's years at Dakota Wesleyan University and as a bomber pilot during World War II. Interestingly enough, the first four pages of Chapter 3 are devoted to George's future wife Eleanor Stegeberg and her twin sister. Their dad was a widower who educated himself in the public library. Eleanor met George during debate competitions. Her personality and opinions feature in the overall biography in a way that makes us want to know more about politicians’ spouses and companions.
At Wesleyan University in Dakota, George won many prizes as a debater. This shaped his vision of the role of government and especially whether it should intervene or remain isolationist, especially after the beginning of World War II. His career as a brilliant debater stopped on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor convinced him that it was time to get into the war. He wrote patriotic columns in the college's newspaper and refused to make plans to marry Eleanor, as he felt ready for the ultimate sacrifice. In February 1943, he received the letter that asked him to report to duty in St. Louis.
McGovern enrolled in a pilot training program, was transferred to different locations and finally decided to get married. Eleanor came to live with him off the base; she enjoyed being a cadet wife although she worried about the number of deaths in flying training which was twice bigger than the number of deaths during Pearl Harbor. McGovern became a Lieutenant and one of the finest B-24 bomber pilots. In October 1944, he was shipped to the Mediterranean near Naples where he was appalled by the starving kids and the women scraping for food in garbage cans. This made him a Democrat, in his own reflection. As a pilot, he dropped 8,000 pounds worth of bombs in 35 sorties to destroy strategic sites such as oil refineries or railroad exchanges. He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross when he managed to land his B24 with a flat tire.
His experience of the war shaped him on at least two levels – first he realized that bombing even with precision did not diminish the enemy's ability to carry on the war because of reparations, second when he found out that there were more civilian deaths than soldiers because of accidental bombing like in Normandy or voluntary bombing like in Dresden, he felt something was wrong with the American military. He was also personally affected when he found out that he had bombed a farm in Austria, a fact which haunted him during nightmares.
McGovern was demobilized in June 1945 and returned to South Dakota with Eleanor who had given birth to their first daughter. His war experience makes him one of the presidential candidates with the most brilliant military careers, not unlike that of Eisenhower. It also shaped his patriotism, his courage, his will to learn (he read Charles Beard while stationed) and his desire to help destitute populations.
Chapter 5 is one of the most interesting in the book, as it focuses on McGovern's ascent from a war hero to college professor. It is described as “a microcosm of a certain social stratum in the post-war years.” Using Tom Brokaw's oft-cited phrase “the greatest generation,” Knock suggests that people like McGovern enjoyed the security that the New Deal brought – banks were reformed so savings could not be wiped out, people in old age were protected by Social Security, firing was made more difficult by the Wagner Act as was union busting, agriculture became protected by AAA and infrastructures were improved. In other words, liberalism saved US capitalism and made US society more dynamic and humane. Yet, the most significant piece of legislation for people of the Great Generation was the GI Bill of Rights passed in 1944 which allowed all former servicemen a scholarship for a four-year college degree and low loans for housing, farming and businesses.
As he enrolled to Wesleyan, McGovern took a class on the Social Gospel and found a great interest in reading Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) by Walter Rauschenbusch. To Knock, this was a sudden realization that “his faith in his keenness for politics were brought into harmony.” This is when McGovern enrolled at a theological seminary in Illinois, despite his wife and mother's disapproval. He did it to preach the social gospel, but didn't like the ministry because he felt men and women in church when looking for a priest and a sense of hierarchy which he despised. He dropped the seminary and enrolled in the history department at Northwestern University after hearing a speech by historian Ray Allen Billington.
Like many other veterans, McGovern became a historian because his vision of the world was molded by the war and disgust at US support of dictatorships, especially Chiang Kai-Shek’s. He wanted to change society; he was an activist – understand, liberal and progressive – historian. He began a doctorate with Arthur S. Link, Wilson’s biographer, and lived with his wife in Evanston near the campus. Living conditions there were frugal but congenial, as the McGoverns’ neighbors were Eleanor’s sister Tia and her husband Bob Pennington, also a doctoral student in history at Northwestern.
