This column was written by former South Dakota senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
There is a notion abroad in American politics, carefully crafted by its proponents, that is both disturbing and false. It is especially disturbing to me personally because it is frequently associated with my campaign for the presidency in 1972. The notion is that my party, and especially its standard-bearer of '72, are not interested in the defense and security of America. Nor, according to this notion, do we care about marriage and the family, the sacredness of human life and the things of the spirit. Perhaps my views are outdated, but I have always assumed that every American cares about these values; consequently, they are not issues for partisan exploitation.
What is the truth as I see it?
First and foremost, I have believed since childhood that my country is the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Never once during my long years as a public servant did I drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to my office at the U.S. Capitol -- past the majestic memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln -- without experiencing the genuine thrill of knowing that I worked for the U.S. government and its citizens. One of my young daughters observed to a playmate as we drove by the Capitol one evening long ago, "That's my daddy's office."
There has not been a day in my life that I would not have proudly sacrificed that life in the defense of America. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, as a college sophomore, I promptly volunteered for the Army Air Corps and flew thirty-five missions as the pilot of a B-24 bomber. Half of the bomber crews flying with me did not survive the war, including my navigator and dear friend Sam Adams of Milwaukee. That was a terrifying, destructive war, but I have never experienced an hour of regret over my part in helping to smash Hitler's ruthless war machine. America had no honorable course except to halt the worldwide, murderous aggression of the Axis powers -- including the unspeakable Holocaust that murdered 6 million Jews.
When I entered the U.S. Senate in 1963, eighteen years after World War II, America was involved in a vastly different kind of war in the jungles of Vietnam. I was convinced that our leaders had embarked on a course that, however well intentioned, could only end in disaster. Over the next decade I sounded the alarm against what I believed was a tragedy for the young Americans dying in the Southeast Asian quagmire, a tragedy for the people of America and a tragedy for the people of Vietnam, whose country was devastated and 2 million of whom were killed. That war became the central issue of my successful bid for the presidential nomination and the subsequent campaign in which I was defeated by the incumbent President, Richard Nixon.
Had I lost the courage to resist the enemy that I had demonstrated in World War II? The truth is that it took more courage as a junior senator to stand up in the Senate and challenge the war policy of our government in Vietnam than it did to fly combat missions in World War II. My first warnings against our deepening involvement in Vietnam were delivered when public opinion polls in South Dakota were reporting that 80 percent of my constituents supported the war. I assumed that this spelled defeat for me in the next election -- a one-term senator.
But looking back on those early years after eighteen years in the Senate and as a presidential nominee, I am as proud of my effort to stop the needless slaughter in Vietnam as I am of my participation in World War II. In both cases, I was guided by patriotism and love of my country. But men who had never known a day of military combat worked ceaselessly -- especially in 1972 -- to paint me as a weakling unwilling to defend the nation. Of course, I did not stand alone in opposing the looming disaster in Asia. Such senators as Fulbright, Mansfield, Church, Gruening, Morse, Nelson and Hatfield were adamantly against the war. But I was also seeking the presidency, which made me a special target of the war exponents.
Another factor that made me a convenient punching bag was my effort to curtail some aspects of the Pentagon budget that appeared to be wasteful and needless. I frequently quoted President Eisenhower's great farewell address, in which he warned of the mounting power of "the military-industrial complex" and its unwarranted influence in our society. It seemed to me then, as it does today, that more is required for the defense and security of America than simply giving over what this year will be half of the federal discretionary budget to the Pentagon. But here again, a senator risks the political danger of being branded as weak on defense if he applies the same common-sense examination to military spending that is applied to other sources of American strength, such as healthcare, education, the environment or full employment.
It was also politically troubling to critics that my maiden speech in the Senate forty-two years ago was aimed at our government's policy of isolating and boycotting Cuba -- a self-defeating policy we still pursue. No such policy was pursued toward the Communist giants -- Russia and China. Somehow our strategists thought it wise to seek détente with Moscow and recognition of China as a "most favored nation" trading partner -- which, of course, it was -- but unwise to build such a relationship with our little Cuban neighbor. What have we been so fearful of in Cuba -- their cigars and rum? Or is it the oratory of Fidel Castro, who has outlasted nine American Presidents of both parties? Is common sense dead when it comes to our Cuba policy? Or is this the best way to carry Florida at election time?
Old-fashioned American liberals such as I are accused not only of being weak on defense but also weak on marriage and the family, the work ethic and reverence for religious faith. I resent such groundless political slurs. After all, I hold the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I have been happily married to the same woman for sixty-one years and am the father of five children and ten grandchildren -- all of whom I love dearly, including dear, deceased Terry. As the son of a Wesleyan Methodist clergyman, I dare say that my life has always been enriched and guided by the Judeo-Christian ethic. Nothing has influenced my philosophy more than the Hebrew prophets and the Sermon on the Mount. Beyond this, I have worked hard at useful tasks throughout my life and thank God I still have the health and motivation to continue that work schedule at the age of 82. Of course, I share one of my father's oft-quoted biblical lines: "All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
So many challenges face us at home and abroad that we should not waste time, tolerance and good will debating which politician loves America most ardently, which one is most devoted to marriage and the family and which one is closest to the Almighty. I've never known a political leader in either party who was disloyal to America, or who scoffed at marriage and the family, or who disrespected God and religious faith. Republicans and Democrats alike are pro-American, pro-freedom, pro-life, pro-family and pro-God Almighty. When we are sworn into public office, we all place our left hand on the Bible while raising our right hand and swearing to uphold the Constitution. It is worth noting that this sacred ceremony requires each of us to use both arms -- a left wing and right wing!
Recently, the officers and enlisted personnel of Ellsworth Air Force Base at Rapid City, South Dakota, in the magnificent Black Hills under the shadow of Mount Rushmore, named a B-1 bomber "The Dakota Queen" -- the name of the B-24 bomber I flew in World War II, so titled in recognition of my wife, Eleanor. After a moving ceremony attended by Eleanor and me, one of the junior officers said to me, "Senator, I don't know whether it bothers you to be called a left-wing liberal, but just remember, a plane can't fly without both a left wing and a right wing!" That is the kind of common sense that prompts my admiration and to which I say Amen and God bless us one and all -- even those of God's children who are unmarried, or have deeper love for those of their own sex than of the opposite sex. In the Methodist parsonage where I was reared I was taught that we should be cautious about judging one another. Such judgments are more properly left to the Almighty rather than to the political hustings and the quest for partisan advantage.
By George McGovern
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation