What is the “McGovern Moment”?
The “McGovern Moment is a term I use to describe an all too brief historical period. It refers to the 1972 capture of the Democratic nomination, and much of the Democratic Party apparatus by George McGovern, then a Senator from South Dakota. It was in hindsight a most improbable turn of events. Most of McGovern’s campaign focused on his opposition to the Vietnam War, and the policies of the Nixon Administration. The war had become deeply unpopular, especially with the Baby Boom generation then in their early to mid-twenties. This was the wave McGovern rode to the nomination, all the while Nixon kept promising a “peace with honor”.
McGovern was not simply opposed to the Vietnam conflict. Many who were all in favor of U.S. interventions around the globe came to be opposed to the Vietnam War. Some of this was, of course, simple political calculation. Other opposition was to the blunders of this specific conflict, not the idea of foreign entanglements per se. It is clear, especially in retrospect that McGovern was much more of a principled noninterventionist. His 1972 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention was clear about this. You can see an excerpt here. He explicitly called America to “come home”.
At that moment, those who were simply opposed to the specific Vietnam War could join with what was indeed a call by McGovern for a revolutionary change in the direction of the United States. As events would bear out, opposition to Vietnam was not primarily an opposition to war or to U.S. foreign entanglements, but rather an anti-draft movement. The ending of the draft in 1973 deflated most of this momentum. One notable effect was the movement of the neoconservatives from the Democratic to the Republican party. This provided much intellectual ammunition to Republicans cutting against the McGovern sentiment in the Democratic party.
Echoes Into the Eighties
This capture of the Democratic party by McGovernites carried into the Eighties. Before that it did have a policy impact. The Church Committee hearings in the aftermath of Watergate and the final disaster of Vietnam led to the War Powers Act (a mostly failed attempt to limit Presidential war making) as well as the creation of FISA ( a totally failed attempt to control government surveillance of US citizens).
Longer-term effects were Democratic opposition to Reagan policies of supporting rebels such as the Contras in Nicaragua, who were trying to overthrow communist (read unfriendly) regimes around the globe. Some of this was principled, but most was just partisanship. Proof is that the Democrats were fine with supporting the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, which not coincidentally was started by the Carter Administration.
Yet, the Democrats were tarred with the label of being weak on defense and worse still, pacifists. This is nonsense. Before leaving office Carter proposed taking defense spending from $142 billion in 1981 to $253 billion in 1985. The actual Reagan defense budget in 1985 came in at $272 billion. Higher, yet not so fantastically higher to give credence to the charge that the Democrats were “pacifists” by comparison.
The Fading Moment
By the end of the Reagan years the “McGovern Moment” was fading. The congressional vote authorizing the first Gulf War saw 32% of House Democrats support it as well as 18% of Senate Democrats. There was still a fear of another Vietnam but that quickly faded as the US rolled to victory. Nothing like an easy win to turn anyone hawkish.
This coincided with the rise of the “Pork Hawk”. This is a bipartisan animal that likes defense spending for the “jobs” it creates in their districts. Even Bernie Sanders who voted against the Gulf War authorization is fine with spending defense dollars on Vermont manufacturers. The problem is that once you build weapons you get to wanting to use them, if only to build some more.
The moment began fading faster during the Clinton presidency. First there was the ill-fated venture into Somalia, yet that did not deter Clinton. By the end of the decade the U.S. and NATO had intervened decisively in the Kosovo conflict, hiving off that region from Yugoslavia, the exact thing that the U.S. condemns Putin for doing in Ukraine. At the same time the Clinton years saw the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, with plans to bring in the Baltic states, which occurred in 2004.
Then there is the appalling sanctions regime against Iraq, started by the first Bush administration in 1990 and kept in place until the 2003 invasion. It led to an estimated 500K children dying, a price that Clinton Secretary of State Albright called “worth it”. McGovern? Never heard of him.
Obama Marks the Sad End of the Moment
As if all that occurred during the blood-soaked reign of Bill Clinton was not enough to prove the point I am making, along comes Barack Obama to completely end any vestiges of McGovernism. True, he did oppose George W. Bush’s Iraq war at the time it was instigated, as did a few who echoed McGovern, notably Ted Kennedy. Yet, Obama said he would, then did, double down in Afghanistan. He stoked up the drone war in multiple countries, spreading death from the skies as a standard U.S. practice. The worst, was tipping the scales against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, spreading death, and misery in that country and throughout the region that continues to this day.
Obama continued to push forward with NATO expansion in contravention of the promises made to Russia in 1990. As if that were not aggressive enough, Obama’s administration orchestrated a coup in Ukraine that replaced a neutral to Russian leaning government with a clearly pro-U.S. one. That is, Obama turned a nation vital to Russia’s sense of self and security into a U.S. client state. Russia responded by annexing Crimea, and the Obama administration’s reaction was right out of the Republican playbook. Russia was now a demon, and this fed into the nonsense conspiracy that Russia flipped the election to Trump in 2016. This led to boxing in the Trump Administration politically into talking a much harder stance toward Russia than necessary or prudent. It also marked the return of the neoconservatives to the Democratic party which, given their desire for sizable domestic spending, they have always been more comfortable. Thus, the Democratic party became the party of full-throated advocates for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy with as much violence as they can generate. This is true not only in their stance toward Russia but in the increasingly bellicose stance taken toward China.
There is but one party in Washington and it is a war party. Even the so-called Progressive/Left “Squad” consistently supports U.S. war policy in Ukraine. There is only token Republican opposition to any of this, and that is centered around policy toward Ukraine. The Republicans are all in regarding conflict with China.
Just a Fading Echo (for those of us of a certain age)
Growing up in the seventies I, like many my age, remember the Democrats as the “peace party”. I like many young Republican ignoramuses, thought that the Democrats were weak and pacifist. They were not really, but this did reflect a moment, generated by George McGovern. McGovern took antipathy toward the draft as evidence of an actual widespread desire for peace-it was not. I had thought McGovern seriously naïve, but I was wrong. If he were alive, I would offer him my apologies-he was right. It is long past time for America to come home. George McGovern was a decent and honorable man. So decent that he stood no chance of being President. Honorable people cannot successfully climb a dung heap. The moment he created was an honest attempt to do the right thing and he was vilified, then forgotten for his trouble.
In the end, it was inevitable that McGovern would fail. The Democrats (and Republicans) were always too tightly tied to corporate financial interests and a corporatist, interventionist world view. These corporate elements would see to it that they were returned to their prominent place in U.S. policy after their humiliation in Vietnam. The U.S. would return to its historical path of attempting global messianic hegemony (today named a “Rules Based International Order”). Never mind that these financial interests and this worldview have now placed the world on the precipice of nuclear devastation, the empire must surge ever forward.
This moment, born in the frustration of an immoral Vietnam War gone horribly wrong gave birth to a better idea, yet alas it was stillborn. The moment only really lasted about a dozen or so years and by the mid-nineties it was in its grave, only to have that grave spat upon by Obama for good measure. The irony here is that in my ignorant youth I reviled the “McGovern Democrats”. In my full adult embrace of peace, I wish I could find any of them at all. While there are still those of us that remember this moment there may be some hope of creating a new and more durable movement that can advance some of the honorable goals of a man who did what only fully humans can do-the best they can. May God grant us the strength to be as courageous.
Praise Be to God