The Christian Conservative Who Opposed the Vietnam War


David T. Beito as an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama and Linda Royster Beito is chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Stillman College. They are writing a biography of T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader and entrepreneur. David T. Beito is a member of Liberty and Power, a group blog at the History News Network.

To the extent a religious right of any kind existed in 1964, Eugene Siler easily qualified as a platinum card member. In his nine years in the U.S. House, he was unrivaled in his zeal to implement “Christianism and Americanism.” Yet forty-two years ago this month, on August 7, 1964, he did something that would be extremely rare for a modern counterpart on the religious right. He dissented from a president’s urgent request to authorize military action in a foreign war. It was Siler who cast the lone vote in the U.S. House against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Because he “paired against” the bill (meaning he was absent during the vote), however, most historical accounts do not mention him.

A self-described “Kentucky hillbilly,” Siler was born in 1900 in Williamsburg, a town nestled in the mountains in the southeastern part of the state. Unlike most Kentuckians, he, like his neighbors, was a rock-ribbed Republican. The people of this impoverished area had backed the Union during the Civil War and had stood by the GOP in good times and bad ever since. Siler served in the Navy in World War I and two decades later as an Army captain during World War II. His experiences with the realities of war left him cold to most proposals to send American troops into harm’s way.

After graduating from Columbia University, Siler returned to Williamsburg to be a small town lawyer. A devout Baptist, he gained local renown as a lay preacher, eventually serving as moderator of the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky. He abstained from alcohol, tobacco, and profanity. As a lawyer, he turned away all clients seeking divorces or who were accused of whiskey-related crimes.

He began service as an elected judge of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky in 1945 and promptly refused his regular monthly allotment of 150 dollars for expenses. Instead, he gave the money to a special fund he set up for scholarships. Not surprisingly, Siler often quoted the scriptures from the bench. He did the same in his speeches as the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 1951 earning him a statewide reputation as a “Bible Crusader.”

Siler consistently stressed social conservatism during his tenure in the U.S. House which began in 1955. He sponsored a bill to ban liquor and beer advertising in all interstate media. He said that permitting these ads was akin to allowing the “harsh hussy” to advertise in “the open door of her place of business for the allurement of our school children.” Of course, he was “100 percent for Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer in our public schools.”

Like his good friend, and fellow Republican, from Iowa, Rep. H.R. Gross, Siler considered himself to be a fiscal watchdog. He disdained all junkets and railed against government debt and high spending. Siler made exceptions for the homefolks, however, by supporting flood control and other federal measures that aided his district.

As with Gross, Siler was a Robert A. Taft Republican who was averse to entangling alliances and foreign quagmires. A consistent opponent of foreign aid, he was just one of two congressmen to vote against Kennedy’s call up of reserves during the Berlin crisis. He favored Goldwater in 1964, but never shared his hawkish views. The people back home did not seem to mind. Sometimes, the Democrats failed to even put up a candidate.

Siler was an early, and prescient, critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In June 1964, shortly after deciding not to run again, he quipped, half in jest, that he was running for president as an antiwar candidate. He pledged to resign after one day in office, staying just long enough to bring the troops home. He characterized the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized Johnson to take “all necessary steps” in Vietnam as a “buck-passing” pretext to “seal the lips of Congress against future criticism.”

The worsening situation in Vietnam prompted Siler to come out of retirement in 1968 to run for the U.S. Senate nomination on a platform calling for withdrawal of all U.S. troops by Christmas. Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon, the only two U.S. Senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, also went down to defeat that year.

Although Siler lived on until 1987, few remembered his early stand against the Vietnam War. It is doubtful that this particularly bothered him. He knew that his reputation was secure among the plain Baptist Republican mountain folk of southeastern Kentucky who had sent him to Congress for nearly a decade.

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James Stanley Kabala - 8/29/2006

Link error; try this one.

James Stanley Kabala - 8/29/2006

There seem to be similarities between Siler and modern-day Iraq war opponent Jimmy Duncan of east Tennessee.

David T. Beito - 8/21/2006

I got the sense from everything I read that he had great integrity. I suspect that he would have hit it off with my Lutheran, Farmer-Labor grandfather.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/21/2006

Very interesting sketch, David. I remember Eugene Siler quite well. We sat at the same table once at a dinner party in the town house garden of Senator John Sherman Cooper's place in Washington. I was then a teenager and my mother had made me sign a pledge of total abstinence. I appreciated learning from Siler how to decline the offer of wine from a waiter politely. My own politics were and are much closer to those of Senator Cooper than to those of his neighbor and fellow Republican, Eugene Siler, but none of us ever doubted Siler's integrity. I left Kentucky to go to Duke shortly thereafter and I appreciate this reminder of Siler's opposition to the war, which I had forgotten, if I ever knew it.