There is a notion abroad in American politics, carefully crafted by its proponents, that is both disturbing and false. It is especially disturbing to me personally because it is frequently associated with my campaign for the presidency in 1972. The notion is that my party, and especially its standard-bearer of ’72, are not interested in the defense and security of America. Nor, according to this notion, do we care about marriage and the family, the sacredness of human life and the things of the spirit. Perhaps my views are outdated, but I have always assumed that every American cares about these values; consequently, they are not issues for partisan exploitation.
What is the truth as I see it?
First and foremost, I have believed since childhood that my country is the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Never once during my long years as a public servant did I drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to my office at the US Capitol–past the majestic memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln–without experiencing the genuine thrill of knowing that I worked for the US government and its citizens. One of my young daughters observed to a playmate as we drove by the Capitol one evening long ago, “That’s my daddy’s office.”
There has not been a day in my life that I would not have proudly sacrificed that life in the defense of America. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, as a college sophomore, I promptly volunteered for the Army Air Corps and flew thirty-five missions as the pilot of a B-24 bomber. Half of the bomber crews flying with me did not survive the war, including my navigator and dear friend Sam Adams of Milwaukee. That was a terrifying, destructive war, but I have never experienced an hour of regret over my part in helping to smash Hitler’s ruthless war machine. America had no honorable course except to halt the worldwide, murderous aggression of the Axis powers–including the unspeakable Holocaust that murdered 6 million Jews.
When I entered the US Senate in 1963, eighteen years after World War II, America was involved in a vastly different kind of war in the jungles of Vietnam. I was convinced that our leaders had embarked on a course that, however well intentioned, could only end in disaster. Over the next decade I sounded the alarm against what I believed was a tragedy for the young Americans dying in the Southeast Asian quagmire, a tragedy for the people of America and a tragedy for the people of Vietnam, whose country was devastated and 2 million of whom were killed. That war became the central issue of my successful bid for the presidential nomination and the subsequent campaign in which I was defeated by the incumbent President, Richard Nixon.
Had I lost the courage to resist the enemy that I had demonstrated in World War II? The truth is that it took more courage as a junior senator to stand up in the Senate and challenge the war policy of our government in Vietnam than it did to fly combat missions in World War II. My first warnings against our deepening involvement in Vietnam were delivered when public opinion polls in South Dakota were reporting that 80 percent of my constituents supported the war. I assumed that this spelled defeat for me in the next election–a one-term senator.
But looking back on those early years after eighteen years in the Senate and as a presidential nominee, I am as proud of my effort to stop the needless slaughter in Vietnam as I am of my participation in World War II. In both cases, I was guided by patriotism and love of my country. But men who had never known a day of military combat worked ceaselessly–especially in 1972–to paint me as a weakling unwilling to defend the nation. Of course, I did not stand alone in opposing the looming disaster in Asia. Such senators as Fulbright, Mansfield, Church, Gruening, Morse, Nelson and Hatfield were adamantly against the war. But I was also seeking the presidency, which made me a special target of the war exponents.