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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Anti-war stance fearlessly rooted in preserving the Union, life, honor at home and abroad

American Civil War
War between the States

From National Archives transcript of George McGovern and Sean Wilentz in conversation on Abraham Lincoln history, current events and related matters
Editing, end comment by 
Carolyn Bennett

n 2009, George McGovern was talking mainly about his book Abraham Lincoln, a book about America’s sixteenth president (1861-1865), but his thoughts connected significant points about war: from the American Civil War to U.S. war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War, to the United States’ Second Persian Gulf War, the war on Iraq and its people. 

Self-educated, clever politician hangs on to the Union (1860-1865)

American Civil War
Abraham Lincoln “was literally a self-educated man,” McGovern said.

“He had one year of formal schooling but in that one year, he learned to read.” He read and read; he read everything he could get his hands on. And he thought and thought about what he was reading.

He learned to write and learned to phrase his writings better than any other occupant of the White House. [Thomas] Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson [third and twenty-eighth presidents] were possibly somewhere close to Lincoln in writing. But Lincoln “was the best writer, bar none, that ever served in the White House,” McGovern said.

He pursued those two talents ─ and they were more than talents, they were hard-earned achievements. He didn’t have a Ph.D. at Northwestern. He wasn’t a professor at Princeton. He was a farm boy from Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and the various places where he lived.

Lincoln was a man with vision for the country, a man who understood the great enduring values of the nation. He was also a very clever politician, which is one of the reasons he had the capacity, even though he hated slavery ─ from the time he was a young man, he loathed the idea of people being enslaved; but he also knew that half the country didn’t share that view. 

The Union must hold

“That’s why he never joined the abolitionists. He didn’t think you could, in one fell swoop, end slavery in the United States. He thought the union had to stay together. And with those things in his mind, he approached the slavery issue in a compromising fashion.

“He told the South before the Civil War really got under way that he wouldn’t touch slavery in the South but he wanted them to understand [that] neither would he permit the introduction of slavery into any new state that joined the union.” 

From home to abroad
Better to preserve life, honor (anti-war) as thousands fall
Post-World War II Cold War, Asia’s anti-colonial rising

McGovern said when he was in graduate school at Northwestern he read several studies on Southeast Asia including Johns Hopkins University professor Owen Lattimore’s The Situation in Asia, in which he observed that “in one country after another, the old forms of colonialism and imperialism were being challenged by grass roots efforts that cannot be stopped.”

The more sophisticated the weaponry used against these revolutionary forces, the more humiliating the eventual defeat because these are forces that cannot be stopped, that are demanding the right to control their own country.

 India was pulling out of the British Empire. The Dutch were being forced out of Indonesia.

Other countries had to give up their colonies.

Southeast Asia was seeing the beginning of Ho Chi Minh [one of the prime movers of the post-World War II anti-colonial movement in Asia and one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century] and his revolutionary followers. We called them ‘guerrillas’ but they were a group of young men who were trying to get the French out of Indochina.

They eventually had an army of 10,000 men recruited largely from the villages and the countryside; and when the French were finally forced out of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia, the Japanese were the ones [who] did it, and they took their place. They were in control of that area.

So when we found ourselves at war with the Japanese, the Ho Chi Minh forces were our allies. Some of my fellow combat pilots who were shot down over the jungles of Southeast Asia were discovered by Ho Chi Minh and his forces.

These forces were identified and brought back to American lines. And, McGovern says, as he watched the Ho Chi Minh movement, he “decided this was a no-win proposition. We [had] made a mistake in those eight years backing the French; and had ended up financing 80 percent of the cost of the French war to reassert [the power of the French] to crush Ho Chi Minh and his forces.”

My Lai Massacre
Vietnam War
United States invasion

McGovern said his “opposition to the war in Vietnam” began with the knowledge he had “of the historical forces … that were moving out there in that part of the world.”

He was part of a nucleus of U.S. senators, he says, “that began the anti-war movement”  after the deaths of “58,000 young Americans, needlessly killed and sacrificed, by people who were making bad judgments about how to handle the revolutionary forces out there.”

Though he had gained respect in the country for having taken what he called a life-changing turn, McGovern said, he was also “widely assailed for being soft on communism.”  
Iraq bombed by U.S.

