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Interview with George McGovern, April 7, 1983

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Interview with George McGovern, April 7, 1983
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McGovern, George ( Interviewee )
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English

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Florida and Politics Oral History Collection ( local )

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This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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This interview is part of the 'Florida Politics' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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FP 63 ( SPOHP IDENTIFIER )

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Interviewee: George McGovern
Interviewer: Michael Gannon
Date: April 7, 1983


G: Hello, I am Mike Gannon and this is Conversation. George McGovern is the
former Democratic senator from South Dakota, and he was his party's nominee
for president in 1972. In the wave of conservatism in the 1980 elections,
McGovern was defeated in his bid for a fourth term in the United States Senate.
At present, he is the chairman of Americans for Common Sense, a public interest
group headquartered in Washington, D.C. He has served as a visiting professor
at numerous universities, including Columbia, Pennsylvania, Northwestern,
American, and the Innsbruck, Austria, summer session of this university
[University of Florida] in collaboration with the University of New Orleans. During
his tenure as a senator, he served on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
Committee, and was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and
Human Needs. He was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
and chairman of its subcommittee on African Affairs. He was also a member of
the Joint Economic Committee. Senator McGovern is the author of six books--
War Against Want, Agricultural Thought in the Twentieth Century, A Time of War,
A Time of Peace, The Great Coal Field War, written with Leonard F. Guttridge,
An American Journey, and his autobiography titled Grass Roots. Senator
McGovern and his wife Eleanor have four daughters, one son and four
grandsons. Senator McGovern, welcome to the University of Florida and
welcome to Conversation. It is a special delight to talk with a fellow historian, if I
might identify you that way for a few moments. I am very interested [in] your
perceptions of the historical process and your understanding of the history of the
American people. In view of your own considerable practical experience in
politics, does it make a difference to have had the kind of experiences you have
enjoyed with eighteen years in the Senate, four years in Congress [the House],
and race for the highest office in the land [1972]?

M: I remember there was a format in the 1960 presidential campaign in which the
reporters went on television with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during their
[four] debates [September and October 1960]. After the opening statements by
the two candidates, the reporters would then ask each candidate to respond to
the same question. The first question was, what one quality do you think
commends you to the president of the United States more than anything else?
Mr. Nixon answered first, and he said he thought it was his experience. He gave
what I thought was a rather convincing answer about his years as vice president
[1953-1961], in the Senate [1951-1953], in the House [1947-1951], and world









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travel. I was wondering what Jack Kennedy would say when it became his turn,
because he had much less experience than Richard Nixon. He startled me by
saying that he thought his most important asset as a politician was his sense of
history. He said, by that I mean the capacity to understand the great underlying
values and forces that have shaped American history and also to be able to
discern in our own day the forces that are worth supporting and the ones that we
ought to oppose. I thought it was a pretty nifty answer. I was very impressed
with it. I suppose--even before that but certainly from that day to this--I have
never forgotten about my historical background. I agree with [George]
Santayana [Spanish-American philosopher, 1863-1952] that those who do not
remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I think history has a lot to teach
us, and we need people in the public life of this country who can bring some
long-term historical perspective on the problems of our own time.

G: I should have mentioned that you also had wartime experience. During World
War II, you flew a B-24 bomber out of Italy. [You flew] thirty-five or so missions,
which won for you the Distinguished Flying Cross. After that, it was your original
intention, I believe, to enter the ministry, which had been the profession and
calling of your father. Did you go to Northwestern University originally with that in
mind?

M: I did. I came out of World War II thinking that whatever time I had left in life I
would devote to the cause of world peace. I still think that is the number one
challenge before the human race--to find some way to achieve our salvation from
nuclear annihilation. I worry about these conventional weapons, too. We are
undergoing a revolution where we are becoming vastly more destructive than we
were in any previous war. The experience that I had thirty-five or forty years ago
dealing with the destruction in World War II has convinced me that we have to do
everything in our power to find some arrangement to break free from the war
system. It is war itself that is the evil. It is not nuclear power that is the evil; it is
the war system that is the evil in the international community. Countries have
achieved the capacity to utterly destroy each other and maybe to end all life on
this planet. We have got to find some better way of settling our differences than
killing each other, which could mean the end of the race.

G: I am very interested to hear you say that it is not nuclear weapons, as such, that
have altered the dimensions of warfare. I would venture to say that man has
always been prepared to destroy his enemies by whatever means happen to be
at hand. Indeed, many people tend to forget that in the closing years of World
War II, the United States was routinely destroying many more lives than were lost
in Hiroshima [August 6, 1945] with the A-bomb--with the incendiary fire-bombing
of Tokyo [beginning March 1945] and other cities in Japan. In just one night's









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raid in July or June, whichever, one of the months before August 1945 when the
A-bomb was dropped, the United States destroyed more lives than were lost with
the dropping of the A-bomb. We were prepared to do that even without the A-
bomb.

