Democracy & Government

The Last Populist

George McGovern’s alternative path for the Democratic Party.

The Last Populist

George McGovern in 1972. (Photo courtesy of University of Houston)

This post first appeared at The Nation.

On April 5, President Trump apparently saw some disturbing images on TV of Syrian children poisoned by chemical weapons, and decided on that evidence alone to completely reverse his policy toward Syria and that country’s embattled dictator, Bashar Assad. He went from scoffing at the idea of the Syrian forces gassing civilians to lobbing 59 cruise missiles at the airfield from which the chemical-weapons attack was allegedly launched. This happened in roughly 63 hours.

It was just one more day in the horrifying reality-TV presidency of Donald Trump: Tune in next week to find out which country we’ll be bombing next! But remarkably, a great number of Democrats were mostly supportive, including Hillary Clinton and most of the Senate Democratic caucus. Even Bernie Sanders mustered a relatively mild critique, carefully foregrounding the inhumanity of the chemical-weapons attack before calling on Trump to come to Congress for an authorization to use military force.

The tendency of Democrats to want to show they’re tougher than Republicans when it comes to foreign policy and the use of force has crippled the party.

The Democrats’ majority support for Trump’s cruise-missile strike is emblematic of just how at sea they are in terms of foreign policy. The party’s conservatives and moderates remain in thrall to a liberal internationalism that has, at times, not looked much different from Republican hawkishness, while its left wing — still marginalized after decades out of power — has failed to put forward a compelling alternative.

One perspective worth dusting off in this context is that of George McGovern, who is the subject of a new biography by Thomas J. Knock, The Rise of a Prairie Statesman. McGovern’s foreign-policy ideas not only offered a critique of an earlier era of hawkish liberalism; they also provide an excellent foundation for a badly needed new approach by the American left.

George McGovern has long been known as the man who got steamrollered by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election — the fourth-worst loss by popular vote in American history. McGovern’s popular image these days is as the avatar of a bunch of deluded leftists who seized the Democratic nomination, ran a far-too-left-wing race, and paid the price. His crushing defeat became the catalyst for a whole generation of Democratic politicians who rejected both the basic elements of New Deal liberalism and the dovish foreign policy of the New Left. From the 1970s through the Obama years, the Democrats would make their peace with many elements of the conservative economic and social agenda, from the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” laws to financial deregulation. In the 1990s and 2000s, they would also come to embrace a more hawkish foreign policy, often advocating the use of force as a way of solving various geopolitical and humanitarian crises.

This rightward swing in domestic and foreign policy was often justified by McGovern’s loss; if the Democrats were to rebuild a majority, the argument went, they would have to move the party back to the center. In retrospect, this strategy may have had the opposite effect, laying the groundwork for the numerous future crises — outsourcing, deregulation, inequality, mass incarceration, the spectacular decline of unions — that chipped away at what was left of the party’s electoral base.

Knock’s excellent, polished book is the first in a two-volume biography, and it ends in 1968, just as McGovern was hitting his peak years in politics. By doing so, it avoids framing his career in the context of that crushing 1972 defeat, thereby reminding us that in his prime, he was both a moral exemplar and a highly effective politician.

McGovern’s early life was quite extraordinary: Starting with his childhood in the Great Depression, he could almost be the saccharine hero in a Frank Capra film. The child of a South Dakota Methodist minister, McGovern witnessed firsthand how the economic calamity of the 1930s devastated neighboring farmers, and he also saw their recovery because of the policies of the New Deal. In high school and in college, he became a renowned debate champion, but his college career was interrupted once the country entered World War II.

McGovern’s wartime service was astoundingly heroic. “Among presidential candidates in the 20th century, none save Eisenhower could boast of a more impressive combat record,” writes Knock, and his case is compelling. McGovern was one of the finest pilots of the B-24 bomber — a physically and technically demanding airplane to fly — and he saved the lives of his crew several times with brilliant feats of flying. On one notable occasion, he landed his plane on a dangerously short island airstrip in the Adriatic after it had lost two engines, for which he was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

This wartime experience also left scars. On one mission, a bomb got stuck in the bomb bay’s doors, and just as the crew finally managed to free it, the plane flew over a remote farmhouse. It “looked like it went down the chimney,” one of the crew members recalled; the explosion obliterated the building. The incident haunted McGovern for years: It was almost noontime, and he knew from his own childhood that the family would likely have been at home for lunch. The incident helped sharpen his future skepticism about military interventions, particularly those that depended on attacks from the air.

