I met George Spencer McGovern twice: once before he was ever thought of as Presidential material, at a reception for the Food for Peace Foundation when I was around 12 or 13 and later in 1972 when he campaigned in North Hollywood shortly after I’d arranged for Peace & Freedom Party candidate Dr. Benjamin Spock to come to U.S. Grant High School. Our principal, Herman Adams, out of fairness allowed students out of school to see McGovern since Spock had such a tremendous event at our campus.
After serving heroically in World War II, McGovern got his entrance to politics as a supporter of Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in 1948.
McGovern first picked up the mantle of Robert Kennedy after his assassination in 1968, seeking the Democratic nomination against Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. He came in third at the Democratic convention in Chicago that year, but got a very important boost when he was appointed to head the Democratic Party’s reform commission to change the rules of how delegates were selected to shift it away from party bosses. His commission rewrote the rules so that delegates were selected in party grassroots caucuses. That in turn gave his grassroots campaign for the presidency on an anti-war and initially, economically populist platform, a big shot in the arm.
McGovern on Economics
In 1972, once he became a serious contender against Hubert Humphrey, McGovern started backsliding, especially when it came to economic issues.
Shortly before the California June primary, he took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal claiming that he had not proposed a $1,000,000 limit on inheritance and a $500,000 limit on income (if my memory serves me correctly on the figures). In a debate, Hubert Humphrey confronted McGovern with the full page ad, pointing out that he had in fact previously supported limits on wealth and income. McGovern claimed that he had backed away from these proposals because “blue collar workers would not accept the plan.”
Of course, as Humphrey pointed out, taking out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal is not exactly what you do when you want to influence and communicate with blue collar workers.
Perhaps the worst thing about this episode is that Richard Nixon proposed a “negative income tax,” i.e., a minimum national income for people who worked for a living. His proposal would have given government money back to people through their filing of a federal income tax return instead of taxing them so that everybody had a minimum that put them above the poverty level. What’s bad about that is the Democratic Party rejected it because it wasn’t their idea. Does this sound familiar today with how the Republican Party is obstructing President Obama? Sure does, but the shoe is on the other foot this time.
The War in Southeast Asia
When it came to opposition to the Vietnam War, it is important to understand the context of what the “Peace Democrats” were proposing. The viable Democratic anti-war candidates, Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy in 1968 and McGovern in 1972, did not support, as did the Peace & Freedom Party, “immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Southeast Asia.” The viable Democrats supported “negotiated withdrawal.”
What exactly did “negotiated withdrawal” mean? Hard to say, especially because that’s what Richard Nixon eventually did: negotiate withdrawal. Without spelling out the parameters of a peace plan (the Peace & Freedom Party endorsed the South Vietnam Provisional Revolutionary Government’s proposed and very detailed “People to People” peace plan which delineated how peace could be achieved), negotiated withdrawal was as vague as Richard Nixon’s 1968 claim of his “secret plan to end the war.”
In fairness, if you’re going to negotiate withdrawal or anything, you don’t publicly announce your opening offer or lay down any more advance conditions than necessary. That’s just not how negotiations work if you intend them to be successful. The Peace & Freedom Party position was predicated on the value judgment that the United States had no business in Vietnam or the rest of Southeast Asia in the first place and that we should get out and let the Vietnamese solve their own political problems, many of which had been created by the United States, the French, the British, and the Japanese before us.
George McGovern did represent the state of South Dakota…and he depended on the white people of South Dakota to keep him in office to do what he saw as all of his good works on behalf of the rest of humanity. Unfortunately that led him to a scurrilous role during the federal siege against the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973.
On February 27, 1973 the American Indian Movement (AIM) started an occupation of Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation in South Dakota. Marge Buckley of the Peace & Freedom Party went to Wounded Knee as an attorney to assist them (unlike Steven Bruce Orcutt aka Frank Runninghorse aka Runningdog aka Runningmouth of the PFP leadership faction, whose claim to have gone to Wounded Knee with his “Red Tide” faction is disputed in its details by Marge as simply not credible). On April 22, 1973, the Billings Daily Gazette printed a UPI dispatch to the effect that:
Sen George McGovern has asked federal authorities to clear the Indians out of Wounded Knee before angry private citizens do the job for them it was disclosed. McGovern aides made public a letter to Attorney General Richard Kleindienst in which McGovern said time is running out on the containment policy followed by the Justice Department.
McGovern wanted the United States government to send in the Army. Of course it was the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army (the 7th being of George Armstrong Custer infamy) that made Wounded Knee famous in the first place on December 29, 1890. As Wikipedia explains:
By the time it was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded (4 men, 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. Twenty-five troopers also died, and 39 were wounded (6 of the wounded would later die). It is believed that many were the victims of friendly fire, as the shooting took place at close range in chaotic conditions. At least twenty troopers were awarded the coveted Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor. For a massacre of women and children? At least we didn’t give that to Lieutenant William Calley for his role in the My Lai massacre.
On April 30, 1973, eight days after McGovern’s letter was publicly reported, its recipient, Nixon’s Attorney General Richard Kliendienst, resigned following exposure of his role in Watergate. He later was convicted of perjury before the Senate.
In a strange twist of fate, AIM leader Russell Means was one of the key AIM negotiators who met with McGovern at Wounded Knee. Betrayed by McGovern with the letter to Kliendienst, at least he outlived McGovern by a day….a tiny bit of life’s poetic justice.
