The US war in Vietnam, 1961-73

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses

The declassified British files on the Vietnam war are little short of a revelation. They show that Britain totally backed the US at virtually every stage of military escalation, and also played its own important secret role in the war.  During the war the US used 15 million tons of munitions, twice as much as in World War Two. Between 2-3 million, and perhaps more, are estimated to have died. The wholesale destruction of villages and killing of innocent people was a permanent feature of the US war from the beginning, as was widespread indiscriminate bombing.

Background to the war

After France had been defeated in 1954 in its brutal eight year attempt to reconquer Vietnam, the Geneva Accords temporarily divided Vietnam between North and South at the 17th parallel and envisaged elections in 1956 that were meant to lead to unification. The northern half of the country was under the control of the Communist Party. What the US subsequently confronted in South Vietnam was a liberation movement – the Viet Minh, designated ‘Viet Cong’ by the US – calling for reunification with the North, a foreign policy of neutrality, major land reform to benefit the rural poor, the overthrow of the US-backed regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and abolition of the US economic monopoly and bases in the South.

According to Gabriel Kolko, author of perhaps the most comprehensive history of the Vietnam war, the history of Vietnam after 1954 ‘was only incidentally that of a civil war’. Rather, ‘it was essentially a struggle between a radicalised Vietnamese patriotism, embodied in the Communist party, and the United States and its wholly dependent local allies’.

Land reform lay at the root of the war. By the time of the Geneva Accords, the Communists in the South controlled at least 60 per cent of the territory and had begun a major transformation of the land system affecting most of the population in one way or another. This revolution by the Viet Minh movement had redistributed huge areas of land to previously landless peasants and those who had supported the resistance to the French, much of it transferred at the expense of French and the largest Vietnamese landowners. In the North, land reform, which had mobilised the poorer peasants in opposition to the French, had enabled the landless and poor peasants to improve their position radically. The transformed land system was ‘essentially equitable’ in the North, Kolko comments.

The land measures begun by the Diem regime in South Vietnam which in 1955 were essentially a counter-revolution aimed at abolishing the Viet Minh reforms and returning to the traditional peasant-landlord structure to disenfranchise the poor. At the root of the war in South Vietnam lay both this land reform programme and the sheer repression and terror of the Diem regime which killed thousands of people in the late 1950s.

By 1961 hundreds of thousands of hectares of land had been taken back by the Diem regime. The Communist Party in the North backed the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam for achieving unification and for promoting its political programme through the whole country. By the early 1960s large-scale upheavals in the rural areas of the South increased as Communist Party members began to take over many villages, mobilising people and calling for land for the peasants. The NLF’s land reform programme was immensely successful in engaging a large percentage of the peasantry to participate directly in the process of land distribution and giving them a stake in the success of the revolution. This helps explain the widespread popularity of the NLF.

The US’ major concern was the fear that the revolution in Vietnam would spread, threatening US security and business interests elsewhere in the region. ‘The fall of Indochina would undoubtedly lead to the fall of the other mainland states of Southeast Asia’, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had argued in 1950. ‘Major sources of certain strategic materials’ as well as communications routes were at stake. If Vietnam ‘fell’, the ‘principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities’ would also be lost in Malaya and Indonesia.

That the US and South Vietnam had violated the Geneva accords – which required nationwide elections to be held in 1956 – was clearly recognised by British officials. The Foreign Office noted in private that:

‘The United States government… supported and encouraged the efforts of the South Vietnamese government to ignore the political provisions of the Geneva Agreements and to consolidate an anti-communist regime in the South’.

The British recognised in private the ‘historical distortion’ that the US was putting on the Geneva agreements in public. British policy, like the US, was to back a divided Vietnam and to oppose what it recognised as Ho Chi Minh’s call for ‘free general elections throughout the country’. It was also recognised by British planners that the liberation movement in the South was popular, certainly much more so than the Diem regime. The British ambassador, Harry Hohler, said that the greatest rival to President Diem was the President of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh: ‘more than any other, he commands the following and respect which could give him power in South Vietnam’. Foreign Office official Edward Peck confirmed the British opposition to democracy in the country by writing that ‘the most sinister alternative [to rule by Diem] is of course the probably still popular appeal of Ho Chi Minh’.

The British military attache wrote in a report in February 1963 of the contrast between security arrangements between Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Diem in Saigon. ‘When Ho Chi Minh travels no extra precautions are observed and he mingles freely with crowds as he wishes. A strange contrast to Saigon, with several armed police always on each corner’. In May 1961 a British embassy official was told by the US ambassador that one problem that would be posed by introducing full democracy in the South was that ‘fully elected village councils if introduced now might merely facilitate the transfer of control to the Communists’. It was understood by early 1962 that the Viet Cong were in control of the ‘majority of villages in South Vietnam’ and that they were winning ‘the battle for minds of the peasantry’.

Another crucial issue was to extent to which the Southern liberation movement was controlled from the North. In public, British (and of course US) leaders continually said that Hanoi was simply directing the ‘communist insurgency’ in the South, refusing to concede the fact that this was primarily an indigenous liberation movement. But what planners understood in private provides a more accurate picture. In June 1961, for example, Edward Peck noted that ‘our current assessment is that most of the insurgents come from inside South Vietnam itself and that there are only relatively few contacts with the North’. Another official said that Britain lacked ‘any real proof that the trouble in S.Vietnam is directed from N.Vietnam’. However, ‘on the other hand, US intervention in S.Vietnam is open for all the world to see’.

By November 1961, Peck was noting that ‘undoubtedly, some supplies, propaganda and cadres come down through the country [from North Vietnam] but the idea of a thickly populated line of communication is nonsense’.

This date is important since it coincides with the US intervention in South Vietnam. It shows that at this time, British officials did not view the ‘insurgency’ as directed from outside, but more logically as an indigenous rebellion. In public, however, this was never conceded throughout the long years of the Vietnam war. British officials consistently backed the line that the US was simply fighting externally-backed ‘aggression’, which was itself an important source of diplomatic support to Washington and helped the US to falsely frame the conflict.  As for whether it was really the Soviet Union and China which was behind the uprising in South Vietnam, the Foreign Office noted in June 1962 simply that ‘the Russians do not welcome a war in Indo China and we do not believe that the Chinese would intervene unless they felt that the security of North Vietnam was directly threatened’.

South Vietnamese President Diem was recognised as being dictatorial and unpopular and received the strong backing of the British as well as US governments. ‘The Diem regime lacks popular support’, the Foreign Office said in July 1961. It was ‘a clumsy and heavy-handed dictatorship which is conspicuously lacking in popular appeal’. Numerous files refer to Diem’s ‘rigid and autocratic rule’, ‘authoritarian and uncompromising nature’ and his ‘extreme over-centralisation’ of power. Even more extreme was Diem’s brother and right-hand man, Nhu who ‘attaches every bit as much importance to the apparatus of a police state as the most enthusiastic advocate of the social order of “1984”‘, as the British ambassador put it. It was Nhu who, according to a Foreign Office briefing paper, was ‘primarily responsible for the authoritarian and quasi-fascist tendencies of the Vietnamese government’.

The April 1961 elections won by Diem were recognised as being ‘certainly rigged’ while by 1962 there was ‘growing corruption at every level, the inevitable result of prolonged foreign subsidy’ – by Britain’s key ally, that is. Overall, British planners well knew that ‘the regime here is absolutely dependent upon the Americans for survival’.  In fact, the Diem regime was responsible for inflicting sheer terror on the population. A 1972 study prepared for the Pentagon, for example, states that:

‘There can be no doubt that innumerable crimes and absolutely senseless acts of suppression against both real and suspected communists and sympathising villagers were committed. Efficiency took the form of brutality and a total disregard for the difference between determined foes and potential friends’.

