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Biden and McGovern

Senator George McGovern accepts the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 at Miami Beach. (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)

Images are flooding the Internet comparing the chaos in Kabul in August 2021 to Saigon in April 1975. In defending his Afghanistan policy on Monday, President Biden himself invoked Vietnam. The president was clearly more comfortable with the broad strokes of the idea of withdrawal from Afghanistan than the specifics of how his administration implemented this withdrawal. Nor did he offer an accounting of why his public predictions about the strength of the Taliban turned out so wrong.

Despite all the substantive differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, the road from Saigon to Kabul shows certain continuities in Biden’s political career. He was elected to the Senate in 1972, the same year as George McGovern’s epic loss. McGovern ran on the slogan of “Come Home America,” and, as a freshman U.S. senator, Biden backed cutting off American support for an embattled South Vietnam.

Most American combat troops left South Vietnam by the end of March 1973, though North and South Vietnam continued to battle each other. In April 1975, President Ford requested additional appropriations to help shore up the South Vietnamese government. In a dramatic meeting, Ford pleaded with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make his (rebuffed) case for the funding.

Biden reflected on this episode in his 2012 eulogy for McGovern:

It was decided that we were not going to try to sustain our presence. And it was about five weeks later, helicopters were taking off the roof. Not because of me — I mean, that was the plan. But the point was, I remember walking out of there thinking I was right. I got to go to Washington and be with George McGovern and play a little, little tiny part in ending that war.

Also in that eulogy, Biden called McGovern the “father of the modern Democratic Party.” A McGovernite ethos of “social-justice” economics and policies anchored in a certain elite-driven narrative of identity now enjoys great influence in the Democratic Party. And Biden, elected the same year as McGovern’s electoral drubbing, has contributed to that influence. A president who staked his administration on opposing triangulation, Barack Obama called Biden’s 2020 campaign platform “the most progressive platform of any major party nominee in history.”

George McGovern may have lost the 1972 presidential election, but his legacy endures.

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