Which politician uttered the following words: “Do we sit on the sidelines and watch an entire people be slaughtered or do we marshal military forces and move in quietly to put an end to it?” John McCain? Joe Lieberman? Scoop Jackson? Wrong. The speaker was George McGovern, in August 1978.
McGovern is best known for his landslide defeat in the presidential election of 1972 and his impassioned opposition to the Vietnam War. Six years later, when he became the first senator to advocate U.S. military intervention next door in Cambodia, to stop the Khmer Rouge’s ghastly slaughter of between 1 and 3 million people, hawks were incredulous. The Wall Street Journal called McGovern’s stance “mind-boggling.” But as Samantha Power explains in A Problem from Hell, McGovern saw no contradiction in his positions. Vietnam, in his mind, had been a profoundly misguided application of American might to prevent a communist-led independence movement from liberating its country from Western control. Cambodia was genocide. In his view, the U.S. had a particular responsibility to prevent the latter because its war in Vietnam had helped cause the trauma and instability on which the Khmer Rouge seized.
If only McGovern were still alive today. Now, as then, war has made Americans tired and cynical. Our government has, once again, invented justifications for military action. It has, once again, tortured. It has, once again, proven wildly incompetent. And it has, once again, squandered money desperately needed at home. Understandably, most Americans never want to hear the word “Iraq” again. And those liberals who were wise enough to oppose invading Iraq in the first place have been understandably emboldened to oppose future wars. President Barack Obama is one of them.