January 29, 2004
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
He's 82 now and America still owes him his due.
Unlike GOP Chickenhawks Dick Cheney and George Bush, George McGovern was a decorated combat veteran. He knew war -- and he knew the Vietnam War was a waste of American life.
Thousands of American lives would have been saved -- and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotians would not have died had George McGovern been elected president in 1972. Many Democrats tremble at being called a "McGovern" candidate, and the Republicans keep bringing up his loss to Nixon as some sort of "warning" of what will happen to Democratic liberals.
But the warning should be to the Republicans. What Republican or Democrat, in retrospect, could successfully make the argument that Nixon's election in 1972 was preferable to the election of George McGovern?
Nixon ultimately resigned in disgrace, holding drunken prayer sessions with Henry Kissinger on the Oval Office carpet -- and Gerald Ford, under the guidance of two White House staffers named Rumsfeld and Cheney, then authorized a chaotic end to the failed war.
Some analysts argue that Rumsfeld and Cheney are still trying to avenge their oversight of an ignominious end to a devastating, futile war.
George McGovern was a senator from South Dakota when he ran against Nixon. They don't elect wild-eyed radicals up that way. Just take a look at Tom Daschle.
The nation would been have well-served if McGovern had become president. Many more young men would have returned home to their families, instead of having their names end up among the thousands on the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C.
That, of course, is why we turned to former Senator McGovern for his perspective on the war in Iraq.
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BuzzFlash: Many of the people involved in the war with Iraq actually trace their political roots back to the period when you ran for President. If you look at Cheney and Rumsfeld, they were assistants to President Ford when the Vietnam War was finally ended, when U.S. troops chaotically evacuated Vietnam. What is your thought about any comparisons that might be made between the architects of the Vietnam War and the architects of the Iraq War?
George McGovern: Well, they're quite similar in the very sense that you combined military solutions to political and social problems, and that's how they have both had such difficulties.
We couldn't win the war in Vietnam, not because we lacked military power, but because we were allied with a corrupt regime in South Vietnam that had lost the confidence of the people there. And because we were trying to argue that we could defeat the guerilla forces there with napalm and with strategic bombing and using chemical warfare -- it just didn't work. Finally we decided, after many, many years, to withdraw.
In Iraq, you have a similar situation in that we have easily defeated the official Iraqi Army. But now we have this band of guerillas fanned out across the country who are picking off our troops one at a time -- sometimes two or three at a time. I think we'll eventually get tired of that and decide to withdraw. In that sense, it's quite similar to our experience in Vietnam.
BuzzFlash: Let's put labels aside -- liberal, progressive, right wing, conservative. On BuzzFlash, we often make the argument that it's not the political label that counts in assessing the Iraq or Vietnam wars. The reality is that these wars are simply inept strategic judgments that have led to ruinous results. Those who support the war tend to say: Well, if you don't support the war, you are in favor of Communists, as in the case of Vietnam War, or, with Iraq, that you are in the favor of terrorists.
Our argument is U.S. power has to be used thoughtfully, and these are basically sort of ham-fisted efforts to appear to be powerful that are doomed to failure. In Vietnam now, American businesses are competing to participate in what has become a sort of an emerging capitalist economy. What did we accomplish by fighting there and losing over 55,000 men and women that we wouldn't have achieved by letting the country naturally evolve?
George McGovern: Well, you're absolutely right about that -- that as far back as 1945, Ho Chi Minh tried to work out a negotiated deal with the United States to support the movement that he led for an independent Vietnam. He didn't want to be controlled by the French, which they were for a hundred years. He certainly didn't want to be controlled by the Japanese. And he and his men helped spirit some of the American pilots who were shot down over the Vietnamese jungle in World War II back to their homeland -- some of my fellow pilots that survived the War because of Ho Chi Minh's cooperation were with us in slowing up the Japanese.
