Guest editorial: The day Sen. Aiken planted his anti-Vietnam War acorn

What happens when you speak truth to power? Often no immediate impact. But the words themselves can be like planting an acorn that grows into an impressive oak tree. It usually takes about 50 years for a small acorn to grow into a big oak tree, a well-known fact for the farmer-horticulturalist from Putney, George D. Aiken.

This analogy helps to describe the lasting impact of a speech delivered on the Senate Floor on Oct. 19, 1966, some 53 years ago, by Vermont’s senior Republican Senator Aiken.

 On that fall day Sen. Aiken delivered a 10-minute speech that has since been called one of the most important speeches on the subject of the Vietnam War.

In his remarks on the Senate floor, Aiken said the time had come for the United States to declare a “victory” in Vietnam, in that no other military force could defeat the United States. Given the reality of the military situation on the ground, Aiken said that the U. S. military forces in South Vietnam, by then close to 200,000 troops, could begin a gradual and phased down military withdrawal from the region.

 Senator Aiken’s 1966 speech came as advice to President Lyndon B. Johnson as the Commander-in-Chief was leaving for Manilla to meet with U. S. allies to plan war strategy. The president summarily rejected Aiken’s advice. When President Johnson returned to the United States he approved a rapid escalation of U. S. troops to the war zone in Vietnam. The immediate impacts of Aiken’s speech were front page news stories in the morning newspapers of Oct. 20, 1966, including a front-page placement in the New York Times. 

 A consistent theme of the news stories was that Aiken was proposing that the U. S. “declare victory and withdraw from Vietnam.” Historical records indicate that Aiken never actually used those exact words. That said, never once in the many years after his famous speech did he claim that the reporting of it was not accurate. In fact, as time went on and before his Senate retirement in 1975, Aiken himself would describe his advice to President Johnson as to say we won and get out.

Aiken’s 1966 speech on Vietnam was praised on the Senate Floor by Majority Leader Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana and proved to be a crucial element in building bipartisan anti-Vietnam war sentiment in the Senate. Aiken was declared the “wise owl” in the Vietnam debate, a debate that was divided between the “hawks” and the “doves.”

The Vermonter’s public opposition to the Vietnam War was a distillation of his private views that he had held for many years during his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, starting in 1954.

During Aiken’s remaining time in the U. S. Senate, until in retirement on Jan. 2, 1975, the Vermonter continued his opposition to any expansion of the Vietnam War, whether it be by President Johnson or President Richard M. Nixon. Aiken supported Nixon’s plan of gradual withdrawal of U. S. troops from South Vietnam, but opposed Nixon’s frequent practice of intensifying bombing strikes over North Vietnam. 

By January 1973 a cease-fire between United States and North and South Vietnam forces was announced with a withdrawal of U. S. troops within 60 days.

U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War did not officially end until April 30, 1975, when North Vietnam took control of South Vietnam. By then, Aiken had retired from the Senate and had returned to Vermont. Nixon had resigned the presidency in disgrace in August 1974, faced with certain impeachment and removal from office. President Johnson died Jan. 22, 1973, five days before the Vietnam War cease-fire was signed. 

Before his death, and after Johnson had left the presidency, Leonard Marx asked Johnson why he was so angry at Senator Aiken in 1966 when the Vermonter urged Johnson to declare victory and withdraw. Johnson responded, “because he was right.”

Senator Aiken died on Nov. 19, 1984. His many obituaries made frequent references to his famous Oct. 19, 1966 speech on Vietnam.

Stephen C. Terry lives in Middlebury. He served as Legislative Assistant to Senator Aiken from 1969 to 1975. His new book, “Say We Won and Get Out, Senator Aiken and the Vietnam War,” will be available in early November.

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