M: The bombing at Dresden [February 1945]--that old city was just literally
incinerated along with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. That was done with
so-called conventional weapons. These conventional weapons today are so
much more accurate, deadly, and destructive than they were thirty-five or forty
years ago, that it is an entirely different dimension of warfare. While I think the
Nuclear Freeze Movement is the most important movement right now in
American politics, I hope it will not cause us to lose sight of the underlying
danger, which is the system of war itself. We could very well kill tens of millions
of people in the Soviet Union, in the United States, in Western Europe and
throughout the world without ever going to nuclear weapons. The greater danger
is that if we fall into the use of the conventional weapons, as they are called, no
one has yet figured out any formula to prevent that from escalating into nuclear
weapons. You might say, well, nobody would do anything so horrendous as that-
-we have already done that. We have already dropped nuclear weapons on
great cities. We did that in Japan in 1945 [Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August
1945]. That argument is about whether or not mankind might have the
recklessness to use nuclear weapons. We have used them once. That is why I
think it is so important that we invest more time and energy than we have in the
past trying to strengthen the international organizations like the United Nations,
the peace-keeping capacity that we have to see that war is contained and
prevented. We have, incidentally, about forty wars going on right now around the
world. Some of them [are] very bloody conflicts, so the danger and violence is
never very far away.

G: I would assume from those remarks [that] you are very much concerned about
what is happening in Central America and the United States's involvement in not
only El Salvador, but now, most recently, the Honduran-originated excursion into
Nicaragua.

M: Dean Gannon, I cannot prove this, but I am convinced in my own mind that the
United States is arming, equipping, and training those Honduran forces who are
coming across the line into Nicaragua. I think the administration has made a
calculated decision to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. They are using
elements that once comprised General Somoza's national guard--some of them
very brutal, hard-boiled killers--to regroup on the Honduran side, come across
the line into Nicaragua and to attempt a military overthrow of the Sandinistan
government. I would not argue that the Sandinista government is perfect, but I









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would say that it replaced one of the most depressive governments in Central
America when it overturned General Somoza [Sandinista Revolution in 1979]. I
think it is not in the interest of the United States, either in terms of our
fundamental national interest or the values that we cherish in this country, for us
to get mixed up in a clandestine effort to overturn that existing government in
Nicaragua.

G: Do you believe that Castro's Cuba is behind the Salvadorian rebels and their
cause? Similarly, is the support or the foundation of the Nicaraguan Revolution
the Sandinese government?

M: I think the Cuban government, like the Soviet government, would like to see the
El Salvador guerrillas win. I think they would like to see the Sandinista
government survive. Those governments are more compatible, ideologically,
with the Soviet and Cuban views of the world than their opponents are. That is
quite different than saying that Moscow and Havana are calling the shots in El
Salvador and Nicaragua. I do not think they are. I think those are indigenous
revolutionary movements that come out of the economic injustice and political
misrule that have been the characteristics of life in that part of Central America.
If you could find some way just to eliminate every single Cuban and Russian in
the world, that El Salvador revolution would continue, and so would the forces
that brought the Sandinista government into power in Nicaragua. So what we
have to come to terms with is the seedbed of revolution and trouble in Central
America. [We need to] recognize that a certain amount of revolutionary activity
there is inevitable, given the nature of their conditions in Central America. Under
those conditions, the best thing for us to do is not to get militarily involved but to
try to use what influence we have. I think our influence is quite limited in bringing
about a negotiated solution to these problems.

G: I would like to stay with the theme of Cuba but change the context for a moment,
if I may. Several months ago on this program, I had a discussion with a historian
on our campus about the Cuban Missile Crisis of the very early 1960s
[confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in October 1962
that nearly brought the two nations close to war]. We were celebrating the
twentieth anniversary of that very dangerous episode in our country's recent
history. You went to Cuba, and you met and talked with Fidel Castro some years
after that event. It would be very interesting to know what he said to you about
that crisis.

M: He did not bring it up, and neither did I until we had talked for several hours. He
finally told me that we were going to leave the office and go to a barbecue. This
is about 2:00 in the morning. We got in his car and drove out to a suburb in









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Havana to a basketball court out behind somebody's house. Here was this lamb
turning on the skewer, so we started to eat this roast lamb. My wife was with me.
Just before we were to break up, I asked him about the Cuban Missile Crisis and
how he thought it had been handled. He said, you know, I was a very young
man at the time. I think he was about thirty [he was thirty-five or thirty-six--
birthdates vary according to sources]. He said, if I had had my way, there would
have been a much harsher solution to that. I would not have backed down to
President Kennedy. He said that Premier Khrushchev was an older and much
wiser man than I was. The arrangement that he worked out with President
Kennedy, I now realize was the proper one. Then he shook his finger and he
said, I was wrong, I was wrong. I thought it was quite remarkable for any
politician to ever admit he was wrong. As much as I criticize some of the things
Castro does, and I do not like a lot of the things he does, I did give him one point
for at least making a candid confession that he was wrong in having
recommended, fifteen [twenty] years earlier, a showdown that might have
plunged the world into nuclear war.