At that point, we should have recognized him. We'd have had the same kind of constructive and peaceful relationships at that time that we now have going on, but without killing 2,000,000 Vietnamese and losing 58,000 young Americans. I think the same procedures could have been used in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a miserable S.O.B. We all know that. But he wasn't much of a threat to anybody after he was thrown out of Kuwait. And for the next 10 years, he never stuck his big toe beyond the borders of Iraq. So I think we should have tried to work out some kind of an understanding with him while strenuously objecting to the way he treated his own people, but not to put an American army in there.
The President keeps talking about the Iraqi terrorist danger. It's a danger because we have an American army in Iraq to be shot at by the guerillas and by the terrorists. If we had not gone in there militarily, I think in due course we could have worked out an arrangement with Iraq on a peaceful basis.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think the Republicans are so successful at focusing their argument? Some people say, in fact, that what we have here is the Republicans revenge over the final evacuation in 1975 from Vietnam and that this is their reassertion of American power. Why is it that Republicans seem to be able to put people on the defensive like yourself, or Howard Dean, or people opposed to the Iraq war because strategically it's just plain dumb?
The Republicans seems to have the upper hand. At least polls show people trust them more with national security. And yet we would argue -- you would and BuzzFlash would -- that basically they weaken us in national security because they pick the wrong fights with tremendous loss of life, billions of dollars in expenses, and tremendous collateral damage. And we end up nowhere on the other side of their failed wars. The Vietnam War was a complete waste.
George McGovern: It was a complete waste. I don't feel I can estimate on the total cost of that Vietnam War, but let's say it runs to some $600 billion. That's six times the size of the entire U.S. budget when I was serving in the Senate -- we blew that whole thing on a stupid, ill-advised military campaign in Vietnam that did nothing but kill people on both sides.
I was in Vietnam a couple of years ago in conjunction with my work as Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency, and I was received in such a friendly way, as were other Americans traveling with me. After I spoke to the group, I answered their questions for about 20 or 30 minutes. And then I said, "Now I'd like to ask a question. Why is it that you Vietnamese have been so friendly to the United States since we took our army out of Vietnam? What about all the bombing, the napalm, the chemical warfare that wiped out your crops and so on? What about everything?"
They said, "Look, we never were against the American people. Our fight was with your leaders. It was the American people who forced an end to the war in Vietnam, and we want to be your friends now as we did in the historical past."
Well, I think we're up against the same foolish mistake today in Iraq. And I think we're going to come to nothing but grief in that venture as more and more young Americans are killed. What we accomplished by our invasion and that heavy area of bombardment was to destroy their electricity, destroy their water supplies, break up their bridges and their transportation links. We turned that country into an economic mess. The reported percent of the Iraqis unemployed before the war, in considerable part because of the international boycott against any kind of trade moving in or out of Iraq now -- it's 60 percent unemployed.
Imagine living in a country where your house is bugged 24 hours, where you have no sanitary water, and where you don't have a job. It's a climate of desperation, and I tremble at the results it's going to produce. They're going to recruit increasing numbers of people to serve as sharpshooters and guerilla leaders and suicide bombers against our American troops. It's not the fault of our troops. It's the fault of Bush and Cheney, and Rumsfeld and this crowd that took us into this war.
BuzzFlash: Rumsfeld and Cheney, as I mentioned, go back to the battle over who lost Vietnam -- quote, unquote -- and one of the chief advisors here to the Bush Administration, Richard Perle, was an advisor to Scoop Jackson. Now did he run against you in the '72 primary -- Jackson? Or was that later?
George McGovern: Yes. His chief advisor was Richard Perle. He'd been around forever. And I found over the years that just about everything he says is dead wrong and damaging to the best interests of the United States.
BuzzFlash: He's got a relatively obscure appointed position on the advisory board of the Defense Department. But in an unprecedented way, he goes around the world speaking on behalf of the administration and ticking off allies, saying the French are horrible people. Have you ever seen anything like this? He's not a cabinet member; he's just on this so-called advisory board.