During his doctoral training, McGovern came to define liberalism as – “the federal government must assert itself to find a way to compel big business, that is to say unfettered industrial capitalism, to behave in a socially responsible way.” Thanks to Billington, he had to read Frederick Jackson Turner on the role of the frontier that was replaced by the federal government, Charles Beard on class conflict and Parrington on agrarianism versus the aristocracy. When he found out that T. Roosevelt and Wilson, who were also historians, both liked Turner, it came as no surprise that Roosevelt should have ended up regulating capitalism, while Wilson lobbied for the 8-hour work week and opposed child labor.
The topic of McGovern's PhD thesis reflects his interest. He chose the Colorado coal strike of 1913 and 1914, otherwise known as the Ludlow massacre. He went to Boulder with his family (Eleanor did all the typing although she was caring for two children and expecting a third one) to find out that the history of the Colorado mines was still vibrant. The mining company was owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. who ruled as an absentee capitalist and with total indifference to the welfare of the employees, as McGovern wrote. The living conditions were bleak and reminded McGovern of his own grandfather's way of life. The death risk was three times higher than the national average. The earnings the miners made conferred them subsistence – nothing more. Knock provides the reader with a good narrative of the Colorado strike and assures us that the dissertation written by McGovern was for many years the definitive work on the most deadly labor dispute in US history. It ended with Wilson sending the federal troops to evince Rockefeller’s militia who had notoriously set fire to strikers’ tents and killed children and women.
Not without a hint of hagiographic admiration and retrospective illusion, Knock concludes, “In retrospect all of McGovern’s academic strivings pointed the arrow in an unmistakable direction as it reflected the life story of his granddad, his dad, the farmers in South Dakota, the merchant struggling against forces beyond their control.”
Once his dissertation was completed, McGovern contemplated working in academia, but this is when he had his first encounter with political commitment (chapter 6). After Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain Speech in 1946, Democrat Henry Wallace warned against the “get tough with Russia policy” and decided to start a third party campaign for the presidential elections of 1948. He called his coalition The Progressive Party. Henry Wallace’s platform included equal rights for women, free trade, national health insurance, increases in Social Security payments, collective bargaining for federal employees, capital gains taxes and expanded farm programs. This third party run had no chance of winning but it put forward progressive ideas. McGovern supported Wallace for three reasons: his stance against Truman's aggressive foreign policy, his agricultural reform and the fact that Truman's federal loyalty oaths irked him.
McGovern's readings at the time, like Howard Smith’ State of Europe, made him skeptical of the Cold War. He attended a class taught by a Greek Professor who reminded him that the Russians had lost fifty times more men in the fight against fascism than the Americans had. Wallace’s candidacy spurred the creation of ADA by former New Dealers and anti-communist liberals with whom McGovern felt alienated. He wrote a column about hysteria and the Red Scare which owed him a FBI file. In July 1948, he attended the Progressive Party’s convention in Philadelphia where a grassroots movement diverse in race, class and gender, led in songs by Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, gave Wallace the nomination in Shibe Park. The press ran negative reports criticizing the Progressive Party for being operated by Communist Party USA. To no one's surprise, Wallace was defeated in 1948 and the Progressive Party disbanded. McGovern became a teacher at his alma mater, but his support of Wallace “began a lifelong lovers’ quarrel with his country” .
In chapter 7, the reader finds out more about Eleanor's life, her domestic ideals, some of the political ideas, her depression when she was expecting her third child and her longing for “mother and home” . George then became a better helpmate – he took her out for walks and read books on childcare and child psychology. He figured out that Eleanor's mother's death had affected her greatly as did her father's response to the loss. McGovern concluded that Eleanor had developed a form of clinical depression.