It is estimated that over 10,000 had been killed by the Diem regime by 1957 and about 66,000 killed between 1957 and 1961.  ‘We are committed to backing Diem to the end’, the British embassy noted in July 1961, reflecting British public statements which strangely did not mention the frank admission in the files as to Diem’s dictatorial and repressive features. The reason was that the British, and the Americans, apparently believed that Diem was the only counter to ‘communist intervention’.  In December 1961 Ambassador Hohler sent an extraordinary letter to Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas Home, saying that:

‘We should not be too greatly moved by complaints that the Vietnamese authorities are holding large numbers of individuals in detention camps. At the worst period in Malaya we had over 10,000 people in detention without trial’.

He recommended that the Diem regime should improve its ‘information services’ and that Britain should help. One Foreign Office official noted that Hohler’s despatch was ‘largely an apology for President Diem’ who has surrounded himself with ‘evil and powerful advisers’. At this time British officials were aware that there were around 30,000 political prisoners in South Vietnam. British and US support for Diem only lessened when it became clear that Diem was refusing to accept US (and British) advice on how to win the war (see below). He thus became a liability who eventually had to be overthrown, which occurred in the US-backed coup of November 1963.

Support for US intervention

The major British interest in backing the US was not only to support its major ally; the fear was also that the ‘fall’ of South Vietnam ‘would be disastrous to British interests and investments in South East Asia and seriously damaging to the prospects of the Free World containing the Communist threat’. Britain’s commercial interests in Vietnam itself were very modest with exports averaging only around £2 million a year in the early 1960s.

Britain welcomed the US ‘counter-insurgency’ plan submitted to Diem in February 1961, partly since it was based on proposals by Britons, Robert Thompson and Field Marshall Gerald Templar, both ‘counter-insurgency’ experts who had plied their trade with ferocious effect in the war in Malaya. This plan called for an increase in the South Vietnamese army of 20,000 troops to deal with the insurgency. But the first major escalation was the US intervention of November 1961 when the Kennedy administration sent helicopters, light aircraft, intelligence equipment and additional advisers for the South Vietnamese army. Soon after this the US air force began combat missions.

‘The administration can count on our general support in the measures they are taking’, Foreign Secretary Douglas Home said. It was clearly understood in various memos by British ministers and officials that this intervention was a complete violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords which put limits on the number of US military forces acceptable in Vietnam and which was now being superceded. Britain had a particular responsibility to uphold this international accord since it was a co-chair of the Geneva Agreements, with the Soviet Union. But the British connived with the US and promised not to raise the issue. ‘As co-chairman, Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to turn a blind eye to American activities’, the Foreign Office secretly stated. Douglas Home wrote to Secretary of State Dean Rusk to tell him ‘to avoid any publicity for what is being done’, ie, in the November intervention. He ‘assured Mr Rusk that he will turn a blind eye to what goes on’.

British planners had hoped that the US would not openly commit combat troops to South Vietnam for fear of the international repercussion of Vietnamese being killed by Americans, and that the reaction in Vietnam itself would be ‘unfavourable’. But they immediately acquiesced. ‘The United States government is determined to prevent the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists and this policy is supported by HMG’, the Foreign Office noted in March 1962. In February, Ambassador Hohler said that ‘we must clearly give the sorely tried Americans all the support that we can for the courageous action they have taken here’ and counsel patience for the US ‘clamour for results’. He said that he thought the British role should be to urge the US ‘to avoid unnecessary provocation in an increasingly dangerous situation’ while ‘we should do our best to make it clear to them that we are on their side’. By mid-1962, Hohler was saying that as regards military intelligence, ‘this embassy now enjoys closer relations with the Americans than ever before’. The military attache was receiving weekly US military reports and he enjoyed ‘excellent working relations’ with US military officials. ‘Though there are, inevitably, differences of emphasis’, Hohler added, ‘I would not say that there are any basic disagreements between us’. A Foreign Office brief similarly noted that ‘there are no major differences of view [between Britain and the US] about the measures needed to defeat the Viet Cong’.

It is plausible to argue that if the British had acted at this stage in their role as guarantor of the Geneva Agreements, they just might have been able to prevent the US intervention, or at least undermine it in some way. They could have at least made it more difficult for the US by stressing the stipulations in the accords for elections and limits on military involvement. But there was no question of Britain acting in this way since, as noted above, London had a similar analysis to Washington of what should be done. Indeed, it is important to realise that, as the files clearly show, Britain backed the military not the diplomatic option. ‘Surely we should aim to divert and not to focus international attention on our actions in Vietnam while we get on with the task of defeating the Viet Cong’, Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home wrote in November 1961. (The use of ‘we’ here is interesting, showing the extent to which British ministers regarded the war as their struggle also).

Thus the Foreign Office made clear, in private, its opposition to a UN or other international conference on Vietnam, saying that ‘until the insurgency is mastered and the South Vietnamese are in a position to negotiate on an equal footing with the North, a conference could achieve nothing useful’. Translated from diplo-speak: the war must continue since the South Vietnamese regime lacks any popular support and is bound to lose out in any deal. The fear, indeed, was that ‘the West would be faced with… proposals for the reunification and neutralisation of Vietnam’. In May 1962 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sent a personal letter to President Diem saying that ‘we have viewed with admiration the way in which your government and people have resisted’ North Vietnamese attempts to ‘overthrow the freely established regime in South Vietnam’, adding ‘we wish you every success in your struggle’.

Other files show the British fear of a North Vietnamese peace offensive and the danger that ‘if a Communist campaign for international discussions gets under way it will receive a great deal of support’. The ‘neutral countries’ were bound to support such a campaign and ‘in many countries of the West it might also be thought quite reasonable that we should try for a peaceful negotiation over Vietnam’. But not in British government circles. Instead, since the US ‘have overall relative military superiority and are ready for a real trial of strength’, then ‘this must not be bargained away’. Hohler also said in November 1961 that he agreed with the US ambassador, Nolting, that ‘this was not the time for the political reform’ of the Diem regime. Foreign Office official Fred Warner agreed, saying that ‘this is not the time to talk about liberalisation [of the Diem regime, meaning to push for democratic reform]. Military measures must be given priority’.

Throughout 1962 and 1963 the US poured money and military equipment into South Vietnam while US ‘advisers’ ‘daily accompanied the Vietnamese forces into battle’, Ambassador Hohler commented. Seventeen months into the war – in April 1963 – the Foreign Office stated that ‘it would be a mistake to abandon present policies of going all out for a military victory’. It noted that ‘the communists’ might soon press for a negotiated settlement based on neutrality for South Vietnam. ‘We remain strongly against giving this any encouragement’. This continuing British support for war rather than diplomacy is easily explained – throughout the first half of the 1960s, Britain thought the US could win. Hohler’s recognition that ‘people are horribly tired of a war’ did not shake his preference, or that of his bosses in London, for the military option. The effect on ordinary Vietnamese was an irrelevance. My research for this chapter involved looking at most of the British planning files for over a decade between 1961-72, involving hundreds of documents. As in the other episodes considered in this book, there is simply no concerns expressed in any of these files for the lives of the people on the receiving end of Anglo-American policy. British officials were perfectly aware of what was happening to ordinary Vietnamese. In December 1962, for example, Ambassador Hohler noted the South Vietnamese forces’ ‘indiscriminate air activity’ and the killing of innocent villagers. The only concern expressed was that this would have an adverse ‘psychological impact’ and is ‘grist to the mill of local communist propaganda’.

By December 1962 US State Department intelligence was reporting that ‘indiscriminate bombing in the countryside is forcing innocent or wavering peasants towards the Viet Cong’ and that over 100,000 Montagnards have fled Viet Cong-controlled areas due in part to ‘the extensive use of artillery and aerial bombardment and other apparently excessive and indiscriminate measures by GVN [ie, South Vietnamese] military and security forces’. This had ‘undoubtedly killed many innocent peasants and made many others more willing than before to cooperate with the Viet Cong’.

