Labour and the Vietnam war

The horrific Vietnam war, which reached its heights in the late 1960s, aroused worldwide opposition to the intervention of US imperialism. In Britain, the Labour government’s support for the US provoked strong opposition to the Wilson government, both within the labour movement and outside. In an extract from his new book, Empire Defeated, PETER TAAFFE compares Wilson’s balancing act on Vietnam with the Blair government’s policy on Iraq.

THE 1964-70 LABOUR government, led by Harold Wilson, performed a balancing act on the Vietnam war. Although Wilson gave general support to the US in Vietnam, he could not commit British troops as Blair has done in Iraq. That would have created huge opposition from within the labour movement and possibly risked the very existence of his government.

"The Labour government continues to slavishly support US imperialism", reported Militant (precursor of The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party) in July 1965. At the same time, there was growing opposition to the government’s policy: "Inside the Labour Party and trade union movement the demand grows that the Labour leadership break from its policy of supporting the US imperialists against the Vietnamese people. Dozens of constituencies including Foreign Minister Stewart’s own Constituency Labour Party (CLP) have condemned the policy of the Labour government. Instead of the ‘peace missions’ and great power conferences to decide the fate of Vietnam the labour movement must press for the adoption of an internationalist foreign policy by the Labour government and demand the total withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. Wilson and the Labour government must raise now the demand for the self-determination of the Vietnamese people". (1)

The Labour Party was of an entirely different character then to what it is today. Tony Blair’s New Labour is an openly capitalist party, wedded to the ‘free market economy’, to neo-liberalism, capitalist globalisation and in open support of imperialist war. This would have been inconceivable in the Labour Party of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1968, the Labour Party conference was leaning decisively to the left: "Almost three million votes for alternative socialist policy". (2) In 1972, the conference actually voted in favour of a resolution moved by Militant supporters calling for "the public ownership of major monopolies" and demanded that the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) "formulate a socialist plan of production based on public ownership, with minimum compensation, of the commanding heights of the economy". (3) The Labour Party then was what Lenin called a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. In essence, this meant that while the tops of the party, the Labour leaders, were essentially pro-capitalist, nevertheless they rested on the organised working class movement, expressed through the trade unions and the CLPs, which in general leaned towards the left and the ideas of socialism as the goal of the movement.

Wilson and Blair

IT IS INCONCEIVABLE today to imagine that the Blair cabinet could be compelled to step back or be overthrown because of opposition from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) or from the sanitised New Labour and its mostly middle-class ranks. At its 2003 conference, Blair and Co successfully prevented a vote on the Iraq war and the conduct of the government leading up to it. Moreover, 63% of the delegates supported the leadership despite the obscenity of the Iraq war and a government mired in lies and deception. Yet, previously, massive opposition had been shown to Blair on the streets, in the two-million-strong demonstration on 15 February in particular. It is true that Blair came close to resignation, he subsequently revealed, over a crucial vote on the war in the House of Commons. (If a majority of Labour MPs had voted against, he says he would have gone.) This, however, was primarily because of pressure exerted from outside of New Labour, which found only an insipid expression within the ranks of Labour MPs and the depleted constituency parties at the conference.

The combative, generally militant working class rank and file of the Labour Party in the past is now totally absent from New Labour. Contrast the muted opposition today on Iraq to the profound opposition to the Wilson government’s hypocritical stance on Vietnam within the party. Wilson’s stance amounted to ‘support but non-involvement in the fighting’. He consistently refused to distance himself publicly from US imperialism but could not commit troops. The Financial Times explained why the government acted in this fashion: "The British government, whatever its innermost feelings about American policy, has no choice but to back the US… Even more important, though, British foreign and defence policy east of Suez, as defined by the government, dictates the closest possible alignment with the US. An American withdrawal from Southeast Asia would leave Britain’s position in the area hopelessly exposed. The defence commitment to Malaysia would become almost if not wholly impossible to fulfil". (4) Britain then had 54,000 troops fighting the guerrillas in Malaya – now part of Malaysia.

Foreign policy is always a continuation of domestic policy. The Wilson government bent the knee to capitalism at home and did the same abroad, but great pains were taken to disguise this. Because of the character of the Labour Party then – at bottom, the rank and file stood for socialism – Wilson did not have the same room to manoeuvre within the party which Blair has in what is now a capitalist party, no different in essentials than the Democratic Party in the USA.

