As undergraduate history majors, David Brandt and Louis Augeri expected to study the Vietnam War. Researching declassified documents from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and private correspondence of Sen. George Aiken to help write a book on the iconic senator's influence on the Vietnam War far exceeded their greatest expectations.
For the past year, Brandt and Augeri have been embedded in UVM Special Collections – the official government repository of the Aiken Papers – poring over 600 boxes of rarely seen memos, speeches and private letters to constituents. Of particular interest were those declassified executive sessions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Aiken served as ranking Republican from 1960 to 1975.
“It has been an incredible experience to see all of these historical documents, especially as you get into the later sixties when Aiken had gained a national profile for his foreign policy thought,” says Brandt, winner of the 2018 Elliot Brown Award, given to the top graduating senior in political science. “He doesn’t speak frequently, but when he does there is a lot of deference to him.”
Brandt and Augeri are among dozens of students conducting research for local and state government, non-profits, local businesses and other organizations through UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont. Founded in 1974 to support research conducted in the Vermont “laboratory,” the center is an interdisciplinary network of scholars and community members dedicated to examining the state's social, economic, cultural and physical environment.
Author and UVM alumnus Steve Terry, a former legislative assistant to Sen. Aiken and longtime managing editor of the Rutland Herald, has been guiding Brandt and Augeri through the daunting research process and providing critical historical context.
“I would not be anywhere near where we are today without the help of these students,” says Terry, co-editor of “The Essential Aiken: A Life in Public Service (2003)” with Professor Emeritus Samuel B. Hand, a preeminent historian who passed away in 2012. “I worked for Aiken, but that was so long ago. These guys are looking at it with fresh eyes and offering a new perspective. They have found some absolute gems that captures Aiken’s thinking in the context of Southeast Asia."
Among those gems: “I have always felt we could do more with food than bullets,” said Aiken. In regard to his growing distrust of President Lyndon Johnson: “I wish the American people would be told the facts – or at least the Congress should be told the truth. We are not kept adequately informed.” From a 1967 letter from Aiken addressing a constituent's accusation that he was not supporting the troops: “If, however, you feel that my opposition to spreading war around the world is not supporting our fighting men, you are, of course, entitled to your own opinion.”
“This experience has been invaluable,” says Augeri, winner of a $4,000 Green Mountain Summer Research Award to continue research for the Aiken book. “We know about this stuff as general knowledge of history, but when we examine these letters and executive sessions and then share it with Steve, he contextualizes it for us. He worked for Aiken and lived through it, so it’s very helpful to have that dual perspective.”
Brandt and Augeri’s experience with the Aiken papers is one example among the many ways students get involved with research and the broader state community through the Center for Research on Vermont. Across the past academic year, students have made an impact—often working directly with state lawmakers and officials—on environmental policy, education funding, healthcare, renewable energy, and other issues and initiatives.
Snapshots of additional student projects through the Center for Research on Vermont:
- Marcie Gallagher worked as a legislative intern at the Department of Environmental Conservation with a particular focus on the Vermont Climate Action Commission.
- Owen Gomory worked with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a 1995 UVM graduate. “Owen has become a valuable addition to our staff and brought energy, enthusiasm, and a youth-focused perspective to our office,” Zuckerman says.
- Olivia Harris, a public communications and political science major, conducted issues research and distilled it into tweets while managing former Governor Peter Shumlin’s Twitter account.
- Kahlia Livingston, a senior sociology and political science major, researched misdemeanor cases for the Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office. “It has definitely been an eye-opening experience. I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and the research and internships that I’ve done have definitely solidified my desire to be a criminal lawyer in the public sector,” Livingston says.