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An Interview with George McGovern


An interview with George S. McGovern on his new book, labor history, and the Iraq war.

"And, I say you’re damned right I support our troops! That’s why I don’t want them sent off to die in wars that are unnecessary."
"...there was a need to even the balance between organized capital on one hand, and organized labor on the other"

I recently recorded an interview with George McGovern. Part of the interview aired on the Heartland Labor Forum radio show on KKFI 90.1 FM community radio in Kansas City just before the election, and part aired on Thanksgiving night. Here is a transcript of the entire interview.



Our next guest volunteered for service in World War II at the age of 19 and ended up flying 35 missions over Nazi occupied Europe as a B-24 bomber pilot. After the war he studied history and did his PhD thesis on the great coalfield war leading up to the Ludlow Massacre. He was a history professor at Dakota Wesleyan University. He served in the U. S. Senate and was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States in 1972. When not traveling the globe as a permanent representative to the United Nations for food and agriculture, he divides his time between South Dakota, Montana, and Florida. I spoke to George S. McGovern at his home in South Dakota in late September.

HLF: Mr. McGovern, I went to Trinidad, Colorado, the Ludlow area, a little over a year ago, for a memorial service that the United Mine Workers have every year for those that lost their lives at Ludlow, and didn’t know much about it before I went there. And everyone I talked to said “you need to read The Great Coalfield War by George McGovern’ and in response to the look I gave them, they said “yes, that George McGovern.” I got the book and I was just fascinated with the story. Could you give us, for those of our listeners who are not familiar with it, your brief description of what the Ludlow Massacre was?

McGovern: Well, in 1913, ten thousand miners walked off their jobs and were located by United Mineworkers officials in tented colonies out in the hills and mountains of southern Colorado. For some fifteen months they were engaged in a struggle primarily for one principle, and that was to gain recognition of their right to have a union. The right to belong to the United Mineworkers, their right to bargain for wages and improved working conditions and improved mine safety. The owners, many of them absentee owners of whom John D. Rockefeller was the most famous -- they resisted that bitterly. They brought in strikebreakers. They brought in Baldwin-Phelps detectives who harassed the miners, in some cases actually committed acts of violence against the miners. They did everything they could to break that strike. Finally in the spring of 1914, some fourteen months after the strike began, a pitched battle developed between the strikers and the Colorado National Guard which had been called in at the invitation of the mine owners and operators, and it got so bad that the tents caught fire at one point, and a dozen women and children were found dead after the battle -- young children and their mothers belonging to the striking families. That led President Wilson to send in fifteen hundred federal troops to put down this virtual civil war that was raging in the southern hills of Colorado. It led to a federal investigation, and I think for the first time public opinion shifted to the workers in a nationally known strike, and it led to a number of changes, eventually recognition of the United Mine Workers and their right to speak for the miners; it led to improved mine safety, and it led to a better understanding by the public of what was involved in these labor battles.

HLF: How is it that you came to find Ludlow an important subject to write a book about?

McGovern: Well it began in the 1950’s when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University. I was just finishing my class work for a PhD in history, and I needed to get in a doctoral dissertation before I was awarded the degree. My professor was Arthur Link, the great biographer of Woodrow Wilson, and he suggested that I do a study of the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914, which occurred during the Wilson Administration. It was one of the most violent strikes in American history. The big issue was whether or not the coal corporations that were largely owned by out of state interests would recognize the United Mineworkers to speak for the workers. So I dug into that for a while and decided it was a worthy topic, and I wrote about a five hundred page doctoral dissertation on the coal strike which culminated in the notorious Ludlow Massacre and it was not until twenty years later that one of the book publishing companies, Houghton Mifflin, decided that there was a story there that ought to be published for wider circulation. And they offered to help me find somebody to help take out some of the more academic parts and write that story in a little bit more accessible way for the general public, and that’s how that book came to be published in 1972, the year I was running for President.

HLF: And your co-author, Leonard Guttridge, he was a mining expert?