Wilson not able to send troops

FROM THE BEGINNING of his government, the opposition to Wilson within the Labour Party was intense. In fact, he was caught between the millstones of a rising tide of anger within the organised labour movement, which was paralleled by growing discontent outside and the pressure from ‘across the pond’ to support the US, not just verbally but physically. Almost as soon as the government had been elected, Wilson records: "The president [Johnson] raised the question, without excessive enthusiasm, of our co-operation with him in South Vietnam, even if only on a limited – even a token – basis. I made it clear that we could not enter into any such commitments. We… would have a role to play in seeking a way to peace". (5)

Johnson did not easily accept this brush off in 1964 and, after Wilson had proffered some ‘advice’ to him, he unleashed a tirade: "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. And announce to the press that you are going to help us. Now if you don’t feel like doing that, go on with your Malaysian problem…" (6)

Others in the government, such as George Thomson, minister of state in the Foreign Office, were pushing for more open support for the US: "With strong Foreign Office pressure behind him, [Thomson] tried to get me to take a much more committed pro-American line on bombing in Vietnam. I refused". (7) So it is clear that Wilson, unlike Blair, was prepared at least partially to distance himself from the US government because of the pressure and mounting opposition within the Labour Party and amongst the wider population to the horrors of Vietnam. Robin Cook, on the other hand, has recently revealed in his diaries that Blair, just before the Iraq war started, knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, he was more prepared, as Cook explains, to stand up to British public opinion than to the Bush government. In so doing, he enormously helped the Bush regime to launch the war. Conversely, by hitching his wagon to that of the Texas cowboy, Blair has massively compounded his own problems and deepened the suspicion and opposition towards the government, not just on the war, but on practically every other issue. Compared to Blair, Wilson, in historical retrospect, could appear to some almost ‘reasonable’ in the stand that he adopted towards the Vietnam war. (It has to be remembered that the Australian and New Zealand governments had committed small detachments of troops to fight alongside the Americans.) But this was not how it was seen in Britain at the time. Wilson gave public support to the US, as did his Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, and the government in general. Stewart put it bluntly later: "What was required was not a one-sided condemnation but an attempt to bring both sides to the conference table". (8) Like Wilson, however, he publicly backed ‘one side’, the US.

Privately, Wilson was prepared to urge ‘caution’ on Johnson, particularly when the bombing of the North was stepped up. But when the chips were down he came out for the US: "I want to repeat… that our reservations about this operation will not affect our continuing support for your policy over Vietnam". (9)

This was not without considerable and growing opposition from within his own party. Tony Benn reflects this in his diaries. He records that in June 1965, when he visited the General Management Committee of his Constituency Labour Party in Bristol, "Herbert Rogers [the secretary-agent of Benn’s constituency, and a well-known and staunch left Labour activist] launched into a violent attack against British policy in Vietnam. And all in all it was a rough passage… There is an appalling gulf opening up between the government and its active supporters". (10) At that time, Benn was on the ‘centre right’ of the party, before moving to the left in the 1970s.

Wilson sought to play the role of initiator for peace, while largely supporting the US and, on occasions, ‘dissociating’ the government from specific actions of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. However, his hypocritical stand prompted greater and greater opposition. In 1965, Wilson wrote: "Received a telegram from 68 Labour MPs – not from the left only, but right across the party – demanding that the US should stop bombing North Vietnam". (11) Outside of parliament, the growing opposition to Wilson’s stance on Vietnam was not always as polite or restrained.

Benn reflected on this in June 1965: "The other thing this week that’s on my mind is the developing situation in Vietnam, where the Americans are now deciding to invade in full strength and we are left in the embarrassing position of appearing to support them. I believe this is an untenable position and sooner or later we shall have to come out and say what we really think. The argument that we are keeping quiet in order to retain influence is of course fallacious. The real reason is quite different". Referring to the first ‘teach-in’ on Vietnam at the London School of Economics, Benn commented: "I’m told that whenever Harold Wilson’s name was mentioned at LSE people booed. It may well be that when the time comes the Labour government will have been held to fail not because it was too radical but because it was not radical enough". (12) Wilson mediates?

RICHARD CROSSMAN, a cabinet minister throughout the Labour government, consistently attacked Wilson in his diaries for his posturing and exaggeration of the fading power of British imperialism: "[Wilson’s] master card was to propose a peace initiative in Vietnam. The conduct of the war now horrified not only the Labour left but the informed public as well". (13) He remarks acidly that he had "learnt a great deal about the delusions of grandeur which are the fatal defects of George [Brown – Foreign Secretary] and Harold… They believe that as acknowledged actors on the world political stage they can perform these manoeuvres, moving a little bit away from LBJ, and influencing him from a distance. They all seem unaware that they are figures of fun as long as Britain is on the edge of economic ruin. They should accept their lot, concentrate on home affairs and stop trying to obtain opportunities for appearances on the world stage". (14)

