George McGovern Dead: How a Humble South Dakotan Sparked the Vietnam War Pacifist Movement


South Dakota mourns the loss of Senator George McGovern. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) expressed his sorrow with the sudden downturn of Great White Eagle. On October 6, 2012, Johnson saw his friend and mentor at McGovern’s 90th birthday celebration sponsored by the South Dakota Symphony and Orchestra and Friends of Senator McGovern. McGovern looked frail. But, there was no indication that the health of the man, who changed the way American policy makers view war and peace, was about to take a turn for the worse. In the first part of this series, we learned of McGovern’s humble beginnings. The second part covered his entry into political life. Part three introduced the reader to McGovern’s influence in his home state and around the world. 

On Sunday morning at around 7:30 a.m., the Associated Press said former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, the Democrat who lost to President Richard Nixon in 1972 in a historic landslide, had died at the age of 90. 

The 1960s were turbulent times for the world, and McGovern’s WWII experiences with the hungry in war-torn Italy shaped his views on the ever-increasing militarization of America.  

Though McGovern generally sided with his party on key votes, he did not tow the party line completely and demonstrated his disdain for the size of the military budget and advocated for alternatives to the booming defense industry.

1963 was a turning point in American politics for both parties and McGovern’s political journey.  In March, he spoke on the Senate floor in support of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress initiative to broaden economic ties between the U.S. and Latin American countries. In the same speech, he raised concerns surrounding America’s policy toward Cuba. 

By August 1963, the long-term trend toward increased militarization became clear to McGovern and he began to advocate reducing the defense budget by $5 billion. In September, McGovern took to the chamber floor and, unknowingly, cemented his place in Vietnam anti-war history as the first Senate member to openly defy the United States Congress, and the Kennedy Administration’s push for increased military spending and involvement in Vietnam.  

In his speech to the small audience, McGovern made clear that he loathed the fact that passage of massive defense appropriations bills went through effortlessly, with little debate, as legislation for domestic programs, like new mental health facilities and education initiatives, often took months of heated debates before passage. Further, he monetized the spending by clearly stating that the $55 billion defense budget took up ½ of the overall budget. He was troubled by the stock pile of 10,000 nuclear weapons that the U.S. had amassed, and the fact that the two super-powers (the United States and the Soviet Union) had, at their disposal, the lethal equivalent of forty to sixty billion tons of TNT; an arsenal equal to one ten-to twenty-pound bomb for nearly every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth.

McGovern then cost-justified his proposal by drawing a domestic comparison by using the funds for domestic programs — instead of spending $5 billion on more bombs, America could channel the money towards domestic building like, “a $1 million school in every one of the nation’s 3,000 counties plus 500 hospitals costing $1 million a piece, plus college scholarships worth $5,000 each to 100,000 students — and still permit a tax reduction of billions of dollars.” McGovern provided more examples of alternative domestic uses and rightly pointed out that through the use of the appropriations bills America was, “to a considerable degree determining the priorities of our national life.”

McGovern made a transition in his speech to the, “current dilemma in Vietnam” and stated it was “a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power.” The situation in Vietnam was not improving and the current strategy was useless against, “a ragged band of illiterate guerillas fighting with homemade weapons,” fighting a government tyrannizing their own people. He also rightly pointed out that the current policy was, “a policy of moral debacle and political defeat,” and America was sending resources that were “used to suppress the very liberties we went in to defend.”

He encouraged his audience to rethink American foreign policy and the military spending bill that he believed would, “stand derelict before history.” He warned, “the failure in Vietnam will not remain confined to Vietnam. The trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world if we do not properly appraise its lessons,” and, “rely less on armaments and more on the economic, political, and moral sources of our strength.” 

McGovern knew that there would be resistance to defense reductions. At the time, nearly 1/10 of the nation’s GDP was defense related. He also knew that no one in the government, or defense industry, had a plan in place for a war-to-peace time transition. He introduced legislation to get the infrastructure in place. He called for the establishment of a national commission to work with the states to investigate, “any reasonable future opportunities for converting the instruments of war to the tools of peace.” It also required defense contractors to appoint their own committees to investigate the transition to peacetime operations. 

What many don’t realize is McGovern saw the headwinds that were coming: rising food costs, a stagnate economy, rising medical costs for seniors, a further decline in education test scores, and civic unrest. On more than one occasion, McGovern expressed that there was an unfinished domestic agenda that must be completed so America could, “fulfill its promise both at home and around the globe.” America could no longer, “separate,” our “domestic health from our position in world affairs.”