The couple's finances got better now that he was assistant professor at Mitchell’s Wesleyan University. He was seen as a balanced teacher, easy going and often funny. He also served as a debate and forensics coach. He led many students to be champion debaters. Because he was a reverend’s son, a high school debater, a PhD and a distinguished combatant, he was never afraid by Mitchell's American Legion who started monitoring professors around 1950 at the time where Joseph McCarthy was starting his raids on government workers.
McGovern started reading experts of China’s history such as Theodore White and John Fairbanks. Both were highly critical of Chiang Kai-shek and the fact that the US government supported dictators in the name of democracy. To this effect, McGovern gave a speech at the Methodist Conference in June 1951 when he said “the spread of Communism is not a Moscow plot but the result of misrule and economic distress”. He called for the recognition and admission of China in the United Nations “otherwise these populations will be drawn to the arms of Moscow.”
With the 1952 presidential elections approaching, McGovern supported Adlai Stevenson for his eloquence and his dedication to “educate and elevate a people whose destiny is leadership.” As he was approached by an executive from the Democratic organization of South Dakota, McGovern wrote to Link, his Ph.D. advisor, that his interest in history heeded him to have an interest in politics. Just as Link and Billington had written glowing recommendation letters for a tenure track job in Iowa, McGovern was hesitating whether to choose academia or politics.
Chapter 8 focuses on McGovern’s ascent to become a congressman. As Schlesinger’s essay “the Vital Center” came out in 1948 and made the Democratic Party neither left nor right but a liberal party based on FDR's welfare state and containment, McGovern wrote seven essays in The Mitchell Daily Republic which read as his political program. He tried to defend the Democrats’ legacy as a champion of the common man through history. Revealingly, McGovern finished on Governor Norbeck’s shifting side to the Democrats because “the GOP had sold out the farm.” In these essays, McGovern dared call McCarthy a “hoodlum and pathological liar” . His platform rested on Social Security and farm price support.
Eisenhower's 1952 landslide victory made McGovern realize Americanism had triumphed over New Dealism, including in South Dakota. That is when he was tempted to take a job as Executive Secretary of South Dakota Democratic party which was offered to him by Wood Clark, who saw gold in his profile. Against the advice of his friends and because the University of Iowa had declined to hire him, McGovern took the job and spent two years traveling through the state, canvassing, taking names of supporters on cards, looking for precinct managers and running fundraisers. Democrats were not taken seriously on the Prairie, but McGovern managed to win the seat for the first district. His success was based on diligence and sincerity on farm issues, which won over independent-minded Republicans. He had managed to prove them that the Democratic Party was on the side of the average American.
In chapter 9, the reader follows McGovern in his first years as congressman in Washington. He moved in next to Hubert Humphrey, the senator who was Lyndon Johnson's link to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Humphrey and McGovern had a similar life story they were both from South Dakota, both debaters, both had a PhD in history and defending farmers’ interests. McGovern made a name for himself by fighting for the 90% parity and against corporation profits. He was very vocal in explaining to other congressmen the crisis in agriculture – farmers were getting the short end of the stick as they represented 11% of the population but only garnered 6% of total income. He said that farmers only sought the same rights as their city cousins. In terms of foreign policy, he criticized Eisenhower’s doctrine calling it “an illusion of policy when there's no policy.” He advocated the eradication of poverty, because it opened the way for communism. He took a trip to the Middle East and realized that food was “our greatest weapon for peace.”
Chapter 10 paints McGovern as the apostle of agriculture. He was re-elected to the House of Representatives in 1958, as were most Democrats all over the country, but the Democratic Party was split in three branches: the anti-New Deal and anti-civil rights in the South and border states, the urban North relying on FDR’s coalition of ethnic and labor vote, and the westerners who were liberal and progressive. McGovern was re-elected on the agricultural committee, where he battled against the Secretary of Agriculture Benson. McGovern criticized the impact of industrial capitalism, science and technology on the Jeffersonian family farm model .
