George McGovern Legacy Will Not Die: How One South Dakotan Sought to Bring Americans Home


On October 22, 2012, Senator George McGovern died. His fellow South Dakotans, the nation, and the world now mourn the loss of a true statesmen. Though he was a Democrat, he earned the respect of South Dakotans from both sides of the aisle. One commentor, Diane, left the following on a local news site: "Thank you for your service senator. I am a Republican but I have great respect for you and how you bought SD into the lime light ... rest easy.”   

In the first, 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. Part four gave insights into how one man changed the nation’s views on war and peace. The fifth part of this series takes a deeper look at how McGovern brought Americans home. 

George McGovern was a quiet soul who stood firm by his principles and guided a nation through one of the most turbulent times in our modern history. He had the ability to look beyond the politics and bring America home. 

September of 1963, McGovern gave his first speech on the Senate floor to a limited audience. In the speech, he spoke out on danger of over militarization and misguided involvement in another nation’s conflict, Vietnam. He knew first-hand the effect conflicts had on the citizens and he also saw that America had numerous things that needed to be taken care of at home

In November of the same year, McGovern’s friend and closest ally in the fight against hunger, President John F. Kennedy, was killed. America was at the cross-road of change: change in leadership; change in the civic tone, and a change in the direction of the war.

The transition between Kennedy and Vice President Johnson took time. As the nation mourned, a new challenger emerged, war-hawk Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater. In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Goldwater drew a clear contrast between himself and Johnson and accused Johnson of being “soft on communism.” 

On August 2, 1964, a few weeks after the July Republican National Convention, the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo ships in the Tonkin Gulf. In response to this incident, and to assuage Goldwater’s stance that the Johnson administration was soft on communism, the Johnson administration pushed for the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

The two senators were against the resolution, Wayne Morse (R-Ore.), and Ernest Gurening (D-Ark.), appealed to McGovern to vote against the resolution. McGovern thought that the two senators may be right but he firmly believed that Johnson, “was more interested in domestic policy and that he did not quite know how to liquidate the Kennedy policy in Vietnam before the election.” 

Sensing that McGovern and a few others were not completely convinced of the resolution, J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, persuaded a small group of naysayers that the resolution, “doesn’t mean anything,” and it would neutralize Goldwater’s claims that the administration was, “soft on communism.” Fulbright presented it as a meaningless political ploy in a heated election year.

Mislead by Fulbright, McGovern voted in favor of the resolution, which turned out to be the biggest regret of his political career. McGovern believed the president should have limited authority to retaliate if attacked. The Gulf Tonkin Resolution provided the opposite. In fact, Johnson was given virtually unlimited authorization to increase U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

The day after the vote, McGovern voiced his concerns that the resolution would increase US involvement in Vietnam. McGovern later wrote, “I was so convinced that Vietnam was a looming catastrophe that for me it became what one staff member described as a ‘magnificent obsession … My anguish over the issue was the driving force of my public career and the constant topic of my private conversation for an entire decade.”

As McGovern was fighting to scale down U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he also published his first book, War Against Want:  America’s Food for Peace Program. The same year, McGovern introduced a measure to expand his old program. When it passed, $700 million was added to the program

Right before Johnson’s inauguration, McGovern made national headlines when he went public with his concerns about the war. On the Senate floor, McGovern delivered his speech and point blank told his fellow senators, “We are not winning in South Vietnam … We are backing a government that is incapable of winning a military struggle or governing its people.”