Perhaps best known for his failed bid at the presidency in the 1972 Presidential Elections against Richard Nixon and his strong denunciation of the Vietnam War, McGovern was a long time advocate for civil rights and anti-poverty programs.
McGovern reflected on that defeat in a September piece in The Washington Post, calling it “a significant personal setback” that left him “genuinely stunned.”
“The loss is there, an old wound never fully healed. My disappointment was certainly personal, made deeper by the awareness that many thousands of young Americans, and far more Vietnamese and other Asian citizens, were going to and did lose their lives with the Nixon administration’s continuation of the war,” he wrote. “And I was upset that my supporters would carry the burden of the loss, too — something that has weighed on me all these years.” But he added, “I am optimistic about the country, and I am convinced that McGovern for President 1972 helped put those ideals within sight and completion today.”
Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor and an authority on congressional politics said, “In many ways, he revolutionized the Democratic Party. His followers drove out the old guard. . . . Some would say it was the end of the old Democrats, but others would say, no, it opened up the party to women and others.”
More than a politician George McGovern was also a war hero. In 1942 George Stanley McGovern joined the US Army Air Force and became a B-24 bomber pilot and would go on to fly 35 missions. On a December 20 mission against the Skoda Works at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, McGovern’s plane had one engine out and another in flames after being hit by flak. Unable to return to Italy, McGovern flew to a British airfield on Vis, a small island in the Adriatic Sea off the Yugoslav coast. The short field, normally used by small fighter planes, was so unforgiving to four-engined aircraft that many of the bomber crews who tried to make emergency landings there perished. But McGovern successfully landed, saving his crew, a feat for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In the early 1960, McGovern played an important role in building the United Nations’ World Food Program, a humanitarian organization that has provided food assistance to hundreds of millions of victims of wars and natural disasters.
“George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved,” President Obama said Sunday in a statement. “He signed up to fight in World War II and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family.”
“As a U.S. senator during the 1960s, I agonized over the badly mistaken war in Vietnam,” McGovern wrote. “After doing all I could to save our troops and the Vietnamese people from a senseless conflict, I finally took my case to the public in my presidential campaign in 1972. Speaking across the nation, I told audiences that the only upside of the tragedy in Vietnam was that its enormous cost in lives and dollars would keep any future administration from going down that road again.
“I was wrong.”