Eisenhower's Administration introduced the Food for Peace resolution (PL 480) but recipients saw it as surplus dumping. There was no humanitarian component to it and some crops were even forced into certain countries. In April 1959, McGovern and Humphrey reshaped PL 480 into a Food for Peace humanitarian program. McGovern reckoned that “America's most powerful asset is the bounty that sprays from the farms.” In 1960 he decided to run for Senate against old-timer Karl Mundt.
Chapter 11 focuses on McGovern's quest for a Senate seat but before this we follow Eleanor's life in Washington, where she had to juggle between three rings – Washington’s social protocols, family life where she had to take care of five children, and her ties to South Dakota. McGovern is presented as an absentee father although his children bore no resentment and were in fact in awe of him. The perspective of a Senate seat meant fewer election cycles and so less family trouble. Knock provides us with a short biography of McGovern’s opponent, Republican Karl Mundt, who was the most famous South Dakota politician and a sidekick to Joe McCarthy.
For the 1960 Democratic primaries, McGovern supported Kennedy but said he liked the other candidates. When he came to South Dakota to campaign, Kennedy learned a crucial lesson from McGovern, who told him he should not speak from a script and mention surplus for peace with passion. The strategy worked in Mitchell. It was a triumph for Kennedy, but both McGovern and Kennedy were behind in post-summer polls, mostly because there was a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in South Dakota. Kennedy won the 1960 election by a hair’s breadth (112,000 more votes out of the 68 million cast), but there was a Republican landslide in South Dakota. McGovern lost to Mundt. According to a journalist, McGovern’s ties with organized labor cost him the election, but Knock attributes the defeat to anti-Catholic sentiment, which verged on religious hysteria in South Dakota. A few days after his inauguration, Kennedy, impressed by McGovern's savvy and popularity in South Dakota, gave him a phone call that would put him at the helm of the Food for Peace program.
Chapter 12 follows McGovern's years as the director of the Food for Peace (FFP), a program that JFK wanted to include in his New Frontier. It was an executive program which would be immune from the type of bureaucratic depredation that PL 480 suffered from. On McGovern’s advice, Kennedy included Latin America in his State of the Union. McGovern traveled to Buenos Aires with Arthur Schlesinger, where they convinced Latin leaders that FFP was not a business-oriented imperialist ploy, yet the subtext was clear: the US had to win back Latin America after Cuba had fallen to Castro in 1959.
Knock offers illuminating pages on the Cold War in Latin America. McGovern was aware of the neo-colonial accusations, but he strove to take actions for the needy children. He launched operation Nińos in 1961 in Peru, which offered school lunches because “if the children are better fed, they will be better read.” In 1962, about 35 million children worldwide received FFP lunches. McGovern insisted on using a humanitarian rhetoric rather than the Cold War rhetoric to introduce FFP in Southeast Asia so that these countries would not go the Indian or Chinese way.
In April 1962, McGovern resigned from the FFP program as he announced his candidacy for the Senate seat occupied by Francis Case. Since the latter died, he was replaced by Bottum. Although he was stricken with hepatitis, McGovern managed to win a tight race thanks to Eleanor, who filled in for him, and a 25-minute documentary by Charles Guggenheim called “A Dakota Story”. At age 40, McGovern fulfilled his dream of becoming a Senator, although he won his seat by only 600 votes out of 250,000 cast.
McGovern was a happy Senator. In his maiden speech in March 63, he roared against American myopia to “the crying needs of great masses” . He said the fixation on Castro should take second seat to the Alliance for progress (JFK did not like the criticism). He published a modified version of the speech in New York Magazine entitled “Is Castro an Obsession with the US?” which was well received by political scientists. In August 1963 he gave a speech before the Senate to criticize the new defense budget, which took up more than half of the federal budget. He said that the USA had a ridiculous overkill capacity and had a hundred times more weapons than it would ever use. The motion was voted down, but the speech was remarked.
