The Liberals' Moment

The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party
By Bruce Miroff

University Press of Kansas

Copyright © 2007 University Press of Kansas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7006-1546-9

Chapter One

"A Sixties Campaign in the Seventies"

For George McGovern, 1972 may not have been the ideal year to run for the presidency. He had been invited to be the standard-bearer for the "Dump Johnson" Democrats in 1968, but facing a tough reelection contest in South Dakota and fearing to be merely a sacrificial offering for antiwar frustrations, he passed the mantle on to Eugene McCarthy. By 1972, McGovern was unencumbered by a Senate race and better prepared for a presidential run, but the currents of national politics had turned more treacherous for his brand of liberalism. In a postelection interview, Hunter Thompson suggested to McGovern that he had run "a sixties campaign in the seventies." His response was a forlorn "yeah."

McGovern's 1972 insurgency carried the liberal idealism of the 1960s to its electoral peak in the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, but his landslide defeat at the hands of Republican Richard Nixon suggested that a majority of Americans had had enough of that idealism. As McGovern put it to Thompson,

I think there was a lot of apathy ... and a lot of weariness over the activism of the sixties-the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the crusades, the marches, the demonstrations. Nixon kind of put all that behind us. Things quieted down ... I think that people were afraid of anything that kind of looked like fundamental change-that maybe we'd be right back into that same kind of energetic protest ... that they'd grown weary of in the sixties.

If McGovern, as a representative of the political causes of the 1960s, was rejected by the majority, he was embraced enthusiastically by the minority who wanted to complete the unfinished business of the previous decade, especially the imperative of ending the war in Vietnam. What made the McGovern campaign so unusual-so authentic and meaningful to its supporters, so disquieting and offensive to its opponents-had its roots in the politics of the 1960s. In that still-controversial decade lie the bitter conflicts, the political upheavals, and the democratic dreams without which the McGovern campaign would literally have been unthinkable.

Among all the events and features of the tumultuous 1960s, three were particularly critical for the later emergence of the McGovern insurgency. The growth of an antiwar movement, and the allied formation of an antiwar band in the U.S. Senate, provided the McGovern insurgency with its hallmark passion. The turn of antiwar forces to presidential politics, in the insurgencies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968, drew the activist spirit of a "New Politics" into fierce competition with the Old Guard of the Democratic Party and introduced a new cadre of grassroots organizers who would reshape the dynamics of campaigning. And the reform of the rules of delegate selection for the presidential nomination after 1968 made "participatory democracy," the watchword of 1960s activism, into an unpredictable new force that rocked the Democratic Party to its foundations. McGovern was an actor in all three of these political struggles, yet it was a large and diverse cast of 1960s activists that made possible his presidential bid. The liberals' moment in 1972 was fired by the personal passion and ambition of George McGovern. It was, in equal part, the collective accomplishment of a political generation.

Stop the War

It did not take an antiwar movement to make McGovern a critic of America's brewing disaster in Vietnam. He had expressed opposition to the U.S. policy in Vietnam long before the Americanization of the war in the early months of 1965. But the eruption of a peace movement in the wake of this Americanization began a process wherein millions of citizens came to share McGovern's views and to become the core constituency for his presidential run.

Like other major mass movements in American history, the antiwar movement of the 1960s was anything but monolithic. As a Central Intelligence Agency report observed in 1967, "Diversity is the most striking characteristic of the peace movement ... Indeed it is this very diversity which makes it impossible to attach specific political or ideological labels to any significant section of the movement. Diversity means that there is no single focus in the movement." From the start, the antiwar movement was a loose collection of often discordant groups, from Marxist factions on the left (who feuded even more with their sectarian rivals than with liberals) to moderate peace groups within the political mainstream. For a cause that brought together pacifists with advocates of militant confrontations with authority, and that combined free-thinking skeptics with priests, ministers, and rabbis, agreement on philosophy, strategy, or tactics was never really possible.

The antiwar movement grew as the war in Vietnam grew. Deepening involvement in Vietnam sent a shock through American society, as the mounting carnage of the conflict sowed both moral revulsion and pragmatic doubt among many Americans who had heretofore believed in the conventions of the Cold War. Division over Vietnam was evident in both political parties, with a number of moderate Republicans, especially in the Senate, eventually joining liberal Democrats in dissent. Communities, even families, were split over the war. The fracture line over Vietnam could be found even in the homes of the war's architects, at least during the Johnson administration. Paul Nitze was in charge of defending the Pentagon against a massive antiwar march in 1967; three of his four children were among the marchers. Even in the home of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, associated more closely with the war's planning than any other official, there was fervent dissent: McNamara's teenage son Craig hung a Viet Cong flag on one wall of his bedroom; on the opposite wall, placed upside down, was a U.S. flag.

