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Britain, Vietnam and the Special Relationship

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Though UK governments rejected US requests to send troops to Vietnam, Britain did not stay out of the war, says Marc Tiley.

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson arriving at the White House, 1970‘Historic’, observers said. When Prime Minister David Cameron’s late summer motion for military intervention in Syria was rejected by MPs, questions quickly outweighed answers. How would the Syrians react? What would America do? What influence would Britain now have on the world stage?

The vote held in the House of Commons on August 29th was so starkly lit by the fire of the moment that historical precedent seemed to cast only faint shadows over the debate. The war in Iraq informed the vote, certainly, and the spectre of a more distant Middle East misadventure may have been lurking in the background: Suez in 1956, when Britain and the US took opposing views over Nasser’s Egypt. Yet, for some, the rejection to support a US-led military intervention in Syria evoked memories of another divisive conflict, one which shrouded Whitehall in controversy in the 1960s: Vietnam.

‘Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam’, Harold Wilson told his Cabinet in December 1964. Throughout his premiership Wilson faced intense pressure from the Americans for support. He resisted (largely) and kept British troops out of the mire, while publicly supporting US foreign policy. Denis Healey, then defence secretary, told me in a recent interview that: ‘I was adamantly against it; Wilson was more keen.’ It was a position of ambiguity that cost the Wilson administration dear and details have only recently emerged from declassified documents and from personal testimony that reveal the true extent of those complexities.

Wilson may not have sent a bagpipe band (a reference to the Scottish Black Watch regiment), but there was significant indirect practical support from Britain for the US in Vietnam, much of which went under the radar.

As well as providing regional intelligence, Britain supplied military hardware through back channels and offered paid training in jungle warfare to US special forces. British soldiers also signed up in their hundreds to fight. It is estimated that as many as 2,000 Britons were on the ground in Vietnam; individuals simply resigned from the army and re-enlisted in Australian or New Zealand fighting units. Other documents reveal that SAS soldiers were recommended to be given civilian status in US units ‘so that their British military identity is lost’. Witnesses also state that late in the war US night-bombing raids over Laos were flown out of a specially-built British air base in Thailand and British ships supported US commando river missions into Cambodia as well as stemming supply lines to the Communist North Vietnamese. A number of British personnel were involved, then, but as the famous anti-war poster asks: Why?

As early as 1961 President Kennedy requested UK training for American troops in jungle warfare. It was granted; there were no US soldiers in Vietnam at that time. By the end of 1964, however, with Lyndon Johnson as president, the requests took on a whole new dimension. Johnson became fully committed to war following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964, when three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were reported to have fired on the USS Maddox. But he needed British support, both for moral legitimacy and military expertise. Wilson attempted a balancing act; not to commit British troops, while at the same time steadfastly supporting American policy. No one would be entirely satisfied with his wobbly high-wire act.

In 1964 Britain had more than 50,000 troops ‘east of Suez’. Wilson’s line with the Americans was that British forces were then busy fighting the spread of Communism in Malaysia. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of State, countered that Britain and America had agreed a burden-sharing agreement under the terms of SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation). After all, other Commonwealth countries went on to deploy thousands of troops to Vietnam, so why not the UK? Wilson argued that it would be against Britain’s neutral stance as co-chairman of the Geneva Convention. It was diplomatic side-stepping. In a late-night telephone call Wilson did offer Johnson advice about fighting in South-East Asia to which the Texan’s characteristically blunt reply was: ‘I won’t tell you how to run Malaysia and you don’t tell me how to run Vietnam … If you want to help us some in Vietnam send us some men.’ Or words to that effect.

Wilson’s positioning was in large part due to pressure from his own Labour Party, many of whose members argued for South Vietnamese self-determination. For Wilson to act openly against them would risk a Cabinet rebellion. After the US bombing of Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, in June 1966, Wilson was urged by his party to publicly ‘dissociate’ with the US over the bombing of cities; in confidence he continued to back Johnson’s general policy. ‘I want to repeat … that our reservations about this operation will not affect our continuing support for your policy over Vietnam.’

The British public also protested against the war but there were grounds for Wilson to risk their ire: the economy. His first years in office were preoccupied with trying to fix the trade deficit. The Americans could bail out sterling and they knew it. In 1966 one adviser to the president even suggested a potential bargaining chip; that a British brigade in Vietnam could be worth a billion dollars. In 1967 Wilson made his much pilloried ‘pound in your pocket’ speech on television and devalued sterling. It was either that, he reasoned, or go begging to America.

Through the fog of Wilson’s war a horizon of opportunity appeared; he resolved to be the peacemaker. At home Wilson hoped that his attempts to broker talks between the US and North Vietnam would appease his critics. Internationally Wilson believed Britain could influence the US at arm’s length. Privately he pinned his reputation on it, but after numerous attempts at diplomacy Wilson was left frustrated. Tom McNally, Labour Party International Secretary from 1969, told me: ‘He walked a tightrope. Harold wanted to be on the big stage, but we were really only on the periphery of influence.’

Britain vowed not to support intervention in Syria. The case of Vietnam, however,  tells us that there is more than one way to keep the Special Relationship alive.

Marc Tiley is a documentary film-maker.


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