Biography and History

George Stanley McGovern was a United States American senator and Democratic presidential nominee known for his strong liberal stance. The second of four children, he was born in Avon, South Dakota, in 1922 to Joseph C. McGovern, a Wesleyan Methodist pastor, and Frances McGovern (née McLean). George McGovern enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., in 1940. While at Dakota Wesleyan, he joined the Dakota Wesleyan Varsity Debate Squad, winning the South Dakota Intercollegiate Oratory Contest in 1941 and the Red River Valley Tournament in 1943.

McGovern earned a pilot's license through the Civilian Pilot Training Program and enlisted in the Air Force following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. He began training in February, 1943, and was deployed in the fall of 1944 to an airbase near Cerignola in Northern Italy. In the following ten months preceeding his discharge in July 1945, he flew 35 bomber missions with B-24 Liberators over targets in Europe, including Linz, Vienna, and Munich, as well as a number of food relief flights following the surrender of Germany. In honor of his wife Eleanor, he named any plane he piloted the "Dakota Queen," a practice he later extended to his campaign planes. McGovern was awarded the Air Medal for heroism in battle.

Returning to Dakota Wesleyan in 1945 to finish his studies under the G.I. Bill, McGovern earned his B.A. in 1946 and went on to study divinity at the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Dissatisfied with the ministry, he enrolled at Northwestern University, earning his M.A. in History in 1949. He returned to Dakota Wesleyan as a professor of history and political science while also continuing his studies with Arthur S. Link at Northwestern. In 1953, he received his Ph.D. in history with his dissertation, "The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-1914".

Though raised a Republican, McGovern became a supporter of Henry Wallace, serving as a delegate from Illinois for the Progressive Party Convention in Philadelphia in 1948. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson's acceptance speech following his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate moved McGovern to register as a Democrat. He left Dakota Wesleyan the following year to become the executive secretary of the Democratic Party in South Dakota and spent the following years revitalizing the party's presence in the traditionally conservative state.

In 1956, McGovern successfully ran for Congress and became the United States Representative for the First District of South Dakota, winning reelection against Joe Foss in 1958. During his four years in the House of Representatives, McGovern served on the Committee on Education and Labor and on the Committee on Agriculture, where he advocated strongly for rural development, food stamp legislation, and foreign food aid. These themes would characterize his subsequent political career.

McGovern challenged Karl Mundt for his Senate seat in 1960. Though the campaign focused on rural issues, McGovern's political ties to Robert and John F. Kennedy, whose Catholic background was unpopular in South Dakota, ultimately contributed to his defeat. In a phone call to his brother at the time, John F. Kennedy said "I think we just cost that nice guy a Senate seat," and subsequently offered McGovern a position in his administration as Special Assistant to the President.

In that function, McGovern served as the director of the Food for Peace Program from January 1961-July 1962. During that time, McGovern leveraged the agricultural surplus of the U.S., which had frequently been viewed as a problem since it lowered farm profits, to alleviate world hunger and improve foreign relations. When McGovern left office to run again for the Senate, Food for Peace was operating in twelve countries.

In 1962, McGovern won a Senate seat against Joseph Bottum, who had been appointed following Francis Case's unexpected death earlier that year. He was subsequently reelected in 1968 and 1974 and served in the Senate until 1981. When McGovern joined the 88th Congress in 1963, he joined the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry and the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and from the start developed a strong stance on farm prices, rural development, and food programs. After 1967, when he assumed the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, McGovern also became an outspoken advocate for the rights of Native Americans and for improving education and employment opportunities on the reservations. In addition, McGovern consistently challenged military and defense spending, a position that correlated with his opposition to the war in Vietnam and which became one of his central tenets. In 1969, McGovern became the chairman of the newly created Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs and, in 1978, of its successor, the Subcommittee on Nutrition. The committee played a major role in developing legislation for food stamp and school lunch programs, and explored the relationship between nutrition and health. In 1977, the Select Committee issued a seminal report, Dietary Goals for the United States (known as the "McGovern Report"), which advocated a decrease in the consumption of fats and refined sugars, and an increase in the consumption of complex carbohydrates and fiber. The report is the precursor of today's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

McGovern campaigned briefly for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 following the assassination of Robert Kennedy, announcing his candidacy on August 10 and losing the nomination to Hubert Humphrey during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago three weeks later. At the convention, a motion was passed to establish the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, of which McGovern became the chairman when it began work in 1969. The commission significantly strengthened the role of caucuses and primaries and set quotas for women, youth, and minority delegates.

