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From Vietnam to Iraq: Sen. George McGovern Discusses the Lies of War from the Gulf of Tonkin to Iraq’s WMDs

StoryNovember 21, 2005
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The 1972 presidential candidate looks back at how the U.S. entered the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. We also play an excerpt from the new documentary “One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.” [includes rush transcript]

In the past few weeks new information has been revealed about the U.S government’s deceptions during the Vietnam War. Early this month new evidence emerged about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 that precipitated the escalation of the Vietnam War. A National Security Agency historian determined that officers at the agency knowingly falsified intelligence in order to make it look as if North Vietnam had attacked U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf. Following the alleged attack, President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese targets and used the event to persuade Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which led to the escalation of the war.

And just last week, documents were released from the National Archives that gave fresh insight into the Nixon administration’s efforts to deceive the public over its 1970 attack on Cambodia. The over 50,000 pages of declassified material include records of then-President Richard Nixon meeting with aides at a time Americans were told US forces in Cambodia were there to support South Vietnamese. Nixon told aides: “That is what we will say publicly. But now, let’s talk about what we will actually do.”

George McGovern was the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1972 race against Richard Nixon. McGovern was one of the leading critics of the Vietnam war in Washington. A new film that looks at his life opened in Los Angeles this past weekend. It’s called “One Bright and Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.” It was produced and directed by Stephen Vittoria. I was asked to narrate it.

  • Sen. George McGovern, ran for president in 1972 against Richard Nixon. He served in the Senate from 1962 to 1980.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: George McGovern was the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1972 race against Richard Nixon. McGovern, one of the leading critics of the Vietnam War in Washington. A new film that looks at his life has opened in Los Angeles. It is called One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. It was produced and directed by Stephen Vittoria. I narrated the film. This is an excerpt.

WARREN BEATTY: It’s hard to find a person who has run for something that has engendered as much affection as George McGovern has engendered.

J.C. SVEC: Can you imagine if McGovern had become president?

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home America.

J.C. SVEC: Can you imagine a world without Madison Avenue-induced patriotism?

CHIP BERLET: There were a lot of people who were threatened by George McGovern.

DICK GREGORY: Nixon was good for black folk, because he scared white folk.

CHIP BERLET: You had the rise of the neoconservative movement.

FRANK MANKIEWICZ: All this talk about him as a softy, it was just preposterous. I mean, the man is an authentic American hero.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: I think that’s a lot of nonsense, this charge that I was too decent and too nice a guy to be president. We have had too much indecency.





PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: — trade weapons or anything else.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: —- he he he was developing a -—


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: — a program for weapons of mass destruction.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on inaugural day.

HOWARD ZINN: Lies are natural to governments. They lie most about war.

GORE VIDAL: Here in this chamber as we speak, the wings of the angel of death.

J.C. SVEC: George McGovern wanted out. He wanted my friends and my relatives to come home and not in a body bag.

GLORIA STEINEM: He at the same time had been talking about white racism at a time when everybody else was at most talking about the Negro problem.

AMY GOODMAN: American politics will never be the same again. George McGovern’s clarion call to the American people.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: For once in American politics sunshine and light beat shadows and fog.

FRANK MANKIEWICZ: We just lost an election. None of us went to jail. Most of the other guys went to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern has opened in Los Angeles, produced and directed by Stephen Vittoria. George McGovern joins us on the line right now from Los Angeles, former senator of South Dakota, ran against Richard Nixon in the historic 1972 presidential race. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Senator McGovern.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Thank you very much. It is nice to hear those words of the film that’s out on the 1972 campaign. I still think that campaign was properly oriented, and we identified the central issue, which was a mistaken war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking a lot about lies today. And we are getting more information about the pretext for war back in Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin. What was your position at the time?

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I reluctantly supported that resolution, because we were assured that two American destroyers operating on the high seas were attacked in an unprovoked — what was called an unprovoked attack by the North Vietnamese naval forces. Actually, we learned within a few months of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that there was no evidence that such an attack ever occurred. Even one of the commanders of one of the destroyers said at the time, “Hold up, we are not really sure that there was any attack.”

Lyndon Johnson himself said to his aides, “It looks like those guys were shooting at whales out there.” Really, he began to doubt the substance of the resolution himself. But I think, I have always thought that was a cooked up deal. Even if there had been some kind of PT boat attack on those destroyers, it wasn’t unprovoked because those destroyers were out there harassing the North Vietnamese coastline. So that was a total fiction, totally without any foundation in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you sorry you voted now?

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Oh, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say about the Democrats today who voted for the invasion based on what they say now is false information, but saying they would do the same thing again? That goes right to John Kerry.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Yes, well, I can’t understand that position, because I used to tell my daughters, who were terribly discouraged about the war in Vietnam, the one good thing maybe out of this experience is that we will never do that again. We will never send American soldiers abroad on the flimsy excuses that took us into Vietnam, and yet here we are, going right down the same road again. I couldn’t understand people with any historic memory at all, voting to authorize war against Iraq, in view of the way we had been so shamefully misled in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. I have to tell you I don’t think the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the cause of the major war against Vietnam. We were already escalating that war long before the Gulf of Tonkin. But I regret voting for it, because it was based on falsehoods.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern, we just had an extended conversation about John Rendon, who in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, “The Man Who Sold the War: Bush’s General in the Propaganda War,” Rendon Group, key getting tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. government, military, Pentagon. He was your man in Maine for your presidential election?

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: If he was, I have forgotten it. I have no knowledge of this man at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask about John Murtha and your thoughts about him today, the Congress member, the hawkish Democratic Congress member from Pennsylvania has just turned around, said he was wrong, and wants the troops out immediately?

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, that’s a good American doctrine, to be able to change your mind once you discover you are wrong. Since when is it considered cowardess or being pro-terrorist to say we were mistaken in going into Iraq? I never did think that the intervention in Iraq had anything to do with fighting terrorism. The Iraqis had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. Saddam Hussein was a big enough S.O.B. without accusing him of something he had nothing to do with. And as the congressman, Congressman Murtha, has concluded, we are actually creating terrorists in Iraq. There wasn’t any big insurgency going on in Iraq at the time we put our army into their country, and I think that Congressman Murtha, who is an experienced combat veteran, 39 years in the United States Marine Corps, had every right to say “I’ve changed my mind. It’s time to come home. We have done everything we can there militarily.”

AMY GOODMAN: Perhaps most interesting, Senator McGovern, is not so much that he is being slammed by Republicans in Congress, but that the Democrats are not supporting him.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, some of the Democrats are supporting him.

AMY GOODMAN: Or, they are distancing themselves from him.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, that may be. I think that’s wrong. I think we ought to get out of Iraq. I was saying we shouldn’t go in there months before we went in there. A lot of thoughtful people were saying that, including General Wesley Clark. Other people were warning us that this was a trap, it would be easy to get into but very hard to get out, and I think that Congressman Murtha has come to that conclusion and had the courage to say, 'I was wrong, I don't want to see any more Americans dying out there. Let’s get out and do it in a systematic way.’

AMY GOODMAN: Senator George McGovern, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Senator McGovern of South Dakota speaking to us from Los Angeles.

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