January 1962 is the first mention in the British files that I have seen of a ‘chemical substance used for clearing strips of jungle vegetation’. In March the following year, Foreign Office official Fred Warner wrote that ‘there is no doubt the Americans have used toxic chemicals’ and that ‘we believe that these chemicals are a legitimate weapon’ to destroy the insurgents’ cover. He noted that the Soviet government had officially requested to the International Control Commission (ICC) of the Geneva Accords, which Britain co-chaired, to mount an investigation. But Warner said this was simply a matter for the ICC, not Britain. Again, British officials protected the US, and the consequences were horrific.

Over a nine year period beginning in late 1961, 20 per cent of Vietnam’s jungles and 36 per cent of its mangrove swamps were sprayed by the US, with 42 per cent of the spraying allocated to food crops. In 1963 the US began to study the dioxin in the major defoliant being used – Agent Orange – suspecting it might cause cancer, birth defects and other grave problems. This fear was confirmed by 1967 but never affected policy in any way.

At the same time, British officials also knew that napalm was being used. Ambassador Hohler rejected the idea of a complaint, saying that the war in Vietnam ‘is a very ruthless one and there is little to choose between the two sides when it comes to cruelty’. An appeal against the use of napalm might ‘satisfy some tender consciences’, Hohler noted, but ‘the net result would probably be to draw attention to a practice that has hitherto been largely overlooked’.

When the subsequent Wilson government raised its concerns to the US about the latter’s use of gas and napalm in Vietnam it was always in the context of ‘difficulties’ that this caused with the presentation of policy to the public. There is no evidence that British officials were motivated by anything else – ie, that they might actually be opposed to the use of such weapons because of the effect they had on people.

Britain’s support for Diem

Britain provided considerable direct support to the Diem regime and US military in support of the US war. British aid to Diem was formally provided in the British Advisory Administrative Mission (BRIAM). BRIAM was agreed in July 1961 and began work in Saigon two months later with a small team of experts in ‘counter-subversion’, intelligence and ‘information’, its activities being meant to complement US advisers. The head of BRIAM, Robert Thompson, quickly became one of, if not the most, important of Diem’s foreign advisers.

The British government’s claim that BRIAM had a purely civilian (and not military) role, maintained in various parliamentary answers and debates, was a complete lie. The memo proposing the establishment of BRIAM says that training was to be provided ‘over the whole counter-insurgency field’. Ambassador Hohler said in June 1962 that Diem had ratified ‘proposals for the conduct of the war put forward by the highly-experienced Advisory Mission (BRIAM)’. Around 300 Vietnamese soldiers were trained in ‘counter-insurgency’ in Malaya in 1962/3 alone. By August 1963 the Diem regime was described as ‘most appreciative of the type of training and of the assistance’ provided by the British.

I found other examples of British military cooperation with the Diem regime and the US during this time:

– In late 1962 a team of 20 British technicians, all given American Service identity cards, installed and began to operate a navigation system for US warplanes. This was described as ‘invaluable for pin-pointing targets for straffing [sic], bombing, supply dropping and dropping parachutists’.
– In November 1962 the British government agreed to loan the US two Ferret armoured cars to be tested in Vietnam. This followed a US military official’s inspection of Ferrets in action with the British army in Malaya, with which he ‘was most impressed’.
– In late 1962 a British Lieutenant-General was allowed to accept a US invitation to take part in the work of the US’ Advanced Research Projects Agency in Bangkok, in the course of which he was required to operate ‘in the forward areas of South Vietnam’. He was described as a Combat Research Officer.

The major British contribution to the war, however, was Robert Thompson’s counter-insurgency programmes, based on (extremely brutal) measures in Malaya, which led to the ‘Delta Plan’ and the ‘strategic hamlets’ programmes in Vietnam. US military officials, it was reported, were much impressed by Thompson and ‘were most anxious’ that the ‘valuable experience we had gained in Malaya [be] put to the best possible use in South Vietnam’.

At the Diem regime’s invitation, Thompson, then a senior official in the Malayan government, visited South Vietnam in April 1960 and produced a report on ‘anti-terrorist operations’. This report ‘impressed the Vietnamese government’, the Foreign Office later noted, and provided the basis for the US counter-insurgency plan of February 1961. In late 1961, Thompson produced a draft of ‘a campaign on Malayan lines’ that was to be known as the Delta Plan. The aim, according to the Foreign Office, was ‘to dominate, control and win over the population, particularly in the rural areas, beginning in the delta’ region. The proposal involved establishing curfews and prohibited areas to control movement on all roads and waterways to ‘hamper the Communist courier system’, along with ‘limited food control’ in some areas.

‘If the system works successfully’, the Ambassador noted, ‘this provides the main opportunity for killing terrorists’. As and when the areas are declared ‘white’, ie free of ‘terrorists’, social improvement would follow along with the relaxing of controls. According to the Foreign Office, ‘Thompson considers that the struggle will last some five years and that the campaign must be conducted on methodical lines with the country being cleared area by area’.

In February 1962 the Diem regime asked Thompson to put the Delta Plan into practice, but implementation by Vietnamese forces was ‘ineffective’, partly due to the poor application of the strategic hamlets programme, according to the Foreign Office. Largely based on the Delta Plan, the US produced a further ‘counter-insurgency’ programme for operations in the Delta.  Thompson’s Delta Plan was also the basis for the US ‘strategic hamlets’ programme, devised by Roger Hilsman at the US State Department. ‘Hilsman’s basic concept owes a great deal to Thompson’, one British official in the Washington Embassy commented. According to the State Department:

‘The strategic hamlet is essentially a fortified hamlet… A fence of bamboo and barbed wire is built around the entire hamlet, and a ditch or moat is dug around the fence; the ditch or moat, in turn, is encircled by an earthen mound. The area immediately around the village is cleared to permit fields of fire and to avoid giving guerillas and terrorists hiding places close to the hamlet’.

The programme began in late 1961 and became national policy in April 1962, with such ‘strategic hamlets’ soon established all over the country. In February 1963, Ambassador Hohler told the Foreign Secretary that with the building of ‘strategic hamlets’ and ‘resettlement’ ‘there are new burdens to be borne’ by the Vietnamese peasants. ‘The benefits of the hamlets programme have, for the most part, yet to be seen’, he added. Strange, then, that Edward Heath, then Lord Privy Seal, should say in answer to a parliamentary question just two months later that:

‘The “strategic hamlet” programme is giving improved security to villagers and a chance to build up again the traditional system of Vietnamese village councils and communal activity. We hope this improvement can be maintained’.

In reality, the ‘strategic hamlets’ programme was extremely brutal and the fortifications were often little different than concentration camps. Peasants were ordered to abandon their homes and land for new sites in often quite distant locations, while the cash and building materials they were allocated were inadequate. They were also compelled to give much of their labour to building stockades. The South Vietnamese officials governing this process were there ‘to loot, collect back taxes, reinstall landlords and conduct reprisals against the people’, according to one US marine ‘pacification’ expert quoted by Gabriel Kolko. Above all, the programme failed to address land redistribution, which explained the popularity of the National Liberation Front.

By the end of 1963 Thompson had become critical at the ineffectiveness of the Vietnamese and US in implementing ‘strategic hamlets’, saying that they had been created in a haphazard way and that military operations were not designed to support the programme. To ‘save’ the programme he said ‘the government must be absolutely determined and, if necessary, ruthless’. He advised that when the ‘strategic hamlets’ were being constructed no house should be left outside the perimeter and all should be persuaded ‘and forced if necessary’ to move their houses inside. ‘In constructing the hamlets, peasants should be required to give their labour, preferably during off-seasons, free’, Thompson urged. ‘Dusk to dawn curfews outside the hamlet should be imposed and enforced’. Reiterating that the government must be prepared to be ruthless, Thompson adds:

‘Just as an example of a ruthless measure, I quote the case of a village in Malaya (Jenderam) of about three thousand inhabitants. This was a very bad area and the village itself was a centre of support and supply for a large unit of communist terrorists when most of the other areas around it had been cleared. Having given the inhabitants a choice between the Government and the communists and having failed too make any headway by appealing to or persuading them to cooperate we moved in several battalions at dawn one morning and moved the whole village out. Everyone in it, men, women and children, went into detention for two years. All the houses were razed to the ground. Surprisingly, this did not cause a public outcry and the effectiveness of the result, by leading to the elimination of the communist terrorist unit concerned, silenced all criticism. When the area was finally cleared of terrorists the people were allowed to return and the restoration of the village was then heavily subsidised by the government. It is now peaceful and prosperous…. There is no easy way if victory is to be achieved. A price has to be paid now by the population to prevent a much heavier price being paid later.’