McGovern: Leonard Guttridge made himself a mining expert. He worked very hard. He went to Colorado and went over all the same ground that I did years before. He spent a lot of time talking to me, and he interviewed people that we’d been unable to find in the earlier version, but he depended heavily on the work that I had done for Northwestern for my doctoral dissertation. He was not an expert as such on coal mining, but he became a person that was widely recognized as a competent person to do that work.

HLF: And, at the time of your dissertation, and later of your book, I imagine there were still a number of people still living who remembered the Ludlow Massacre?

McGovern: There were indeed. An interesting incident happened in 1950 when I was in Colorado doing research. “The March of Time” newsreel in one of the large theaters in Denver showed highlights of the first fifty years of the Twentieth Century, 1900-1950, and there flashed on the screen in that crowded theater highlights from the Ludlow Massacre and the strike of that earlier period. Half the audience cheered the miners, and half the audience booed. It indicated to me that even many years after that strike, feelings still ran high, pro and con, on the merits of the strike battle.

HLF: That offers a partial answer to a question I was going to ask. In 1972 you were running for President, and I imagine rather busy. And in your new book, The Essential America, you also have a brief mention of the Ludlow Massacre in this current book. Why do you think it’s worthy of discussion, even in 1972, years after it happened, and in your current book? Why is this relevant today?

McGovern: Well, it reveals the fact that a great many Americans are unaware of the struggle to gain recognition for collective bargaining. Today I think you’d have to say that most Americans if asked this question, “do you believe in the right of working people to bargain as an association to secure adequate working conditions and wages?” most people would probably say “yes.” But, I wanted them to know in writing this book that this right didn’t come easily. It came only after the bitterest kind of struggle. I think it’s fair to say that the strike of 1913-14, and especially the Ludlow Massacre, gained a large group of people across this country who saw that there was a need to even the balance between organized capital on one hand, and organized labor on the other. And it was telling that story that probably motivated me in the first place to select that topic as my dissertation, and then to welcome the chance to publish it in a wider form.

HLF: Very few people in the United States are in the dire conditions that coal miners and their families were in the early 1900’s, but we do see an erosion of labor unions -- the percentage of American workers who belong to unions is way down, particularly in the last twenty-twenty-five years. Do you see any parallels to these capital versus worker relationships that you were talking about today?

McGovern: Absolutely. We’ve seen that unchecked power at the top of the capital structures can lead to very harmful results – witness the Enron case where the managers of that corporation, one of the largest in the country, exploited their pensioners, exploited their workers, even exploited their shareholders by utilizing corporate funds for their own incredible enrichment; enormous salaries, enormous payouts at the time they left employment with the company, insider unloading of stock at a time when the company was in trouble, but nobody knew it but the managers. All of those things indicate a need for an alert labor force in corporations that’s ready to blow the whistle and is capable of bargaining for better positions for the workers and the pensioners and others who work for that corporation. I think there’s a desperate need for strong, alert, vigorous organized labor in the corporate structure of the nation.

HLF: I never heard about Ludlow that I can recall in high school or grade school history classes. You taught history at a college level, yes?

McGovern: Yes

HLF: Do you think there should be more of an emphasis on labor history in school curricula?

McGovern: I think so, because it’s an important part of the American struggle to achieve the American dream, a good life for everybody. And, part of that struggle has been the battles of working people to improve the conditions for themselves and their families, so I think that story needs to be told. I never offered a course in American History without bringing in some of the highlights of that struggle and its significance for America today.


Of the heroes and villains of the Ludlow story, one of the names that stands out is that of Karl Linderfelt, a Lieutenant in the Colorado National Guard. In The Great Coalfield War, McGovern wrote: “Linderfelt enlisted in the Fourth U.S. Cavalry, served in B Troop throughout the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1900 and was later to boast that as a scout he participated in more fights and skirmishes than the rest of the troop” and “The Philippine adventure may have been Vietnam’s closest parallel in U.S. military history, a Victorian practice run with its own equivalent of body counts, search-and-destroy missions, and the dismemberment of the enemy dead by trophy-hunting victors.”

