McGovern, George Stanley

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McGOVERN, George Stanley

(b. 22 July 1922 in Avon, South Dakota), Democratic senator who led opposition against President Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam policy during the mid- to late 1960s and who was responsible for rewriting the rules governing the Democratic presidential primaries following the 1968 election.

McGovern was the second of four children born to Joseph C. McGovern, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Frances McLean. He was shy as a child and enjoyed reading. "He very nearly failed the first grade," wrote Robert Sam Anson in George McGovern: A Biography, "because his teacher interpreted his reluctance to read aloud in class as lack of intelligence." Despite his shyness, he joined the debating team as a sophomore in high school and excelled. He attended Dakota Wesleyan University, only a few blocks from his home, and married Eleanor Faye Stegeberg on 31 October 1943. They have five children. During World War II, McGovern served as a bomber pilot for the U.S. Air Force from 1943 to 1945, flying thirty-five combat missions. After the war McGovern returned to South Dakota and continued his college education, receiving his B.A. in 1946. He taught history and political science at Dakota Wesleyan from 1949 to 1953 and received an M.A. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1953 from Northwestern University.

McGovern served as a delegate for Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in 1948 but had little political experience. After listening to Adlai Stevenson's acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, he wrote a letter to the local newspaper expressing his admiration. When members of the South Dakota Democratic Party read the letter, they invited the young history professor to become the state party's executive secretary. For the next three years he traveled throughout the state, building South Dakota's almost nonexistent Democratic Party. In 1956 McGovern ran for Congress and became the first Democrat to win a representative seat in South Dakota in twenty-two years. In 1958 he won again. As a representative McGovern supported federal aid to public schools and farmers and medical insurance for the elderly.

In 1960 President John F. Kennedy appointed McGovern to the Food for Peace program, a program that was designed to support allies with surplus U.S. crops. McGovern had developed the idea, believing that it would benefit U.S. farmers while also providing needed food around the world. During his two years as the program's director, he became an authority on world hunger and wrote War Against Want: America's Food for Peace Program. In 1962 McGovern resigned his position to run for a senate seat against the Republican Joseph H. Bottum. During the campaign McGovern became ill when he was infected with hepatitis through a dirty needle used during a vaccination. Because he was unable to campaign, his wife, Eleanor McGovern, made public appearances for him. McGovern won the race by 597 votes, becoming South Dakota's first Democratic senator in twenty-six years. In 1968 he would garner 56 percent of the vote to defeat the challenger, Archie M. Gubbard.

McGovern fought for numerous liberal causes as a senator during the 1960s. He supported a nuclear test ban treaty, antipoverty legislation, and the Housing and Urban Development Act. As a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, he became one of the strongest proponents for the nation's farmers. He advocated for an increase in agriculture exports, even into Communist countries. He believed that the cold war should be brought to an end and that both Cuba and China should be formally recognized.

By 1963 the Kennedy administration had stationed sixteen thousand advisers in Vietnam, and McGovern made history as the first person to confront the administration's policy from the Senate floor. He believed that France's presence in Indochina had been a debacle, and he was ready to accept Ho Chi Minh's leadership of a reunited Vietnam. McGovern objected to the United States' support of the repressive South Vietnamese government and alleged that the governing body lacked the popular support necessary to win the war. McGovern repressed his views, however, following Kennedy's assassination, and he remained silent through 1964. He reluctantly voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964, a bill that empowered the president to respond to North Vietnamese aggression. McGovern was assured that the measure was designed only to provide political cover for Lyndon Johnson in the presidential race against Senator Barry Goldwater.

Later, McGovern learned from a friend, the vice presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, that Johnson actually planned to escalate the war following the election. On 15 January 1965, before Johnson's second inauguration, McGovern delivered his first major policy statement on Vietnam. "We are not winning in South Vietnam," he stated. "We are backing a government there that is incapable of winning a military struggle or of governing its people." McGovern's dovishness came to national attention when he debated two well-known hawks, Hanson Baldwin, military editor of the New York Times, and Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming, in March 1965 on the Columbia Broadcasting System. After McGovern visited Vietnam in November, his dissent became more vocal. By 1968 he declared that he might consider backing another candidate against Johnson and, eventually, began his own short-lived presidential campaign in August 1968. When McGovern learned that President Richard M. Nixon was escalating the war in 1969, he began to call for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. His continued dissent led to his decision to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.

At the beginning of 1969 McGovern became the chairman for the Democratic Reform Commission, the committee responsible for reviewing the rules of delegate selection. Few people, including McGovern, wanted the job, but once he accepted it, he was determined to initiate real reform within the Democratic Party. There had been much dissatisfaction within the party over Hubert Humphrey's nomination in 1968. One-third of the delegates had been chosen two years before the convention, and women and minorities had been underrepresented. The reforms enacted by the commission addressed these concerns by creating specific rules for delegate selection, including quotas for underrepresented groups and primaries in the selection of a presidential candidate.

