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
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.
In his memoirs, Wilson claimed he gave the US “negative support” on Vietnam, a phrase that indicates the nature of his balancing act on events in south-east Asia: supporting the Americans in a limited way, and doing so with reservations triggered by a deep unease about the nature of the war.
- The Vietnam War: everything you wanted to know (podcast)
- Harold Wilson: five facts about the Labour Party prime minister
- My history hero: Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973)
Like Johnson had from JFK, Harold Wilson had inherited a Vietnam policy. The outgoing Conservative government backed the US military escalation, provided Washington with diplomatic support, and sent a five-man British Police Advisory Mission to Vietnam. Yet when Wilson met Johnson at the White House in December 1964, he soon discovered that the president was now seeking something more substantial.
Due to the paucity of pre-existing allied assistance, Johnson’s administration had launched a ‘more flags’ campaign to gain additional help in Vietnam in order to portray the US effort as an allied crusade, as well as lessening the military burden. Britain already had a ‘flag’ in Vietnam but one too small for Washington’s liking. The support of a close ally, leading social democracy and key member of Nato and the UN Security Council was vital.
But when Johnson suggested that a token British force in South Vietnam would have a significant effect, Wilson refused on three grounds: Britain’s military was already over-stretched, with 50,000 troops aiding the Malaysia effort against Indonesian ‘confrontation’; Britain, with the Soviet Union, was co-Chair of the Geneva Conference (the 1954 agreement that sought to end the previous French war in Vietnam) and may have to help negotiate peace; and it would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public. The president was disappointed but not surprised by this response.
However, this discussion took place against another important backdrop. The Labour government inherited an £800m balance of payments deficit, which threatened the pound sterling with devaluation and impacted on Britain’s ability to maintain its global defence role. The new government was forced to make sweeping defence cuts and look to the Americans to bail sterling out against continuing speculative attacks.
More like this
Not surprisingly, the Johnson administration considered tying in support for the pound with a British presence on the ground in Vietnam. And though they never did so explicitly, the lack of British co-operation resulted in a growing frustration with Wilson. William Bundy, US assistant secretary of state, later argued that a British troop commitment “would have made a considerable psychological difference… particularly in liberal circles… where the main criticism of the war came from”.
Wilson recalled Johnson saying in their July 1966 Washington meeting that “a platoon of bagpipers would be sufficient”. But despite ongoing pressure from the White House, the British government stuck to rhetorical support plus minor non-military assistance such as signals intelligence out of Hong Kong, small-scale covert arms sales, technical assistance, financial aid grants, police training and support for Vietnamese students.
Unjust and illegal
Wilson’s domestic considerations explain many of his actions. His party had been elected in 1964 with a tiny majority and, at times, the very future of his government was threatened by internal rebellion. His backbenchers were extremely uncomfortable with the British position on Vietnam, viewing the conflict there as a civil war about self-determination, and regarding US involvement as unjust and illegal. The Labour party espoused an internationalist, independent foreign policy and some members still believed Britain should be a ‘third force’ in international relations. So, although Wilson refused to commit troops, for many opponents of the war, even small-scale assistance to the Americans was indefensible.
After the Viet Cong attacked a US army barracks base at Pleiku on 6 February 1965, killing nine Americans, Johnson authorised Operation Flaming Dart – tit-for-tat bombing raids on North Vietnam. When the Labour government approved the action and rejected calls for the reconvention of the Geneva Conference, Labour MPs tabled a peace motion in the Commons asking the government to take the initiative to bring about a ceasefire in Vietnam. Yet, as the Foreign Office put it, neither at home nor abroad could Wilson appear to be “standing idly by while events moved dangerously in Vietnam”.
