McGovern returned to Mitchell and graduated from Dakota Wesleyan after the war’s end, and after a year of divinity school, switched to the study of history and political science at Northwestern University. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees, returned to Dakota Wesleyan to teach history and government, and switched from his family’s Republican roots to the Democratic Party.
“I think it was my study of history that convinced me that the Democratic Party was more on the side of the average American,” he said.
In the early 1950s, Democrats held no major offices in South Dakota and only a handful of legislative seats. McGovern, who had gotten into Democratic politics as a campaign volunteer, left teaching in 1953 to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Three years later, he won an upset election to the House; he served two terms and left to run for Senate.
Challenging conservative Republican Sen. Karl Mundt in 1960, he lost what he called his “worst campaign.” He said later that he’d hated Mundt so much that he’d lost his sense of balance.
President John F. Kennedy named McGovern head of the Food for Peace program, which sends U.S. commodities to deprived areas around the world. He made a second Senate bid in 1962, unseating Sen. Joe Bottum by just 597 votes. He was the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from South Dakota since 1930.
In his first year in office, McGovern took to the Senate floor to say that the Vietnam war was a trap that would haunt the United States — a speech that drew little notice. He voted the following August in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution under which President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the U.S. war in the southeast Asian nation.