Earlier, in 1972, McGovern had been noticeably absent from support of AIM’s Trail of Broken Treaties national protest which converged on Washington D.C. and which did an O.G. “occupation” of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building. The Trail of Broken Treaties demands (which were supported by the Peace & Freedom Party and by Rep. Shirley Chisolm who’d run against McGovern in the Democratic primaries that year) are summarized as:
- The United States Federal Government should retract the component of the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act which eliminated the power of the Indian Nations to contract constitutionally bound treaties with the U.S. government.
- The U.S. Federal Government should establish a Treaty Commission that will have the power to contract new treaties to ensure the future of the Indian Nations. In addition, it should be established that no terms of existing treaties can be violated.
- The Federal Government should pledge that they will meet with four American Indian representatives before June 2, 1974 in order to discuss the future of the Indian Nations. The national media should be present for this meeting.
- The President of the United States should establish a committee consisting of both Indians and non-Indians to examine treaty commitments and violations.
- Treaties that have not been ratified should be presented to the Senate.
- All American Indian peoples should be considered to be in treaty relations with the United States Federal Government.
- The United States Federal Government should ensure that there is judicial enforcement and protection of the treaty rights of American Indians.
- The United States Federal Government should provide a new system of federal court jurisdiction through which American Indians can address treaty or tribal rights. This system of jurisdiction must apply both in cases between American Indians and between American Indians and non-Indians. It is of utmost importance that leaders of the Indian Nations take part in the process of interpreting treaties.
- The Congress of the United States should relinquish their control over Indian Affairs and instead create a joint committee. This committee is to be called the “Committee on Reconstruction of Indian Relations and Programs”. The members of the committee must be will to commit significant amounts of their time to restructure Indian relations in America.
- By July 4, 1976 the United States Federal Government should restore a permanent Native American land area of no less than 110 million acres (450,000 km2). This area should be perpetually non-taxable by the federal government. In addition the Termination Acts of the 1950s and 1960s should be immediately repealed.
- There should be a revision of 25 U.S.C. 163. This revision will call for all Indian rights to be restored to individuals that have lost them due to issues with enrollment. In addition, American Indians must be able to qualify for membership in more than one tribe and not be prohibited from receiving dual benefits.
- Congress must repeal state laws passed under the Public Law 280. PL280 allows for people not belonging to the Indian community to gain control over governing in reservation areas. The law takes away American Indian’s ability to govern themselves without external conflict.
- All violent offenses against Indians should be treated as federal crimes and the persons committing the crimes must face penalties under federal prosecution. Congress should also create a national federal Indian grand jury. This grand jury should consist only of Indians that are chosen by the President as well as by Indian people. In addition this jury will have jurisdiction over non-Indian peoples living on Indian reservations.
- The Bureau of Indian Affairs should be dismantled by 1976 and a new government structure that maintains Indian-Federal relations should be established.
- The new structure that will replace the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be called the “Office of Federal Indian Relations and Community Reconstruction”.
- The “Office of Federal Indian Relations and Community Reconstruction” will promote equality between the Indian Nations and the federal government and seek to remedy the wrong-doings of the federal government against the American Indians.
- Congress should enact a statute that allows for trade, commerce, and transportation of Indians to remain outside the jurisdiction of the federal government. American Indians within reservation areas should have immunity from federal and state taxation.
- The United States government should recognize and protect the spiritual and cultural integrity of the Indian Nations.
- Forms of Indian organization should be consolidated so as to regain the unification of the Indian Nations.
- The United States Federal Government should focus on the improvement and creation of better housing, education, employment and economic development for the American Indians.
On November 8, 1972, Dr. Spock, then running as the PFP/Peoples Party candidate for President, showed his solidarity with the AIM occupiers of the BIA building by crossing the government lines, abandoning his Secret Service protection detail which was given the Hobbes Choice of confronting the FBI since Spock was committing a criminal act in support of the AIM protesters, and going into the BIA building to confer with and support AIM.
The AIM members had wanted to meet with George McGovern in this last week of the presidential campaign. They did not get their wish and then as later would be borne out during the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, he demonstrated what Newspaper Guild founding president Heywood Campbell Broun meant when he wrote that “A liberal is one who leaves the room when the fight begins.”
Perhaps the best commentary that sums up McGovern’s legacy vis a vis AIM and Native American issues was released by Dennis Banks:
One thing I don’t believe most people know is: McGovern probably became a senator because of the Indian vote in South Dakota. In his first election to the senate he won with less than 600 votes. He had his hand out to Indians. He needed their vote. Once elected, he never did anything for Indians, except he did work with Senator Ted Kennedy to improve Indian education. Other than that he did not do a whole lot for us.
I met him when he flew onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during Wounded Knee. He came on a helicopter. He thought he was coming to save the hostages. The so called hostages never wanted to leave. We had not told them they could not leave. When McGovern came they informed him they did not want to leave – though they eventually left anyway. He was only there for about 45 minutes.
Once he got elected I think he fell into the Democratic Party’s good ole boy club. Even in Washington, he did the same thing. He was a good ole boy.
One thing I remember is he always resisted giving any land back to Indians. He fiercely fought against it. In South Dakota, there are the Black Hills. He would never agree to give any part of it back to Indians.
His legacy among Indians is: There are some Native people who think he was very helpful. I know he was never on the American Indian Movement’s side. [For more: http://www.nativenewsnetwork.com/dennis-banks-comments-on-russell-means-george-mcgovern-presidential-election.html]