Commentary Magazine

Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern

Goldwater of the Left

Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern.
Random House. 307 pp. $12.50.

During his ill-fated quest for the Presidency, George McGovern succeeded in generating more controversy than most politicians encounter in a lifetime. As this book makes clear, neither the humiliating defeat inflicted by Richard Nixon nor the progress of subsequent events has shaken McGovern’s faith in the ideas which earned him his reputation as a “Goldwater of the Left.” Indeed, for a public official who takes pride in his intellectual integrity, who perceives himself as having the courage to espouse unpopular ideas beyond the constraints of “outmoded preconceptions,” McGovern comes across as every bit as predictable in his political thinking as the (largely unnamed) dogmatists whom the Senator repeatedly assails for promoting “anti-Communism at any cost.”

What, one is tempted to ask, is the cost of coming to terms with Communist dictatorships or, as McGovern occasionally does, actually welcoming Communism’s triumph? To McGovern, the cost has been a distressing corruption of critical and even moral judgment. In a discussion of the bloody aftermath of the Communist takeover in Cambodia (which McGovern blames almost entirely on American incursions during the latter stages of the Vietnam war), he asserts that “Cambodia was to endure brutal revenge after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh from the hated collaborators” (emphasis added). Now, “collaborator” is a word not lightly employed. Collaborators are traitors, and society often justifies the reprisals taken against them. McGovern does not himself label as collaborators the soldiers and officials of the Lon Nol government; he simply adopts, unquestioningly, the Communist definition of the term as his own, a pattern that he repeats again and again throughout this book. Obviously there are any number of words he might have chosen, but in selecting “collaborator” he dishonestly minimizes the forced marches, civilian uprootings, slave-labor policies, and mass killings in Cambodia by implying that there may have been some justification for the “auto-genocide” of the Khmer Rouge.

McGovern’s inability to criticize, even mildly, the Communist “revenge” in Cambodia is not a momentary lapse of principle prompted by the Senator’s well-known and highly emotional opposition to his country’s intervention in Indochina. McGovern, in fact, is a confirmed revisionist: ever since his first political involvement as an enthusiastic supporter of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign, he has shared Wallace’s conviction that America bore a greater responsibility for the cold war than did the Soviets. He writes:

I saw the Soviet desire to control the political alignment of its Western neighbors . . . not as the beginning of a Soviet march across Europe, Hitler-style; rather, it was a Soviet reaction, however regrettable, to two world wars. . . . Without excusing the aggressive behavior of the Soviets in Eastern Europe after 1945, I have always believed that we not only overreacted to it, but indeed helped to trigger it by our own post-World War II fears.

Not unexpectedly, McGovern indicts the anti-Soviet rhetoric of Truman, Churchill, and Acheson; going a step further, he seems to regard American support for the anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey, along with the Marshall Plan, as additional instances of American “overreaction.”



McGovern fears that we are currently threatened by the revival of yet another “red scare”; in response, he seldom misses an opportunity to reassure us about the desire of the Communist nations for peace or to point out the benevolence with which the Communists treat their own citizens. He can express unhappiness with a Communist regime, but never condemn it, even if, as in Cambodia, that regime is carrying out one of the most horrifying mass slaughters in history.

McGovern makes no effort to conceal his admiration for Henry Wallace, whom he describes as an “old-fashioned free-enterprise capitalist and practical internationalist,” and seems to regard himself as something of a latter-day “Prophet of the People’s Century.” But unlike the quixotic Wallace, McGovern has been unusually successful as a practicing politician despite his unorthodox views, having been repeatedly elected to Congress by a state which, until very recently, was dominated by Republicans. When McGovern left a college-teaching job to become organizer for the Democratic party in South Dakota in 1953, there were 108 Republicans and two Democrats in the state legislature. McGovern—shrewd, methodical, and hard-working—rebuilt the party so that, within two years, the state once again had the semblance of a two-party system. And in another two years, in his first political campaign, McGovern won election to the House of Representatives by running a well-organized, aggressive campaign which successfully exploited farmer discontent over the policies of President Eisenhower’s Agriculture Secretary, Ezra Taft Benson.

Indeed, although widely perceived as an issue-oriented but impractical idealist, McGovern understands the nuts-and-bolts of political organization building and strategy formulation far better than he grasps the nuances of the “issues,” whether foreign or domestic. Of the many Democrats who aspired to presidential nomination in 1972, only McGovern recognized how profoundly the changes in the nominating procedure drafted by the party’s reform commission (of which he was chairman) would influence the outcome at Miami Beach. And only McGovern understood that brigades of highly motivated students could be decisive, given the reform guidelines’ encouragement of “participatory democracy.” McGovern was anything but naive in the way he planned his presidential strategy. He began to give serious thought to the Presidency right after Nixon’s 1968 triumph; from then on, the views he expressed, the causes he took up, and the positions he adopted—even the politically risky ones on abortion, amnesty, and marijuana—reflected McGovern’s strategy of nailing down the youth, counterculture, and anti-war vote. McGovern was gambling that a determined minority could overwhelm a confused centrist majority; in 1972, he was right, up to a point.

For in designing a strategy calculated to appeal to a narrow minority, albeit an intensely committed one, McGovern was writing the script for his ultimate embarrassment at the hands of Nixon. McGovern, of course, sees it differently: in his view, his chances of defeating Nixon were destroyed by the Eagle-ton affair, the convention challenge to his right to the California delegates, and the machinations of the Committee to Reelect the President (ignoring the fact that the Republican “dirty tricks” campaign actually sought to discredit Muskie and other centrists in order to help McGovern win the nomination). Although he admits that some voters were unsettled by the “advocates of new styles of life and social behavior” who seemed to predominate among his supporters, he remains oblivious to the powerful sense of resentment generated by his people’s airs of moral superiority.

