Michael Totten

McGovern Versus Nixon

I’ve said before that I refuse to vote for Howard Dean if he wins the Democratic primary.
I take that back. It’s unlikely, but possible, that I’ll vote for him.
First let’s get a coupla things out of the way. Howard Dean is not a left-wing extremist. He’s a centrist who opposed regime-change in Iraq. As wrongheaded as I think that stance was, it’s in the past. As for the present and the future, he’s a staunch supporter of nation-building and Iraqi reconstruction. He doesn’t pal around with the Saudis. He approved of Israel’s strike against a terrorist camp in Syria.
Wesley Clark and John Kerry are incoherent and wobbly. But at least we know where Howard Dean stands. Whatever you want to say about him, he’s not a wishy washy waffler. Nor is he a peacenik.
I’ve compared Howard Dean in my head to George McGovern in his 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. Anti-war fervor was then at the peak of its popularity. And McGovern still lost in a landslide. That doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping to carry his torch. But there are some things, still, that bear thinking about.
Last week Hugh Hewitt wrote:

the election of 2004 is shaping up as the clearest choice since 1972.

Matt Welch responded on Hit and Run:

I asked the non-Democrat readers of my personal Web site last year who they’d vote for in the ’72 election, given everything we know now. To my lasting shock, Nixon trounced McGovern, 12 to 2, in the incredibly unscientific poll.

I was two years old back in 1972. But let’s pretend I was 30. Let’s assume that I could not see the future in ’72, that I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.
I have little doubt I would have opposed the Vietnam War. I’ve spent my entire life against it retrospectively, or uncomfortable about it at best. So I probably would have voted for George McGovern.
Now. In hindsight I know the Vietnam pullout was a disaster. We lost credibility. The Soviet Union was emboldened. The Vietcong massacres were brutal. Vietnam is still a police state today. Many in the South wish we’d stayed on to fight. This is the cause of my sometimes-extreme discomfort. Hawks who say the anti-war crowd has blood on its hands for letting the Vietcong win have a point. It was a predictable consequence of evacuation. I hate that war. There are no easy answers, and no one is innocent.
If I could go back in time knowing then what I know now, I would still pull the lever for George McGovern.
Here’s why.
First, we left Vietnam either way. A vote for Nixon wouldn’t be a vote against running away. It would be a vote for delay.
McGovern would have pulled us out sooner. Fewer Vietnamese, perhaps, would have died. Certainly fewer Americans would have died. A vote for McGovern, knowing then what I know now, would be a vote to minimize loss.
But there’s a lot more to it than that.
George McGovern would have gone back in to Southeast Asia. He was one of the few American senators who clamored for regime-change in Cambodia while Pol Pot massacred millions. He was definitely not a pacifist. He learned from Vietnam one of the same lessons I learned.
Here is Samantha Power in A Problem From Hell (Page 133):

McGovern argued that the United States should take the lead politically and militarily. To him Vietnam and Cambodia had little, apart from geography, in common. In Vietnam U.S. forces had squared off against an indigenous independence movement headed by a popularly backed leader, Ho Chi Minh. In Cambodia, by contrast, Pol Pot and a “handful of fanatics” were imposing their vision on millions of Cambodians. In light of Pol Pot’s “bloodthirsty” rule, his victimized populace could not possibly support him; indeed, McGovern believed the Cambodians would welcome rescue from the “murderous, slaughtering regime.”

A popular jungle insurgency is pretty tough to crack. It’s easy, if you’re strong, to knock down a hated regime. We couldn’t defeat Ho Chi Minh in a decade. But when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, Pol Pot’s regime was demolished in less than two weeks.
George McGovern would have done that. He would have restored US credibility. He might have saved more lives than were lost in Vietnam. He would have made the Soviets tremble. He would have put an end to Communism in one Asian state. And he would have soothed the Vietnam Syndrome.
There was no way to know it at the time, but the best treatment for McGovernism would have been George McGovern.
And maybe, for the same reason, the answer to Howard Deanism is Dean.
Postscript: I realize this doesn’t address the substance of Howard Dean’s positions. The point is that you never know how a person will change in office and in time. And if Dean makes moves in the right direction he’ll have my attention.
Post-postscript: There is another reason, of course, not to support Richard Nixon. As Hunter S. Thompson said of him after he died, “By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States…Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.”