George McGovern was a good man with a flawed world view

Oliver Kamm

Our leader today about the US election refers correctly to George McGovern as a man of patriotism, courage and principle. McGovern was Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. He remains one of the most important postwar US politicians not because of his electoral record (he lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide) but because of the influence of his ideas. But these proved to be an idiosyncrasy of history.

McGovern was an historian by background. He worked amid a school of thought about US foreign policy that proved especially popular in the 1960s. This was known as Cold War revisionism. It explained the Cold War with reference not to expansionist designs by Stalin and his successors but to a purportedly defensive Soviet reaction to US obduracy after the Second World War. McGovern wrote in his autobiography, Grassroots (1978): “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.”

This premise governed the foreign-policy thinking of a new type of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s. It extrapolated from the truth that the Vietnam War was a disastrous engagement fought by immoral means and founded on a mistaken theory (“the domino effect”) to the misconceived notion that the Soviet Union was a partner for peace if only the West would allow it. It misread European history (compare with Anne Applebaum’s superb new book Iron Curtain, on the crushing of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1956) and it marked a radical break from the policy of containment, which ultimately succeeded in peacefully defeating communism.

If McGovern had become President, his Secretary of State would probably have been Senator J. William Fulbright, a segregationist who argued for the withdrawal of US troops from Europe. If that had happened, Eastern Europe would not now be free; Western Europe might well also not be. McGovern was a good man and his opponent was a crook; but his view of the world was wrong.

@OliverKamm

Read our editorial | With his opponent closing in, Barack Obama cannot sit back and wait for America to deliver a thank-you vote

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