In 1972, McGovern won his party's nomination and ran for president against Richard Nixon on a platform that emphasized withdrawal from Vietnam and more equitable social welfare programs. While McGovern had been able to attract an enthusiastic following during the primaries partly based on his perception as an idealistic, anti-establishment candidate, his campaign was damaged by the discovery that his vice-presidential candidate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, had a history of psychiatric illness. Eagleton's removal from the ticket was viewed by many voters as political opportunism, causing the campaign to lose substantial support. In addition, the campaign lost momentum when the Nixon administration reduced troop levels in Vietnam, thereby deflating one of McGovern's main campaign issues. In addition, McGovern represented the left wing of the Democratic Party and was unable to attract the support of moderates. Given these factors combined with the power of incumbency wielded by his opponent, McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, carrying only the state of Massachusetts.

In 1980, McGovern lost his Senate reelection bid in the course of the "Reagan Revolution" that swept many Democrats from office. He subsequently ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 against (among others) Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, and Gary Hart, who had been his campaign manager in 1972. He considered a renewed attempt for the nomination in 1992 but ultimately decided against it, deferring to the wishes of his family.

After electoral politics, McGovern continued to work to alleviate world hunger, serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and on the board of the Friends of the World Food Program. In 2001, he was appointed the United Nations Global Ambassador on World Hunger. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.

George McGovern was married to Eleanor Stegeberg McGovern (1921-2007). The couple had five children: Ann, Steven, Susan, Mary, and Terry (Teresa), who died 1994 from exposure related to alcohol addiction. Her death prompted George McGovern to author the book Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism and to help create the Teresa McGovern Center, a non-profit treatment facility for substance abuse patients.

George McGovern is the author or co-author of numerous books, including the following selection:

War Against Want: America's Food for Peace Program (1964)

Agricultural Thought in the Twentieth Century (1966)

A Time of War--A Time of Peace (1968)

The Great Coalfield War (1972)

The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time (2002)

The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition (2004)

Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (2006)

Abraham Lincoln (2008)

Source: From the finding aid for MC181.05

Occupations

  • Politicians -- United States..
  • presidential candidates -- United States..
  • Thomas Klinkel Collection on George McGovern. 1968-1974 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC166

    Collection of material relating predominantly to George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. Includes organizational charts, press releases, publications, reports, speeches, family and campaign photographs, slides, audiotapes, and campaign publications.

  • George S. McGovern Papers. 1939-1984 (inclusive), 1968-1979 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC181

    George Stanley McGovern was a Congressman (1957-1961), a U.S. Senator (1963-1981), and a Democratic presidential nominee known for his strong liberal stance, particularly during the Vietnam War. This collection contains legislation files, campaign materials, correspondence, speech texts, schedules and invitations, travel files, patronage files, subject files, photographs, and audiovisual materials documenting McGovern's activities in the House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate, as well as his time as Director of Food for Peace.

  • George S. McGovern Papers. 1939-1984 (inclusive), 1968-1979 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC181

    George Stanley McGovern was a Congressman (1957-1961), a U.S. Senator (1963-1981), and a Democratic presidential nominee known for his strong liberal stance, particularly during the Vietnam War. This collection contains legislation files, campaign materials, correspondence, speech texts, schedules and invitations, travel files, patronage files, subject files, photographs, and audiovisual materials documenting McGovern's activities in the House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate, as well as his time as Director of Food for Peace.

  • George S. McGovern Papers Series 5: Audiovisual Materials. 1957-1984 (inclusive), 1968-1972 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC181.05

    The Audiovisual Materials series documents McGovern's political activities from 1957-1984. It contains film footage, video recordings, audiotapes and audiocassettes, computer tapes and diskettes, and other formats. It is the only series in this collection that includes material for the years 1981-1984.

  • George S. McGovern Papers Series 5: Audiovisual Materials. 1957-1984 (inclusive), 1968-1972 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC181.05

    The Audiovisual Materials series documents McGovern's political activities from 1957-1984. It contains film footage, video recordings, audiotapes and audiocassettes, computer tapes and diskettes, and other formats. It is the only series in this collection that includes material for the years 1981-1984.