James Carroll

But George McGovern was right

By James Carroll
January 6, 2004

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THE DEMOCRATS see a hobgoblin under the bed, and his name is George McGovern. Low-grade panic is beginning to set in as pundits forecast a repeat of 1972: "As Massachusetts goes, so goes the District of Columbia." The prospect of "another McGovern" whets the appetite of Bush partisans while generating gloom and shame among Democrats. Howard Dean, for one, flees the association, while other candidates tar him with it.

Here's the problem: In 1972, McGovern was right. If there is shame attached to that election, it is America's for having so dramatically elected the wrong man. Apart from the rank dishonesty of Richard Nixon and his administration (a pattern of lies that would be exposed in Watergate), there were two world-historic issues that defined that election, and on both Nixon was wrong. 1972 was a fork in the road, and history shows that the United States made a turn into a moral wilderness from which it has yet to emerge.

Obviously, the first issue was the Vietnam War. Having been elected in 1968 promising "peace with honor," Nixon was well on the way to neither. Ground forces had been "Vietnamized" (the last US combat units would be withdrawn a few months after the election), but a savage air war was underway throughout Vietnam (Nixon had spread it into Cambodia, too, disastrously). After the traumas of 1968, Americans had willfully accepted Nixon's sleight-of-hand on Vietnam, and the news media cooperated. As one NBC television producer recalled, news executives decided that after 1969, the "story" would be "the peace negotiations, not the fighting."

By 1972, Americans did not want to hear about Vietnam. They pretended that Nixon had ended the war. "And he has ended the war," the NBC producer said that year, "because you don't see the war on the tube anymore. So the war has ended, though we are bombing the hell out of those poor people, more than ever." (On that media failure, see Godfrey Hodgson, "America In Our Time.") Five weeks after the election, Nixon would order the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the most ferocious air attack since the firebombing of Japan. Instead of peace with honor, there would be defeat with disgrace -- after yet two more years of carnage. George McGovern faced the American people with the unwanted truth of what their government was doing. That is a source of shame?

But there was an equally charged issue separating the two candidates in 1972. Nixon was the avatar of America's tragic Cold War mistake. His entire career was informed by a paranoid assessment of the Soviet threat. "It's a we/they world," Paul Nitze said when he served in the Nixon administration. "It's us against the Soviets. Either we get them first, or they get us first." (Nitze was Nixon's idea of an arms control negotiator.) This apocalyptic way of perceiving the enemy was already outmoded in the early '70s, but it would take American statesmen another two decades to see it. Nitze, Richard Perle, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz, Richard Cheney -- such apostles of the "we/they world" were empowered in 1972, and if their bipolar vision had not been undercut by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War would still be on. Indeed, these men of 1972 are back, aiming to create another.

McGovern was an opponent of the "we/they" vision. A prophet of detente, he has since been vindicated by history. He offered America a way out of the trap that opposes "realist" and "idealist" perspectives. McGovern understood not only that the Vietnam War was wrong but that in the nuclear age, the realist is the one who sees that the structures of war itself must be systematically dismantled. One hears the complaint from today's Democrats that McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, did not tout his war hero's record, but that entirely misses his most important point -- that fear of war and glorification of war are simply not to be exploited for political purposes, whether at the personal level or the national. What McGovern the candidate refused to do is what American presidents should refuse to do.

George W. Bush obscenely exploits war for his own purposes. He sponsors a paranoid assessment of what threatens America now and draws political advantage from the resulting fear. The news media propagate that fear. Pundits continue the false opposition between "realist" and "idealist" visions, marginalizing anyone who dares question Garrison America. Meanwhile, the unnecessary Bush war rages, and not even the steady death toll of young GIs makes much news anymore. If a Democrat running for president dares to speak the truth about these things, it is the furthest thing from shame. And before feeling gloom about next November, ask what it means if the Democrat, to win, must do what Nixon did.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.