What National Review Can Learn From George McGovern

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He's been invoked to discredit Democrats since 1972, but proved more prescient than conservatives about war

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The editors at National Review are among the best in America at ensuring that Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party's biggest political winner, is extolled; and that when Democratic politicians must be discussed, they are associated with an electoral loser, like Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, or especially the man who lost the 1972 presidential election in a landslide, U.S. Senator George McGovern. Says Rich Lowry, the magazine's editor, in "Obama's Latter-Day McGovernism," his most recent column, "when Obama took the podium last Friday to abruptly announce the imminent end of the Iraq War, he ended on a ringing McGovernite note: 'After a decade of war, the nation that we need to build -- and the nation that we will build -- is our own.'"

Since President Obama tried hard to keep troops in Iraq past the departure deadline that George W. Bush negotiated, I'd have thought that a comparison to McGovern, ultimately a champion of total withdrawal from Vietnam, wouldn't be possible. But Lowry was clever. Obama did talk of "building up the U.S.," just as McGovern did in his 1972 speech at the Democratic National Convention. "This is the time to turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas to the rebuilding of our own nation," McGovern said. "America must be restored to a proper role in the world. But we can do that only through the recovery of confidence in ourselves."

A McGovernite note!

As you probably know, "McGovernite" carries with it all sorts of negative connotations, hence its gratuitous use in the column's headline. It's a label of mockery, because the man, McGovern, lost big, and because his politics is associated with a far left-brand of soft-headed, naive pacifism.

Thus the two problems with Lowry's characterization. The smaller problem is that, while technically accurate to observe that the men struck an identical note in their speeches, it misleads the reader about the sort of foreign policy that President Obama has pursued to call it McGovernite.

And the bigger problem?

It's actually much bigger than Lowry's line, or his column, or his magazine. The problem is the way McGovern's name is invoked in American politics. It evokes a caricature more than a man; fails to separate how many states McGovern won from the quality of his foreign policy positions; ignores the fact that voters erred by re-electing Nixon, who'd resign in disgrace after an abuse of power that corrupted the democratic process itself; and most importantly, the way we invoke McGovern ignores the fact that on the biggest foreign policy question of his day, he was proven right!

And his antagonists were catastrophically wrong.   

Who was McGovern really? You'd never know, from the caricature, that he flew dozens of missions over Nazi territory in World War II, dropped bombs on Germany from the B-24 he piloted, once accidentally bombed a family farm, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. But never mind all that.

What's important is that he was one of the earliest voices in the House of Representatives to speak out against American involvement in the Vietnam War. "The current dilemma in Vietnam is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power," he said in a speech during September of 1963 -- but despite his seeming prescience, he voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He'd soon deeply regret having done so, and from 1965 onward was a staunch critic of the war, though he still opposed both draft-card burning and the unilateral removal of US forces.

By 1972, he'd became even more convinced that America ought to get out as soon as possible. "In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins," he said in his convention speech. "I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong."

As it turned out, Nixon won, but U.S. troops were still withdrawn from Vietnam by 1973. Public opinion had changed. America's sentiments had caught up with George McGovern. Had he beaten Nixon, perhaps McGovern, who had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and opposed unilateral American withdrawal, would've moved closer to the DC establishment foreign policy views of his time. It's impossible to envision how his presidency would've unfolded. If there is a useful comparison to and contrast with Obama, it's that the current president also long opposed and ran against a war the American people had turned against; but he won the election doing it.

(And then tried to negotiate an ongoing troop presence.)

Said Lowry in 2004:

It turns out that there is no cure for the Vietnam Syndrome. Liberal baby boomers contracted it sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s and have been infected ever since. Now they command the heights of the American media and political establishment, and are predictably filling the air with cries of "Iraq is another Vietnam."
...The differences between Iraq and Vietnam are much starker than the similarities, starting with the fact that in Vietnam we were confronting a force abetted by a rival superpower. But the Vietnam Syndrome is a hopeless condition. So let's speak a language that liberals can understand: Iraq is another Vietnam. Fallujah is another Tet. And that's exactly why our cause is just, necessary, and can succeed, so long as the Left doesn't create a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat -- just like it did...in Vietnam.

In 2006, Lowry wrote in another column that "in Iraq, as in Vietnam, we face the prospect of defeat. The consequences of that defeat would be remarkably similar to those in the wake of Vietnam. The prestige of the U.S. government would sink around the world, emboldening our enemies and creating a period of American doubt and retreat. A humanitarian catastrophe would likely befall Iraq, just as it did Vietnam. The only significant difference is that in Iraq, radical Islamists harbor ambitions to come to our shores and kill Americans, whereas the Viet Cong never wanted to follow us home."

Five years later, Lowry is trying to pin blame on Obama for future catastrophes in Iraq, even though both the Iraqi people and the American people want the war to end. So what if Lowry is right, and withdrawal has catastrophic consequences? As I see it, the hawks who urged the invasion during Bush's first term will bear the brunt of the blame. By their own logic, they cheer-leaded a war that is ending in a way that gravely threatens our safety, and their only alternative plan is to spend billions keeping tens of thousands of troops in the country indefinitely.

On foreign policy, it is rhetorically useful for conservatives to invoke George McGovern. But the irony of their doing so when talking about Vietnam and Iraq is that the McGovernite position on both conflicts has proved to be more prescient and persuasive than their own position.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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