In September 1963, McGovern criticized Kennedy's Vietnam policy: “American resources are being used to suppress the very liberties it went in to defend” . The next pages are brilliant as they argue that McGovern was an expert in Indochina and remind us that “JFK and Diem had become each other's hostages”. On June 4, McGovern gave a speech on the Montgomery riots where he linked US hypocrisy about racial sins to the popularity of communism; for him the domestic was inseparable from the international. LBJ managed to cut down the defense expenditure for the year 1965, so McGovern supported his focus from the military to the domestic.
In Chapter 14, we are reminded that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was ready before the incident actually happened. LBJ was scared of seeing Vietnam become communist, which would start a second witch hunt at home, sustained by Goldwater’s paranoia. To make things worse, Johnson's advisers like McNamara or Rostow were all domino theorists. McGovern voted yes on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution but he had serious misgivings – he made it clear that he did not endorse long-standing military involvement in Vietnam.
Because 1964 was an election year, the real objective of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was to foil Goldwater. With the landslide of November, McGovern felt vindicated for his yes vote. LBJ promised restraint and to train Vietnamese to do the job but bowing to Rusk, McNamara and Taylor, he launched air attacks on North Vietnam and approved sending combat troops. Only George Ball told him that nationalism not communism was the decisive force throughout Vietnam. In public, LBJ justified himself by speaking about response to aggression, avoiding another Munich and the domino theory. In private, he wanted to silence the conservatives who were eager to make him fall if he was soft on communism.
McGovern sensed from VP Humphrey that de-escalation was not in the works, so he gave a speech to the Senate to reiterate the urgency of Food for Peace. He was joined by Frank Church to criticize Operation Rolling Thunder. As a result, he was stigmatized by critics for being unpatriotic, an appeaser or a “bookish isolationist” as William S. White wrote. He started a debate in The New York Times with McGee; both portray Vietnam as a civil war and argued that the force of arms would inevitably worsen the situation. McGovern saluted the anti-war rallies held by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on April 17, 1964; he understood the usefulness of “heartfelt expression of concern,” but he favored reason to dissent, so he appeared as a middle ground between Goldwater’s all-out war and the SDS’ call for withdrawal.
The Food for Peace program and the Great Society were killed by Dean Rusk. In November 1965, McGovern took a trip to Vietnam for five days – he was shocked by the poverty in the jungle and he was convinced that winning was impossible. When he returned, he reiterated that peace would not be met in the conference room but by fighting hunger. McGovern was not the only anti-war liberal (Morse, Gruening, Church, etc.), but he was the only one with a clear insight and grasp of the historical circumstances . Knock makes it clear that most Americans were malleable about the war and they would have gone with it if a well-crafted disengagement plan had been proposed, but Johnson, who had been given a mandate in 1964 to end the war against war-hawks had changed his views because of his “inner fears and concerns about his own credibility” .
Chapter 15 deals with McGovern's family life. He regretted his absences but prided itself for passing on to his children social conscience, decency, tolerance, love of books and music. His children Susan and Ann were not typical of the 1960s youth, but Terry his daughter had problems with alcohol starting at age 13. She had an abusive boyfriend, was pregnant at 16 and had an abortion in Florida. She was sent to a Quaker School for Girls in Rhode Island, but she kept drinking and doing drugs. McGovern’s son, Stephen, also had problems with alcohol, but that is all the biographer allows himself to say about McGovern's family problems.
In January 1966, for his third State of the Union Address, Johnson said that the Great Society and victory in Vietnam could coexist, but McGovern disagreed and he started speaking up in the press and on TV to plead for an extended bombing halt because no victory by force was in sight. Besides, bombings were inefficient as he had found out during World War II.