After the war, McGovern returned to South Dakota and finished his degree at Dakota Wesleyan University. He tried his hand briefly at being a minister like his father, but he quit not long after and decided to attend graduate school at Northwestern University, where he earned a Ph.D. in history. His thesis was a landmark study of the Ludlow Massacre, a gruesome slaughter of striking mineworkers and their families in Colorado. After graduation, he considered a career as a professional academic.

However, politics had always held a magnetic attraction for McGovern. In 1948, he backed Henry Wallace’s third-party bid for the presidency. For the whole of the New Deal era, Wallace had been one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s most loyal and idealistic deputies, serving as secretary of agriculture from 1933–40 and as vice president from 1941–44. But he clashed with the party’s conservative wing, especially over his advocacy for a restrained diplomatic approach toward the Soviet Union, and he was replaced on the Democratic ticket by Harry Truman in the 1944 campaign, serving as commerce secretary until Truman sacked him in 1946.

Alarmed by the growing bellicosity of postwar America, Wallace mounted a somewhat erratic third-party run under the Progressive Party banner and argued again for a less hard-line approach to the Soviet Union — a big part of what attracted McGovern to his campaign. For their trouble, Wallace and his followers were viciously red-baited by Republicans, Democrats, and the national press. He ended up with a mere 2.4 percent of the popular vote and zero votes in the Electoral College.

McGovern concluded from this that third-party campaigns were futile. But he never abandoned his belief in the basic correctness of Wallace’s domestic- and foreign-policy ideas, and he suspected — correctly, it turned out — that Truman’s red-baiting would come back to haunt the party.

By 1955, soon after McGovern had finished his doctorate, the seat in the House of Representatives held by Republican Harold Lovre beckoned. Running as a Democrat in South Dakota — a rural, agricultural state that leaned heavily Republican — was a steep uphill climb. Then as now, however, conservative policy proved to be none too beneficial to the state’s voters, especially its farmers. Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, was a reactionary who considered Wallace’s New Deal farm programs — which had saved American agriculture during the Depression years — creeping communism. The policies of Benson’s Department of Agriculture led to huge price-crushing surpluses that reduced farm income and drove thousands of small family farms into bankruptcy. (Though to be fair, the surpluses weren’t entirely Benson’s fault: Increasing agricultural productivity had been the bane of American farmers for generations and had reached a new crescendo in the early postwar years.) This was an opening for McGovern, who tied the hated Benson around the neck of his opponent. In addition to his deep roots in the state, McGovern offered an intelligent articulation of how a populist government policy could help farmers: He favored a Wallace-style mix of production restrictions and subsidies that would help bring farm income up to “parity” with the rising incomes of industrial workers.

As he gained ground on Lovre, the state Republican machine, coordinated by South Dakota Sen. Karl Mundt, mercilessly red-baited McGovern for supporting the diplomatic recognition of communist China and for having participated in Wallace’s 1948 campaign. But McGovern refused to back down, skillfully weaving his advocacy of peaceful diplomacy with the problem of agricultural surpluses at home, thereby offering South Dakotans a radical, populist policy line that ran from postwar foreign policy to domestic economics. He argued that South Dakota’s grain could be used overseas to feed the hungry, both on moral grounds and as a soft-power counter to the Soviet Union. The United States, he insisted, could “wisely use a small fraction of that amount to fight the hunger which breeds communism.” He also leaned on his war record and his personal contact with voters and made the red-baiting look dishonorable and cheap.

In the end, McGovern won by a good margin. It was the first time a South Dakota Democrat had been elected to Congress since 1936, and McGovern had had to rebuild the state party from the ground up, virtually on his own, to do it.

After four years in Congress, McGovern next decided to challenge Mundt for his Senate seat. He put up a decent showing but still lost, likely in large part due to the anti-Catholic sentiment stirred up by John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After the 1960 election, however, President Kennedy offered McGovern a position in the administration running a reconfigured and expanded “Food for Peace” program that would put his idea about using surpluses to help poor nations and fight communism into action. The program quickly ran into a problem: Some countries, like Argentina, didn’t necessarily want cheap American food, lest they undermine their own farmers. But others, like South Korea, did make good use of the program.

McGovern always knew that the Food for Peace program couldn’t fully escape Cold War politics, but he still did his utmost to stress its humanitarian mission. In practically no time, he got the program off the ground, and it helped to jump-start the economy of India in particular. “By mid-1962, some 35 million children worldwide were receiving daily Food for Peace lunches,” Knock writes. “McGovern had superintended the single greatest humanitarian achievement of the Kennedy–Johnson era.”