The Foreign Office stated in January 1964 that Thompson’s ‘main contribution’ to BRIAM’s operations had been ‘to convince the Vietnamese authorities of the usefulness of strategic hamlets’. At the same time, Britain’s new ambassador in Saigon, Gordon Etherington-Smith, was recognising the reality of the programme as implemented. He said that it was ‘widely unpopular’ and that the new government – which had just overthrown Diem – ‘have no intention of incurring the same unpopularity by forcing the peasants into hamlets against their will’. The programme had become ‘discredited’ and the programme as originally envisaged by Diem was no longer being carried out. It had also been pushed forward ‘too fast’ and not enough had been done, he said, to ensure that ‘communist influence was effectively removed’ from the hamlets.

The British government has never admitted that British forces fought in Vietnam. Yet the files confirm that they did, even though several remain censored. In August 1962, the Military Attache in Saigon, Colonel Lee, wrote to the War Office in London attaching a report by someone whose name is censored but who is described an advisor to the Malayan government. This advisor proposed that an SAS team be sent to Vietnam, which Lee said was unacceptable owing to Britain’s position as Co-Chair of the Geneva Agreement. Then Lee writes:

‘However, this recommendation might be possible to implement if the personnel are detached and given temporary civilian status, or are attached to the American Special Forces in such a manner that their British military identity is lost in the US Unit. However the Americans are crying out for expert assistance in this field and are extremely enthusiastic that [one inch censored] should join them. He really is an expert, full of enthusiasm, drive and initiative in dealing with these primitive peoples and I hope that he will be given full support and assistance in this task’.

‘These primitive peoples’ is a reference to the Montagnards in the highlands of the central provinces of Vietnam. Lee continues:

‘It is …clear that there is enormous scope for assistance of a practical nature on the lines of that already being undertaken by the Americans. Thus it is strongly recommended that such British contribution [sic] as may be feasible be grafted onto the American effort in the field, particularly in view of their shortage of certain types of personnel. The ideal solution might be to contribute a number of teams to operate in a particular area fully integrated into the overall American and Vietnamese plan. The civil side could be composed of carefully selected Europeans and Malayans with suitable experience, and the military element could be drawn from the SAS regiment which operated for many years amongst the Aborigines in Malaya. Suitable steps could doubtless be taken to give them temporary civilian status. Although we should have to rely on the Americans to a great degree for logistic support, it might still be possible to provide a positive contribution in this field such as specialised equipment. A less satisfactory solution might be to integrate certain specialists into existing or projected American Special Forces Teams, although the main disadvantage here, particularly on the Aborigine side would lie in the fact that many of the experienced Malayan personnel would not speak English and would have to rely on the British element as interpreters when dealing with the Americans.’

This team was sent, and was known as the ‘Noone mission’ under Richard Noone (the figure whose name is censored in these files) and which acted under the cover of BRIAM. The covert operation began in summer 1962 but there are only a few further references to it in the available files. One shows that it was still in operation in late 1963; by which time Noone was still providing reports back to the Foreign Office.

Other covert aid provided by Britain included secret British air flights from Hong Kong to deliver arms, especially napalm and five-hundred-pound bombs. Aid on the intelligence front took various forms, including forwarding intelligence reports to the Americans from MI6 station heads in Hanoi. The British monitoring station at Little Sai Wan in Hong Kong provided the US with intelligence until 1975. The US National Security Agency coordinated all signals intelligence in Southeast Asia, and Little Sai Wan was linked to this operation. Its intercepts of North Vietnamese military traffic were used by the US military command to target bombing strikes over North Vietnam.

The end of this first period of the war is marked by the overthrow of the Diem regime in November 1963. As noted above, Diem was now expendable due to his inability to fight the war effectively. The run-up to his removal was marked by the emergence of a ‘determined popular movement’ led by the Buddhists which directly challenged Diem’s authority and which was put down with brute, bloody force.

The British mildly protested to Diem about these repressive measures, largely since they feared that Britain, and the US, would be ‘tarred with his brush’, as the Foreign Office put it, and that such repression would endanger the stability of the regime and the prosecution of the war. By September 1963, however, the ambassador was explicitly telling the Foreign Office that the war could not be won with Diem in power and that he should be overthrown.

The military coup of 1 November was actively backed by the US and strongly welcomed by Britain, and General van Minh emerged as the new leader. The main British priority was to ensure that ‘the war effort and the conduct of public business should be as little upset as possible’. Ambassador Etherington-Smith noted that the new regime stood a chance of success in the war ‘provided they are prepared to wage the war in the countryside with sufficient firmness and resolution’.

Dissident in the Foreign Office

As well as the change of regime, there had been another important development towards the end of this period, at least in the internal British planning record. This was a memo from Kenneth Blackwell, Britain’s Consul-General in Hanoi (ie, its top diplomat in North Vietnam) to the Foreign Office in May 1963. In this memo, Blackwell, who had just completed a year in Hanoi, blows apart all of Whitehall’s public positions and reveals its fake analysis. It is worth considering at length.

Blackwell began by noting that the conflict is ‘basically a political and not a military problem – a struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam’. ‘To occupy the country indefinitely as the Americans seem prepared to do is, I am sure, no answer’. The ‘only alternative is a political settlement’ which is only possible if the South Vietnamese government can satisfy the needs of its 13 million people. What is needed, he said, was ‘modern social welfare – in particular free education and free medical treatment for all’, ‘land reform, ie, the abolition of landlordism’, ‘democracy’ through free elections and ‘independence and neutrality – the withdrawal of all foreign armies and military bases from its territority [sic]’.

Also needed, Blackwell wrote, were ‘a greater equality – a narrowing of the excessively wide gap between the upper and lower classes, the ruling classes and the mass of the people’. Also, ‘a certain degree of socialism in the form of the nationalisation of the bigger monopolies, especially when held by foreigners’. Then the crucial admission – that ‘Communist propaganda… claims that most of these requirements are part of their program [sic] and they do in fact carry out some of the more spectacular and popular ones.’

Blackwell does say that his programme differs from that of the ‘communists’ in that it provides for genuine democratic government and it gives peasants individual control of their land. He adds that ‘there is certainly a case for getting rid of the excessively wealthy, largely parasitic and superficially Europeanised landlord class which is the curse of most Asian countries’. And he adds that ‘one of the major faults of American policy (at least in the past) seems to me to have placed too great a reliance on this class… because they are (naturally) violently anti-Communist.’
On North Vietnam, Blackwell says that:

‘I think we are making a mistake if we assume that North Vietnamese interference (which in any case when compared with American aid to the South Vietnamese government is chicken feed) is the cause of the trouble and that without it all South Vietnamese (or even a majority) would flock to the support of Diem. I am convinced that the political question which I have described above, would still exist even if the opposition was suppressed to a greater degree than is at present possible.’

Then Blackwell says that North Vietnam:

‘has expressed its support for a program almost identical with the one I have described. They have said in fact that they would accept a neutral and independent government in the South (although of course they hope that the two governments will eventually agree to the peaceful unification of the country)… Whereas in Germany and Korea and virtually everywhere else in the world we favour the determination of the future of nations especially the joining together of the two halves of one artificially divided nation) by the free choice of the people – namely by free elections, in South Vietnam we have allowed ourselves to be jockeyed into the position of refusing to allow elections which should under the Geneva Agreement have been carried out in 1956, and thereby laying ourselves open to the accusation of being opposed to the principle of national self-determination.’

