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    Current Opinion

  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
  • Interview: George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
  • Interview: Maurice Isserman on the 1960s, Vietnam and Iraq
  • Interview: Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


    George McGovern

    George McGovern on peace and progress, then and now

    Former presidential candidate George McGovern is the subject of a new documentary that brings the issues of 1972 back to prominence during a time when they're as relevant as they ever were.


    Thirty-three years after his proud but doomed campaign for president, George McGovern is the subject of a new documentary that raises the still-relevant issues of the 1960s and '70s and looks at the positive side of an election that is often viewed as a disaster. We talked to the former South Dakota senator and "One Bright Shining Moment" filmmaker Stephen Vittoria in New York before the film's premiere.


      Review: One Bright Shining Moment
    An admiring documentary tells the story of George McGovern — not just the guy who got clobbered by Nixon but the one who inspired a generation and opened the political system to social change.

    Interview, Sept. 15, 2005   MP3
    Q: I was born in '63, so my whole first 10 years on earth were during the Vietnam War. And I can tell you my family had McGovern and Morse signs on the lawn, and I saw them in the garage between elections every day.

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Is that right!

    Q: I got a sense of how important things were that were happening at that time.

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: That was the year — the year you were born — that I entered the United States Senate, and that same year, I made my first speech against our military involvement in Vietnam. I kept doing that for the next 12 years. [Laughs.]

    Q: Even when [American involvement] was at the adviser level.


    Q: At the beginning of the Iraq war, a friend of mine e-mailed me and said, "Please sign this online petition against the war. Never before has a president used trumped-up circumstances to get the country into a war." And I wrote back to her and said, "What you're describing is the Gulf of Tonkin incident." And she wrote back and said, "Okay, smart aleck, just sign the petition." I'm wondering how you think the memory of Vietnam has come to us culturally in the current day.

    "I couldn't imagine any American president ever again taking us into war against a country that had done nothing against us and was no threat to us. And yet we're doing it again."  

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: I think that it has been a restraining factor in the use of military power since we got out of Vietnam — but not as much as I had hoped and expected. I used to tell my four daughters and my son, during all those years when I was speaking against our involvement in Vietnam and urging us to get out, that the one good thing that might come out of the Vietnam experience is that it was such a disaster we would never repeat it. I really believed that. I couldn't imagine any American president ever again taking us into war against a country that had done nothing against us and was no threat to us. And yet we're doing it again. Here we are. It's been quite a few years since we got out of Vietnam in the spring of '75, but I would hope memories would be longer than they proved to be.

    President Bush supported the war in Vietnam. He took steps to avoid participation in the war, but nonetheless, as far as I know, he still thinks the war was a good idea — but not for him. That was one of the things that made me say so many years ago, I'm getting sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in. I still feel that way. I get very angry at the Dick Cheneys and the [Donald] Rumsfelds and the George Bushes in this world who take us into these completely unnecessary and self-defeating wars. I felt that way about Vietnam; I feel that way about Iraq.

    Q: Let's come back to Iraq in a little bit. I wanted to ask you — first of all, you said you spoke against the Vietnam War in '63. In '64 you voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Why did you do that? In the movie you call it the vote that you most regret.

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yeah, it was a big mistake. I don't think it had much to do with accelerating the war — we were already up to our eyebrows in war when the Gulf of Tonkin resolution came along. I had taken the Senate floor against our involvement there a full year before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. What happened there was a deception. We were told by the administration that two of our destroyers on the high seas, where we had always insisted on the freedom of the seas, were attacked — an unprovoked attack by elements of the North Vietnamese naval force.

    I didn't really want to vote for that resolution at the time, even though I believed what we were told about the Gulf of Tonkin. But I let the senators who were managing the bill on the floor convince me that it was more of a political move by President Johnson, who wanted to protect his political flanks, against the charge by his opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, that he was not responding vigorously enough in the Vietnam War.

    And I think a lot of us voted for it that way. We were assured by thoughtful men like Senator Fulbright that it didn't mean anything — that it was a gesture. And so we went along with it, except for two very wise older men, Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse, who were both promptly defeated in the next election. I wish I had voted with them. Maybe I would have been the third one defeated that year. [Laughs.]

    Q: How did it come about, after doing that, that you spoke out again against the war?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Well, I had always been against the war, and I made that clear at the time of the vote on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that I didn't see that as an endorsement of a larger war. It was a response, in my mind, to a single incident — the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Once I learned that that never took place, that there was no unprovoked attack on our destroyers, I accelerated my criticism of the war. I held up criticism for a while, during the fall of '64, because I thought that Senator Goldwater, whom I liked personally but who I thought was way off base in calling for a more vigorous military operation in Vietnam — I thought it was preferable that Lyndon Johnson be elected. So I laid off my criticism until after the '64 election.

      "We went along with [the war resolution], except for two very wise older men, Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse, who were both promptly defeated in the next election. I wish I had voted with them. Maybe I would have been the third one defeated that year."
    Also, keep in mind that Johnson told us over and over in that campaign, "We seek no wider war. This is their war. They're the ones that must fight it and win or lose it. We're not going to send American boys to fight and die in a job that should be done by Asian boys."

    Q: Do you think senators believed that they were voting for less than they were voting for?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yes. I don't think that they saw it as an acceleration of a war. I know I didn't.

    Q: The film notes that the McGovern-Hatfield amendment in 1970 failed on a vote of 55 to 39. What happened in the Senate to move from two votes against, in 1964, to 39 votes against, in 1970?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: A number of things happened. [After] the Tet Offensive in January of '68 ... it became clear that the Viet Cong could erupt anyplace across Vietnam. They showed up everywhere that day — even up on the roof of our embassy in downtown Saigon. People were shocked. Walter Cronkite, probably the most respected commentator that we've had in this country in the 20th century — when he got that news bulletin, he said on television, "My God, what's going on here? I thought we were winning the war." Well, that was a signal things had changed in terms of the perception by the press and, I think, by the public, and from that point on, I thought the days of the war were numbered. I didn't realize we'd have to wait another seven years before we got our troops out of there.

    Q: Are there instances you can think of where particular senators' minds changed, or where they may have talked to you about it?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Oh, yes. That vote in 1970 where we got 39 senators to stand up on a roll-call vote and vote "no" against continuing that war — actually, those people voted "yes" for the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, which would have terminated American involvement there. I thought we had a sensational moral victory. Thirty-nine is a lot of votes. I don't think you'll find another time in American history when that percentage of the United States Senate stood up and went on the record in a roll-call vote to terminate a war that the commander-in-chief wanted to continue. So it was a remarkable victory. And there again, I thought the days of our involvement in Vietnam were limited after a vote like that.

    One of the wonderful things the McGovern-Hatfield amendment did, is that it gave people who had been against the war so long some degree of hope. Also, there was something you could get your teeth in. People were so frustrated — they couldn't grab the president and shake him, but they could shake him up by voting and supporting that amendment. So that was an important step in my own life. I think the McGovern-Hatfield amendment helped set the stage for me to emerge two years later as the Democratic presidential nominee. It kind of set me aside from the other contenders that year.

    Continued: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2005

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