Sterling and Strings

Peter Davies

In opposition, Harold Wilson spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam. In May 1954, during his Bevanite phase, he declared that ‘not a man, not a gun, must be sent from this country to defend French colonisation in Indo-China … we must not join or in any way encourage an anti-Communist crusade in Asia under the leadership of the Americans or anyone else.’ Later the same day, in a speech in Manchester, he had gone even further, proclaiming that ‘at the moment the danger to a negotiated settlement in Asia is provided by a lunatic fringe in the American Senate.’ After he became leader of the Labour Party in 1963, Wilson placed much emphasis on close Anglo-American co-operation, going against his earlier position. He continued, however, to voice his opposition to any extension of the Vietnam conflict and in March 1964, and again in June, pressed the Conservative prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, to advise President Johnson against extending the war into the North.

Following his election victory in October that year, Wilson was advised by the Foreign Office that, with regard to Vietnam, ‘ministers should agree to support the United States in this limited and controlled form of offensive action.’ He appears to have acceded to this advice at first, noting in February 1965 that ‘Her Majesty’s Government realised that, as long as fighting continued in Vietnam, both South Vietnamese and US forces had the right to take appropriate action themselves.’ As America’s aerial bombardment of the North escalated, however, Wilson became far more sceptical about the conduct of the war and when pressured refused to send troops.

On 1 March 1965, Humphrey Trevelyan, a member of the UK mission at the UN, wrote to Wilson that he had ‘attended a CIA briefing last Friday afternoon’ which had demonstrated ‘pretty conclusively’ that ‘the Americans are in a hopeless position in South Vietnam.’ Wilson made the following note on the telegram: ‘Yes, I very much agree.’ Eleven days later, he relayed his grave misgivings about American policy to the US ambassador to London, David Bruce. If America continued in its escalation of the conflict, he warned, it could cause the biggest rupture in Anglo-American relations since the Suez crisis. But this threat was never carried through, and Wilson would continue to provide Lyndon Johnson with staunch diplomatic and rhetorical support over Vietnam throughout the president’s time in office.

Wilson repeatedly defended the American position in exchanges with the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth and Britain’s European allies. He also defended it in the House of Commons, and the foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, even appeared on television to defend American actions. At a televised ‘teach in’ in Oxford in June 1965, Stewart argued that ‘the future relationship between North and South could, in time, be a matter for the genuine free decisions of the people of both regions … Britain says yes to it, the United States says yes to it, at present China, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam say no.’

The only time Wilson ever publicly voiced dissent was in June 1966, following substantial political pressure. In a statement from Downing Street, which was later repeated in the House of Commons, he announced ‘with regret that United States aircraft have attacked North Vietnamese targets touching on the populated areas of Hanoi and Haiphong,’ and that ‘we must dissociate ourselves from an action of this kind.’ The statement, however, also reaffirmed British support for the US, and an examination of the primary sources reveals not only that the Johnson administration was informed in advance about what Downing Street was going to say, but that the president himself made changes to the text. Although Johnson ‘did not like the word “dissociate”’, the vice president, Hubert Humphrey, and the defence secretary, Robert McNamara, confirmed that ‘the prime minister’s position was well understood’ and ‘there would be no hard feelings.’

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