Four days later, Wilson received news of another attack at Qui Nhon resulting in 30 US dead. Fearing further escalation, he proposed flying to Washington to have a “personal discussion” with Johnson on the dangers of over-reacting to the present crisis in a way that might trigger a Soviet or Chinese intervention and risk a nuclear war. As the US ambassador, David Bruce, put it, “the president made short shrift of this project”, instead agreeing to a late-night telephone call. When Wilson rang and said it was difficult for the British government “to be saying nothing at all except that whatever the US decides to do we shall go along with” and suggested he come over as quickly as possible, Johnson let “fly in an outburst of Texan temper”, as Wilson later recalled.
Johnson thought a visit would be “a serious mistake”, Wilson should “not get upset, keep a normal pulse”, and insisted he would not be used “as an instrument to deal with the House of Commons”.
Johnson also expressed frustration at his ally’s willingness to share advice but not responsibility, saying: “I won’t tell you how to run Malaysia and you don’t tell us how to run Vietnam… If you want to help us some in Vietnam send us some men and send us some folks to deal with these guerrillas.” The president considered the call an outrage and never forgot it.
In the aftermath of Pleiku and Qui Nhon, on 2 March 1965, the US launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a saturation bombing campaign against North Vietnam combined with the deployment of the first US ground forces. While staying loyal to Washington on Vietnam, Wilson was soon forced to respond to what many in his country viewed as steps too far. One of these was the US Defense Department announcement of their use of CS gas in Vietnam (as well as napalm) on the same day that Maxwell Taylor, US ambassador in South Vietnam, admitted that “no limit existed to the potential escalation” of the war.
With a full-scale conflict looking likely, the Labour government came under immense pressure to act, including passing emergency resolutions in the Commons. Labour MP Michael Foot recalled that the “blaze of anger” about Vietnam that “swept through the parliamentary Labour party… was hotter than anything felt there for a long time”.
Wilson, too, was disturbed by the American announcements, not least because the British were given no prior warning of these developments. The foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, who was in Washington DC on a prearranged visit, spoke in “the strongest terms” to the president on the “danger of widespread anti-Americanism and of America losing her moral position”. For Brits with memories of the trenches of the First World War, it was of no comfort to be told that this gas was used by the Americans for riot control. But British outrage was neither understood nor well received, and the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, called it a “stupid fuss”.
The pressure rises
In July 1965 Johnson Americanised the war by sending an additional 50,000 US ground forces to Vietnam. By September, the Foreign Office was “increasingly concerned about the state of public opinion on Vietnam”. Gallup polls indicated a majority of the British public disapproved of American actions in Vietnam and that most believed Britain’s role in the conflict was to initiate peace talks. This was worrying for a Labour government soon facing re-election. So too was Wilson’s lampooning by satirical cartoonists: Gerald Scarfe depicted him on the front page of Private Eye kissing the president’s backside, while the New Statesman and the Fabian Society’s journal, Venture, described him as “President Johnson’s Poodle” and “an American Stooge” respectively. Wilson understood much of the discontent, but dismissed the more emotional and inflammatory comments, in the words of Aneuran Bevan, as “public masturbation”.
But the pressure increased, especially from key government allies in the labour movement. Major unions passed resolutions attacking the “subservience of the British government to American policy”. And an anti-war movement in Britain was also growing in size. Several pre-existing groups – the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – were joined by new single-issue groups in protesting against American action in Vietnam, and Britain’s support of it.
In May 1965, the British Council for Peace in Vietnam (BCPV) co-ordinated political, religious and labour organisations who wanted to mobilise public opinion so that the British government would “dissociate itself from America’s military intervention in Vietnam”. Chaired by Fenner Brockway MP, and linked to the Communist Party of Great Britain, it organised a 100,000-signature petition of British citizens who were “gravely disturbed by the mounting cruelty and destruction of the war in Vietnam”.
In January 1966 more radical activists formed an influential and higher profile anti-war group: the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). Organised by members of the Trotskyist International Marxist Group, including Pat Jordan, Tariq Ali and David Horowitz, the VSC expressed its commitment to the victory of North Vietnam.
