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George McGovern, Senator and Alumnus, Dies at 90

Received Northwestern degree before leaving his mark on American politics

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October 22, 2012 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
George McGovern

During his 1972 run for president, George McGovern became known as the leading opponent of the Vietnam War.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The remembrance of George McGovern, the U.S. senator from South Dakota whose prominent place in American politics is being noted throughout the world following his death Sunday, has special meaning to Northwestern University, where he received a Ph.D. in history in 1953 and an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1967. 

Following his service in the military as a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, the soft-spoken minister’s son pursued his doctorate from Northwestern, while teaching college history, before going on to change the nation’s history as a champion of peace. 

During his 1972 run for the presidency against incumbent Richard Nixon, Sen. McGovern became known as the leading opponent of the Vietnam War. 

During his long life in public service, including two terms in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate, he also was devoted to eliminating hunger at home and abroad. He was the first director of the Food for Peace Program, appointed by President John F. Kennedy; the United Nations’ first global ambassador for hunger, and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, awarded by President Bill Clinton. 

Sen. McGovern also transformed the Democratic Party by rewriting primary system rules that made the party more open, inclusive and representative of diverse interests and constituencies. Those changes made possible the once seemingly impossible competitive candidacies of Democrats such as Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, said Michael J. Allen, associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. 

(Professor Allen is working on a book titled “The Confidence of Crisis: Confronting the Imperial Presidency, 1968-1992” in which Sen. McGovern and his supporters figure prominently. He is among Northwestern historians who comment on Sen. McGovern’s legacy below.)

Sen. McGovern occasionally returned to Northwestern, including in 1967, when he received an honorary degree; in 2000, when he delivered the Richard W. Leopold Lecture; and in 2008, when he delivered a keynote address at A Day with Northwestern. 

In that address to alumni titled “Needed: A New American Foreign Policy,” he proposed ways to improve the United States’ international diplomacy efforts and new strategies for responding to terrorist threats at home and abroad.

During memorial remembrances of Richard W. Leopold in 2006, a prominent diplomatic historian at Northwestern, Sen. McGovern was mentioned as being among the hundreds of former students profoundly affected by the beloved professor’s teaching and scholarship during an illustrious career at the University.

See Northwestern historians’ comments on Sen. McGovern’s legacy below. 

Michael Sherry, Richard W. Leopold Professor of History

“I met George McGovern once, when he delivered the annual Richard W. Leopold Lecture in 2000. Most speakers at such an occasion either make themselves the center of attention or are made the center by virtue of their celebrity and by the chemistry of the occasion. Not McGovern -- he was energetic, but by involving and listening to others, not by dominating the occasion. He wore his considerable fame and his formidable intelligence lightly, modestly, in perhaps a reflection of his South Dakota background and sensibilities.”

Michael J. Allen, associate professor of history

“McGovern deserves credit for being among the first in the Democratic Party and in the U.S. Senate to break publicly with the U.S. policy of military intervention in Vietnam, a policy devised by Democratic presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Co-sponsoring the 1970 McGovern-Hatfield Amendment that sought to cut off funding for the war in Vietnam by the end of 1971 was the most serious legislative challenge to the war throughout its duration. He was the principal architect of changes to the Democratic Party nominating system adopted in the wake of the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that made the Democratic Party more open, inclusive and representative of diverse interests and constituencies, and which made possible his own nomination and competitive candidacies from subsequent Democrats such as Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

“He had the courage to speak truth to power on the most difficult and controversial issues of his day, even when it cost him to do so. No doubt his deep training in U.S. history, as well as his distinguished service as a bomber pilot in World War II, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, equipped him to do so.”

Peter Hayes, Chair of Northwestern's department of history and Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor

“George McGovern was a great American. Many of us in the Vietnam generation remember him gratefully for his courageous opposition to a misguided and wasteful war. He was as brave and patriotic then as when he fought for his country in World War II.”