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George McGovern, An Improbable Icon Of Anti-War Movement

Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern talks about the bombs being used in Vietnam at a $250-a-person fundraising dinner in Los Angeles on Sept. 27, 1972.
Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern talks about the bombs being used in Vietnam at a $250-a-person fundraising dinner in Los Angeles on Sept. 27, 1972.

If George McGovern often seemed miscast as a presidential candidate, he was at least as improbable as an icon of the anti-war movement.

The Vietnam War gave birth to an opposition movement unlike any America had seen in its previous wars. It was young, unconventional and countercultural, defiant of authority and deeply suspicious of government.

McGovern himself was none of these things.

He was, at the time of his presidential nomination, a 50-year-old two-term senator from South Dakota, a family man and the son of a small-town Methodist minister. He had been a decorated bomber pilot with 35 combat missions in World War II and had spent most of his adult life in politics, mostly in Washington. Few people outside his home state had ever heard of him before.

Yet his surprise emergence as the peace candidate in the 1972 Democratic presidential primaries made it possible for him to seize the presidential nomination of America's oldest and largest political party.

That made him part of American history, a milestone in an era of social and political change that included the transformation of the Democratic Party itself. It was a transformation he had aided as co-chairman of a commission that reordered the presidential nominating system, establishing the power of primaries and caucuses to allocate delegates (the system both parties now use).

Loss To Nixon

His great burden to bear in the latter four decades of his life was that, as the first nominee under the new system, he would lose in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon. As McGovern himself once described it: "I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party, and 20 million people walked out."

The sense of insouciance and insurgency that powered McGovern's nomination — resisted by the party's power centers in the South and in organized labor — lost its magic that fall. His campaign was beset by disasters. On the last night of the convention, his "Come Home America" speech was delayed until 2:48 a.m. Eastern time. Then it became known that his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had undergone electroshock therapy.

The rolling debacle of the fall campaign made it easier for Nixon to win 49 states and, ironically, to continue prosecuting the war in Vietnam. But the movement McGovern had come to symbolize also pressed Nixon to reinvigorate long-stalled talks with the leaders of North Vietnam.

Those negotiations reached a significant breakthrough in October 1972, just weeks before the election. Even as McGovern's own White House prospects withered, the deal by which the U.S. would leave Vietnam was getting done.

Legacy Of Vietnam

In 1973, McGovern returned to the Senate, where over the next 20 months he would see Nixon destroyed by the Watergate scandal. But any satisfaction there may have been in that process had to be bitter, as so much of the Nixon campaign's skullduggery had been devoted to defeating McGovern's intraparty rivals and setting up the South Dakotan as Nixon's patsy in November.

McGovern would be re-elected in 1974 as part of a national wave of post-Watergate revulsion at Republicans. But that six-year term would be his last. In 1980, he was one of nine Democratic senators swept out of office in the first Ronald Reagan landslide.

McGovern would not hold elected office again. He had become part of the memory of Vietnam, and for most Americans that remained a painful memory — the final or defining event for far too many lives.

It is difficult now to describe the degree to which the Vietnam struggle defined the late 1960s and early 1970s. Every aspect of American life felt the influence of the war, in large part because as many as half a million Americans were in uniform in Southeast Asia at any given moment.

Millions more had returned from that war with physical and emotional wounds. Still more millions spent much of their time thinking about what role Vietnam would play in their futures. Everyone who grew up in that era either experienced these uncertainties for themselves or cared about someone who did. For every life lost in Vietnam, countless others were altered.

Long Road To Democratic Nomination

McGovern himself had come to the issue in his first year in 1963, his first year in the Senate. In one of his first speeches, he criticized the rather limited commitment President Kennedy had made there. The speech was not well received in the chamber or in the administration, and after Kennedy's assassination in November of that year, the freshman senator focused primarily on farming and food policy.

Two years later, however, the U.S. footprint in Vietnam had been vastly expanded by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ had pursued a stunningly progressive agenda in domestic affairs, which McGovern heartily endorsed. But the president from Texas also felt he had to have a tough military posture against communism, an impulse McGovern abhorred and often spoke against.

As the war escalated, some of its opponents approached McGovern to run against Johnson in 1968, but the South Dakota senator faced a tough re-election of his own that year back home.

The challenge to LBJ and the war was instead mounted by Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. McCarthy was seen as a Don Quixote until his remarkably close second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary put the anti-war forces on the map. Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York entered the race, and LBJ dropped out. Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the stand-in candidate for the president.

McGovern sided that year with Kennedy, who won the California primary but was assassinated the same night. McCarthy was not able to consolidate all the anti-war elements in the Democratic Party, and McGovern briefly offered himself as a compromise before the 1968 convention. But Humphrey won the nomination.

Humphrey had enough support from delegates to overcome the fact that he had been absent from the primaries entirely. In 1968, the delegates were still chosen largely by party officials and committees. McGovern did not win many new friends with his late entry into the presidential fray, but he established his interest in presidential nominating rules and positioned himself to head the committee that would rewrite them.

In 1970, McGovern became more of a hero to many in the anti-war movement by co-sponsoring legislation to end the war by cutting off its funding. By then he was planning his own candidacy for 1972, and the energy of anti-war activists would be the wellspring of that campaign.

In a way, McGovern's rather bland, Midwestern persona as the square former war hero lent a sheen of conventionality to the movement at a time when the country at large was turning against the war. He also benefited from the faltering of the early frontrunner, Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who had been Humphrey's running mate in 1968.

Muskie stumbled early and nearly lost to McGovern in New Hampshire. When that galvanized McGovern's backers, Muskie dropped out and Humphrey got in. But it was too late, and McGovern was the Man of the Hour. He had captured the party activists in the first presidential year when winning the primaries could ensure winning the nomination.

Political Legacy

Some of these activists would have long careers as candidates in their own right. The first was McGovern's campaign manager, a young lawyer from Denver named Gary Hart. Later a two-term senator from Colorado, Hart would seek the presidency himself twice in the 1980s. Ultimately more successful was the team that managed McGovern's 1972 campaign in Texas, two young lawyers from Yale named Bill and Hillary Clinton.

These were only the best-known names among thousands who began their careers in public affairs — or felt their first flash of political fervor — in the McGovern cause 40 years ago.

In that sense, the personal legacy of McGovern's long-ago crusade survives him.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for

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