He concludes by saying that:

‘I fully recognise the difficulties of taking any action on the above lines and that on balance HMG would probably prefer the devil they know (the Diem government and American military support for South Vietnam) to the devil they do not know (the holding of an international conference and the neutralisation of South Vietnam).’

There is no evidence that British policy changed whatsoever after these pronouncements by our man in Hanoi, which effectively undermined the entire British (and US) framing of the war. I’m not aware of what became of Kenneth Blackwell but he sure didn’t become chief public spokesperson for the British government. Much of his analysis here is basically accurate, and confirms the immorality of the British position through the US war of aggression which strongly continued, under a Labour government, into the next phase, to which we now turn.

Military escalation, British backing

After the overthrow of Diem, Vietnam was ruled by a succession of military-controlled governments, under the dominant figures of General Nguyen van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky. These governments continued the basic repression that was a key feature of the Diem regime and in doing so received the backing of the US and also Britain.

In its annual review for 1964, the British embassy in Saigon noted the continuing rise of ‘popular pressures’ in South Vietnam led by the Buddhists and other groups ‘with their emphasis on freedom from any sort of regimentation or discipline’. Just as problematic, from the embassy’s point of view, was the ‘neutralist trend’ championed by these groups and that they were calling for ‘the possibility of ending the war by negotiation’. The British ambassador noted that ‘any hope of political stability from now on will depend on whether the popular forces… can somehow be contained’.

The favoured method of establishing control over the South Vietnamese countryside shifted away from ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘pacification’. This was ‘the most important aspect of the anti-communist struggle’, according to Ambassador Etherington-Smith, who gave ‘pacification’ strong support and who was keen to offer the US ‘expert advice’ in this field.

‘Pacification’ meant that a substantial proportion of the peasantry was forced off the land against their will. The most conservative estimate is that at least half of the rural population was pushed into refugee camps or urban settings one or more times, many repeatedly. South Vietnamese government figures on refugees or war victims during 1965-72 are around 7 million people, about one third of the population and half the peasantry.

The period 1963-6 was marked above all by massive escalation in US aggression. By 1966 US troops in Vietnam had risen to 370,000 and ‘American air raids on North Vietnam were carried out nearly every day throughout the year’, the British embassy’s annual review for 1966 noted.

Fundamental British support for the US continued. Prime Minister Douglas Home stated in March 1964 that in recent talks with President Johnson, ‘I reaffirmed my support for United States policy which… is intended to help the Republic of South Vietnam to protect its people and to preserve its independence’.

A May 1965 Foreign Office brief outlines British interests. It stated that Britain’s ‘direct involvement in Vietnam is insignificant’ but ‘that our interests as a non-communist power would be impaired if the United States government were defeated in the field, or defaulted on its commitments’. US prestige was therefore in danger and defeat ‘would damage America’s standing all over the world’. Similarly, ‘American abandonment of South Vietnam would cause both friend and foe throughout the world to wonder whether the US might, in future be induced to abandon other allies when the going got tough’. Consequently:

‘It is in Britain’s interests to give support for our major ally. Whenever we declare our determination to seek a peaceful settlement we should accompany this with an expression of general support for the Americans, while avoiding passing judgment on their specific actions. Behind this general public support, we would then have a better opportunity of conveying in private any criticisms we may feel justified’.

Another British interest was in securing US backing for its policy in Malaya. A Foreign Office brief of December 1964 noted that ‘not least because we need American support over Malaysia, we probably have no option but to give diplomatic support, as long as we can, to whatever policy the US government choose to adopt [in Vietnam]’. The key was to ensure the US continued to support Britain’s defiance of Indonesia in the latter’s military confrontation with Malaysia. As noted in chapter 11, Sukarno’s Indonesia was one of the primary threats to Western interests in the third world. The reference to British support for ‘whatever policy the US government choose to adopt’ – a chilling phrase – certainly proved correct.

As noted above, in the first half of the 1960s, British officials generally believed the US war was winnable and therefore continued to support Washington knowing that it would continue to inflict massive casualties. In December 1963, for example, Robert Thompson noted that ‘the fighting will be bitter and the casualties heavy (over 100,000 government and Vietcong)’. He thought that peace would not be restored until the end of the decade.

But by 1965 the calculation had changed with the situation on the ground, and it had become clear to British officials and ministers that the US could not in fact win the war. This did not stop them continuing to support the US, however. In March 1965 Wilson’s personal adviser, Joe Wright, noted that ‘the Americans are in a hopeless position in South Vietnam’ and ‘cannot win and cannot yet see any way of getting off the hook which will not damage their prestige internationally and the President’s position domestically’.

After Wilson became Prime Minister in October 1964, basic public professions of British support for the US continued. But the declassified files are extremely illuminating in showing the degree of secret support Wilson gave President Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, indeed at every stage of escalation. This private support was proffered behind the scenes since British public opposition to the war was widespread. It is a good example – as with Iraq more recently – of how the public threat is dealt with by private understandings among elites on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is interesting to consider the various military escalations of the war, and the British reaction, one by one.

In February 1965, the US took the war into a dangerous and devastating new phase by beginning the bombing of North Vietnam in its ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaign. The files show that the British had already promised support for this bombing in discussions in Washington the previous December. Britain had agreed to give ‘unequivocable [sic] support to any action which the US government might take which was measured and related strictly to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activity’. Two days after the attacks began, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart informed the embassy in Washington of the ‘military necessity of the action’ and told the Prime Minister that ‘I was particularly anxious not to say anything in public that might appear critical of the US government’.

Since Britain was one of the few powers that failed to condemn the US bombing, the Prime Minister’s personal adviser noted that ‘for presentational reasons, therefore, it was highly desirable that the Prime Minister should be seen to be consulting the Americans’. Wilson wanted to fly to Washington to be seen to be doing this (which was refused by Johnson), about which Wright wrote:

‘He [Wilson] was perfectly prepared to back the Americans in what they had to do in South Vietnam. But it would be easier for him to do this if he were seen to be in discussion with the President of the United States’.

The British knew that US strikes on North Vietnam were illegal. Indeed, British officials had warned the US earlier, in May 1964, that such strikes would create ‘difficulties’ for Britain. In discussions with the US then, the British foreign secretary had said that:

‘Article 51 [of the UN charter, under which nations could act in self defence] could only be invoked in the case of actual armed attack not merely against infiltration or subversion. He did not see how the UN charter could be invoked to justify an attack on North Vietnam’.

It appears from the record that Wilson did try to restrain Johnson from all-out attacks on North Vietnam at this time – ie, strikes that would go beyond the ‘measured’ attacks against strictly military targets. But he told him personally that ‘whatever measured response you take… we shall be backing that that too’ since ‘we have been extremely loyal allies on this matter’.

On 17 February 1965 the US ambassador in London, David Bruce, told Wilson that the US was planning not simply ‘tit-for-tat’ attacks on North Vietnam but ‘continuing air and naval action against North Vietnam whenever and wherever necessary’. The record of this conversation shows that Wilson raised some concerns about this change in US policy as going beyond the previous agreement with the US (ie, on only ‘measured’ attacks). He complained about the fact that the US was not at the same time putting forward any proposals for a political solution. However, Wilson concluded by saying that Britain ‘would, of course, have to support the United States without seeing any light at the end of the tunnel’. By mid-March Michael Stewart was noting that Britain was backing the US in its wider bombing campaign in the North ‘however much we dislike it’.

British support was clearly outlined in a Foreign Office brief in March. It said that:

‘Although from time to time we have expressed cautionary views in response to notifications of US plans for attacks against the North, we have at no stage opposed them. Our comments have been mostly on the timing or public presentation of the attacks…HMG… have at no stage opposed the policy being followed by the US but rather by suggesting minor changes in timing or presentation from time to time, have acquiesced in it’.

In parliamentary debates following the beginning of the US bombing of North Vietnam, Wilson refused to condemn US actions. Rather, he noted that ‘we fully support the action of the United States in resisting aggression in Vietnam’. This support continued after Britain had been privately informed by the US in April that attacks would take place against ‘economic and industrial targets’ as well as military targets, in a bombing campaign that would ‘continue without pause’ – ie, would go well beyond what Britain had hitherto promised to support.

After Wilson had fended off MPs’ questions on Vietnam and offered no criticism of US policy in Parliament on 9 March, Secretary of State Dean Rusk telephoned the British embassy in Washington saying that ‘he greatly appreciated the way in which the Prime Minister handled questions on Vietnam in the House today. He was most grateful’. By the time Wilson met Johnson in Washington in April, the US President ‘expressed very deep appreciation of the line we [Britain] had taken on Vietnam’. Britain’s ambassador in Washington had similarly told President Johnson that the US ‘was receiving staunch support from the British government’.

The bombing of North Vietnam was greatly welcomed by the British embassy in Saigon. Ambassador Etherington-Smith noted that the attacks were ‘a logical and inherently justifiable retort to’ North Vietnamese ‘aggression’. He said that ‘since the West had been losing the battle in the political and counter-subversive field, they should concentrate on the military sector in order to gain time’ – a further admission, in effect, of the moral bankruptcy of US/British policy and the resort to war to overcome it.

He also noted that the attacks had resulted in ‘a distinct feeling of relief and a noticeable, if temporary, relaxation of political tension’. The bombing had created a:

‘tonic effect both as a means of retaliation against Northern aggression, as an indication of increased American involvement and as offering hope of an early victory or at least an early end to the war’.

It was also a tonic in response to the ‘political and popular pressures’, mentioned above, that have ‘grown alarmingly in the past year’.

Our man in Saigon well understood what the eventual outcome of the US bombing might be. He was told by General Maxwell Taylor, the US ambassador to Vietnam, that if North Vietnam did not yield then ‘this would make things very simple, because Hanoi and the North would be destroyed’. Etherington-Smith’s support came despite the view of the consul general in Hanoi who said that the attacks ‘have, if anything, increased Northern determination to prosecute the war in defiance of the Americans’.

The bombing of North Vietnam continued against bridges, railways and road vehicles, power plants, harbour facilities, military barracks, supply depots, military radio stations and other economic and industrial targets. By mid-year the US was averaging 80-100 sorties a day, with 500 aircraft carrying 3,000-5,000 bomb loads, according to the British files. British officials were also informed by the US that these attacks were ‘being very gradually stepped up all the time and that this would continue’.

I found no opposition to this bombing, or any concern about the effect it might be having on people, anywhere in the government files. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of the casualties from the bombing of North Vietnam were civilians.

When the US first used its own aircraft in South Vietnam in March 1965, this was also welcomed by the British ambassador, who said that it had ‘beneficial effects’ both on the Vietnamese government and the ‘morale of the American pilots’. On 8 March the US landed 3,500 marines in South Vietnam which the Foreign Office said in private was ‘in contravention of Article 16 and 17 of the 1954 agreement, but we have not yet received any protests on the subject’ – therefore, best keep quiet. This illegal act was also welcomed by the British ambassador in Saigon who said it was ‘a logical continuation of the policy begun with the air strikes on North Vietnam’, a sign of the US ‘determination to step up their effort in Vietnam’.

Then, in June 1965, the US announced that US ground forces would now be going into combat on a routine basis – in effect, another significant escalation of US strategy, even though US troops were already regularly involved in combat. One Foreign Office official noted that:

‘I feel sure we should try to help the US administration, who have now been landed in some difficulty in handling the president’s announcement, by implying that the commitment of ground troops is mostly a matter of degree’.

Thus British officials passed to the US State Department a copy of their draft response to the US announcement. ‘I think the draft reply would be the best way of meeting the concern we can expect to be expressed in the House of Commons’, the official noted.

On 25 July 1965 Johnson wrote to Wilson saying that he was increasing the number of troops to possibly double that of the 80,000 already there. Wilson’s reply said that ‘I can assure you that Her Majesty’s Government are determined to persevere in their support for American policies which I believe to be in the interests of peace and stability’. He also boasted to Johnson that:

‘Our attitude has been of great benefit to the United States government in terms of international opinion, for our example has helped to restrain a number of European and Commonwealth countries from giving more vocal and forceful expression to their own apprehensions about the course of American policy in Vietnam’.

The parallel with Iraq in 2003 is again instructive.

Etherington-Smith in Saigon was extremely enthused about the new US commitments, noting that Johnson’s announcement had created a ‘more hopeful atmosphere’. It will provide the US ‘with a striking force of supremely well-equipped, highly air-mobile troops available for operations in any part of the country… to inflict heavy punishment on the Viet Cong’.

The Foreign Office said in September that ‘we are glad that the arrival of large American reinforcements has enabled so much progress to be made towards stabilising the military situation in South Vietnam’. It had ‘restored Vietnamese morale and enabled striking military successes to be achieved against the Viet Cong’.

The next major escalation was the direct bombing of North Vietnam’s two largest cities, Hanoi and Haiphong. In Hanoi there is a very moving museum that houses a photo exhibition of the ‘American war’ and contains pictures of the huge devastation wrought by US bombers on these two very poor cities. The museum’s simple photos are probably the most moving I have ever seen. I left the museum feeling disgusted at what the US had done, and I cannot pretend ever to have lost that feeling.

British officials consistently told the US that they could not publicly support US attacks against these cities, due to public opposition. They consistently told the US that if it decided to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong they would therefore publicly have to dissociate the British government from the strikes. What the files reveal is that when the US told Britain in June 1966 that it was indeed going to bomb the two cities, Britain connived with the US to continue to back it in private.

The files show that the British were at pains to minimise the effect of the British ‘disassociation’ from the US. One of Wilson’s advisers wrote that:

‘What we might do, when the bombing happens and you put out your statement, is to send a further short message to the President, saying that, as he knew, we could not avoid disassociating ourselves from this action, but that in doing so, we did our best to take account of the points he asked for; and that, as he knew, the statement implied no change in our policy of support for him generally over Vietnam’.

Thus the British passed the draft response to the US for approval. Wilson wrote to Johnson saying that:

‘Dean [Rusk, US Secretary of State] tells me that you understand why we must publicly disassociate ourselves and you know that it will not affect our general support… you have my personal sympathy in finding yourself confronted with such a choice’.

After Johnson informed Wilson that the US had decided to strike at oil installations in Hanoi and Haiphong, Wilson replied that he was grateful for the advance warning, and that he would have to publicly disassociate Britain from these actions. But he also added:

‘But I wish to assure you that, in this statement, we shall make it equally clear that we remain convinced that the United States government are right to continue to assist the South Vietnamese and that the onus for continuing the fighting and refusing a negotiation [sic] rests with Hanoi’.

The actual response made in public by the government came on 29 June, saying that it noted ‘with regret’ the attacks on targets ‘touching on the populated areas of Hanoi and Haiphong’ and that ‘we have made it clear on many occasions that we could not support an extension of the bombing to such areas, even though we were confident that the United States forces would take every precaution, as always, to avoid civilian casualties’. Then the statement reiterated that the US were right to ‘assist’ South Vietnam etc, as outlined above.

This statement is so full of qualifications that, together with the promises of ongoing support in private, was surely no more than a PR exercise to placate public opinion at home. Indeed, on the same day that Wilson delivered the statement, the US Vice President and Defence Secretary both met the British ambassador in Washington. The latter recorded that ‘both said that the Prime Minister’s position was well understood and indicated that there would be no hard feelings’.

Then Wilson wrote again to Johnson and in effect apologised for the British public, saying that since they were ‘physically remote from the problem’ and were ‘not suffering the tragedy of the losses which your people are suffering’, this ‘serves to increase the lack of understanding of my full support for your basic policy’. He then said ‘I cannot see that there is any change in your basic position that I could urge on you’ and that ‘I want you to realise that… we have differed in detail… but never in basic policy’. Where the British government has ‘had to express a different point of view’, ‘I must be quite frank in saying that this is the price I have to pay for being able to hold the line in our own country’. This is a very clear demonstration of the contempt for the public that elected ministers and officials have, consistently revealed throughout the secret files.

While this was going on, Wilson told Parliament that ‘in regard to bombing policy, we have made it clear that we would totally oppose any bombing involving Hanoi or Haiphong’. This was at least very misleading.
There is no evidence that I found that British ‘opposition’ to the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong was due to humanitarian concerns. Rather, the concern was that such a strategy would impede rather than help the US prosecution of the war. As an official in the British embassy in Washington put it, the New China News Agency would ‘no doubt flood the world with pictures of mangled babies in the maternity ward of a Hanoi hospital, which could do a great harm to the Americans’. He also argued that it might backfire on the US since the North Vietnamese government might simply retreat to the hills.

Britain continued to avoid engagement in a possible negotiated settlement to the war until it became clear that the US could not win it. The Foreign Office noted, for example, that in the discussions with the Americans in December 1964:

‘We did not then take the opportunity to recommend to the US government a policy of seeking negotiations on Indo-China. On the contrary, we promised qualified support to the American policy… of military pressure on North Vietnam aimed at winning the war rather than negotiating a settlement’.

The problem was that ‘in the present circumstances these [negotiations] could only lead to a settlement gravely adverse to Western interests and deeply humiliating to the United States’.

It was only by early 1965, by which time British ministers and officials realised the war was unwinnable, that they began even half-seriously to promote peace negotiations. They approached the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth and the countries involved in the Geneva Accords and essentially called for a settlement along the lines of the 1954 conference – free elections in South Vietnam, the neutralisation of North and South Vietnam with no foreign troops and no military alliances with others: that is, a settlement along the lines that London had previously rejected in favour of the chance of the US winning the war. North Vietnam had presented a four point programme by 1965 that called for the evacuation of US forces from South Vietnam, no US alliance with the latter, South Vietnam to accept the domestic programme of the National Liberation Front and an end to US aggression against South Vietnam.

The files make clear that Britain promoted negotiations not only to placate public opinion by wanting to be seen to be a peace-maker while it really backed the war; it also did this specifically in support of US military policy. A Foreign Office brief, for example, states that ‘British initiatives of this kind would complement American military pressure and make it much easier to justify to British public opinion our continued support for American policy in Vietnam’.

It was sometimes very frankly put. Thus the Foreign Office’s Edward Peck wrote to Etherington-Smith in Saigon that:

‘The government are fighting a continuous rearguard action to preserve British diplomatic support for American policy in Vietnam. They can only get away with this by constantly emphasising that our objective, and that of the Americans, is a negotiated settlement’.

Promoting negotiations for Britain meant enabling the US ‘to withdraw from Vietnam without major damage to American prestige’. The Foreign Office stated that ‘our efforts to promote negotiations must… proceed hand in hand with continued support for American policy’. The policy was to promote ‘a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to the Americans’.

By February 1965 British officials were being told that US embassy staff in Saigon no longer considered victory ‘but an improved negotiating position, to be the objective of military action against North Vietnam’. The British ambassador noted in the same month that ‘Johnson regarded action against the North as a prelude to eventual negotiation’.

This use of force to achieve a political goal is basically terrorism, and it was one promoted by the Wilson government. Foreign Office Minister Lord Walton, for example, noted in late 1964 that the US:

‘should step up military activities to the maximum of her powers during the next two to three months: at the same time the United Kingdom, as co-chairman should press for a reconvening of the Geneva conference’.

Thus when Wilson told Parliament in June 1965 that ‘the bombing of North Vietnam is not related to any attempt to try to persuade or force Hanoi to come to the conference table’, this is the opposite of what his officials were saying, and it is hard to believe this was not simply yet another lie.

Direct British support for the US military and Saigon governments continued although US requests in 1965 for Britain to openly send troops were rejected. The US desire was described by one Foreign Office official as: ‘what the President wants is for a few British soldiers to get killed in Vietnam alongside the Americans so that their photographs can appear in the American press’.

It is interesting that, in the British propaganda system, the customary (and usually only) reference to British policy in the Vietnam war is the Wilson government’s refusal to agree to US requests to openly deploy troops. This certainly infuriated President Johnson and it was a public rebuff to the US. Yet Britain did virtually everything else to back the US war, which is conveniently ignored.

BRIAM continued to train Vietnamese army and police officers in Malaya while the fiction was maintained that Britain was providing no military advice. In 1964/5, for example, 356 South Vietnamese were given ‘military training’ in Malaysia; it was agreed to increase this military training after requests from the US during the talks in December 1964. Indeed, the files show that the US paid an ‘allowance’ to BRIAM members who in 1967 came under US military command. The Foreign Office notes that ‘in order to maintain a publicly defensible position’ that BRIAM was not providing military training – ie, to lie – ‘HMG decided that the additional American payments’ were to be paid through the British embassy and not through individual contracts.

Officials from Britain’s Jungle Warfare School in Malaya also personally visited South Vietnam to give advice on ‘counter-insurgency’. Robert Thompson attended numerous meetings with US military officers and continued to advise the US and Vietnamese. However, in doing so he must, the Foreign Office noted, ‘be careful to make it clear that his military advice… is given in his personal capacity as an expert on these problems and not on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government’.

When Thompson requested taking US military officers in Vietnam to Borneo to show them British military operations, the Foreign Office told him that any Americans should ‘travel in plain clothes and no publicity would be given to their presence in Malaysia’. ‘We would regard this as a natural counterpart of the visits paid to Vietnam by various British serving officers’ who had been able to ‘see something of the conduct of operations in that country’. Observation visits to Vietnam by serving British personnel were ‘restricted on political advice to occasional short visits… with the minimum risk of publicity’.

British officials were keen to get serving military officers into Vietnam to observe US operations but were fearful of the publicity. Therefore, Defence Secretary Denis Healey suggested that the embassy in Saigon could be used as a cover and two new assistant defence attache posts were created. They began in January 1966 and were still there two years later. These were seen as ‘the only way of introducing extra British military personnel into Vietnam which could stand up to critical public comment in this country’, the Foreign Office noted.

When BRIAM was technically wound up, the British advisory mission was formally incorporated into the embassy. One BRIAM official, Dennis Duncanson, continued his work as advisor to the Saigon government on ‘information work and psychological warfare, for which he has a real talent’, one Foreign Office official noted. One problem was in finding a suitable cover for this role so an official hit on the idea of saying Duncanson was an ‘Aid Advisor’. Another official wrote that ‘the title of “aid advisor” is an inspiration, which will make it easier to defend this appointment if it is ever challenged in Parliament’.

Britain also provided arms to the US for use in Vietnam. Ministers debated in 1965-6 whether to impose general conditions on arms exports to the US for use in Vietnam and decided against. This was done in the knowledge that supplying such arms was a breach of the Geneva Agreements. In September 1965, for instance, the Foreign Office agreed to export 300 bombs intended for the US Air Force ‘for use in Vietnam’, saying that ‘there must be no publicity’ and that ‘delivery should be in the UK’. The previous month the Foreign Secretary had agreed to provide the US with 200 Saracen armoured personnel carriers for use in Vietnam ‘providing that delivery took place in Europe’ and that there was ‘no unavoidable publicity’.

Indeed, a specific public deception strategy was pursued. In June 1965, for example, the British government told the Americans that if they requested weapons specifically for use in Vietnam Britain would not be able to provide them, but if they just asked for the arms in a ‘general enquiry’ without mentioning Vietnam, then Britain would.

Wilson told Parliament in June 1967 that: ‘we believe that, in our position as co-chairman [of the Geneva Accords]… we should not be shipping arms directly for use in Vietnam’. This was the official position decided in early 1967 that allowed ‘non-lethal’ items to be exported to the US. It also allowed lethal items to be supplied, provided that delivery was not made before the end of 1967, then the British estimate of when the Vietnam war would end.