G: Yes.

M: By the way, I hope we will take a careful historical look at that Cuban Missile
Crisis some day. Did you ever ask yourself why the Russians would be so
reckless as to put those missiles into Cuba? Was it really the fact that they
intended the Cubans to use them against the United States? I think some of the
recent scholarship on that, Professor Gary Well, who is at Northwestern
University, has written a book recently. He suggests that the reason the
Russians and the Cubans wanted those missiles in there was to forestall a
possible follow-up to the Bay of Pigs [invasion of Cuba by 1,500 Cuban exiles on
April 17, 1961; unsuccessful invasion was financed and directed by the U.S.
government]. Keep in mind, we had invaded Cuba in the spring of 1961. Plans
were under way for a second invasion--this time with full tactical air and naval
support.

G: That is the first time I have heard of that.

M: You should read Professor Well's book. A follow-up scenario was being
developed. I do not say that a go-ahead had been given on it, but the scenario
was being developed. Also, various hit-and-run attacks had been launched
against Cuba. There was considerable fear there, apparently, that another attack
might take place, and this time, with enough air and naval backup so that it would
be a real threat to Cuba. Apparently there is strong evidence that they wanted
fifteen or twenty missiles there, not for the purpose of attacking the United
States, but to make it clear that they did have the capacity to retaliate in the









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event they were attacked. In other words, this was their version of the theory of
deterrence. It is the first explanation I have seen that makes any sense.
Certainly they did not put those missiles in to launch an unprovoked attack on the
United States. If they had done that, the island of Cuba would have simply
disappeared ten minutes later. Obviously Cuba, with fifteen missiles, was no
match to the United States with 5,000.

G: You do not think that Russia placed those missiles in Cuba as a way of
persuading us to withdraw our missiles from Turkey?

M: I do not think that had anything to do with it. I think it was a case of setting the
stage in terms of the way countries send messages to each other. If we were
going to try a full-scale invasion of Cuba, it might cost us Miami before it was
over. I think that was the real message they were trying to send.

G: I know that you are concerned about the military posture of the United States,
vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. You have expressed yourself on numerous occasions
as gravely worried about the direction the arms race is taking. Do you think that
a critical mass has been built up in the arms race which would encourage the
theory that the arms race is almost out of human control--that we have almost
lost our grip upon weapons that are of such magnitude [that] they seem to have
blunted our rational capacity to deal with it?

M: I do think that. When I listen to these scenarios of how a nuclear war could be
fought and limited and won, I have the feeling that I am listening to almost insane
ravings, because there is no defense against a nuclear war. [In the] last speech
that the president [Reagan] made, he raised the possibility that maybe through
laser beams we could shoot down incoming Soviet missiles and thus remove the
danger of nuclear war. I found that almost beyond comprehension. The reason
being this: Let us suppose those laser beams are 99 percent effective--I do not
think they could be 99 percent effective. Let us say we could devise a system
where if the Russians let fly their 10,000 volley of warheads, that we could knock
down 9,000 of them or 9,900 of them. Still, if 100 warheads hit the cities of this
country from the Soviet Union, whole cities would just simply disappear. We
would have tens of millions of people killed instantly. That is assuming that the
system that you build for defense is 99 percent effective. Nobody, in all the
history of the world, has ever devised a defensive system of any kind that was 99
percent effective. I do not care what time in history you are talking about. We
have anti-aircraft guns now to knock down planes, but they are not 100 percent
effective. To try to hit a missile traveling at several times the speed of light
coming across the horizon seems, to me, preposterous. Back in World War II, if
we sent 100 airplanes against the city and we lost ten of them to air defenses, we









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thought it was a catastrophe. What it meant is that in ten missions, all 100
bombers would be gone, and the amount of damage you could do with 100
bombers was not all that catastrophic. Today, if you sent 100 warheads against
Miami, and you shot down ninety of them and one of them hits Miami, the city of
Miami disappears. That raid is an enormous success from a military standpoint,
even though the defense was 99 percent perfect. That is the dimension of
warfare that I think has changed. There is no reliable defense if nuclear war
comes. I think we are all going to go if nuclear war comes.