Without question, McGovern himself shares his followers’ opinion that anyone who rejected his candidacy was somehow operating on a lower intellectual and moral level. Thus, in discussing labor’s coolness to his campaign, McGovern cannot believe that genuine, substantive differences may have been involved. Instead, he tells us that union leaders were “offended” or “turned off” or felt “threatened” or “feared” the changes he and his people proposed for America. By contrast, the way he describes his own supporters puts us immediately in mind of those familiar charges of “elitism” that were so often hurled at him during the campaign: the McGovernites were “deeply committed . . . the real heroes of 1972 . . . their methods and their ideals were essentially right, and over the long term, what they stood for will prevail if the American political process is to prevail.” Can there be any wonder why McGovern failed so miserably to “win over the center” following his nomination?



This book confirms the misgivings of those who were disturbed by the social and cultural attitudes of the McGovernites, but it is utterly devastating in what it reveals about McGovern’s foreign-policy positions—those very positions which in 1972 provoked many Democrats to support Nixon or to boycott the election altogether. What troubled so many Democrats in 1972 was not so much McGovern’s commitment to unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam (although they undoubtedly found his hysterical incantations of American “guilt” obnoxious) as his apparent complacency about the nature of Communist societies in general and the long-term goals of the Soviets in particular. By 1972, any number of prominent Democrats opposed further U.S. involvement in Indochina; but few, if any, could suggest that “if people want to be organized under a Communist system, we’ve got to accept the fact that this is their judgment to make,” and even fewer could equate, à la McGovern, the military presence in Western Europe with the stationing of Soviet forces in the Warsaw Pact nations.

McGovern is not only prepared to coexist with Communist regimes, he is also ready to love them. He is candid in his admiration for the leaders of a number of Third World Communist regimes, and is favorably disposed toward the social and economic arrangements they have imposed on their citizens. Madame Binh, the Vietcong leader, is described as an “eloquent, skillful diplomat,” while Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong is admired as an “ascetic.” McGovern also praises the “grassroots appeal of Mao’s revolutionary cadres.” (In contrast, during his presidential campaign, he charged that “much of the free world is not free but a collection of self-seeking military dictators financed by hard-pressed American workers.”)



McGovern’s warm words for the Vietnamese pale before his reverential description of Fidel Castro, who is seen to be possessed of the virtues both of a dedicated revolutionary (“poised, confident, and questioning”) and of a man of intellect and good taste (“shy, soft-spoken, and sensitive”). During their meeting, McGovern himself is somewhat less than questioning, although he dutifully raises with Castro some of the more obvious issues, such as human rights and Cuba’s African expeditions. But when Castro retorts that Havana’s observance of human rights is every bit as good as Washington’s, and when he compares the African intervention with the stationing of American troops in Germany, McGovern, ever the good guest, raises not a single objection. Indeed, he goes to ludicrous extremes to justify the massive deployment of Cuban troops in Angola: in typical fashion, he repeats the orthodox Cuban formulation that Castro is merely supplying aid to his “allies” and he implies, either dishonestly or out of ignorance, that black African nations approved of the Angolan intervention. As Bayard Rustin and Carl Gershman have pointed out in these pages,1 many non-Communist African heads-of-state have publicly denounced as a “new colonialism” the audacious intervention of the Soviets and their Cuban surrogates.

McGovern is impressed when Castro boasts of having rid Havana of its criminal elements or when he leaves his phalanx of bodyguards to circulate among a group of villagers, never stopping to question whether the long-entrenched police-state atmosphere may have something to do with these examples of enhanced civility. In the end, he is captivated by Castroism to a far greater degree than even avowed leftist sympathizers of the Cuban regime, many of whom have voiced pointed criticisms of its economic failures, and repression of individual liberties.

Although he does not take up the subject explicitly, McGovern apparently subscribes to the point of view that sees equal justice in both the Western and the Communist/Third World definitions of human rights. A fervent advocate of participatory democracy within the Democratic party, he is careful in his discussions with Castro and the Vietnamese to emphasize America’s “revolutionary” heritage as opposed to its democratic tradition. Given this mentality, it is little wonder that in a generally favorable evaluation of the first six months of Carter’s foreign-policy initiatives (Carter gets high marks for his proposed Korean troop withdrawal, the scuttling of the B-l bomber, and the moves toward normalized relations with Cuba and Vietnam), McGovern completely omits any mention of Carter’s emphasis on human rights, which was the cornerstone of the new administration’s policies in its early months.



Grassroots is often tedious; sometimes infuriating. Ultimately, however, reading this book can be an instructive enterprise—particularly, I suspect, for those who, while entertaining no illusions about Richard Nixon’s character or politics, were unable to reconcile the McGovern ideology with their own conception of America’s role in the world. Those people—trade unionists, anti-totalitarian liberals, and social democrats—had soon to face the consequences of their decision as the sordid story of Watergate began to unfold. Some, no doubt, had second thoughts. But the issue in 1972 was McGovern, not Nixon, and their evaluation of McGovern, this book makes clear, was, if anything, overly generous. They have no apologies to make.


1 “Africa, Soviet Imperialism & the Retreat of American Power,” October 1977.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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