McGovern: On honor, service & the GI Bill

George McGovern, the gracious, intelligent leader and aged war hero, former presidential candidate and retired senator, has died.

I interviewed McGovern while working on my book Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream. He told me his career in the Senate and 1972 run for the presidency were made possible in large part by his military service and the G.I. Bill, which (as it had done for so many other members of the "Greatest Generation") enabled him to rise from humble origins to become a national leader. He once said:

 “If, in fact, we were anything close to the greatest generation, its probably the result of three factors. We were honed and toughened by the Great Depression for ten years prior to World War II. Nobody had a dollar. There weren't any rich people; we were all poor in the 1930s. And then the war itself — we believed in it. We had a clear mission, and we executed it. So that gave us a sense of self- confidence. The third thing… is the G.I. Bill of Rights. That's one of the most marvelous things the federal government has ever done, is to offer these sixteen million people who fought in World War II a chance to go to any college of their choice. I went all the way through Northwestern University to a Ph.D. in American history. It changed my life.”

Here's a brief excerpt about McGovern from Over Here, which will be re-published in eBook format later this year:

McGovern, the South Dakota preacher’s son, went from university professor after the war to Congress and then the Senate for eighteen years. He ran for president as the Democratic nominee in 1972, the campaign that defined his career. Incumbent President Richard Nixon, mired in Vietnam and soon to be driven from office by the Watergate scandal, defeated McGovern in a landslide by successfully painting him as a dangerously radical “peacenik” for opposing the war in Vietnam. That cartoon portrait has stuck for decades, as McGovern’s name, to this day, is used as a warning to Democratic politicians who consider embracing liberal or dovish ideas: Don’t pull a McGovern.

The problem with this view, of course, is that McGovern was right. A decade before most anyone else in the national leadership, he understood the truth of Vietnam and, more importantly, was willing to speak it: that the war was an unmitigated disaster, a poisonous cauldron of bad policy, bad tactics, bad intelligence, a misuse of brave servicemen, the needless destruction of more than two million Vietnamese and sixty thousand American lives, and an alliance with a corrupt and unpopular regime that was doomed to fail. As McGovern predicted, it finally ended badly, with a shameful retreat that Nixon insisted on calling, “Peace With Honor,” though it soon left a communist regime in total control of the country and our former allies in chains or in exile. That the war was a mistake is now overwhelmingly accepted as obvious and true by the vast majority of Americans, which obscures just how hard it was for McGovern to stand up and say so at the time.

As a junior senator, McGovern had the courage to call for withdrawal and negotiations early in his first term in office, while his own party, in control of the White House and Congress, supported the war. He says it took more guts to do that than to fly his bomber in World War II. His South Dakota constituents overwhelmingly supported the war at the time, so he assumed his principals would end his political career. Apparently the voters liked his principals more than he anticipated; he was re-elected to the Senate for a total of eighteen years. President Lyndon Johnson, McGovern’s fellow Democrat, banned him from the White House, and Nixon excoriated him ten years later as dangerously soft and out of touch. But McGovern wasn’t radical, he was correct – and he paid the price because he was right before the country was ready to hear it. It cost him the presidency.

And for that, he says, he bears not a single regret. He still considers his candidacy an honorable mission, one that did not sacrifice truth for expediency, and he remembers his acceptance speech at the chaotic Democratic convention in 1972 as one of his best. The theme: “Come home, America.”

While his opponent in the campaign, Nixon, ran a shipboard snack shack and made a fortune playing poker during his World War II stint in the Navy, McGovern served as an Army bomber pilot who flew thirty-five dangerous missions over North Africa and Europe aboard the lumbering, difficult, freezing and deafening B-24 Liberator. The airplanes had been manufactured so quickly and in such great numbers that they were deployed without heaters, without insulation for the noise, without windshield wipers. Pilots had to stick their heads out the window in order to see when the windshield was obscured. Half the pilots and crews McGovern flew with never made it home, as a full tour of duty meant flying thirty-five missions, while the average crew only made it to seventeen. His navigator and close friend never made it home, never made it to the seminary where he planned to become a Presbyterian minister. McGovern made it to the end of the war, then volunteered to fly extra missions delivering food and medicine to the European countryside, often to areas he had bombed just a few months before. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery; he was twenty-one years old when he commanded his first mission.

Yet in his failed bid for president, McGovern rarely mentioned his war experience. And he paid the price at the polls, falsely painted as a pacifist incapable of being a strong commander in chief, simply because he didn’t think it was proper to trade on the fact that he did his duty during the war, risking his life many times over.

This, more than anything, separates leaders who never saw combat from those who have, and the World War II generation from their successors. He never campaigned as a "war leader," never strutted about after he reentered civilian life in uniforms or flight suits to gain political capital or to stage stirring photo opportunities. Instead, McGovern often argued that the blood of young Americans should be offered up only as a last resort, and his definition of leadership revolved around the ideas of duty and sacrifice and honor. These, he would recall, were the values that drove him, his friends, and 16 million other men and women -- one out of every eight Americans alive at the time -- to serve in World War II.

 “You know I didn't feel there was any other choice,” McGovern answers. “We were attacked at Pearl Harbor. The next day it was declared war on the United States. So we had no recourse except to get into service. I couldn't wait to sign up. We went to Omaha, ten of us from my little college. We didn't know whether to join the Army or the Navy. One of the guys picked up a rumor that if you went to the Army Air Corps recruiting station, they would give you a free meal ticket to a downtown cafeteria in Omaha. So on the strength of that unsubstantiated rumor and a ticket that was worth about a dollar, all ten of us joined up as Army Air Corps pilots.”

 McGovern shared two anecdotes about his war experience on Veterans Day in 2004, when a new World War II Memorial was dedicated in the nation's capitol.

The first involved a regret he had lived with for many years, his only regret in thirty-five successful bombing missions against Nazi strongholds. McGovern’s air group had been assigned the job of bombing an enormous and well-defended munitions plant Germany had constructed in Czechoslovakia. His plane, the Dakota Queen, nearly got shot down over the target, anti-aircraft rounds taking out two of its four engines. McGovern managed to complete the bombing run and turn his crippled plane for home, but then the crew told him one of the bombs was jammed in the rack, rattling around above the bomb bay doors, fully armed. If he tried to land, the plane would almost certainly blow up. So he dropped out of formation as the crew members frantically tried to loosen the huge explosive. Suddenly, it dropped free, and to McGovern’s horror, he watched it explode in the middle of a farm in the Austrian countryside, a peaceful civilian landscape, out of the war zone, shattered by this errant bomb at high noon. McGovern was devastated. On the very same day he learned his first child had been born back home, he feared he had just wiped out an innocent farm family sitting down to lunch. He carried the guilt of this around for decades, certain he could have done something different, something better.

Years later, he recounted the incident on Austrian television during a lecture trip. An elderly man called in after the broadcast and announced that he was the farmer McGovern had accidentally bombed, that he had seen the plane coming that day and hid in a ditch with his family. He wanted McGovern to know that everyone came through unscathed. And he added that he had despised Hitler, and that he had told his family that if having the farm bombed somehow sped the end of the war, it was all right. The memory still has the power to awe McGovern, and he says quietly, “I got redeemed after all those years.”

If anything crystallizes the difference between his G.I. Bill generation of leaders and their successors, it is this anecdote. In an era in which politicians believe their success rests on never admitting error and never saying, “I’m sorry,” the story that a genuine war hero wanted America to hear on Veterans Day was an admission of regret and redemption.

His other story is no less poignant, and he says it changed his life’s direction. This one took place on a troop ship entering the harbor in Naples. Italy had been devastated by the war. People were starving. As his ship approached the dock, McGovern could see children, dozens of them, lined up on the pier yelling in broken English: Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, Hershey Bar! McGovern and the other G.I.s started rummaging around for some treats to toss to the kids, but the captain said no, don’t throw anything to them. The day before, the same thing happened and the soldiers started throwing candy from the ship to the dock. Some of the bars fell in the water and the kids were so hungry and so desperate they dove in after them. Other kids just fell in the frantic scramble. Twenty-five children drowned in all that day, over a few candy bars. “That was my first introduction to human hunger,” McGovern says quietly. “And I have been interested in that hunger issue ever since.”

He has made that a signature issue throughout his career, most recently with the United Nations. In 2001, he was appointed to serve as the U.N. Global Ambassador on World Hunger, tirelessly working to establish school lunch programs for 300 hundred million of the world’s most desperately hungry children, and organizing conferences on the connection between world hunger and AIDS. AIDS medicine does not work without adequate nutrition, and so hunger has helped the epidemic to spread. 

Given his history, it is not surprising that McGovern also became a prominent critic of America’s first war of the twenty-first century, the Iraq war, his prescience about Vietnam and his background as a combat pilot giving him a unique platform. “I had thought… we never again would carry out a needless, ill-conceived invasion of another country that had done us no harm and posed no threat to our security,” he wrote in an impassioned essay in The Nation. “I was wrong in that assumption.”

Yet McGovern also proudly and approvingly pointed out that one of his granddaughters, at age nineteen, joined the Air Force Academy, saying, “Well Grandpa, it’s what you did.”