During the Colorado Strike, Linderfelt, by his own admission, broke a rifle stock over the head of one of the strike leaders, and likely was also the one who shot him in the back. Guardsmen detained strikers and made a joke of having them dig their own graves before releasing them, a practice echoed by the mock executions of Iraqi detainees we have recently heard about. With the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Vietnam much in the news lately, I ask Mr. McGovern to comment on Lt. Linderfelt and how war creates situations where such abuses occur.

McGovern: Well, Linderfelt was a brutal bully, one of the most obnoxious characters that I encountered in my studies of this strike. He’s the kind of guy that could have been involved in the My-Lai Massacre, he’s the kind of guy that could have been involved in the extreme brutal measures that were used on the Iraqi prisoners by some of the people in charge of those prisoners. He was an embarrassment to the armed services. And we still have people like that on the loose. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. Most service-people are honorable individuals, they don’t abuse prisoners, they don’t engage in illegal and brutal tactics of that kind, but there are always a few around in every war and in every circumstance, in every strike and other areas of human conflict. We can only hope that they’ll be exposed, but yes, there are repetitions of that kind of behavior even today.

HLF: In your current book, The Essential America, Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition, you quote an Israeli, Avraham Berg, as saying, “It is not a matter of Labor versus Likud or right versus left, but right versus wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable.” As this nation seems to be sharply divided in this election year, much as you described your audience at the newsreel relating to Ludlow, do you see some issues that are sort of painted as right versus left, but should really be regarded as right versus wrong?

McGovern: You know the Palestine/Israeli conflict that has raged on now for half a century and more, that is clearly a case of not one side being entirely right and the other side being entirely wrong. They’re both basically right. The Israelis are entitled to an independent, free, democratic country of their own, which they have, and so are the Palestinians entitled to an independent sovereign state of their own. There’s plenty of room for both countries. But to bring that about, the Israelis are going to have to withdraw from those settlements that they’ve established on the disputed territory that was taken away from the Palestinians in the 1967 War. I don’t know of a head state or a foreign minister anywhere in the world that disagrees with that solution, and it’s one that the United States should press with all the vigor that we can. And that’s the point I’m trying to make in our book. Obviously, there are issues in the world where there’s clearly right on one side and wrong on the other side. The Iraqis were wrong to invade Kuwait twelve years ago when President Bush senior was in the presidency, and I think that President Bush was right to rally the world to get the United Nations, the Europeans, the Latin Americans, even the Arab League to join with us pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. But, this war we’re waging today is not that kind of a conflict. The Iraqis didn’t so much as stick a big toe beyond their borders over the last ten years since they were pushed out of Kuwait. We had American planes flying overhead every day providing surveillance on what was going on below. We had the U.N. weapons inspectors in there for years to try to discover whether they had any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or were producing any, so there was no reason for this present war. It was clearly wrong for the American army to invade Iraq, smash the ancient city of Baghdad, and break up their water supply, break up their electrical supply. They’ve been in the dark and without running water in many of the homes in villages and towns there ever since, and that’s wrong. It was a big mistake on our part, and now these young Americans that we have there are being picked off by insurgent rebels across Iraq with no end in sight. So, I think this is a case of the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong people. We never should have gone in there.

HLF: Stephen Ambrose in his book The Wild Blue which is about B-24 bombers in World War II, and really is largely about you and your crew, I believe he said somewhere in the book that you could have used your military service to more advantage in your presidential campaign. What do you think about that now, as we look back to George Bush landing on the Abraham Lincoln and parading around in his flight suit?

