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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 on peace and progress, then and now

    Continued | Back to part 1

    Q: Last year I interviewed a historian of the '60s [Maurice Isserman], because I wanted to get more of a sense of the divisions that existed then and the divisions that exist now. And one thing he mentioned was that public opinion itself turned against the war pretty quickly, and you would think that that would provide cover for more than 39 senators to vote against the war. What prevented more senators from turning against it?


    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 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
    GEORGE MCGOVERN: I think some of the more tradition-minded senators thought that the war clause of the Constitution, while it gave Congress the right to declare war, which we had seldom exercised, nonetheless the conduct of the war would be entrusted to the commander-in-chief, and a number of them told me they just felt uncomfortable taking the conduct of the war out of the hands of the commander-in-chief — the chief executive — and Congress determining when we should get out of Vietnam. Most people would agree that, legally speaking, Congress had the right to declare war — not the president. But since we were in the war, the next question is: When do you get out? And they thought that should be left in the hands of the chief executive. I know that a number of older senators, particularly, felt that way.

    Q: A lot of people in the later years of the war looked for "peace with honor." Do you think that's possible? Or conversely, do you think that just withdrawing without considering honor or the aftermath is a bad idea?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: I thought that just withdrawing was the honorable thing to do. Nixon was the one who ballyhooed "peace with honor," the implication being that his opponent — namely me! — was advocating peace without honor. What is dishonorable about making a judgement that it's in the national interest of the United States, as well as in the national interest of Vietnam, to terminate this seemingly inexhaustible war? I thought that was the honorable course. I frankly don't understand the interpretation that once you get into a war you can't ever pull out until you've won it. We need more politicians in this country who are willing to say, "I made a mistake. Let's correct it as soon as possible."

    "I frankly don't understand the interpretation that once you get into a war you can't ever pull out until you've won it. We need more politicians in this country who are willing to say, 'I made a mistake. Let's correct it as soon as possible.'"  

    Q: Do you think that was a factor in the '70s?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: I think it was, yeah. I think a lot of people who initially supported the war — which was most of the people in Congress — found it hard to end up voting to terminate something they had previously thought was great.

    Q: Then and in the years since then, what has your relationship been with Vietnam veterans?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Very good. I would wager that if you and I went out on the street and tried to locate a dozen veterans from the Vietnam War, the majority of them would say the war was a mistake. And then they would say, "I didn't realize that at the time I volunteered, but looking back on it, I realize it was a mistake." At least this is what I find. I speak to all kinds of youthful audiences, and sometimes — not every time, but sometimes — I'll say, "How many people here fought in the Vietnam War?" And, you know, maybe 50 hands will go up at a big school. I'll say, "Well, how many of you people who fought in that war now think it was a good idea?" And you get very few. They know now why it wasn't a good idea. Killed all those Vietnamese. It's estimated that in excess of 3 million people died in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as a consequence of our military involvement there. We were the power that introduced these modern weapons — heavy bombers, automatic rifles, flamethrowers, chemical warfare. We introduced all those things in Vietnam.

    And I think, you know, the American people are basically a decent people — sometimes misled, sometimes limited in their knowledge. I don't think the voters always make sound judgements — I didn't think they did in '72! [Laughs.] But there's a certain amount of bedrock decency in most Americans, and they understand — most of them — that the Vietnam War was a dreadful mistake. I'm wondering how long before we get a majority who think that of the Iraq war. It'll come.

    Q: Well, the polls show something like 60 percent of the public against the Iraq war.


    Q: This is why I ask you some of these questions, because we have a lot of Democratic senators — a majority of the Democrats in the Senate voted for the Iraq war resolution, and they seem to be dancing around trying to find a comfortable position at this point.

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yeah, I've seen that. I think there were 23 votes against the war resolution. One of those was Lincoln Chafee, the Republican senator from Rhode Island, who's a terrific young man just like his father with whom I served — the former secretary of the Navy, John Chafee. And the other 22 were all Democrats [with one independent].

    So that's not a complete strikeout, but I wished all the Democrats had opposed this war. There were some who were very adamant in our position. Bob Byrd, the old former conservative from West Virginia — former Democratic majority leader. Ted Kennedy, one of the older senators — he came there the same time I did, way back in 1962. Bob Graham, the former governor a Florida, now a senior senator who did not run again this time. And I think probably John Warner, a senior Republican — he went along with it, but I think down inside he had serious reservations about it. So did President Bush Sr. So did his secretary of state, Jim Baker. So did his national security adviser, Gen. [Brent] Scowcroft. They were all against this foolish invasion of Iraq.

      "Why, with 60 percent of the American people telling pollsters they think this war isn't worth the cost in lives and money, why do we stay in there? I think it's partly a failure of leadership."
    So I think your question is interesting. Why, with 60 percent of the American people telling pollsters they think this war isn't worth the cost in lives and money, why do we stay in there? I think it's partly a failure of leadership — that the same people that were hellbent on getting us in there don't want to come out, in spite of the unpopularity of the war in the polls.

    Q: The historian that I spoke to about the '60s pointed out: "After 1968, a majority of the American people opposed the war. ... The curious thing was that that did not translate into increased public acceptance or approval of the anti-war movement." Maybe we see that now.

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yes. I think the explanation there is this — and it's not my theory, it's based on things that I learned, things I heard. A lot of people would say to me, "God, we never should have gotten in there, but I don't see how we can get out now. It'll probably be a bloodbath that would wipe out half the people of Vietnam if we turn it over to the communists." And other people would say to me, "How are we going to get people to trust us on other commitments we make if we run out on this commitment?" That bothered a lot of people. So even though they increasingly thought it was a dreadful mistake that we were there, they felt we had to find some way to get out other than just to pull out. I think that bothered a lot of people — or so they told me. But, as I said earlier, I think that if you realize that you've made a mistake, you're not going to simplify things by compounding the mistake.

    Q: What do you think it will take for the leadership in this country — at least the Democratic leadership — but for some kind of leadership to arise and move to put a stop to the war?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Well, maybe increasing anti-war activity. I was in Vietnam four years ago — I was then our ambassador in Rome to the United Nations agencies there. I went to Vietnam and I was talking to a group of maybe a hundred Vietnamese, and I was answering questions, and finally I said, "You know, I'd like to ask you a question. We dropped more bombs on this little country of yours, this little strip of jungle territory, than were dropped by all the air forces of all the countries combined in the Second World War. How come everywhere we've gone here on this mission, we're received with warm and open arms?" And the chairman of the meeting said, "Senator McGovern, we never had any quarrel with the American people. They're one of the greatest peoples on earth. We've always admired America. Our quarrel was with your leaders. The American people — and we watched this closely — forced your government to end that war. Those decisions weren't made in Washington — they were made in the classrooms, the churches, the union halls, Wall Street. Americans all over forced your government to end that war, so we have nothing but admiration for the great American people." I was deeply touched by that.

    And I think maybe it will take that kind of an outpouring again to convince Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney and that crowd of neoconservatives that the time has come to get out of there. What worries me as much as our staying on in Iraq is that they keep leaking reports that maybe we'll have to do the same thing in Iran. Libya. Syria. North Korea. I hope to God we're not in for a series of costly wars like this. We're going to run out of soldiers at some point. We're going to run out of money at some point. So let's hope this is the last huge blunder of the Bush Jr. administration.

    Continued: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2005

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