There were two different dynamics at work as the antiwar movement mushroomed after 1965. Increasing militancy and radicalism were the hallmarks of the first dynamic. In the first flush of large-scale opposition to the escalation of the war early in 1965, the signature event was the "teach-in," an intellectual and moral forum for dissent at major universities. As frustration and despair mounted over the expansion of the conflict, however, an important segment of the peace movement became impatient with the seeming imperviousness of the war machine and looked to move from words to actions in order to stop the war. Each year the actions, even when undertaken by only a small number of participants, became more confrontational: blocking draft centers in 1967, flooding the streets of Chicago to protest the Democratic convention of 1968, smashing property and fighting police in "Days of Rage" in Chicago in 1969, bombing government and military-related buildings in 1970 and thereafter. Militant and sometimes violent tactics vented the rage of the most radical antiwar activists, but they saddled the movement as a whole, as public opinion surveys indicated, with a destructive image. Some of that image was bound to rub off onto a presidential candidate linked to the movement and thus became part of the depiction of McGovern as a "radical."

Central to the development of a mass base for McGovern's presidential bid was the second dynamic, the spread of antiwar sentiments to a large, heterogeneous, and nonradical segment of the American people. A handy marker of this broader movement is the response to the two national protest events that took place in the fall of 1969. On October 15, a Vietnam moratorium called across the nation drew more than two million participants. Huge crowds assembled in a number of cities. A rally for antiwar businesspeople on Wall Street brought out a throng of twenty thousand. Thousands of federal workers in the nation's capital took part in antiwar meetings. A month later, the more militant Mobilization against the War mounted enormous marches in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The gathering in Washington, wrote historian Charles DeBenedetti, "was the largest protest demonstration in American history, with a size and diversity that not even the participants could comprehend."

As President Nixon proceeded to reduce the number of American troops deployed to the combat zone and to "Vietnamize" the war, however, the antiwar movement began to lose steam. It is often assumed that what undercut the movement was the approaching disappearance of the draft, but this explanation is too simple. A lottery system was proposed by the president in 1969 to replace the hated classifications of the Selective Service System, yet when Nixon ordered U.S. forces to invade Cambodia in the spring of 1970, college campuses still erupted in outrage, with over five hundred shutting down at least temporarily. By the following year, however, mass demonstrations had noticeably begun to wane. Some who opposed the war were encouraged that it appeared to be winding down; others retained their distrust of Nixon's plans but increasingly felt the weight of exhaustion from the seemingly endless marches. Besides, an electoral option was now available again, especially in the insurgent candidacy of McGovern.

The antiwar movement could not stop the war that it loathed so passionately, but its impact on U.S. policy should not be measured narrowly. Beyond constraining both the Johnson and Nixon administrations at critical junctures in the war, it presented a moral challenge and fostered a climate for dissent extending beyond its own activist forces. The Cold War consensus that had prevailed in America with minimal challenge since the Truman years was cracked by the antiwar protests. The shibboleths of authority were attacked on a wide scale, and ingrained respect for presidential pronouncements was supplanted by a "credibility gap." Of all the Americans who came by their own path to share the questioning spirit of the movement, none were more important to the antiwar cause than a small but growing cohort of U.S. senators.

Congress was largely acquiescent to the executive in foreign policy matters during the first two decades of the Cold War, and if presidents had anything to fear in this arena it was thunder from the anti-Communist right. So it took considerable time-and the genesis of audacious new arguments contrary to the Cold War consensus-for congressional skepticism about the war in Vietnam to develop. During the Kennedy presidency, when U.S. involvement in South Vietnam significantly expanded, only two Democratic senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and George McGovern of South Dakota, expressed strong reservations. When President Lyndon B. Johnson seized upon ambiguous events in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 to extract a resolution from Congress that his administration regarded as a "blank check" to escalate hostilities, the House supported him unanimously, and there were only two dissenting votes-from Morse and from Ernest Gruening of Alaska-in the Senate. However, once LBJ commenced the massive bombing and troop deployments that "Americanized" the war early in 1965, the Senate became the governmental hub of dissent to his policies. At first, the vocal senators, McGovern among them, who opposed what they suspected would prove a futile pursuit of military victory in Vietnam and advocated a negotiated settlement to the conflict instead were few in numbers. As the war grew much bloodier in Southeast Asia and much more controversial at home, the ranks of the Senate dissenters swelled, though they never reached a majority of the chamber. By 1966 more than twenty Democratic senators were on record as critical of the administration's policy, and they were gradually joined by moderate Republicans as well, including John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky and Jacob Javits of New York.

