The Rise of A Prairie Statesman

The Book of the Week is “The Rise of A Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern” by Thomas J. Knock, published in 2016. This biography covered the senator’s life only through the 1960’s, and his remaining history would presumably be told in another volume.

McGovern’s uncle, whose name he got– George– was born into a poor family in 1881. That uncle was the youngest of six children of Irish/Scottish extraction. McGovern’s grandmother died when his youngest uncle was less than a year old. McGovern’s grandfather was a miner; his father– the oldest child in his family– Joseph, too, started mining at nine years old.

Joseph became a Methodist minister in South Dakota, a state with an agricultural economy– wheat and corn. Harsh conditions abounded, including blizzards, locusts, grasshoppers, floods, hail, and prairie fires. And dust storms from drought. To add insult to injury, the Great Depression hit. South Dakota got more financial aid than any other state.

Joseph’s first wife died when he was 49. He wed the second in 1918. McGovern was born in Mitchell, a medium-sized town in July 1922, the second oldest of four siblings. It was “Life With Father.” Nevertheless, leisure pursuits included pheasant hunting, picnics, swimming in the creek, (sneaked-into) movies, etc.

The high school personnel cared about their students. The Episcopalian basketball coach would wake up his team on Sunday mornings to take them to religious services, and then to lunch of burgers and rhubarb pie at a cafe. An English teacher told McGovern to join the debate team to get him out of his shell.

McGovern graduated third in his high school class of one hundred forty. He got a scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University. During the Depression, the school accepted farm animals and crops in lieu of tuition. But there were no dances, fraternities or sororities allowed because it was Methodist.

In February 1943, McGovern was drafted. He became a war hero, flying 35 bombing missions over Germany. The ten-man flight crews wore heated suits, oxygen masks, and wool-lined boots and gloves because at 20,000 feet altitude, the temperature fell to about minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Life-threatening risks included being shot down, a blown plane engine and/or tires, and damage to a plane and its occupants from anti-aircraft flak. Most of these happened to McGovern and his crews but they survived.

McGovern also suffered psychological trauma when, on a mission, his plane accidentally let go its bomb right onto an Austrian farmhouse, just when it was likely the family would be eating their midday meal. He never found out how many people if any, died in that incident, but the entire place was destroyed.

Through the years, McGovern got married, had five children and earned a PhD in history from Northwestern University in Illinois, on the GI Bill. He traveled to various states to research his thesis on the Colorado Coal strike of 1913-1914. “Through his scholarship, McGovern had become a firsthand witness to the exercise of power without accountability, and he soon surmised that people who held such advantages rarely surrendered it voluntarily.”

McGovern became a professor and coached the debate team at Dakota Wesleyan. He supported Henry Wallace in 1948. Even though McGovern was a “local boy who made good” J. Edgar Hoover still compiled an FBI file on him. McGovern gave up a brilliant teaching career to enter politics. He re-grouped the Democratic Party in South Dakota– traditionally a Republican state– after Adlai Stevenson’s loss to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

In June 1953, the US had fifteen hundred nuclear weapons; by January 1961, eighteen thousand. The nuclear tests in 1958 alone numbered about 81, most of each of them about fifty times more destructive than the bomb that hit Hiroshima.

McGovern’s speeches and writings recommended that America stop such scary stupidity (and cancer cluster proliferation) that was supposedly taking place in the name of peace. To no avail. His voice of reason, one of the few, was outnumbered. An estimate of the cost of nuclear weapons alone was fifteen billion dollars for 1963 alone; in fiscal 1964, the military budget was actually $54.8 billion. This accounted for more than half of the entire federal budget, and exceeded the cost of all the programs of the New Deal from 1933 to 1940.

In September 1963, more than one hundred nations (except for France and China) including the US, signed a nuclear test ban treaty whose inevitable loophole was the allowance for unlimited underground testing. Sure, the treaty banned testing in the sea and air, but humans, due to their nature, are destroying the earth, anyway.

Sadly, many well-intentioned documents governing test bans, arms reduction, peace, economic arrangements and environmental initiatives among nations have historically turned out to be worthless pieces of paper.

A handshake can be as trustworthy (or not) as a document; it depends on whose hands are doing the shaking. Government officials can accomplish things through fear and force, but they won’t earn respect. Or they can exude charisma and make people feel good, even if they break their campaign promises or act against the nation’s best interests. The images of friendly, jokey leaders are more fondly remembered historically than serious, insecure, mean-spirited ones.

McGovern should have continued his academic career. His idea– that instead of possibly overkilling the world with nuclear arms, the money spent to build them could more wisely be used for providing Americans with better education and health care– was ignored. It sucked for him. And the world.

In 1961, after McGovern lost his senate race, President John F. Kennedy appointed McGovern to lead the Food for Peace Program. According to the author, “Adding in the school lunch program, he had coordinated the feeding of more hungry people than any other individual in American history.” Or was it Herbert Hoover?

Anyway, read the book to learn of other international aid programs orchestrated by McGovern and how the humanitarian goal of the original program was turned on its ear (instead of feeding the starving, it fed people in the war machine) unbeknownst to McGovern; the dirty campaigning in McGovern’s senate elections; and his political views and actions on various issues.