G: That is a very practical and tactical objection. I can think of a strategic, long-
range objection to a defensive system, such as the president and others have
proposed. Namely, if we did have in place or were about to complete the
emplacement of a defensive system, the Soviets might think that they would
have to unleash and attack against us because they would not have an
opportunity ever again to do so. It could provoke the sort of war that the missiles
in place were supposed to prevent. Or, perhaps this would be a possibility. The
president would have to share that defensive technology with the Soviets in order
to assure a safe world in which neither side could be tempted to attack the other.

M: If he is going to share it with them, why not just share a little common sense right
now and both sides agree not to build it. We could save about $100 billion on
each side. Sharing a defensive system of that kind is a little bit preposterous
anyway, because the same kind of laser beam that can shoot down missiles for
defensive purposes can also attack targets in the Soviet Union. If you can burn a
missile out of the air by a laser beam that is deployed from outer space, the other
side is going to realize that those laser beams can also be deployed against
cities, factories, and missile installations on the ground. What you have
constructed in the name of defense becomes one of the most deadly offensive
systems ever devised. There is no country that is going to share that kind of
offensive power, or even for that matter, that kind of defensive capability if [that
country] ever gets it. I think a far better test of wisdom is whether we have the
capacity right now, when each side has the capacity to destroy each other many
times over, to say, that is enough--we are not going to build one additional
warhead on either side, not one additional missile, no more nuclear-carrying
submarines or bombers or other weapons of destruction of that kind. We are
going to call a halt to this right where it is now on both sides. This is the
message the American people were sending in this last election when in eight
states and the District of Columbia, the Nuclear Freeze Resolution appeared on
the ballot, [and] they endorsed it overwhelmingly. The only state where [the
voters] did not is Arizona, where it failed by a narrow margin.

G: What is the feeling in the Senate? Has the Senate gone along with the









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administration's request for massive infusions of new money for weaponry?

M: They did last year, but every indication is that they are finally balking and saying
that this has gone too far. I do not think I am going too far out on the limb to
predict today that the Senate will reject the president's current military budget. I
think [the Senate] will cut it by a good many billions of dollars.

G: How about the current crop of candidates now jockeying into position for a run at
the Democratic nomination for president? Do you see any one of that number
who is particularly gifted in the area of arms control?

M: I suppose Alan Cranston, the senior senator from California, is the one who has
given the greatest thought to it. I think he really means it when he says that he
would make that the highest priority on his administration if he were elected. All
of the Democratic contenders have made similar statements. They may not have
made it with the same single-minded force that Senator Cranston has, but I have
no doubt that, for example, Reubin Askew [governor of Florida, 1971-1979] here
in Florida is interested and would give a lot of time to bringing the arms race
under control. I think that is true with former Vice President [Walter] Mondale
[vice president, 1977-1981]; with my old campaign manager Gary Hart; Fritz
Hollings [governor of South Carolina, 1959-1963; U.S. senator, 1967--] in South
Carolina and John Glenn [first American to orbit Earth, 1962; U.S. senator, 1975-
1999] in Ohio. All of them have said that if elected, that would be a very high
priority. I do not see any one of them frankly, Dean Gannon, who has really
broken out of the pack and who has excited a lot of passion in following in the
country. Maybe that will come later.

G: Is there anyone high in the Reagan Administration who has spoken favorably
about a freeze or very strongly about arms control as the number one priority of
the administration?

M: If there is, he must have been put under wraps. I have not heard any sentiment
of that kind coming out of the administration.

G: The grassroots movement to develop a freeze initiative in our society is fairly
unique in our recent experience, is it not? The town meetings are developing
these very complex resolutions.

M: I think it is almost unprecedented. I suppose the closest thing we have had to it
was the Anti-Vietnam War Movement back in the 1960s and early 1970s. [There
was also the] Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This movement is
different from those [others] in the sense that it is so broadly based. It is,









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essentially, a middle-class, nonpartisan American movement. I can use that old
phrase--it is as American as apple pie. It comes out of the churches, out of the
discussion groups, out of women's organizations. A lot of lawyers, bankers,
farmers, plumbers, and clergymen--and people of all kinds were involved in that
movement. I have spoken to some of the nuclear freeze groups, and it is like
talking to any community group that might be there interested in a new
gymnasium or interested in a safety campaign. They are just concerned citizens
who want to be heard on what they regard as an issue of great importance.

G: Senator McGovern, I thank you very much for coming back to the University of
Florida. After your surprise showing in the New Hampshire primary in 1972, you
came to this campus to give an address which turned into a very excited rally on
your behalf. That was eleven years ago [running for president in 1972], and we
are glad to welcome you back to the campus. Thank you for being with me on
Conversation.

M: Thank you. It is good to be with you. We had a lot of people out. We did not get
very many votes, but we did meet a lot of very wonderful people.

G: That is great, thank you.