In 1962, McGovern attempted another Senate run — this time for South Dakota’s other Senate seat — and won. His “perception about the indivisibility of politics and foreign policy was to become his central mode of political analysis,” Knock observes — and just in time for Vietnam. McGovern decided that the budding US military intervention was a tragic waste of lives, resources and money, and on Sept. 24, 1963 — two months before Kennedy’s assassination — he called for the withdrawal of all US troops, warning that “the trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world.”

After the assassination of Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson steadily escalated the conflict. Though McGovern did vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution — we learn from Knock that he was talked into it by Sen. J. William Fulbright — he quickly distinguished himself as one of the Senate’s most eloquent and respected critics of the war. He readily and correctly discerned the basic shape of the conflict: that it was fundamentally a civil war, not a conspiracy by Chinese communists; that the brutal police-state regime in South Vietnam had virtually no popular support; that propping it up was morally hideous and profoundly damaging to America’s reputation; and that US troops would be perceived as little different from the French colonialist forces. American soldiers would thus get stuck in an unwinnable guerrilla war, just as the French had. The domino theory — the notion that a communist victory in Vietnam would lead to the communist takeover of Southeast Asia — was, he argued, ignorant and paranoid. Military intervention would do little to deter the communists from taking power in Vietnam; it might even embolden and empower them. Knock dryly notes that when McGovern attempted to make this case to Johnson, the president interrupted: “Goddamn it, George, don’t give me another history lesson!”

What made McGovern’s antiwar politics so compelling — and why, one suspects, they infuriated Johnson — was that McGovern not only had a critique; he also had a practical alternative. The United States should recognize the limits of military force, negotiate a withdrawal from Vietnam, and use humanitarian programs (especially agricultural ones) to shore up Western democratic capitalism against communist influence. Such a strategy had arguably worked in the past, when McGovern was running the Food for Peace program, and it would greatly strengthen the rhetorical claims of American freedom versus Soviet tyranny.

A visit to Vietnam in 1965 — his first — confirmed all of McGovern’s suspicions. He met several dignitaries and military commanders there, including a cordial but ineffectual session with Gen. William Westmoreland. He made a heart-wrenching visit to a military hospital, where he saw dozens of mutilated American soldiers, and a horrified visit to a severely underequipped Vietnamese hospital, where the injured villagers — many of them wounded by American munitions — were packed together in unsanitary conditions.

Hillary Clinton would likely have been elected president in 2008 had she not voted for the Iraq War.

McGovern took the mounting atrocities personally, and as the war progressed, he tried with increasing anger and desperation to stop the war. The later sections of Knock’s book are undeniably poignant, a moving account of how one of America’s ablest politicians attempted to pull the country out of a gruesome, pointless, self-inflicted catastrophe, and how little difference it made in the end.

The remarkable thing about McGovern’s antiwar arguments is that they were all really quite obvious. Historical hindsight is one thing, but the sheer number of things missed by the elite Harvard liberals who ran the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is simply staggering. For example, Knock cites historical work arguing that “neither Kennedy’s nor Diem’s people ever understood the central issue behind the revolt,” namely agricultural policy. The Vietminh earned widespread support among the peasantry by ousting brutal landlords and slashing rents; the Diem regime attempted to reinstate them. But “Kennedy’s advisers could not grasp why peasants might side with communists,” and instead of land reform, they herded millions of peasants into “strategic hamlets,” merely deepening the resentment.

Having spent decades concerned with American agriculture, McGovern instinctively understood this — and he kept returning to the point in order to persuade Johnson to change his policies. (Johnson did the opposite, cannibalizing half of the Food for Peace program’s funding to prop up the South Vietnamese war effort.)

One of the key reasons that Kennedy’s and Johnson’s advisers — and, for that matter, many of the intellectuals sympathetic to Cold War liberalism — failed to grasp this was their profoundly entrenched anti-communism. By capitulating to conservative fearmongering — or, indeed, embracing it, as Truman and other prominent Democrats did — liberal hawks rendered themselves incapable of understanding much of the world. Johnson was paralyzed with fear that he’d be remembered as the president who “lost” another Asian country to the communists (China being the first). As a result, he became the president who is remembered for starting a major unnecessary conflict, which resulted in over a million South Asians and over 58,000 Americans being killed.

Many Americans would come to agree with McGovern’s analysis of the war and of Democratic foreign policy more generally. In 1972, he won the Democratic primaries (albeit at the cost of deep divisions in the party, mainly over Vietnam) and was crushed by Nixon. Badly stung by the epic defeat, he went back to the Senate, serving the remainder of his term and getting reelected once more in 1974, until he lost during the Reagan revolution in 1980. McGovern spent most of his remaining years teaching, touring the lecture circuit, and dabbling in business and various side projects. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, again to boost up the party’s left flank, and received a respectful hearing. In 1998, President Clinton appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations’ agricultural program, and he worked with Bob Dole on a Food for Peace-style program to feed the hungry around the world — much smaller than the original, but still a quiet success.

Despite his bruising defeat in 1972, McGovern’s vision of an integrated domestic and foreign policy offered the Democrats a useful perspective about how to serve the country’s interests, both at home and abroad. Even when red-baited, McGovern refused to give up his advocacy of diplomacy, nor the use of humanitarian aid to advance the interests of the United States — and in the case of Vietnam, that courage turned out to be politically astute. President Johnson would have been far better served by suing for peace the moment he took office — indeed, if he had, he almost certainly would have won re-election and would be remembered today on a par with FDR. Instead, the war devoured his presidency and besmirched his legacy. Similarly, Hillary Clinton would likely have been elected president in 2008 had she not voted for the Iraq War; but instead of assimilating the lessons of her surprising loss to Barack Obama, she has continued to support hawkish policies and interventions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria — even when, several months ago, it was President Trump firing the missiles.

The tendency of Democrats to want to show they’re tougher than Republicans when it comes to foreign policy and the use of force has been crippling the party ever since McGovern’s dissent against the Vietnam War back in the mid-to-late 1960s. Even in the wake of the Cold War, liberal internationalism has almost always involved various forms of military intervention, as opposed to the diplomatic and humanitarian policies that McGovern advanced as an alternative. After 9/11, this hawkishness merely mutated into a militarism that was directed toward defeating Islamist terrorism in the Middle East.

But there is a critical difference between the current moment and the Cold War. McGovern ultimately failed to convince his party because, in the Cold War era, a hawkish liberalism was at least intuitively plausible. The Soviet Union really was a credible threat: a repressive and powerful police state with thousands of nuclear weapons and spies all across the globe. Today, by contrast, neither the Assad regime nor Islamist terrorism is even in the same time zone as the Soviet Union was in terms of power, and the interventionism of Hillary Clinton, Bill Nelson and Anne-Marie Slaughter, among others, becomes more obviously a fig leaf for the desire to expand American dominance over the rest of the world.

As demonstrated by the Sanders campaign, the left wing of the Democratic Party and the left more generally have struggled to create an alternative. Clinton’s biggest weakness was foreign policy, but Sanders barely pressed her on it. This was due, in part, to a left that is much better at opposing disastrous wars of aggression than at formulating an alternative perspective that can win over ideologically sympathetic politicians.

Some leftists simply end up concluding that the United States is fundamentally and unchangeably imperialist. Given the seemingly endless wars over the past 15 years, one can understand why they might reach that conclusion. But the terrible harm done to American interests by the Iraq War — which has cost trillions of dollars, killed nearly 4,500 American soldiers, and maimed tens of thousands more, for no strategic benefit whatsoever — demonstrates that the war was stupid as well as evil. And in any case, American politicians can’t be expected to govern the nation on an “America is bad” basis. If the left can’t propose an argument that is critical of excessive military force but also serves the national interest, it ends up ceding political ground to the interventionists.

In this context, McGovern’s vision of a humane internationalism that serves American interests is of particular value. In these troubled times, the world hardly needs more American guns and bombs; but what the left still lacks is a persuasive alternative vision of internationalism that can counter the hawkishness of both Beltway parties. If we are to exercise leadership in the world, let it be by setting an example and relieving humanitarian crises where we can — taking in refugees, treating the sick, feeding the starving. And while the specifically agricultural mechanism of McGovern’s humanitarian vision isn’t quite as plausible as it was in 1962, the fact is that, right now, there are famine or near-famine conditions prevailing in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, even as gigantic agricultural surpluses pile up in the United States for lack of a buyer. That might not be the most efficient way to relieve hunger, and it’s certainly not the only way to frame an internationalist politics that can also be justified by the way it serves our national interests. But it certainly merits a look — and, just as important, it offers the left, both within and outside of the Democratic Party, a basic template for a different kind of foreign-policy program that it can pursue. If nothing else, such policies will at least do a thousand times better in promoting our interests than burning through trillions of dollars to create yet another sucking chest wound in the Middle East’s political order.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent for The Week. His work also has appeared in the New Republic, The Washington Post, and the Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper.