George D. Aiken, 92, a Vermont Republican who served in the Senate for 34 years and earned a reputation for forthright independence on issues ranging from agriculture and civil rights to Vietnam and the Soviet Union, died of a stroke Monday at the Heaton House nursing home in Montpelier, Vt.
Mr. Aiken was a farmer and politician most of his life. As a young man, he was a leading nurseryman and grower of berries. He wrote two books on wildflowers and fruits and berries.
He made an unsuccessful run for the Vermont legislature in 1922 and was elected in 1931. Subsequently, he served as speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives and as lieutenant governor. He was governor of the state from 1936 to 1940. He took his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1941 and served until he retired in 1975.
He then returned to his farm in Putney, Vt., and there, only a mile from where he was born, he raised berries and vegetables and flowers and enjoyed his view of Mount Monadnock.
In Washington, Mr. Aiken was an unfailing supporter of the rural interest and legislation that could advance it: price supports for farmers and dairymen, programs to promote rural electrification, and similar measures. On a national level, he was an early and effective critic of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who espoused a virulent and irresponsible brand of anti-communism that ruined many careers in the early 1950s. He voted for the great civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s.
In international affairs, Mr. Aiken sought improved relations with the Soviet Union. He was a U.S. representative to the United Nations in 1960s and attended the limited nuclear test-ban treaty talks in Moscow in 1963 on behalf of President John F. Kennedy.
He was a firm and eloquent critic of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. While he justly deserved his reputation as a laconic and epigrammatic speaker and the epitome of the down-to-earth virtues celebrated in New England, Mr. Aiken was best known for a remark he never made.
This was his plan for ending the war in Vietnam. He announced it on Oct. 19, 1966, and, as it was reported and subsequently quoted, he said: "The United States should declare victory and get out."
In fact, what he proposed was that the U.S. proclaim victory in reaching its limited objective of containing North Vietnamese aggression and withdraw American troops to the major population centers. If the North Vietnamese refrained from further attacks, the U.S. should bring its force home.
Toward the end of his Senate career, Mr. Aiken became equally well known for a remark that was authentically his. As the Watergate scandal drew towards its climax, he said to the critics of President Richard M. Nixon: "Either impeach or get off his back."
Throughout his career, Mr. Aiken was valued by his colleagues more for his civility and evident decency than he was for his stands on particular issues. He avoided partisan struggles and others appeared to regard this squarely built man with the thatch of white hair and the seamed features as a kind of elder statesman who was above mere politics. He counted among his close friends men of great power and widely differing viewpoints and they depended upon him in times of need.
Harry S. Truman, then the vice president and a former Democratic senator from Missouri, wept on Mr. Aiken's shoulder when he learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died and that he would become president. John F. Kennedy called him in for a private conversation after the Bay of Pigs disaster in Cuba. Nixon broke down before Mr. Aiken and a small group of other senators when he told them he was resigning. One of Mr. Aiken's closest friends was former Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) -- for 20 years the two men had breakfast together in the Senate dining room.
Mr. Aiken's death brought tributes from President Reagan, who said he was "saddened" by it and would express condolences privately, and other political leaders and colleagues.
"The passing of Gov. Aiken is the passing of an era in Vermont which shall never be repeated again," Gov. Richard Snelling said. "George Aiken is Vermont."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), who was elected to fill Mr. Aiken's seat, said his predecessor "reflected what's best of Vermont."
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) said through an aide that Mr. Aiken was "a wonderful man and a superb senator."
Nixon issued a statement calling the Vermont legislator "one of the premier statesmen of our time. All Americans are in his debt for his years of service to the cause of a strong, responsible, bipartisan foreign policy."
While such tributes illuminate the larger perspectives of a life, they leave for others the little stories that are telling in their own way. One about Mr. Aiken is the report he filed of his expenses in his last campaign, which was in 1968. It listed total expenditures of $17.09. The senator said most of it went for postage on thank-you notes to constituents who had circulated nominating petitions, which "I didn't ask them to do."
Another was his own story of what happened when Leonard H. Marks, an aide to President Johnson, asked the president why he did not adopt the Aiken "peace plan." Johnson banished Marks from his presence for some weeks and Aiken for some months. On a later occasions, Marks asked LBJ why he had got so angry about the idea.
"Because I knew damn well you and Aiken were right," Johnson reportedly said.
And then there were his views on politicians. Their proper work, he used to say, is legislating and he thought they should spend more time on that and less on advancing their own careers. Shortly after his retirement, he told a group of students in Vermont that he was suspicious of officials who seek quick fame.
"You can gain status in two ways," he said. "The first is to leak confidential information to The Washington Post or The New York Times." And the second, he said, rather obscurely, is to "break a leg skiing in Vermont."
George David Aiken was born on Aug. 30, 1892, in Dummerston, Vt. He graduated from high school in Brattleboro, Vt., in 1909. Three years later he and a friend borrowed $100 and began growing raspberries. This was the foundation of Mr. Aiken's success as a farmer and horticulturalist. In addition to growing berries, he was among the first to promote the use of wildflowers in gardens.
Mr. Aiken's first wife, the former Beatrice M. Howard, died in 1966.
Survivors include his second wife, the former Lola Pierotti, who began working for him in the Senate in 1941 and whom he married in 1967, and three children by his first marriage.
The land and the hills of New England always retained their hold on Mr. Aiken. In an interview before he retired, he said he had never felt at home in Washington, where he lived in an apartment on Capitol Hill. "No, no, Washington's not home," he said. "Home's up on the mountain in Vermont where I always lived."