Britain, Vietnam and the Special Relationship

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.

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