United States invasion
Birth Defects in
Iraqi children 
Iraq destroyed, thrown into chaos, occupied, hundreds of thousands dead and displaced

Iraq “had a dictator in charge who was a first-class S.O.B.” Not the happiest situation, McGovern said, but the US. Invasion threw the country into chaos.

Homeless in Afghanistan
The United invaded a stable country, “smashed most of the infrastructure of the country, killed probably a couple of hundred thousand Iraqis, and lost nearly 5,000 young Americans.”
U.S. Drone bombs Somalia

Iraq “was not the slightest threat to the United States…; it had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 (2001) attack; and we all know the war in Iraq has been an utter disaster.

Yet the theory persists: “well, we’re there, anyway, and we can’t leave until there’s a stable situation.” But the truth is, “They had a very stable situation when we invaded the country.”

World War I

his inhumanity of man seems endless.

World War II
Failure to resolve disputes of the First World War (1914-1918) gave rise to the Second World War (1939-1945), which left 40,000,000–50,000,000 people dead, the bloodiest conflict and the largest war in history. In a few years of post-World War II, more unresolved conflict, an “unease” in the Americans and British with the Soviets, gave rise, beginning in 1947 and 1948, to the Cold War: a war “waged on political, economic, and propaganda fronts with limited recourse to weapons”; an open “yet restricted rivalry” between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies.
Cold War

The years since 1947 have suffered a “norm” in war, unending wars, between western countries (with expedient allies and a compromised United Nations) and other sovereign lands anywhere to the east and south of the United States, Britain and Europe.

And in the face of incessant violence, the Nobel committee this year has awarded to the European Union comprised of countries at war its Peace Prize; as it did in 2009 to U.S. President Barack Obama after he had promised during his presidential campaign to bomb Pakistan and has, during the four years of his presidency, bombed, threatened, occupied, destabilized, and displaced peoples and nations of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others. 

Presidential candidates
Shirley Chisholm
George McGovern
The light in all this is that every now and then there comes in the march of human history a visionary with courage to speak publicly and for the long term against wars of aggression or the harm man does to man. If we look closely, we might find some linkage or political lineage between McGovern and Lincoln. 

Sources and notes

Interview posted at National Archives: Senator George S. McGovern, political figure, veteran, and historian spoke on February 12, 2009, about his book, Abraham Lincoln.  In conversation with McGovern was moderator Sean Wilentz, editor of the Times Books American Presidents series, editor of McGovern’s book, author of The Rise of American Democracy, and a Princeton University professor.

At the 2009 event McGovern Adrienne Thomas introduced McGovern as author/senator George McGovern, a Midwesterner, former U.S. Senator, presidential candidate, veteran, and historian who had earned his Ph.D. in American History and Government at Northwestern University; served as ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; and a recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Noted at the National Archives and Records Administration site “The views and opinions expressed in the featured programs do not necessarily state or reflect those of the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Archives Experience, http://www.archives.gov/nae/news/featured-programs/090212McGovern-transcript.pdf

Britannica notes


Whig in Congress

“During his single term in Congress (1847–1849), Lincoln, as the lone Whig from Illinois, gave little attention to legislative matters. He proposed a bill for the gradual and compensated emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia, but, because it was to take effect only with the approval of the ‘free white citizens’ of the district, it displeased abolitionists as well as slaveholders and never was seriously considered.”

New sectional crisis, Lincoln reemerge, rises to statesmanship (Whig becomes Republican)

“In 1854 [Lincoln’s] political rival Stephen A. Douglas maneuvered through Congress a bill for reopening the entire Louisiana Purchase to slavery and allowing the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska (with ‘popular sovereignty’) to decide for themselves whether to permit slaveholding in those territories.

“The Kansas-Nebraska Act provoked violent opposition in Illinois and the other states of the old Northwest.

“It gave rise to the Republican Party while speeding the Whig Party on its way to disintegration.

“Along with many thousands of other homeless Whigs, Lincoln soon became a Republican (1856).

Lincoln and Douglas

“Before long, some prominent Republicans in the East talked of attracting Douglas to the Republican fold, and with him his Democratic following in the West. Lincoln would have none of it. He was determined that he, not Douglas, should be the Republican leader of his state and section.

