It's a shame George McGovern didn't live long enough to see his doctrine of American leadership in the world embraced by the two candidates in Monday night's presidential debate.
McGovern, who died on Sunday, was the peace candidate in 1972 when he ran for president as the Democratic nominee against Richard Nixon, the Republican incumbent. Nixon, a war president, prolonged our fighting in Vietnam to avoid admitting that the United States had lost its way.
In the election, war crushed peace. Nixon carried 49 states; McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Thus did war, so strong and certain, move to the core of our foreign policy, where it would remain for the next 40 years. Peace, weak and yielding, was for losers.
Until Monday, that is.
When Barack Obama declared in the debate that the time has come for the United States to cease fighting abroad and "do some nation-building at home," it was an echo of McGovern's theme, "Come home, America."
Obama's call wasn't surprising. He ended the war in Iraq and has pledged to remove our troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
Should Obama lose to Mitt Romney in two weeks, however, his defeat might be seen as yet another example of a peace candidate losing to his more martial opponent—a repeat, in other words, of McGovern-Nixon, Carter-Reagan, Dukakis-Bush I and Kerry-Bush II.
Except that Romney is suddenly a peace candidate too.
The Mitt Romney everyone expected on that stage—the bellicose one who's been campaigning for president for the last seven years—would've savaged Obama (again) for the murder of our four diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. He would've rattled his warplanes at Syria. He would've threatened Iran with imminent attack unless it gives up enriching uranium. And he'd have ripped Obama for being soft on Tehran.
But Romney did none of that.
Instead, Romney concurred with Obama that the U.S. must focus on restoring our domestic economy as the basis for American leadership in the world. "I want to see peace," Romney said. On Syria, Romney agreed that using our military isn't an option. He accepted that we must leave Afghanistan in 2014. He didn't mention Benghazi. Even on Iraq, Romney's view was that "of course a military action is the last resort."
The upshot is, regardless who wins on Nov. 6, the American people will expect their president to do what George McGovern promised and "turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas."
"America must be restored to a [leadership] role in the world," McGovern said as he accepted his party's nomination. "But we can do that only through the recovery of confidence in ourselves."
I was just out of college when McGovern lost to Nixon. I remember being stunned by the margin, stunned that the country had so roundly rejected the better man—a good man—in favor of one whose moral compass had no needle. Even more, I was shocked that so many Americans voted for war out of an infantile refusal to acknowledge that Vietnam was a mistake—their mistake—and the peaceniks they'd derided were right all along.
McGovern wasn't weak, and he wasn't a pacifist. In fact, he was a highly decorated World War II pilot. And he did not oppose all wars, only stupid ones. McGovern believed that American influence in the world stemmed less from our military might than from our prosperity and democracy, which other nations would wish to emulate. McGovern wanted to boost our economic aid, especially the Food for Peace program, while cutting military spending—"so wasteful it weakens our nation," he said.
His greatest strength was his honesty. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, unlike Nixon, McGovern wasn't afraid to tell the American people that they were not as all-powerful as they imagined, that Vietnam was the reason the U.S. economy was stagnant and 5 million Americans were out of work.
Sadly, we didn't learn, and every president since Nixon has increased military spending in order to be seen as strong. Today, as Obama said, our military budget, about $840 billion a year including veterans programs, is more than the next 10 nations' combined.
Nor did we learn from Vietnam (or World War II) that military occupations are crippling to the invader, not the invaded. Thus, under George W. Bush, we occupied Afghanistan and Iraq and the two misadventures cost us an estimated $3 trillion, thousands of lives, and were a contributing factor to our Great Recession, in which 13 million Americans are out of work.
Not to mention that the Bush wars, like Vietnam, wrecked our prestige around the world.
So now, with Obama and Romney, are those lessons learned?
Well, you can never tell what Romney really thinks about anything. Shaking his Etch-a-Sketch, he's changed his positions on tax cuts, trade, you name it—and now military force. But Romney is still calling for defense spending to be at 4 percent of GDP, which would boost it over the next 10 years by some $2 trillion. And he is still vowing to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability, though whether he'd back that up with military attacks is unknown.
As for Obama, he's not talking about cutting military spending, though he does say that Romney's extra $2 trillion is unaffordable. Obama, too, says he'll stop Iran from having nuclear weapons—and like Romney, he puts the military option on the table as a last resort, if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
Neither Obama nor Romney is ceding much to peace from our claimed hegemony in the world. We are still "the indispensable nation," Obama says. Still "the hope of the earth" for Romney.
Nonetheless, to a war-weary nation, the Obama-Romney debate, with its emphasis on setting America upright and on using diplomacy instead of muscle, marked a turning back to the policies George McGovern advocated 40 years ago.
McGovern called for full employment, with the federal government stimulating growth and hiring where necessary. He called for national health insurance. He called for tax reform to reduce the burden on working people and increase it on the wealthy.
Yes, McGovern said, America should lead the world with defenses that are "alert and fully sufficient to meet any danger." But his main point was different.
"I believe that the greatest contribution America can now make to our fellow mortals is to heal our own great but very deeply troubled land. We must respond to that ancient command: 'Physician, heal thyself.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Weary of the wars."