Wilbur D. Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who long opposed congressional attempts to end the war in Indochina, surprised his colleagues forty years ago today by calling for an immediate and total withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam.
The darkest of all dark-horse candidates for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, the longtime Arkansas congressman made his unexpected announcement while campaigning in the April 25 Massachusetts primary, telling employees at the Boston Edison Company plant in Newton that if he had been President “none of our troops would be there because I would have had them out of Vietnam a long time ago.”
This was a startling revelation to most of those involved in the antiwar movement. The 62-year-old Mills, after all, had frequently supported the Johnson and Nixon administrations in quelling the efforts of congressional doves to force an end to the war in Southeast Asia. In fact, the closest Mills had ever come to saying that he was opposed to the war was in response to a question posed by the Arkansas League of Women Voters in the spring of 1971 when he stated, “If we’re not going to win it, then let’s get out and stay out” — hardly the kind of language that would appeal to the peace movement.
After garnering a relatively paltry 3,563 write-in votes in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary some six weeks earlier, the 62-year-old Mills had planned to wait until the Democratic national convention in Miami Beach later that summer to make a major push for his party’s nomination, but surprised his rivals and pundits alike by showing up for some last-minute electioneering in the Bay State where some believed he may have enjoyed the backing of Rose Kennedy.
It was rumored that the Kennedy matriarch had personally bankrolled the Arkansas lawmaker’s ill-fated write-in effort in the Granite State.
Nobody in Massachusetts was fooled by his sudden conversion and the dove-come-lately ran poorly, garnering a dismal 19,441 votes, or 3.1 percent, while finishing more than 300,000 votes behind eventual nominee George McGovern and some 3,000 votes behind pesky antiwar congresswoman Shirley A. Chisholm of Brooklyn.