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George McGovern: American Patriot and Truth-Teller | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

George McGovern: American Patriot and Truth-Teller

A 1972 Nation magazine profile noted:

Anyone who took the time to trace McGovern’s political ascension would have realized that he was not simply Mr. Nice Guy, the White Knight or Saint George, He is and always has been a tough, effective, skillful and ambitious politician, whose outstanding characteristic is dogged persistence…

Until the very end, George McGovern, who died Saturday at the age of 90, remained a champion of American liberalism at its finest. At a birthday party organized in July by his dear friend and longtime collaborator Representative Jim McGovern (no relation), he was engaged, mixing politics, martinis, history, literature and humanity in ways that very few American political figures know how to do.

McGovern was truly a member of The Nation’s family. He wrote many articles, spoke at the magazine’s 120th anniversary party in New York City’s Armory, came on the Nation cruise to Nova Scotia in 2002 and, alongside the magazine, he was one of the earliest to raise questions about Vietnam. (Ditto Iraq and Afghanistan).

I was too young to be part of the generation that remembered and supported McGovern as the courageous opponent of US involvement in the Vietnam War. But it was his humane, historically informed and passionate voice in the run-up to another tragic war, Iraq, that rang true to me and millions of others of my generation. “We hear much talk these days,” McGovern wrote in April 2003:

as we did during the Vietnam War, of “supporting our troops.” Like most Americans, I have always supported our troops, and I have always believed we had the best fighting forces in the world…But I believed then as I do now that the best way to support our troops is to avoid sending them on mistaken military campaigns that needlessly endanger their lives and limbs. That is what went on in Vietnam for nearly thirty years….During the long years of my opposition to that war, including a Presidential campaign dedicated to ending the American involvement, I said in a moment of disgust: “I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying.” That terrible American blunder, in which 58,000 of our bravest young men died, and many times that number were crippled physically or psychologically, also cost the lives of some 2 million Vietnamese as well as a similar number of Cambodians and Laotians…I had thought after that horrible tragedy—sold to the American people by our policy-makers as a mission of freedom and mercy—that we never again would carry out a needless, ill-conceived invasion of another country that has done us no harm and posed no threat to our security. I was wrong in that assumption.

McGovern knew firsthand the brutality of war—unlike men who had never known a day of military combat who worked to paint him when he ran for president as a weakling unwilling to defend the nation. He flew thirty-five missions as the pilot of a B-24 bomber. Half of the bomber crew flying with him did not survive the war, including his navigator and dear friend. As that courageous and decorated veteran of World War II, McGovern believed that patriotism is nonpartisan. He rarely got angry but I remember his fury as he spoke of the disturbing and false notion in US politics, carefully crafted by hard-minded men (meaning no new ideas could enter), that the Democratic party was not interested in the defense and security of America. But McGovern understood that more was required for the defense and security of America than simply giving over half the federal discretionary budget to the Pentagon. He liked to quote President Eisenhower’s great farewell address, in which he warned of the mounting power of the “military-industrial complex” and its unwarranted influence in our society.

McGovern stood with the underdogs, the hungry and the poor. He led the effort for a school meals program that has provided food for millions of children globally since 2000. In 2002, he asked in The Nation:

Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget, as the President has proposed, wouldn’t we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world?

He never wavered in the belief that government could be a force for security and opportunity. He was a prairie populist—raised in the heartland of South Dakota. Later, he helped unleash the power of grassroots activists by opening up the nominating process of the Democratic Party beyond establishment insiders. And as a candid and eloquent voice of conscience and dissent, he never ceased to uphold principles that would make this country a more perfect and democratic union.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the rape and murder of four American churchwomen in El Salvador—killed by US-supported troops of the Salvadoran National Guard, George McGovern and Jim McGovern wrote in The Nation:

One of us is a Catholic, the other the son of a Wesleyan Methodist clergyman. We both were inspired as we observed the lasting power of old-fashioned love and devotion to what is decent and just in human affairs as exemplified by the Maryknoll and Ursuline Sisters, the Jesuit priests and other communicants….Regrettably, it has become fashionable under the Bush reign to ignore the poor both at home and abroad. Mr. Bush perceived America’s greatness and strength to be our military might —our ability to invade and obliterate other nations. He has turned the US into a country that is more feared than respected around the globe. When our President travels here and abroad he appears with the rich and powerful and ignores the poor and oppressed. Perhaps one reason we have failed to effectively confront terrorism is because current US policies —of disdain for the poor and a trashing of our commitment to human rights—actually fuel the rage, humiliation and hopelessness that breed terrorists.

McGovern understood that our great nation was born of revolution—dedicated to human rights and dignity for all. He understood that the United States should rightfully be a champion for the vulnerable and a leader in ending hunger, illiteracy and poverty. And he was delightfully scathing in his astute observations about how too many politicians invoke faith and moral values when they violate them on a daily basis.

As we near the end of an election season that has (almost entirely) failed to speak to the poor and the vulnerable among us and has too often presented our role in the world in militarized terms, may we honor McGovern’s commitments by ensuring that what is missing is raised, and what matters is pursued in the critical times ahead.

George McGovern for The Nation:

Questions for Mr. Bush | April 4, 2002
The Reason Why | April 3, 2003
Patriotism Is Nonpartisan | March 24, 2005
Gene McCarthy| December 15, 2005
The Legacy of Four Women with Rep. Jim McGovern | December 21, 2005
An Impartial Interrogation of George W. Bush | January 17, 2007

The Nation Profile:

McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds, by Arthur I. Blaustein and Peter T. Sussman | October 16, 1972

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