Britain at war over Vietnam

Escalating US involvement in south-east Asia 50 years ago sparked fury in Britain. Sylvia Ellis explains how Prime Minister Harold Wilson negotiated the competing demands of his electorate and the US president

A demonstrator vents his spleen at police officers during an anti-Vietnam War rally in London's Grosvenor Square

In June 1966, Private Eye’s regular feature ‘Mrs Wilson’s Diary’ ran with the following spoof entry: ‘“Enough of this bullshit’ I heard [US president] Mr Johnson’s voice exclaim on the booster, ‘when are we going to get your boys in Vietnam? Hold your horses Lady Bird [Johnson’s wife], I’ll be right back’ … Then the voice became rather muffled, and the president remarked, ‘It’s [Harold] Wilson, baby. I know, but he’s so dumb he can’t find his ass with both hands.”’ The satirical magazine captured a growing, public perception that the British prime minister was in bad odour with the blunt Texan president over Vietnam. It was an accurate view. Wilson’s hope for a close working relationship with the Americans was dashed by the war.

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