Student activism provided a base for much of the British opposition to the war. As elsewhere, university campuses became the scene of anti-war demonstrations and ‘teach-ins’, with notable confrontations at LSE, Oxford and Warwick. Many anti-war activists felt part of an anti-authoritarian and anti-military revolt that went beyond their own borders. In March 1967 The Sun reported that, at a Trafalgar Square demonstration, “anarchists hurled smoke bombs at the speaker’s rostrum and then tried to storm it as a Labour MP appealed for peace in Vietnam”.
In July 1967, a 7,000-strong BCPV rally saw activists renaming Grosvenor Square ‘Genocide Square’ as they marched to the US embassy with placards accusing the US of war crimes. VSC took the protests to another level with their organisation of two major demonstrations in Grosvenor Square that attracted TV coverage. The first, on 17 March 1968, attracted 25,000 marchers and was immediately labelled ‘the battle of Grosvenor Square’ due to the violence that erupted when marchers chanting ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ attempted to reach the American embassy. The second demonstration, on 27 October 1968, was a larger but less confrontational affair, largely because the police were more prepared for the arrival of the 100,000-plus demonstrators estimated to have taken part.
Wilson attempted to deal with his critics by arguing that he was in close touch with the Americans and hinted that he was engaged in secret diplomacy to end the war. He embarked on a series of peace initiatives – some public, some private. These ranged from despatching a Labour MP, Harold Davies, to Hanoi; through an attempt to work with the Commonwealth on peace talks; to a more ambitious proposal of working with the Soviets, codenamed Sunflower. Although the latter is now considered a possible lost chance for peace, at the time Wilson’s detractors labelled these moves ‘peace gimmicks’, and Johnson dismissed the efforts alongside “other contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize”.
The prime minister’s attempts to play ‘honest broker’ were not enough to deal with the chorus of opposition to the war and he was forced to place limits on British support. In June 1966, Wilson dissociated Britain from the American bombing of oil depots in Hanoi and Haiphong, despite desperate pleas from Washington not to do so.
For all this, Britain remained a staunch ally of the US on Vietnam throughout Wilson’s first term as prime minister – despite the war’s drift into military stalemate, and growing worldwide horror as the first ‘television war’ was broadcast with minimal censorship. Wilson judged that the alienation of some of his supporters was a price worth paying for Britain’s friendship with the US, and the defence and intelligence links this brought.
In doing so, he walked a political tightrope on Vietnam – aiming to balance the benefits of a close Anglo-American relationship against domestic political considerations. And he did so with the skills of an accomplished, pragmatic politician. He may have experienced many wobbles along the way – to the sound of resounding boos, not cheers – but he made it to the other side.
Vietnam: the state of play in 1964–65
When Harold Wilson became Labour prime minister in October 1964 the Vietnam War had entered a crucial but not yet decisive phase. As part of the Cold War containment battle, President Lyndon B Johnson had inherited a deepening US commitment to safeguard South Vietnam from communism, including the deployment of 16,000 US military advisers. Despite this, after the assassination of the US-sponsored but unpopular leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, the situation in South Vietnam was increasingly unstable.
In August 1964, in response to reports from the Gulf of Tonkin that the USS Maddox and C Turner Joy had been attacked by North Vietnamese boats, Congress unanimously passed a resolution that authorised the president to “take all measures necessary to protect the armed forces”. Without a declaration of war, the president was now free to escalate the war in Vietnam; he later described it as “Grandma’s nightshirt, it covered everything”.
But Johnson was in the closing stages of the 1964 presidential campaign against the hawkish Republican, Barry Goldwater. He played the role of peace candidate throughout, suggesting he would not intervene directly in the war in Vietnam by saying “we are not about to send American boys… to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”. Yet, after winning a landslide victory in November, Johnson was forced to reconsider the US position on Vietnam and would look to allies for their support.
Sylvia Ellis is a professor of international history at Northumbria University, and the author of Britain, America, and the Vietnam War (Praeger, 2004)