A watershed in the Senate dissenters' emergence as a counterpoising voice to the administration was the public hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the winter of 1966. Chaired by J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the most respected figure in the Senate in the field of foreign policy, the televised hearings were the first occasion on which the American public was exposed to extensive criticism of the war that came not from movement protestors but from establishment luminaries. When retired general James Gavin, former U.S. ambassador to France, and ex-diplomat George Kennan, famous for authoring the "containment" doctrine that set the strategy for the United States during the Cold War, spoke out against the military track in Vietnam and called for a negotiated settlement, opposition to LBJ's war took on a changed character. As Robert Mann writes, "Johnson and his aides had feared that the hearings might undermine public confidence in the president's handling of the war, and they were right to a degree that may have even surprised them. For the first time, well-known, respected political, diplomatic, and military leaders had openly questioned the wisdom and direction of America's military role in Vietnam."

Over the next six years, the band of antiwar senators, like the antiwar movement beyond the Capitol, could constrain but not halt the conduct of the war. Yet these senators became important models for respectable dissent-and for political bravery. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were vindictive men who took criticism personally; they and their aides were not reluctant to malign antiwar senators as appeasers who were only encouraging the enemy. Rather than backing down, though, antiwar senators only became bolder, eventually coming close to ending the war by cutting off appropriations for it. It was this boldness that made the Senate of the 1960s a breeding ground for insurgent presidential candidates: Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and George McGovern in 1972. The campaigns of the first two men reshaped American politics-and set the stage for the third.

Gene and Bobby

The presidential campaigns of McCarthy and Kennedy in 1968 created a new model of political insurgency on which McGovern would capitalize four years later. McGovern himself played a small but significant part in the surprising events of 1968, both at the beginning and at the end of the insurgent challenge to the Democratic establishment. In fall 1967, Allard Lowenstein, the sparkplug of the "Dump Johnson" movement within the Democratic Party, unable to convince his first choice for challenger to the president, Robert Kennedy, to enter the race, approached McGovern. McGovern was tempted, but he passed on the opportunity because he was up for reelection in 1968 and knew that a seemingly hopeless crusade to topple LBJ would lose him the voters of South Dakota. Like several others, McGovern suggested to Lowenstein an alternative candidate who was not up for reelection the next year: Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy had not been one of the more prominent doves in the Senate, but he had strong backing from the Adlai Stevenson liberal camp within the Democratic Party. At the time he announced his candidacy, the prospects of an insurgent challenge to a sitting president looked as bleak as McGovern had imagined. In a later interview, McCarthy admitted that when he entered the race, "we didn't think we could win. We wanted to debate the issue of the war." But though McCarthy's campaigning was desultory, two developments gave his insurgency an enormous boost. At home, McCarthy's challenge to Johnson inspired a largely spontaneous grassroots uprising, as volunteer workers, many of them new to politics, seized the unexpected opportunity to express their fervent opposition to the war through the electoral process. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive in the winter of 1968 mocked the optimistic pronouncements of the Johnson administration about the progress of the American effort, and the president's standing with the public, already damaged by the duration of the war, plummeted by a further 25 percent.

In March 1968, insurgency produced an explosion in American politics. On March 12, the nation's first presidential primary was a shocker, as New Hampshire Democrats gave McCarthy 42 percent of their votes compared to 49 percent for the president. Although exit surveys showed that some McCarthy voters were unhappy that LBJ was not even more hawkish on the war, the ballot was an unmistakable sign of his unpopularity. Four days later, Robert Kennedy ended months of wavering and joined the race, further intensifying the political turmoil. To admiring biographers, Kennedy's entry was the product of agonized reflection; to critical biographers, it was the fruit of cold-blooded calculation. Regardless, the competing insurgencies of McCarthy and Kennedy made Johnson's political situation untenable. Facing almost certain humiliation at the hands of McCarthy in the upcoming Wisconsin primary on April 2, the president took to the airwaves on March 31 to announce that he would not be a candidate in the fall.


Excerpted from The Liberals' Momentby Bruce Miroff Copyright © 2007 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission.
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