In 1972 McGovern ran as the Democratic presidential candidate and was defeated in a landslide by the Republican Richard Nixon. He continued to serve in the Senate until 1980, at which time he temporarily left public life. In the mid-1990s McGovern wrote Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcohol and became a member of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Terry Jane McGovern, who had battled depression and alcoholism from an early age, froze to death in 1994 following a drinking binge.) McGovern was appointed by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Administration and remained in the position following the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

McGovern's view on the Vietnam War can be found in his book A Time of War, A Time of Peace (1968), and an account of his life appears in Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern (1977). Biographical information can be found in Robert Sam Anson, McGovern: A Biography (1972), and Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, '72 (1973).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

George Stanley McGovern

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George Stanley McGovern

George Stanley McGovern (born 1922), a U.S. senator since 1962 and an early opponent of the war in Vietnam, was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1972.

George McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in Avon, South Dakota, a son of the Middle Border—the great prairie region steeped in agrarian, small-town, churchgoing ways and in populist liberalism and hope. His father, Joseph McGovern, a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, was stern about faith and morals and regarded drinking, smoking, and dancing as temptations to be fled. Joseph McGovern's last pastorate was at Mitchell, South Dakota, where George attended school.

George's formative years were shaped by the Puritan ethos of work, self-restraint, abstinence, sacrifice, and inner discipline. He was a shy, bookish boy, but he discovered himself in high school debating and was so good at it that he got a scholarship to attend Dakota Wesleyan University in 1940.

At college McGovern wooed a girl he had met in his high school debating, Eleanor Stegeberg, whom he later married. In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force; he flew 35 missions in Europe as a bomber pilot, although he hated flying and did it only because of his sense of duty, and he was decorated for valor.

Political Interest Grows

After his discharge in 1945 McGovern was torn between history study and the ministry. Feeling drawn to the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch, with its emphasis on applying Christian ethics to practical life, McGovern entered a theological seminary in 1946 and became a student minister. He left after a year to do graduate work in history at Northwestern University, receiving his master's degree in 1950, and then taught at Dakota Wesleyan until 1953. That year he received his doctorate from Northwestern with a socially conscious dissertation on the Colorado coal strikes and the "Ludlow massacre" of 1914. The Northwestern years were the watershed for McGovern, turning him into a strong believer in the Democratic left. But in 1948 he supported the Progressive party candidacy of Henry A. Wallace and was a delegate to their convention—where he encountered a "fanaticism" that troubled him, and in the end did not vote. But his anti-cold war liberalism continued, his national and world horizons broadened.

McGovern became executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic party in 1953, a year of low Democratic morale, in a state where the party scarcely existed; he served until 1956, when he was elected to Congress. He was reelected in 1958. After he lost a senatorial race in 1960, McGovern was director of the Food for Peace program (1961-1962) and then ran again for the Senate and won. In January 1965 he made a major speech in the Senate against the war in Vietnam and thereafter was a leading dove. When Allard Lowenstein, the organizer of the movement to dump President Lyndon Johnson, asked McGovern to challenge Johnson in the 1968 primaries, McGovern refused, preferring to focus on reelection to the Senate. After Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968 McGovern entered the convention struggle belatedly against Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, and while he made little delegate impact he grew certain of his future course.

A Bid for the Presidency

On Jan. 18, 1971, McGovern announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination with a pledge to remove all American troops from Southeast Asia if elected. In the 1972 primaries, despite all the polls, McGovern came up from behind—using a populist appeal on taxes and other reforms as well as a sharp antiwar stand—and captured the Democratic nomination for president at the Miami convention in July. In the election he and his running mate, Sargent Shriver, were defeated by Republicans Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew; McGovern received 38 percent of the popular vote and carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, with 17 electoral votes. After this crushing defeat, McGovern was reelected to the Senate in 1974. He lost the seat to James Abdnor in the 1980 election.

McGovern again tossed his hat into the presidential ring in 1983, when he announced his candidacy for the 1984 Democratic nomination. His main campaign issues would be promoting a national health care system and decreasing the military's budget. He ended his bid after trailing in early primary elections.

Although McGovern considered running for president again in 1992, he never did again. In 1991, he took over as head of the Middle East Policy Council, an organization dedicated to better public understanding of the region. He made several trips to the Middle East in conjunction with this responsibility. In 1993, he submitted a proposition to President Clinton calling the United States to protect access to Arabian oil by cracking down on Israel for its failure to end conflict with Arab countries.


In 1988, McGovern fulfilled a lifelong dream by purchasing the Stratford Hotel in Connecticut. He owned the hotel for two and half years. The hotel went out of business in part because of two lawsuits brought against McGovern by guests that were injured on his property. As a result, he began to believe that the existing law made it too easy to bring lawsuits against business owners. In several magazine articles and newspaper editorials, he called for tort reform. It was very unusual position for a lifelong liberal to take and McGovern was criticized for this by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Writing Career

McGovern wrote about political subjects throughout his career, publishing numerous articles, and the books War Against Want in 1964, and A Time of War, a Time of Peace in 1968. In 1996, he published Terry: My Daughter's Life and Death Struggle With Alcoholism, a frank discussion of the circumstances that led his daughter to freeze to death after a night of heavy drinking. The book was a moving portrait of his daughter, and the impact of his career on her life. It was widely reviewed and received excellent notices.

Further Reading

A good biography is Robert S. Anson, McGovern (1972). □

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George Stanley McGovern