McGovern: Well, Stephen Ambrose and I got to know each other when I substituted for him one year at Louisiana State University in New Orleans. I took his classes while he was teaching abroad for one year. We were friends since then, and he told me several times that he was disgusted that I didn’t make more of a story of my days as a bomber pilot in the second world war -- I flew a full string of thirty-five missions over some of the most heavily defended targets in Europe, and he thought I should have made more of that story. But, you know, there’s a feeling on the part of most World War II veterans that I served with that you don’t talk a lot about your war record. But because I was an intense critic of sending American troops into that Vietnam jungle, and I strongly opposed that war almost from the very beginning, he felt that that left the impression with some people that I was weak on national defense, and that I should have countered that with stories about my involvement in a war that I believed in and still do to this day. And he’s probably right about that. I probably should have talked about it more, and made it clear that I had had a record that I was very proud of in time of war, just as I’m very proud of my opposition to that miserable war in Vietnam and now the one in Iraq that we never should have been involved in. You know, people ask me when I criticize the war effort, either in Vietnam or in Iraq, don’t you support our troops? And, I say you’re damned right I support our troops! That’s why I don’t want them sent off to die in wars that are unnecessary.

HLF: Also in your current book you lay out four items of prescription to really fight the war on terrorism. Number one is to get the army out of Iraq. How do you suppose we could do that?

McGovern: People ask me once in a while, well maybe you’re right, we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, but how do we get out of there? I always tell them the story of the guy who walked across the border into Illinois one evening and he saw a local native standing there in this little town and he said, “Sir, could you tell me how I get to Peoria?” And the guy says, “Look, if I was going to Peoria, I sure as hell wouldn’t start from here!” But we are here. And now the question is how do we get to Peoria? I think what we have to do is accelerate the effort to turn over political and security authority in Iraq to the Iraqi people. We can’t just walk out tomorrow, but we can accelerate the effort to make clear to the Iraqis that we’re not there indefinitely; we’re going to take our troops out of there gradually and try to shift the security responsibility to them. We’ll help them in that process, but this is their country. We recognize that, we don’t want to stay any longer than is absolutely necessary now that we’ve torn up their military forces and pretty well disbursed their security arrangements, and we ought to be able to do that, I think, in a few months time, and then we come home.

Maybe we need old Senator Aiken, a Republican, a Republican senator from Vermont, when I was in the Senate. He listened to the administration at that time talking about how good things were going for us in Vietnam, and Senator Aiken said, “Let’s declare victory and come home.”

HLF: Mr. McGovern, you are currently the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Could you tell us just a little bit about what you’re doing with that?

McGovern: Well, for four years I was the United States Ambassador to the U.N. agencies on food and agriculture and to the world food program. Now, that assignment ended about a year after the present administration came into office. But I was then appointed by the United Nations itself, not by the American government, to be a roving ambassador on hunger. And, that means that I work without pay and I work on a spot assignment basis in dealing with problems of hunger in different parts of the world. I’ll go into those parts of the world where we have an especially acute situation such as Africa, for example. I’m also continuing to work on the universal school lunch program that I proposed in concert with former Senator Robert Dole, and I’ll be doing that indefinitely, as long as the United Nations wants my services.

HLF: Well Mr. McGovern, I’d like to thank you very much for talking to us today, and I recommend your book, The Essential America, Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition. Thanks again.

McGovern: It’s been my pleasure. I think I’ve written nine books now, and I think this current one, The Essential America, is probably the best one I’ve done, so I recommend it to my friends and others around the country.



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Re: An Interview with George McGovern

I don't support the troops. They've sold out to their class to kill for the capitalists. Every communist should want to see their defeat and the radicalisation that will bring to the 'homeland'.

If I'd been a killer for US imperialism in WWII, I wouldn't be proud of it.


Re: An Interview with George McGovern

well, the soldiers are mainly brainwashed Americans who would (if they weren't fighting a war) be sitting around playing their x-box. So, they dind't "sell out" because they probably never believed in anything to begin with.

As for McGovern, some say his defeat proved the last "final blow" to the 60's progressive movements.

Re: An Interview with George McGovern

Very informative, it is good to hear from one of my heros and see a side of him I was not aware of before. I'll have to listen to the show more often.


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