Vt. Sen. George D. Aiken’s unorthodox Republicanism recounted in new biography

  • Steve Terry’s new book “Say We Won and Get Out: George D. Aiken and the Vietnam War” chronicles the full life of the late Vermont politician. (VtDigger - Kevin O'Connor)

  • U.S. Sen. George Aiken, third in line, joins Gov. Philip Hoff, second in line, for a 1966 ribbon-cutting that opened Interstate 91's Exit 8 in Weathersfield, Vt. (Vermont State Archives photograph)

  • Writer Steve Terry, left, works on his George Aiken book with University of Vermont research assistants David Brandt, center, and Louis Augeri in April 2018. (Brian Jenkins photograph)

  • George Aiken had a five-decade political career that spanned from the Great Depression to Watergate. (Vermont State Archives photograph)

Published: 11/30/2019 10:47:29 PM
Modified: 11/30/2019 10:47:27 PM

As longtime political observer Steve Terry tells it, the wild-haired Vermont icon needing no introduction seized the microphone to broadcast yet another communiqué on behalf of the common man.

“To represent the people one must follow them,” the Vermonter said. “Lincoln did. The Republican national leadership today does not.”

That bite sounds like vintage Bernie Sanders. But Terry knows it actually came from a fellow U.S. senator famous for cultivating the grassroots, championing the working class and challenging party machinery: the late, legendary George Aiken.

Terry was working as a fledgling reporter 55 years ago when, dialing up the onetime Dean of the Senate, he discovered Aiken was willing to talk anytime from early morning to late at night.

“I was learning on the job,” recalls Terry, a 1964 University of Vermont graduate, “but he was never in a hurry to get off the phone.”

Joining Aiken’s Washington staff in 1969, Terry gained even greater access until the senator’s departure in 1975 and death in 1984.

“I often took notes on the events I witnessed,” the writer says. “I had always aspired to do a book.”

A half-century later, Terry finally has. Say We Won and Get Out: George D. Aiken and the Vietnam War is the first biography to recount not only the history of the politician’s headline-grabbing 1966 call for withdrawal but also a career that spanned five decades from the Great Depression to Watergate.

Older Vermonters know Aiken as the Putney native who — first winning election as a legislator in 1930, speaker of the House in 1933, lieutenant governor in 1934, governor in 1936 and U.S. senator in 1940 — chose green for the color of the state’s license plates, coined the term “Northeast Kingdom” and spent $17.09 on his last reelection campaign in 1968.

Younger ones, however, may recognize his name only for inspiring UVM’s annual George D. Aiken Lecture Series that Terry now chairs.

“A whole generation has no idea who this person is or was,” the author says.

And so Terry began to write the book. Born in 1892 on a farm since supplanted by Interstate 91, Aiken was a Brattleboro High School senior in the class of 1909 when he first stepped foot in the nation’s capital and shook hands with then-President William Howard Taft.

Aiken initially wasn’t interested in politics, but instead plants. He worked as a horticulturist — penning books on wildflowers, fruits and berries — before his 1920 election to the Putney school board sparked a half-century career in public service.

Back before the interstates and internet brought Ben & Jerry’s and berniesanders.com, Vermont was one of the most rock-ribbed Republican strongholds in the nation. Aiken was a lifelong member of the Grand Old Party, although that didn’t mean he was a stereotypical one.

In 1938, for example, Aiken addressed the National Republican Club’s Lincoln Day Dinner as such media heavyweights as the New York Times were proposing him as a candidate for president.

“If an orthodox Republican speech on Lincoln Day consists of reciting history which everybody knows, giving Lincoln a great deal of praise which he does not need, justifying all the Republican Party has been doing and excusing everything it is not doing by that all-embracing phrase, ‘Lincoln would have had it that way,’ then I am afraid you will not hear a very orthodox speech from me tonight,” Aiken began.

The Vermonter wasn’t interested in his party’s 1940 White House nomination — just the public platform it provided.

By 1946, Aiken and newly elected Gov. Ernest Gibson, frustrated with the conservative “old guard” of their state’s Republican Party, encouraged more moderate candidates to run for the Legislature and other state offices. The group soon grew into the Gibson-Aiken wing of the GOP, prompting the national magazine Collier’s to announce “Vermont Goes Radical.”

In Congress, Aiken raised a few eyebrows by eating breakfast every morning with then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. But he remains best-known for a single paraphrased quote from a 12-minute speech — formally titled “Vietnam Analysis: Present and Future” — he gave in 1966.

“The United States could well declare unilaterally that this stage of the Vietnam War is over,” Aiken said, “that we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

Continuing on, Aiken explained how such an assertion could allow the nation to start to withdraw troops and seek a political solution to end the fighting. But the press, fellow politicians and the public soon summed up the speech as “declare victory and get out.”

Some historians have questioned whether that synopsis, mistaken by many as Aiken’s actual statement, is, in the words of one, “a gross distortion of the facts.” Terry uses his book to set the record straight.

“As a former reporter and editor and a person who had worked for six years as an aide to Senator Aiken, I never heard him once claim that he had been misquoted on his famous speech,” the author writes. “In fact, as his Senate term came to an end in 1975 and until his death in 1984, Aiken was quick to say that the popular version was the correct interpretation.”

Aiken even seemed to echo it when speaking of a 1973 investigation of the Watergate scandal involving then President Richard Nixon: “Either impeach him,” he said, “or get off his back.”

Aiken’s reputation would only grow. In his last reelection campaign in 1968, he faced a primary challenge from a conservative who charged the senator had the support of “communists, radicals and other left-wing extremists.” Aiken went on to win with almost 75% of the vote. Ten days later, he filed a campaign finance report showing he had spent $17.09 — mostly for postage to put his name on the ballot.

Aiken was 80 years old and contemplating retirement when a freelancer convinced Vermont Life magazine to pay him 10 cents a word to interview the elder statesman.

The aspiring scribe’s name: Bernie Sanders.

“My job as Aiken’s aide,” Terry recalls, “was to take the very long-haired Bernie to lunch in the ornate U.S. Senate dining room.”

The contrast between Sanders and Aiken couldn’t be more striking: A young Brooklyn-born revolutionary conversing with the small-town Republican tagged by his congressional colleagues as “the wise old owl.”

“Bernie was Bernie,” Terry says.

But the resulting story that ran in the spring 1973 issue (and is reprinted in the book) shows a surprising degree of consensus between the two men.

Said Sanders: “There’s been some discussion lately about the state of Vermont being, in a sense, dominated or over-run by out of state interests. For example, a lot of the large Vermont industries are selling out to out of state corporations.”

And Aiken: “When you can’t stop it — you’ve got to guide it. I used to say that if you stand on the track and see a train coming down you can do one of two things. You can stand still and get run over, or you can hop on it and try to control it.”

Aiken retired from politics at age 82 in 1975 and lived another decade before his death at age 92 in 1984.

Terry, now of Middlebury, would join the late UVM historian Sam Hand in compiling the senator’s most important speeches in 2004’s The Essential Aiken: A Life in Public Service, then reunite with Hand and fellow longtime journalist Anthony Marro to write 2011’s Philip Hoff: How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State.

For his Aiken biography, Terry researched UVM’s George D. Aiken papers with the help of student assistant Louis Augeri before moving on to the Library of Congress and U.S. Senate Historical Office in Washington and the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

The book includes many personal memories, starting with confirmation of a story asserted by other historians that President John F. Kennedy was secretly planning before his assassination in 1963 to withdraw from Vietnam after his anticipated reelection campaign in 1964.

“Aiken told me when I was on his staff that it was told to him in confidence,” Terry says.

Such revelations often came after hours.

“While awaiting session responsibilities in the evening, I would mix Aiken a Brandy Alexander, while I had a scotch or bourbon with water,” Terry writes. “About 6 p.m., Aiken and I would leave his small Capitol office and walk one floor down to the senators’ dining room, where he would order a cheeseburger and a dish of chocolate ice cream.”

The author caps his book with a chapter titled “What Would George Aiken Do Today?”

The short answer: Continue to rebel against the establishment.

“Granted, the world of George Aiken was well before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, social media platforms or a time when constant news was either generated or re-circulated by millions of Americans using Twitter, Facebook and many other forms of digital communications,” Terry writes.

That said, “If Aiken were in the Senate today,” the author continues, “I believe he would surely be among the few Republicans challenging President (Donald) Trump.”

Terry is set to share his book — published by UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont — at a public signing Thursday at 4 p.m. at the school’s Billings Library.

“Aiken was not a perfect human being,” the author writes. “He often said that any person in political life is as ‘honest as any person you might find listed in the telephone book.’ In short, all humans have their strengths and weaknesses. He would ascribe that description to himself, too.”

But Terry believes that only elevates Aiken.

“He was a man of honesty, decency and independence of thought and action,” the author concludes. “Aiken knew how to listen and how to talk with people. He was never a ‘high-hat’ nor a stuffed shirt. Aiken was a common man with a common touch.”

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