George McGovern: Let me say that one thing that Richard Perle and Dick Cheney and George W. Bush have in common is that none of them have ever been near a combat scene. They're perfectly willing to send younger people -- other people's sons -- into war. They're very generous with that blood of the young men and women that they throw into combat so casually. But they've protected their blood and their limbs by never serving near a battlefield. That's true of the President. It's true of the Vice President. It's true of Perle and Wolfowitz -- that whole crowd of neo-conservatives that have the ear of the President.
And it makes me furious to see people like that beating their chests on how patriotic they are, waving the flag, glorifying God, while young Americans are needlessly being sacrificed in wars that they have devised, not our troops. These theorists sit around dreaming up wars for young men to die in.
BuzzFlash: Have you read or seen the documentary on the trials of Henry Kissinger?
George McGovern: I read some of the articles on that subject.
BuzzFlash: In the book and in the documentary, there is proof -- not just an accusation or an assumption -- but actual documents that were released under FOIA which showed that Henry Kissinger, in 1968, helped the Nixon Administration undercut the Paris peace negotiations -- that then President Johnson was about to finalize -- by telling the Premier of South Vietnam not to go along with them, and to wait until Nixon was elected, and that they would continue the battle against North Vietnam. Once Nixon came to power, more young men died in Vietnam once he assumed office than before.
George McGovern: I think it was actually 40 percent of our total casualties occurred in the Nixon Administration, and that's too many. That's 40 percent that never should have died because Nixon came into office in January of '69 after campaigning on the pledge that he had a secret plan to end the war.
The secret plan turned out to be Vietnamizing the war on the ground -- that is, putting more of the load to the ground fighting on the Vietnamese while we accelerated with strategic bombing. So there were probably more Vietnamese killed during that Nixon period than during all the preceding years.
BuzzFlash: My point is that Kissinger helped the Nixon campaign of 1968 undercut what could have been at least a halt to the war through the Paris peace negotiations at the time.
George McGovern: I really can't comment on that because I just don't know. I don't know what Kissinger's role was in that. What I do know is that he and Nixon needlessly prolonged that war for years after they assumed office. And about '69 until '75, Nixon and Kissinger together, and then Kissinger, after Nixon left -- they literally prolonged that war for five years beyond any reasonable limit.
BuzzFlash: You're a pilot from World War II. You flew in combat. You were a Democratic Senator from South Dakota, which is a fairly conservative state. How did the Republicans then and now marginalize you? You seemed like such a common-sense person and you were right about Vietnam and many other issues, and they made you seem like such an extremist, to the extent that even now, the conventional wisdom -- and you hear this from these well-paid media shills who fashion themselves pundits -- is that the Democrats in Washington are worried that Howard Dean is "another McGovern." Regardless of the extent of your electoral loss, the implication is somehow that you were this flaming radical, when in reality, you were right.
George McGovern: That's the point. Just about every American would now agrees that those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam, well, we were right. I don't worry about the nitpickers who go around saying that we sold out the country. I don't believe that. I think that most Americans know we were right. And what angers the Republicans is that they know that we were right.
BuzzFlash: Bush has been someone who grew up with a sense of entitlement, and made all these messes in his life, and Daddy would come and help him out of business. And Daddy helped him get his job with the Texas Rangers, where he finally made his money after making a mess of everything else. Now he's made a mess in Iraq. What can be done? It's another Bush mess waiting for someone else to clean it up.
George McGovern: Well, the irony of that is that when his father decided we had to take the lead in getting the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, he went to the Congress for authorization. He went to the United Nations for authorization. He got it in both of those cases. He went to the European Union. He went to the Arab League. He even had the countries like Switzerland and Sweden that ordinarily remain neutral on board. He had the whole world behind him, and only then would he order American forces into Iraq. The result was that we ended that war in just a few days' time, and we sent Saddam Hussein and his army packing, and left them behind his own borders for the last 10 years, bothering no one outside of Iraq. Why we needed to send the American army in there is beyond my comprehension.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original