I have written about Vermont’s change from being one of the nation’s most Republican states to being one of the nation’s most Democratic states, and some of the answer lies in demographic changes in the state (Bernie Sanders is a New York City transplant, for instance) while some of the answer lies in change in political leadership and how Vermonters saw themselves. The old orthodoxy in Vermont can best be seen as a rugged Coolidge-like conservatism; one of the six senators to vote against Social Security was from Vermont, and the state had numerous conservative figures representing it in the early 20th century including William Dillingham, Redfield Proctor, and Frank Greene. The state was one of only two to not once vote for FDR. Today I will focus on a figure who has great responsibility in moving the state to other places, and that was a Republican named George Aiken (1892-1984).
Aiken in numerous ways challenged Republican orthodoxy in Vermont, and ultimately played an outsized role, along with Ernest W. Gibson Jr., in transforming the state party. He was part of a traditionally Republican Vermont family and like his parents, was a horticulturalist. He won his first election in 1920 to his town’s school board. In 1930, Aiken ran for the State House of Representatives and won. There he became known from the start as a maverick, as he fought private power companies and he quickly gained popularity. In 1933, despite the conservative establishment’s wishes, Aiken would be elected speaker. As speaker he was instrumental in the passage of the Poor Debtor Law, a protection for those who had trouble paying off their debts. His one term as speaker was a springboard to being elected lieutenant governor in 1934. That year was a challenging one for Republicans, even in “safe” territory such as Vermont. Senator Warren Austin, a staunch anti-New Dealer, for instance, came within three points of losing reelection that year.
Aiken’s term as lieutenant governor was yet another springboard for higher office, and in 1936 he was elected governor. As governor, he shifted the state of politics towards the center and supported some aspects of the New Deal while opposing others, such as flood control policy. Aiken was also a trust-buster, but also proved fiscally conservative enough to reduce the state’s debt. On the national level, he was dissatisfied with the standpat inclination of the national party, holding in a February 12, 1938 speech at the Waldorf Astoria for Lincoln’s birthday that, “To represent the people one must follow them. Lincoln did. The Republican national leadership today does not” (O’Connor).
In 1940, Senator Ernest W. Gibson dies. Aiken appoints his son, Gibson Jr., with the understanding that his is a temporary spot as Aiken wants the Senate seat and in a special election, he wins with 61.6% of the vote. This will be his most challenging election.
Aiken starts his Senate career as a staunch non-interventionist, opposing Lend Lease and delivering his first Senate speech against it. He also opposes the extension of the peacetime draft, and arming merchant ships. Aiken is in truth quite a contrast from his fellow Vermonter, Warren Austin, an interventionist who opposed the New Deal. By 1945, however, he has gone down the Vandenberg road like Charles Tobey in neighboring New Hampshire and changed to internationalist. Aiken proves one of the most accommodating Republican senators to the new President Truman. In 1946, Aiken votes against the Case Labor Bill, which is vetoed by Truman, which he finds too harsh on labor. Starting in that year, he and Ernest W. Gibson Jr. start cultivating more moderate to liberal people in the GOP, and among their progeny included future Senators Robert Stafford and Jim Jeffords.
In the 80th Congress, he is among those who push back against Senator Robert Taft’s (R-Ohio) agenda on domestic issues. Aiken votes for tax reduction but then upholds Truman’s veto of it, and he supports the Taft-Hartley Act but is one of the few Republicans to oppose the Bulwinkle bill, which exempts railroad joint rate agreements from anti-trust laws if they were approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Aiken also backs the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. In 1950, he is one of the six Republican senators to join Margaret Chase Smith (R-Me.) in her “declaration of conscience” against the methods of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin but also votes for the anti-communist McCarran Internal Security Act, providing for registration of communist organizations with the Attorney General. In 1954, Aiken voted for the St. Lawrence Seaway, a project he had long supported despite much oppositon to it coming from the east coast, including from his Vermont colleague Ralph Flanders. That year, he opposed the Bricker Amendment, which if adopted would have added to the Constitution that treaties could not supersede the Constitution.
Although overall supportive of civil rights, Aiken sponsors with Senator Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.) a restrictive amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which strikes any implementation of the 14th Amendment from the bill. This is a change that although is backed by many conservatives, it is opposed by the Eisenhower Administration. It is one of two amendments, along with the jury trial amendment, that renders the law as little more than a base from which other civil rights laws are built from.
