George McGovern Urges an End to the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Before introducing the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment on the Senate floor, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota provided a stinging indictment not only of the Vietnam War, but also of the Senate, which had allowed the war to continue for years. In blunt terms, McGovern criticized his fellow senators for not having the courage to speak out against the war and thereby allowing thousands of Americans to be injured or killed in Vietnam. He maintained that the Senate had essentially ceded all foreign policy decisions to President Richard Nixon. McGovern's amendment would provide an opportunity for his fellow senators to redeem themselves by cutting off all funding for the war. It would also require Nixon to withdraw all American soldiers from Vietnam by the end of 1971. By voting in favor of the amendment, the Senate could not only alter American policy in Vietnam, it could also place significant restrictions on the executive branch and reassert congressional influence over the conduct of the war and American foreign policy in general.

Summary Overview

Before introducing the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment on the Senate floor, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota provided a stinging indictment not only of the Vietnam War, but also of the Senate, which had allowed the war to continue for years. In blunt terms, McGovern criticized his fellow senators for not having the courage to speak out against the war and thereby allowing thousands of Americans to be injured or killed in Vietnam. He maintained that the Senate had essentially ceded all foreign policy decisions to President Richard Nixon. McGovern's amendment would provide an opportunity for his fellow senators to redeem themselves by cutting off all funding for the war. It would also require Nixon to withdraw all American soldiers from Vietnam by the end of 1971. By voting in favor of the amendment, the Senate could not only alter American policy in Vietnam, it could also place significant restrictions on the executive branch and reassert congressional influence over the conduct of the war and American foreign policy in general.

Defining Moment

On September 1, 1970 George McGovern introduced the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment to an appropriations bill funding military operations in Vietnam. McGovern was a longtime critic of American involvement in Vietnam. In a September 24, 1963 speech in the Senate, he declared that American intervention in Southeast Asia was a failure. Despite his reservations, on August 10, 1964, McGovern voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Lyndon Johnson to use military force in Vietnam. McGovern became increasingly disillusioned as American military involvement escalated, but he initially hesitated to criticize Johnson publicly because he feared alienating him, and he hoped that Johnson would initiate peace negotiations. By 1966, he had broken completely with the Johnson administration over Vietnam policy. McGovern's credentials as an antiwar stalwart in Congress only grew when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 on a platform calling for an end to American military intervention. Although he did not win the nomination, his national profile grew considerably—which likely emboldened him to continue his antiwar advocacy.

McGovern introduced the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment in reaction to President Richard Nixon's decision to expand the war into Cambodia. On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced that he had ordered American forces to attack two major North Vietnamese Army (NVA) military bases in Cambodian territory. From a military standpoint, the Cambodian incursion was somewhat successful, but the expansion of the war into a previously neutral country reenergized the antiwar movement at home. On May 4, 1970, during a protest at Kent State University, National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd, killing four and wounding nine. In reaction to the events at Kent State, protests erupted around the country.

The Cambodian incursion and the subsequent domestic reaction to it likely encouraged McGovern to ramp up his criticisms of the Vietnam War and especially Nixon's handling of the conflict. These events also emboldened McGovern and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon to challenge directly Nixon's presidential authority by attempting to cut off all military funding for the war.

Biography

George McGovern was born in Avon, South Dakota, on July 19, 1922. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, McGovern enlisted in the military. Beginning in 1944, he flew thirty-five air missions over Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. McGovern's military service and, particularly, the devastation he witnessed in Europe during the war would have a profound effect on his view of the Vietnam War. A South Dakota Democrat, McGovern was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952 and won a seat in the US Senate in 1962. During the Vietnam War, he became a leading antiwar activist. In 1970, he introduced the Hatfield-McGovern Amendment, which sought the complete withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam by the end of 1971. Although the amendment failed, it emboldened McGovern to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. He won his party's nomination in large part because of his antiwar stance. McGovern was defeated handily by Richard Nixon in the 1972 election, but he remained in the Senate until 1981.

Historical Document

McGovern's remarks on Senate Floor, Sept. 1, 1970.

Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Text of McGovern-Hatfield Amendment.

McGovern–Hatfield Amendment, H.R. 17123

(a) In accordance with public statements of policy by the President, no funds authorized by this or any other act may be obligated or expended to maintain a troop level of more than 280,000 armed forces of the United States in Vietnam after April 30, 1971.

