George McGovern's father was a miner turned Methodist minister, and the future senator grew up poor. No matter, perhaps: There are children of ministers who grew up poor in once-populist strongholds during the Great Depression and then devote their lives to forgetting where they came from or priding themselves on having pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and left the losers trailing in the dust.
There were no doubt other 19-year-olds beside George McGovern, who, on hearing the news from Pearl Harbor, rushed off to enlist in the Army Air Forces. There may even have been one or two others who decided, in the course of 35 bombing missions over wartime Europe, that the appropriate sequel to the fear and trembling of wartime was to finish his college degree (on the same G. I. Bill that many today consider a contemptible element of the nanny state) and then become a professor of history. Along the way, influenced by the Social Gospel, he went to divinity school. About his war service, he rarely spoke -- even during the presidential campaign when he was savaged for insufficient respect for the divinity of an American war cause. When he returned to school -- Northwestern -- to write a dissertation on the Colorado coal strikes, his adviser was Arthur Link, the biographer of Woodrow Wilson. Had McGovern won election in 1972, he would have been the first president since Wilson with a Ph.D.
He was a liberal, not a radical, and he trusted in liberal leadership. In August 1964, against his better judgment, at the behest of the usually astute Sen. J. William Fulbright, he voted for President Lyndon Johnson's Tonkin Gulf resolution, and quickly regretted it. What made him an old-fashioned sort of liberal was his moral directness. When, in the Senate of 1970, he rose in favor of the McGovern-Hatfield bill, which would have cut off American military operations in Vietnam and withdrawn all the troops, he said this:
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land -- young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.
"There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us."
These were not the words of a communist but a moralist.
The bill went down, 55-39. Many more thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians went down before President Richard Nixon had the grace to resign, and even then, the bill of impeachment failed to cite Nixon's secret (from Americans, that is) bombing campaigns in Cambodia (Rep. John Conyers of the Judiciary Committee moved an additional article of impeachment, charging truthfully that Nixon submitted to Congress "false and misleading statements concerning the existence, scope and nature of American bombing operations in Cambodia.") Many thousands of tons more napalm and Agent Orange (among other incendiary and poisonous weapons) rained down on Southeast Asia because, as McGovern would put it in his ringing acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention of 1972, "during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors."