More Great Thoughts: George Aiken and Vietnam

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(Host) As VPR’s occasional exploration of the Great Thoughts of Vermont continues, commentator Steve Terry considers George Aiken’s famous formula for ending the war in Vietnam.

(Terry) Vermonters may well remember George Aiken for a whole host of accomplishments from infant nutrition to agriculture programs, but his most enduring legacy to the declare victory and withdraw.

In those words, Vermont’s senior senator proposed way back in 1966 that the United States claim a military victory in Vietnam and extricate itself from an unwinnable conflict.

To those who don’t understand the context in which Aiken made that now-famous proposal, it might seem somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In fact, it was anything but. In 1969, I went to work for the senator in Washington, and he once explained to me exactly how it happened.

Late in l965, Aiken, a Republican, and his close friend, Senator Mike Mansfield, a Democrat, embarked on a trip around the world at the urging of President Lyndon Johnson. At the time, there were fewer than 200,000 American soldiers in Vietnam, but the Pentagon was asking the president to send more troops. The Aiken-Mansfield mission was to find a way out of Vietnam before the situation got worse.

The journey confirmed Aiken’s worst fear: that more U.S. troops would expand the war, provoking more involvement by North Vietnam, and possibly drawing in China with its endless number of soldiers. Aiken warned LBJ, both publicly and privately, that the war could not be won by more U.S. troops.

Johnson, however, ignored the advice and instead agreed to General Westmoreland’s demands for more troops and increased bombing sorties. Aiken, in despair over LBJ’s decision, felt he had to speak out. In October 1966, Johnson was on his way to Manila to meet with allies to discuss war strategy. The time was right for Aiken to speak up.

So what did he actually say? He said that one option was for the United States to escalate its involvement in Vietnam. The other option, he said – and I quote here – was that “the United States could well declare unilaterally that this stage of the Vietnam War is over – 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.” He further advised that the U.S. begin a gradual redeployment of U.S. troops and stop the bombing in favor of a political solution.

Furious, the president refused to speak to Aiken for almost a year. After LBJ left the White House, Leonard Marx, a Johnson loyalist, asked the former president why he had been so angry about Aiken’s speech. LBJ told Marx, “Because I knew he was right.”

I’m Steve Terry of Middlebury.

Steve Terry was Senator Aiken’s legislative aide from 1969 to 1975. He is now senior vice president at Green Mountain Power.

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