McGovern was happy to join Senator Fulbright’s televised hearings on the war with other experts who started challenging the State Department’s rationale. As a response, LBJ and Dixiecrats dismissed the hearings’ call for de-escalation. Later, McGovern and other congressmen felt trapped by the executive’s demand for an extended five-billion-dollar budget for the war, because they realized that “the boys must have the best equipment they need.” As an expert of Chinese history, McGovern had always viewed Vietnam as a consequence of the United States’ failed China policy. The major problem had been American support for Chiang Kai-Shek since 1949. McGovern advocated opening trade relations with China for wheat as well as university exchanges and artists and tourism. This was hailed as a great foreign policy changer, six years before Nixon’s famed visit to China.
For the midterm elections of 1966, the Democrats were not in a good position because of urban riots in Watts in ‘65 or in Chicago in ‘66. Martin Luther King Jr. said Northern black youth had lost faith in nonviolence. Johnson was furious and middle-class voters thought the riots were senseless and started to question the racial aspect of the Great Society. 1966 was a massive defeat for the Democrats, the worst since 1938. Nixon started to attack Johnson for his efforts to negotiate in Vietnam. Some Democratic executives wanted Johnson out, because they were certain he would lose in 1968. This is when a committee was created to support Robert Kennedy (RFK). He and Johnson had had a long-lasting enmity. For RFK, Johnson was vulgar and a usurper, whereas Johnson felt RFK was the messenger boy for his brother, a spoiler who would start blaming him for betraying his brother and letting democracy fall into the hand of a coward.
At the same time, McGovern and Robert Kennedy started developing a genuine friendship. At its first anti-war speech on March 2, 1967, Kennedy said he wanted to stop Rolling Thunder. As the anti-war mobilization spread outside the circles of students and left-wing activists, McGovern reiterated that he did not condone draft evasion, but supported academics taking a stand. At this juncture, General Westmoreland was called back to the USA to justify the wall and criticize “unpatriotic” acts at home. McGovern retaliated in a speech in the Senate on April 25, 1967, in which he made several points: he said that blaming critics for simply exposing falsehoods was to admit the weakness of the Administration’s case; second, he stressed that the fight in Vietnam endured because the war was suggested by professional policy planners whose reputation was on the line; third, there was a misreading of history and myopia to the consequence of the destruction of civilians and the countryside; fourth, he criticized the manipulation of analogies (Hitler, Munich) because “Vietnam is a civil war”. McGovern’s retort has come down in history as the “policy of Madness” speech. The rift with Johnson could not have been wider.
Knock describes Johnson as a tortured and confused man desperate for advice, but unable to stop justifying himself. This is when the “Dump Johnson” movement got off the ground. The ADA started cajoling McGovern into running for President, but he insisted Robert Kennedy had a better chance although he liked the idea very much. He realized that the presidency was open to anyone with the imagination and the courage. Allard Lowenstein advocated for a McGovern run in order to turn Johnson around on Vietnam, but McGovern faced reelection in 1968 for his Senate seat and the Republican candidate seemed to have the upper hand. Knock then describes Eugene McCarthy's candidacy, which was flawed from day one because he was tied to Big Oil, was bitter and was belittling of the people, according to Gloria Steinem. Eugene McCarthy had ulterior motives, was very bland on Vietnam and he was a poor public speaker. This is why McGovern debated whether to go in 1968 but chose ‘72 instead.
Chapter 16 starts with a description of the consequences of the Tet Offensive in February 1968: the Republicans started doubting Johnson's control over the military and the moderate anti-war people realized that victory was not around the corner, contrary to what their president had promised. This led Johnson to announce on March 31 that he would both order the de-escalation of the war and would not run for reelection in 68 in an act of self-sacrifice. Five days later Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, which led to a wave of riots throughout urban America. In May, Robert Kennedy, campaigning in South Dakota to get the Democratic nomination, used most of McGovern’s ideas. He won the primary in South Dakota as well as the critical state of California on June 4.