(b) After April 30, 1971, funds herein authorized or hereafter appropriated may be expended in connection with activities of American Armed Forces in and over Indochina only to accomplish the following objectives:

the orderly termination of military operations there and the safe and systematic withdrawal of remaining armed forces by December 31, 1971;

to secure the release of prisoners of war;

the provision of asylum for Vietnamese who might be physically endangered by withdrawal of American forces; and

to provide assistance to the Republic of Vietnam consistent with the foregoing objectives; provided however, that if the President while giving effect to the foregoing paragraphs of this section, finds in meeting the termination date that members of the American armed forces are exposed to unanticipated clear and present danger, he may suspend the application of paragraph 2(a) for a period not to exceed 60 days and shall inform the Congress forthwith of his findings; and within 10 days following application of the suspension the President may submit recommendations, including (if necessary) a new date applicable to subsection b(1) for Congressional approval.

Document Analysis

On September 1, 1970, Senator George McGovern introduced the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment accompanied by a number of blunt criticisms of the Senate and its role in President Nixon's failed Vietnam policies. McGovern intended to provide the Senate with an opportunity to take responsibility for their previously poor decisions and bring an end to the Vietnam War by cutting off funding and requiring that all troops be removed from Vietnam by the end of 1971.

McGovern began his speech on the Senate floor on September 1, 1970 by urging an end to the Vietnam War noting that every single senator in the chamber was partly responsible for leading “50,000 young Americans to an early grave” in Vietnam. He was likely making reference to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which the Senate approved by a vote of 88–2. His comments suggest that he was willing to bear some personal responsibility for the war, as he voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

McGovern argued that senators, elected officials, had a responsibility to their constituents, but many had failed to represent them by continuing to support the war. As a result, thousands had been killed in Vietnam and many more lay injured “without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes” in military hospitals. He sternly pointed out that American soldiers had the most to lose if the conflict continued. Yet many senators and other supporters of Richard Nixon's policies continued to wrap themselves “in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam.” In a savage aside, he added “it is not our blood that is being shed.” McGovern suggested that the only way to serve properly the interests of the soldiers fighting the war was to vote to end the war. It was also the only way to save the reputation of the Senate.

After his remarks, McGovern introduced the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment to an appropriations bill funding military operations in Vietnam. The amendment sought to establish an overall timeline for the removal of all American forces and thereby end American participation in the war. The amendment stated that after April 30, 1971, Congress would forbid any more soldiers from being sent to Vietnam unless they were helping to “secure the release of prisoners of war,” or the removal of Vietnamese who might be endangered by American withdrawal. Most importantly, the amendment called for “the orderly termination of military operations there and the safe and systematic withdrawal of remaining armed forces by December 31, 1971.”

Essential Themes

Senator McGovern's remarks and the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment had several purposes. In scathing terms, McGovern attacked his fellow senators for allowing President Nixon to determine American policy in Vietnam without any Senate input. As a result, the executive branch had been allowed unilaterally to decide policy in the Vietnam War resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers. The Senate bore some responsibility for these deaths.

Most importantly, the amendment sought to end direct American involvement in the Vietnam War. However, it also sought to reclaim Congressional influence over American policy in Vietnam and issue a strong rebuke to the Nixon administration. The amendment was introduced within the context of the American invasion of Cambodia, which Nixon had ordered solely on his own authority. By introducing the amendment, McGovern sought to demonstrate that Nixon's solo decision would precipitate congressional reaction. The amendment failed by a vote of 55–39, but it did provide a warning to Nixon that he faced growing congressional opposition. It also gave antiwar forces, inside and outside Congress, a new potential tactic.

On a personal level, the amendment raised McGovern's national profile and established him as one of the most outspoken and influential antiwar politicians. McGovern's criticism of the war and the Nixon administration positioned him perfectly to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. He won the nomination in large part because of support from antiwar Democrats, who made up a sizable portion of the party. Nixon would win the presidential election of 1972 in a landslide, but McGovern's antiwar activism, highlighted by his 1970 remarks, forced Nixon to take additional steps to end the war in 1972, which might not have happened had the Democratic Party nominated a more centrist candidate.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ambrose, Stephen E. The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944–45. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.
  • Berman, Larry. No Peace No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.
  • Mann, Robert. A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Print.
  • Small, Melvin. Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America's Hearts and Minds. Lanham, MD: SR Books, 2002. Vietnam: America in the War Years Ser. Print.
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