“Lincoln challenged incumbent Douglas for the Senate seat in 1858 [and lost] but the series of debates they engaged in throughout Illinois was political oratory of the highest order.

“Both men were shrewd debaters and accomplished stump speakers, though they could hardly have been more different in style and appearance … Lincoln’s prose and speeches were eloquent, pithy, powerful, and free of the verbosity so common in communication of his day.

“The debates were published in 1860, together with a biography of Lincoln, in a bestselling book that Lincoln himself compiled and marketed as part of his campaign.”

Abolition, Slavery, Races, Union (Lincoln and Douglas)

“In their basic views, Lincoln and Douglas were not as far apart as they seemed in the heat of political argument.

“Neither was abolitionist or proslavery.

“But Lincoln, unlike Douglas, insisted that Congress must exclude slavery from the territories. He disagreed with Douglas’s belief that the territories were by nature unsuited to the slave economy and that no congressional legislation was needed to prevent the spread of slavery into them. In one of his most famous speeches, he said:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.

“[Lincoln] predicted that the country eventually would become ‘all one thing or all the other.’

“Again and again he insisted that the civil liberties of every U.S. citizen, white as well as black, were at stake. The territories must be kept free, he further said, because ‘new free states’ were ‘places for poor people to go and better their condition.’

“He agreed with Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers, however, that slavery should be merely contained, not directly attacked. In fact, when it was politically expedient to do so, he reassured his audiences that he did not endorse citizenship for blacks or believe in the equality of the races.

‘I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,’ he told a crowd in Charleston, Illinois.

‘I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.’

 There is, he added, ‘a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.’

“Lincoln drove home the inconsistency between Douglas’s ‘popular sovereignty’ principle and the Dred Scott decision (1857), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress could not constitutionally exclude slavery from the territories.”

Lincoln’s senate loss to presidency

Though he lost the senatorial election to Douglas, Abraham Lincoln gained national recognition and soon began to be mentioned as a presidential prospect for 1860. He was the sixteenth president serving from 1860 to 1865.

CIVIL WAR (American)

American Civil War (also called War Between the States, 1861–1865), fratricidal four-year war between the federal government of the United States (the Union) and 11 Southern states that asserted their right to secede from the Union.


Ho Chi Minh (original name  Nguyen Sinh Cung,  also called  Nguyen Tat Thanh, or Nguyen Ai Quoc, b. May 19, 1890, Hoang Tru, Vietnam, French Indochina, d. September 2, 1969, Hanoi, Vietnam: founder of the Indochina Communist Party (1930) and its successor, the Viet-Minh (1941), and president from 1945 to 1969 of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).

As the leader of the Vietnamese nationalist movement for nearly three decades, Ho was one of the prime movers of the post-World War II anti-colonial movement in Asia and one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century.


U.S. Vietnam War (1954–75, called the “American War” in Vietnam or, in full: the “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation”): a protracted conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam and its allies in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong, against the government of South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States.

The Vietnam War was also part of a larger regional conflict (Indochina wars) and a manifestation of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies.


U.S. Iraq War (also called Second Persian Gulf War): 2003 -

I.                   War conventionally fought (March–April 2003): a combined force of troops from the United States and Great Britain (with smaller contingents from several other countries) invaded Iraq and “rapidly defeated Iraqi military and paramilitary forces.”

II.                War’s longer second phase: a U.S.-led hostilities and occupation of Iraq “opposed by an increasingly intensive armed insurgency”

World War II and Cold War

WORLD WAR II involved virtually every part of the world during the years 1939–1945.

The principal belligerents were the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies—France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China.

The war was in many respects a continuation, after an uneasy 20-year hiatus, of the disputes left unsettled by World War I.

The 40,000,000–50,000,000 deaths incurred in World War II make it the bloodiest conflict, as well as the largest war, in history.


The Cold War “waged on political, economic, and propaganda fronts, with limited recourse to weapons,” was/is an open “yet restricted rivalry” that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, after World War II.

Following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945 near the close of World War II, the uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and Great Britain on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other begins to unravel and by 1947–1948, when U.S. aid provided under the Marshall Plan to western Europe has brought those countries under American influence and the Soviets have installed openly communist regimes in eastern Europe, the Cold War has solidified.


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