WASHINGTON — George McGovern, a former U.S. lawmaker and the Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Richard Nixon in 1972, has died at the age of 90. He made his mark as both a soldier and an activist for peace.
George McGovern’s experience as a bomber pilot in World War II earned him military honors and changed the future politician’s views on life and death.
"I came out of that war -especially after the atomic bomb was set off, destroying two great cities in Japan - with the feeling that we've got to do something to halt this kind of barbaric enterprise," he said. "So I think almost from the end of World War II, I've been interested in doing what I can to settle our disputes with other countries where possible, without going to war."
After the war, McGovern returned to his home state of South Dakota to teach history and political science. In 1956, he ran successfully for Congress and became known as an advocate for the American farmer. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962.
In 1972, as the Vietnam War entered its seventh year, Senator McGovern was nominated as the Democratic Party's candidate for President. He ran against President Richard Nixon on a platform advocating the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. 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 his lopsided defeat at the polls.
He lost his Senate seat in 1980, but remained active in politics, working hard for liberal causes and candidates. He traveled the world, teaching and lecturing, and served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations' Agencies for Food and Agriculture. He left that post with a commitment to combating hunger in the United States and around the world. In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded McGovern the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, and he and former U.S. Senator Robert Dole shared the 2008 World Food Prize.
George McGovern remained a standard bearer for the American peace movement, speaking out against the invasion of Iraq, pointing to parallels between that 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," said McGovern. "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," he said, "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."
McGovern brought the perspective of a politician and an historian to the current political landscape.
"It's no disgrace to make a decision and then decide you've made a mistake," said McGovern. "That's just another way of saying, 'I'm wiser today than I was yesterday.' What's wrong with that?"
Before he was admitted to hospice care, in October, 2012, George McGovern had been promoting his 14th and final book, What It Means to Be a Democrat.