Wilson, at various stages, attempted to mediate between the US and the Russians and, occasionally, through intermediaries, with Hanoi. In 1967, he gave the impression in his later account that a solution, brokered by himself of course, was on hand. This involved the cessation of the bombing by the US of North Vietnam, with the reciprocal "secret assurance" from Hanoi that it would "stop moving troops into South Vietnam. At the same time, the US would stop reinforcing their troops". (15) But sadly for him and what he describes as "tragically, a victory for the [US] hawks", (16) this proposed deal was shipwrecked. In reality, the Wilson government’s influence on events was extremely limited. Barbara Castle, also a cabinet minister throughout the government and historically close to Wilson, comments on the absurdity of the government’s position: "It was this old business of insisting on being the world’s parson when we are ceasing to be the world’s policeman". (17) This is in stark contrast to the open opposition to the US displayed by other European governments. Wilson himself records that, in 1967, French President General de Gaulle said: "The government of North Vietnam, especially Ho Chi Minh himself… would not yield. The future of their country was at stake. So long as the war continued at the present tempo they could go on fighting indefinitely. They would negotiate only if the US agreed to stop the bombing and leave Vietnam within a specified period… The way in which their country was being treated made it inevitable that any negotiations must be regarded as no better than surrender… The war would go on, even if the US put still more troops into Vietnam. The situation, he had to say, was the greatest absurdity of the twentieth century. He, de Gaulle, could see no answer to the problem". (18)

Benn, on the other hand, after having met the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, stated approvingly: "We discussed Vietnam and Palme said the Swedish government had taken a strong view against American bombing and had won wide public support. The opposition did not agree with this view but dare not express their criticism because the public was so strongly behind the government’s attitude". (19) In fact, the Swedish government had opposed not just the bombing but the war itself, and Palme had led mass demonstrations, which were reportedly some of the biggest in the history of the state. This stand irritated sections of the bourgeoisie and infuriated extreme right-wing circles and was one of the factors in the murder of Palme in 1986. His assassin has never been caught.

On the other hand, Wilson’s stand provoked a rising tide of opposition within the Labour Party. Early in 1966 there was a storm within the ranks of the Labour Party, which Wilson comments on: "Suddenly, the Labour Party was deep in a new crisis over Vietnam… the Foreign Office… issued a press statement supporting the president’s action [the resumption of air attacks]. By an error, this was not submitted to me for approval. I would not have agreed to a statement in those terms. The left was justifiably outraged… ninety MPs, again going far beyond the conventional left, telegraphed Senator Fulbright supporting his attack on the president". (20)

Wilson under pressure was compelled in June of that year to ‘dissociate’ the government from the bombing of Haiphong and Hanoi. This did little to mollify the left. In his diaries, Benn records just how US strategists valued British support for them. Robert McNamara, Johnson’s defence secretary, who was not in favour of persuading the British government that it "ought to send troops to Vietnam", is quoted as saying, "‘We need Britain internationally and domestically because Wilson’s support for the Johnson administration is absolutely necessary’, implying that the sending of British troops would undermine support for the US in Britain". (21)

Fury of anti-war protesters

THIS HIGHLIGHTS THE role the Wilson government was playing, which earned it the growing ire both within and outside the Labour Party. At the 1967 party conference in Scarborough, the platform, representing the government, "was defeated by the conference because of discontent with the government support for the United States". (22) The year before, 113 Labour MPs had signed a Commons motion calling on the government to dissociate itself completely from US policy in Vietnam. However, Wilson himself had consistently clung to support for the US in the Commons: "I went on to repeat our general support of American policy, emphasising the now firm American acceptance of unconditional negotiations". (23)

Apart from a mealy-mouthed ‘dissociation’ when bombing of the North was resumed, Wilson clung obstinately to his support for the US which, as we have seen, was partly conditioned by the economic weakness of Britain and the need for US financial support to prop up the value of the pound on world markets at that stage. However, even his inner circle, such as Crossman, became more and more disenchanted: "I suppose the personal reliance on LBJ could be described as a peculiarly Wilsonian touch and I very much fear that he and James Callaghan between them have committed us more deeply than any of their predecessors to the Americans". (24) What would he have said about Blair’s supine position before the Bush government over Iraq?

