LAUCK: George McGovern followed liberal history professorsMcGovern was proud to become what would widely become known as a “liberal intellectual.”
By: Jon Lauck, Guest columnist
Senator George McGovern’s place in American history was clinched by his iconic leadership of American liberalism, his intense opposition to the Vietnam War, and his failed presidential bid. While national commentators reflect on these legacies, it is also important to recognize two lesser-known but essential components of McGovern’s early life and career.
First, McGovern was an historian. Soon after returning from World War II, McGovern enrolled in graduate school in history at Northwestern University in Chicago. He was a diligent student and he studied with some of the leading lights of American academic history.
Northwestern’s faculty included the prolific scholar Ray Allen Billington, who was a fellow Midwesterner and constant supporter of McGovern’s career. Billington’s course on intellectual history was crucial to McGovern’s early thinking on political affairs. Billington went on to have a distinguished career as his generation’s most prominent historian of the American West and to serve as a leader of various “Historians for McGovern” organizations.
McGovern’s official advisor at Northwestern was Arthur Link, who became an expert on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Link later moved to Princeton and went on to write a five-volume biography of Wilson and to edit 69 volumes of Wilson’s papers. Link is the reason that McGovern’s personal papers are located in Princeton and not in Mitchell.
McGovern’s doctoral dissertation was a combination of Billington’s and Link’s interests. McGovern focused on the 1914 coal strike in Ludlow, Colorado. The strike occurred during the Wilson administration, which Link studied, and in the American West, which Billington would master as a field of history.
Link and Billington were devoted to the cause of liberalism, as was the Northwestern history department. “Most of them,” McGovern recalled in a 2003 interview, “supported Henry Wallace for president in 1948.” Northwestern journalism professor Curtis MacDougall also supported Wallace and ran for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois on Wallace’s Progressive Party ticket in 1948. McDougall wrote a three-volume history of the Progressive Party entitled Gideon’s Army (1965).
A young McGovern followed his professors’ lead and trekked to Philadelphia in 1948 to attend the Progressive Party’s national convention.
“In those days,” McGovern later said, “I was much influenced by my profs.”
McGovern also wrote several op-eds for the Mitchell Daily Republic promoting Wallace and even gave a speech to the Mitchell Kiwanis Club during the fall of 1948 making the case for Wallace.
McGovern was proud to become what would widely become known as a “liberal intellectual.” In 1965, the distinguished historian Christopher Lasch published his book “The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as Social Type,” which highlighted the growing importance of tweedy intellectuals in American society. This was a world that McGovern found comforting and which fit his past as a high school and college debater.
McGovern’s embrace of the role of liberal intellectual and the life of the mind is why he fell hard for the “egghead” Adlai Stevenson in 1952, why he was enthused about the Kennedys’ embrace of the “best and brightest,” and why his houses were always filled with books.
When McGovern decided to enter politics, he drew on the world of liberal intellectuals and this led him to a second major component of his early career. Specifically, he drew on the federal policy planners of Wilson’s progressive era and FDR’s New Deal. This included Henry Wallace, who, before his run for president as a liberal alternative to Harry Truman, had served as the Secretary of Agriculture and had presided over the creation of the federal farm program.
The merger of the world of liberal intellectuals and policy planning gave McGovern his footing in politics. From this general world view McGovern would take specific ideas that could be applied in South Dakota. He didn’t run as an across-the-board opponent of the Cold War or as the standard-bearer of Wallace-ite liberalism, but instead as an advocate of the federal farm program.
McGovern took the reins of the Democratic Party in South Dakota just as the Korean War was ending and war demand slackening and, as a result, farm prices were plummeting. For the rest of the 1950s, McGovern pummeled Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson for not addressing falling farm prices. By speaking to this issue and working with groups such as the South Dakota Farmers’ Union, McGovern was able to win a seat representing the predominantly farm country of East River South Dakota.
The rest, as Professor McGovern would appreciate, is history.
Jon Lauck is a senior staffer for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. He is the author of “Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory” (2010).
Lauck’s article “George S. McGovern and the Farmer: South Dakota Politics, 1953-1962” was published in the journal South Dakota History vol. 34 (2002) and can be read by clicking on the link attached to this article.