George McGovern, a former U.S. congressman and senator from the American heartland, has made his mark as both a soldier and an activist for peace. In 1972 he ran as the Democratic candidate for president and lost to Richard Nixon.
McGovern was born in rural Avon, South Dakota, in 1922, the son of a Methodist minister. "I watched him closely when he was on the pulpit, preaching his sermons to the congregation," McGovern says, recalling his father's persuasive speaking style as an early influence. "I picked some ideas from watching him as to how he made his points, developed thoughts and used quotations and anecdotes to bring his message down to the level where people could comprehend what he was driving at."
McGovern's interest in public speaking continued in school, where one teacher helped him hone his debating skills. "I went out for the debate squad at Mitchell High School and had a wonderful coach, Bob Pearson," he recalls. "He inculcated in me a passion to learn how to speak on my feet: to speak in an orderly, thoughtful way and with a certain amount of force and drama. I owe him a lot."
George McGovern's debating talent won him a scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University, but the advent of World War II interrupted his studies. He joined the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a bomber pilot. "I flew a B-24 'Liberator' against targets over Hitler's Germany. Nobody likes war. It's a destructive, barbaric behavior. But in this case, it seemed to me that Hitler was a monster bent on gobbling up the whole European continent. He'd already had gotten a big chunk of Europe by the time I got into the war."
McGovern flew 35 air missions, often against heavy anti-aircraft artillery, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. But those wartime heroics changed the 23-year-old pilot's views on life and death forever. Although he says he is not a pacifist, McGovern does the war ant the atomic bombing of two great cities in Japan that ended it left him "with the feeling that we've got to do something to halt this kind of barbaric enterprise. So I think almost from the end of World War II, I've been doing what I can to settle our disputes with other countries where possible, without going to war."
One political leader who was consolidating his power during World War II, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, would later influence McGovern's views on America's involvement in Southeast Asia:
"Ho Chih Minh -- whether we agreed with his ideology or not -- had the support of rank and file people. He was very strong out in the villages with the rural peasants and others," McGovern says. "He was the logical leader to come to power after World War II. You know, he fought on our side during World War II: some of my fellow pilots, who were shot down in Southeast Asia by the Japanese, were brought back to American lines by Ho Chi Minh and his underground forces. So the logical thing for us to have done at the end of World War II would be to recognize that French colonialism had had its day in Vietnam, and let the Vietnamese people decide on their political future."
After serving in World War II and completing his doctoral studies at Northwestern University, McGovern returned to South Dakota to become a professor of political science. In 1956, he ran successfully for Congress and became known as an advocate for the American farmer. McGovern was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962 and re-elected twice.
In the 1972 presidential election, as the Vietnam War entered its seventh year, Senator McGovern was the Democratic Party's candidate for President. He ran against President Richard Nixon on a platform advocating the unilateral withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam in exchange for the return of American prisoners of war. It was not a widely popular platform at the time, and it contributed to McGovern's lopsided defeat at the polls.
Today, three years after its invasion of Iraq, the United States remains in a shooting war with a loose army of Islamic insurgents. George McGovern sees parallels between the current conflict and the war in Vietnam.
"I think it was a great mistake to go into Vietnam, a country that was not a threat to the United States and wanted nothing much other than to be recognized as the legitimate government," he says. "It was [also] a big mistake to go into Iraq, another country that was no threat to us and had nothing to do with the 9-11 attack. Our leaders, some of them, seem to think we're fighting terrorism in Iraq. I think we're causing it. This insurgency was brought about and gathered force in the rebellion against the presence of the American army in the middle of somebody else's country."
Shaking his head with regret, George McGovern recalls a visit to Vietnam five years ago as the country was beginning to adopt a Western-styled economy. He suggests it's something that would have happened anyway, without the U.S. military campaign against Vietnam's communists, a campaign that cost the lives of 58,000 U.S. soldiers and more than one million Vietnamese.
"I finally said to one audience that I talked with there, 'How come we dropped more bombs on this little strip of jungle territory than were dropped by all the countries of the world on all the other countries in World War II. How come everywhere we've gone here we've been warmly received,'" McGovern recalls. "The chairman of the group said, 'Senator, you have to keep in mind we've always admired the American people. We think you have a great democracy; we admire your Constitution, your Bill of Rights. It was not the American people that we opposed; it was your leaders. Americans are welcome here anytime. They always have been. We want them to invest here. We want them to visit our hotels, our beaches, our resort areas, and they'll be well treated."
With the perspective of a politician and an historian, George McGovern says he hopes today's leaders can learn from the past. "It's no disgrace to make a decision and then decide you've made a mistake," he says. "That's just another way of saying, 'I'm wiser today than I was yesterday.' What's wrong with that?"
George McGovern remains active in public policy. Following his recent three-year stint as U.S. Ambassador to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, he was selected to serve as the United Nations global ambassador on hunger. He has joined with former Senator Robert Dole in advocating free breakfasts for schoolchildren in a program called Got Breakfast? George McGovern is also a prolific author who continues to write about American political history. Ever the teacher, McGovern says he's lectured at more than 1,000 universities around the world, and he's still counting.
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