Aiken and the Politics of the Sixties
Senator Aiken votes against Kennedy’s public works program and votes in 1959, 1962, and 1964 against Medicare while backing job training programs, foreign aid legislation, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and guaranteeing credits to the USSR for grain purchases. He also supports the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the flagship legislation for President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Aiken also proves strongly supportive of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and consistently votes against weakening amendments. During this time, he has breakfast daily with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), a practice one can hardly imagine would happen with Chuck Schumer and any Republican. Aiken was so personally popular that he barely had to spend money to win reelection. In 1962, he spent around $14. In his his final bid in 1968, he spent $17.09 to win both the Republican and Democratic nominations and to put himself on the ballot. His only opposition was in the primary from a conservative who derided Aiken as being supported by communists, but he wasn’t a serious threat and faced no opposition in the general election.
The Johnson Presidency
After the 1964 election, Aiken changes his mind on Medicare, and opposes deleting it from the Social Security Amendments in 1965. He backs rent subsidies and opposes repealing the Taft-Hartley Act. Aiken also votes for constitutional amendments on legislative reapportionment and school prayer. In 1965, he sponsors with Representative Bob Poage (D-Tex.) the Poage-Aiken Act, securing water and wastewater systems in rural regions. Aiken had throughout his career supported aid for rural areas.
A Vietnam “Owl”
Senator Aiken was one of the elder statesmen that President Johnson consulted with on the Vietnam War, and it was in 1966 that he allegedly dispensed his famous advice of “declare victory and get out”. What he actually said was, “The United States could well declare unilaterally … 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,” and that such a declaration “would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam. It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked” (Elder). Aiken himself would endorse “declare victory and get out” as the gist of his words.
Aiken was said to be an “owl” rather than a dove or a hawk on the Vietnam War, as he neither supported the “hawks” or “doves” 100%. He did vote in 1970 for the Cooper-Church Amendment blocking funds for deploying U.S. troops in Cambodia and in 1971 supported Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s (D-Mont.) proposal for a nine-month withdrawal from Vietnam contingent on POW releases. Aiken, however, opposed more extreme measures, such as the McGovern-Hatfield “End the War” Amendment in 1970, which would have required a ceasing of all operations in Vietnam by December 31, 1970, contingent on POW releases.
The Final Years
Aiken maintained his independence during the Nixon Administration and in 1973, similar to his advice on Vietnam to LBJ, he said on Watergate to either impeach Nixon or get off his back. That year he was interviewed for a magazine called Vermont Life by a freelance journalist named Bernie Sanders, who at that point had been the socialist Liberty Union Party’s 1972 nominee for the Senate and the gubernatorial race. In this interview Aiken recounted how he had in 1909 met and shaken hands with President Taft, and Sanders brought to him the following topic, “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”, to which Aiken responded, “We do hate to see the old home-owned, home-grown industries fall into the hands of a giant corporation. But it’s something we can’t stop and it’s a worldwide situation. 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” (O’Connor).
By 1974, Aiken was 82 years old and ready to hang up his hat. That year, he votes against a federal death penalty, for a treaty on the prevention of genocide, for consumer protection legislation, for ending presidential monitoring of the economy, and against campaign finance legislation (although he voted to end debate on it). In his final speech, he made what he thought of as a “confession” as to his legislative behavior. He stated, “During the 34 years of my tenure as U.S. Senator, I have committed many sins. I have voted for measures which I felt were wrong, comforting myself with the excuse that the House of Representatives, the conference committee, or, if necessary, the chief occupant of the White House would make the proper corrections. At other times, I have voted for measures with which I did not agree for the purpose of preventing the approval of other measures which I felt would be worse” (Schlafly). Aiken was a moderate but also, he had seen himself as a pragmatist, and this speech appears to have been him having some regrets about his approach. His successor is currently himself serving in his last year in the Senate, the state’s first Democratic senator since the foundation of the Republican Party, Pat Leahy. Bernie Sanders would say about him in 2006, “I can’t say I have based my political work on his, but Aiken has always been a name and a person I’ve respected and admired. What I liked about him and what made him successful was his straightforwardness, his common sense, his down to earth-ness. He was clearly a man of the people” (O’Connor).
Aiken’s Costs Up — to $17. (1968, September 13). The New York Times.
About George Aiken. The University of Vermont Professional and Continuing Education.
Elder, R. (1966, October 20). Aiken Suggests U.S. Say It Has Won the War. The New York Times, pg. 1.
O’Connor, K. (2016, January 17). The stories about Bernie: Following in someone else’s footsteps. VTDigger.
Schlafly, P. (1975, February 4). Aiken’s Explanation. Phyllis Schlafly Report.