But the ‘concerns’ of Crossman and the rest of the Labour cabinet opposed to Wilson were as nothing to the outrage felt on the streets, particularly amongst young people in the universities and within the labour movement generally. Wilson himself records the stormy reception he received in a visit to Cambridge in October 1967: "My car was directed by the police into a narrow alleyway and there stopped by a yelling mob of demonstrators. Probably only a minority were from Cambridge. It had become a familiar routine that when I was known to be visiting any town, particularly the seat of a university, an influx of demonstrators was organised; we frequently saw their cars on the road. This demonstration, ostensibly on Vietnam, was particularly unpleasant; the car was seriously damaged by staves beating down on the bonnet, and the radio and radio-telephone aerials were broken off. My wife was quite badly manhandled, eggs were thrown and a policeman was seriously injured. As a member of my team summarised it as we drove out from Cambridge on to the Royston road, ‘They won’t be satisfied: a man must die for peace’". (25)

All government ministers received the same treatment. Typical was the reaction of Stewart, in general the grey spot of the cabinet, whose capacity to excite opposition was the equivalent of a dead cat. Nevertheless, he was confronted by interruptions when he spoke in Oxford in support of the government’s position: "As soon as I rose to speak, they sprang up and began to chant, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ and gave no sign of stopping. The chairman appealed to their leader (Mr Christopher Hitchens…) but his reply was that if you know what someone is going to say, and know that it is wrong, you are entitled to protect the audience from being misled". (26) This very same Hitchens, then a member of the International Socialists (predecessors of the SWP) now writes vituperative articles in bourgeois papers in defence of Bush’s war on Iraq!

There were huge anti-war protests throughout the world. In Britain on 17 March 1968, tens of thousands marched to the US embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest against US crimes against the Vietnamese. Police, including mounted police galloping at full speed into demonstrators outside the US embassy (where US Marines had been secretly installed to prevent it from being overrun), clashed violently with demonstrators at the end of the march. In October of the same year, 100,000 marched in London against the war. So alarmed was the British ruling class, so virulent was it in denouncing the movement, that in the week leading up to this demonstration – led by The Times newspaper – they warned of a semi-insurrectionary outcome. They effectively believed their own propaganda!

Effects of 1968 in Britain

THE EVENTS OF 1968 had profound effects on all sections of society, even on the Labour cabinet, as the diaries of its members record. The most interesting is Crossman, who comments on the May-June 1968 events in France. Unusually for most observers, both then and now (particularly the leaders of the French ‘Communist’ Party at the time), he did recognise a revolution when he saw one. He comments: "Isn’t it true that we’re now in a revolution which may actually succeed? I’d always thought it would have been very exciting to have lived through 1848 and now I find we’re living through the most momentous year that I can remember since the war… East and West of the Iron Curtain, establishments are being challenged by new forces from below which have little care for the concept of parliamentary democracy as we know it. They’re in revolt against a parliamentary democracy which was an ideal in 1848 but is now part of an established oligarchy, part of the Establishment in the West just as Communism is part of the Establishment in the East. These uprisings this year are in both cases anti-Establishment. Strangely, when I think about this some of my depression goes away".

Crossman comforts himself that it is not just him and his Labour ‘colleagues’ who are under attack: "It’s a great relief to feel that what we’re suffering here is part of a world phenomenon and that we’re not the only government that’s totally incompetent, unable to cope. I like to feel that in America LBJ is failing as abjectly as Harold is here". (27)

The movements on the streets, in the universities and workplaces of Britain, as in the US, were the most important factors in shaping the attitude of the Labour government and its increasing need to dissociate from the horrific war in Vietnam. Intense debate took place, not just on Vietnam but on the issues that related to this struggle, such as the role of students and their relationship to the struggles of the working class. The Wilson government’s ignominious kow-towing to the US administration on Vietnam brought them into collision with the ranks of the labour movement and alienated a whole generation of young people who went onto the streets – some even filling out sectarian, ultra-left organisations – to protest against the war. It was, therefore, a shameful chapter in the history of the Labour Party. Mind you, Blair, Straw, Hoon and Co have plumbed new depths, have gone much further than Wilson ever did, in acting as Bush’s poodle over Iraq.

  1. Militant, Issue 8, July-August 1965
  2. Militant, Issue 43, November 1968
  3. Militant, Issue 125, 3 October 1972
  4. Financial Times, 22 March 1965
  5. Harold Wilson, The Labour Government 1964-70 (1971), p79
  6. Wilson, p116
  7. Wilson, p120
  8. Michael Stewart, Life and Labour: An Autobiography (1980), p152
  9. Pentagon Papers: History of US Decision-Making in Vietnam 1945-68, vol 4 (Gravel Edition, 1971), p102
  10. Tony Benn, Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-67 (1988), p271
  11. Wilson, p244
  12. Benn, p273
  13. Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol I (1975), p237
  14. Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol II (1976), p564
  15. Wilson, p456
  16. Wilson, p458
  17. Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1964-76 (1990), p269
  18. Wilson, pp518-9
  19. Benn, p404, p416
  20. Wilson, p266
  21. Benn, p444
  22. Benn, p511
  23. Wilson, p321
  24. Crossman, vol II, p181
  25. Wilson, p567
  26. Stewart, p155
  27. Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol III (1977), pp76-77