McGovern was very happy that Kennedy had won South Dakota, so he phoned in to give him notes for his victory speech, but Kennedy had no time to deliver the speech as a deranged Palestinian shot him dead. What follows is a journalistic report on how Democratic executives started to enroll McGovern in the race for the White House in 1968. Kennedy staffers told him Kennedy’s delegates needed a place to go outside of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey who had just announced his candidacy as Johnson’s heir. Influential people like Gloria Steinem or Walter Mondale supported McGovern calling him “the real McCarthy.” Yet, McGovern was uncertain: he felt guilt over Kennedy's death. On the day he was cheered in Los Angeles after his speech, he found out that his daughter Terry had been arrested for possession of marijuana, but there were no political consequences to this.
He launched his campaign for the nomination running on a bombing pause in Vietnam, ending Search and Destroy operations and addressing the problem of American cities. He famously said “face-saving should give way to life-saving.” He advocated the withdrawal of 250,000 troops and was critical of the rationality for the war, not of Johnson. During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in the midst of intense protests and police brutality, McGovern gave several speeches that were remarked for his clarity, but he managed to win only 146 delegates against Humphrey’s 1714. In these pages, Knock is not really convincing as he does not explain the reader why there were so many protesters in Chicago and why the Democratic machine gave them the impression that it was betraying the ideas of the base.
Chapter 17 tells the story of McGovern's re-election as a senator for South Dakota. He was running against Republican governor Archie Gubbrud, who attacked him for having sided with the “hippies and dissenters hamstringing police” in Chicago. In several rebuttals in The Argus Leader, McGovern resented this racial hatred and called Gubbrud’s words “insulting for every American voter.” McGovern ran a positive campaign on farms and cities and thus managed to get the votes of undecided Republicans, also because of his seniority in Washington. He won about 57% of the ballot, even in GOP counties.
The book’s epilogue, which reads as a conclusion, reminds the reader that in 1968 Nixon won with only 500,000 more votes than Humphrey out of the 73 million cast. Humphrey managed to get the vote of northern Democrats, African Americans and union members, but lost the vote of the Dixiecrats in the South that went to Wallace’s racist campaign. Knock concludes that in four years the New Deal coalition had unraveled: indeed in 1964 Johnson had trounced Goldwater's conservative campaign, but four years later 60% of Americans voted for the conservative policies of Nixon and Wallace.
Knock also summarizes the opposition to the Vietnam War reminding us that the liberal establishment was against it as well as New Left radicals and the conservatives too because they thought the Administration was too timid and not repressive enough against anti-war demonstrators. This led McGovern to feel confident that he could win when others had failed, basing his policies on two subjects: malnutrition in the United States and election reform, in other words getting rid of the machine politics and the bosses handpicking candidates instead of the electorate (the McGovern-Fraser Commission was formed in the wake of the Chicago Convention which gave the nomination to Humphrey although he had not run in a single primary).
In public opinion McGovern became the acceptable middle ground between “John-phrey” on one side and “Mc-Kennedy” on the other. In terms of foreign policy, he realized that the containment policy entailed cumulative perversions against which he favored international peacekeeping. A long quote summarizes both his hopes and regrets:
No single nation has the power of the mission even less the wisdom to be the world's policeman banker or judge. What had happened if instead of 500,000 troops we had sent 10,000 Peace Corps men with medical ability, agricultural know-how, sanitation and nutrition skills and dedicated teaching talent and had left the Vietnamese to develop in their own way?
McGovern demolished two myths about Vietnam, first that it presented the same challenges as Hitler in Munich and that communism was monolithic. He reminded his supporters that interventionism did not mean how many wars the United States got itself involved into, “but the intelligence and compassion the United States manifests in responding to the needs of our fellow human beings around the globe” . He also pointed out that “no nation however powerful can work against nationalistic forces.”
The end of the epilogue states what could appear as Knock’s thesis for the whole book: although the campaign for the presidency in 1972 would become a unique highlight of McGovern's life, in fact all his life had been driven by a sense of duty to explore alternatives to Americanism through internationalism, education and humanitarianism, so that America could “come home” and live up to its true creed and promise.
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