The non-lethal/lethal distinction – a Whitehall classic – was as fictional then as it is now. In May 1967, for example, Wilson approved the supply of ‘forgings and casings for various types of United States bombs and ammunition’ after being told that these bombs could possibly be for use in Vietnam. In June 1967 Britain also agreed to repair in Singapore Australian guns for use in Vietnam ‘provided we can be sure of no (no) publicity’. In September 1970, the Conservative government relaxed the restrictions further and bombs and helicopter-machine gun turrets were sold to Thailand while the Thais were engaged in air attacks on Cambodia and Laos.

The way out and British interests

The size of the US force in Vietnam rose to half a million by 1967 as the US deepened the war through the late 1960s, with mounting casualties. The size of this force meant that the US could not be militarily defeated but neither, it was openly recognised, could the war be won, largely owing to the lack of popular political support for the South Vietnamese government and Viet Cong success on the ground, notably the 1968 Tet (new year) offensive.

In South Vietnam in 1967, according to the British embassy in Saigon, ‘corruption was unchecked, the government showed no capacity to govern and the Viet Cong remained the country’s best-organised political force’. 25,000 political prisoners languished in South Vietnam’s jails. By 1970, British officials continued to recognise that the Thieu government, which they continued to back, was ‘still short on popular appeal’. After nearly five years in power Thieu had made ‘little progress… in building for his regime a base or organised political support’. Rather, the regime’s basic strategy was to repress popular, political forces – as well known to planners now, at the end of the decade, as it had been under Diem at the beginning.

US brutality increased through a deepening of ‘pacification’ and ‘Phoenix’ operations. ‘Pacification’ programmes such as Operation Speedy Express, to name but one, begun in early 1969, involved the devastating use of US firepower and caused thousands of civilian casualties. The Phoenix programme had began in earnest in mid-1968 and aimed at assassinating NLF cadres. Abuse and torture of prisoners repeatedly occurred and even the Saigon government stated that 40,000 civilians were killed under the programme. The slaughter of villagers at My Lai, which gained worldwide attention, was simply one of numerous massacres by US forces and its allies.

With the war unwinnable, US military strategy was to inflict sufficient violence on Vietnam to allow Washington as best an exit as possible to preserve prestige. In June 1969, President Nixon announced the first US troop withdrawal and said that all US combat troops would leave Vietnam by the end of 1972. The war was escalated – US troops invaded Cambodia in April 1970 and in 1972 the US inflicted devastating bombing on Hanoi and Haiphong as well as mining all North Vietnamese ports. In January 1973 a peace agreement was signed and the last US troops left in March, after which the US continued to provide huge military aid to the South Vietnam government. In April 1975, Communist forces entered Saigon.

As massive public protests took place throughout the US and Europe, Vietnam having become the greatest political issue of the times, British governments did not waver in their fundamental support of US strategy. Vice President Hubert Humphrey told Harold Wilson in April 1967 that ‘there were two Prime Ministers on whom he could really rely – those of United Kingdom and of Australia’. The files show ongoing appreciation by US officials of the support provided by Britain throughout the second half of the decade; these officials regularly contacted their British counterparts to, for example, give praise for performances in Parliament that fended off criticism of the US.

Britain’s new ambassador in Saigon, John Moreton, wrote in 1971 that due to Britain’s economic interests in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, ‘we must do all we can to help our closest ally, the United States, to extricate themselves with honor from their over-commitment’.

Of particular interest in this period are the secret files on planners’ views on the British interests now at stake. Basically, by the end of the decade British officials were desperate for a US withdrawal, as long as it was on US terms. A draft Foreign Office Planning Committee report of June 1968, for example, concluded that ‘it is very much in our interests that the United States should as soon as possible find a means of escape from her present involvement’ in Vietnam. The reason was British economic interests. Thus it was believed that US involvement in Vietnam was imposing ‘strains on the world monetary system’. This was due to a lack of confidence in the reserve currencies in the monetary system, one of the main reasons for which was the deficit in the US balance of payments caused by spending on the Vietnam war. A US withdrawal ‘would have a stimulating confidence effect on the dollar and in [sic] world trade, which should both directly benefit the UK balance of payments’. Since the existing monetary system was dependent largely on the willingness of the European countries to hold an increasing number of dollars in their reserves, a danger was that this would not continue indefinitely. This ‘could result in a major monetary crisis which would cause us major damage whatever its outcome’. Therefore, ‘on economic grounds alone a continuing United States involvement in South Vietnam would be highly unsatisfactory for British interests’.

However, this did not mean that the best outcome was simply a total withdrawal of US forces – the problem was the massive US operation in Vietnam, not its overall position in Southeast Asia, which was welcome. The Foreign Office concluded that the US balance of payments ‘can be put right without a total withdrawal’. It was believed that:

‘Britain’s economic interests would be promoted by a quick settlement in Vietnam only if it was a good settlement. A bad settlement would have as damaging an effect on the world financial situation as the prolongation of the present level of hostilities’.

The basic threat was not the one presented to the public – which was of Soviet or Chinese expansion. As a senior Foreign Office official recognised, if the US withdrew from Vietnam, the country ‘is unlikely to be Russian or Chinese dominated; but it would certainly be nationalist with a heavy list to the left and strongly opposed to the Anglo-Saxon West’. Rather, a total US withdrawal would encourage other countries in Southeast Asia ‘to come to terms with the Communists’. In this situation ‘our own interests, both trading and political, are likely to suffer’. At worst, ‘Western trade in Southeast Asia could be snuffed out’ while:

‘the trading advantages which we now enjoy in certain countries – notably Malaysia and Singapore but including also in lesser degree Thailand and Indonesia – might well be wiped out and we would have to start four-square with our major competitors in Europe and Japan’.

Therefore, ‘it will be important to try to hold the “danger line” north of Malaysia and Indonesia which are important as sources of raw materials as well as markets’. Given the danger of total US withdrawal, British interests therefore lay in ‘protracting these negotiations as much as possible’ if this outcome seemed likely.

Eighteen months later, in January 1970, the Foreign Office produced another brief. It warned again of the danger of a ‘precipitate’ US withdrawal, ie, an immediate withdrawal within a few months. A major danger of this would be the increase in the threat to ‘stability’ and ‘security’ ‘in influential circles’ in Southeast Asian countries. Also, such a withdrawal could have ‘a deeply humiliating effect on American feeling and a traumatic effect on American foreign policy’. British interests in the war concerned not only the effects on US foreign policy generally but ‘our substantial trade with and investment in the Southeast Asian arena’.

These are the important considerations, receiving considerable attention in the planning record, whereas the deaths of millions of people in the region, and what might be good for them, receive none at all that I could find. Indeed, the policy was starkly put by the Foreign Office’s Denis Murray, in February 1967, in one of the most revealing confirmations of the Vietnamese as Unpeople as one could find:

‘On the political level I must stress that Ministers are anxious to engage as little as possible in the House of Commons in discussions of casualties or damage in North Vietnam caused by American bombing; [sic] since to do so would immediately open the way for a general attack on US policy and on our support for it. This would oblige the Secretary of State, or the Prime Minister, in defending our general support for US policy to risk laying themselves open to charges of defending the results of this policy, eg casualties and damage to civilian property, that they deplore as much as anyone else…More generally, there is political danger and embarrassment in trying to define exactly what damage and casualties have occurred; any relaxation of the stonewalling would open the way to pressure to do so; and in any case I doubt if anyone…could give an accurate picture… For all these reasons, Ministers do not wish to reactivate interest, in this country, in our estimate of casualties and damage in North Vietnam’.

The US bombing of North Vietnam continued to elicit support from Ministers and Whitehall officials, the only variation being concerns about whether such bombing was ‘wise’ and likely to ‘succeed’. The only protests appeared to come from an official in the consulate in Hanoi, John Colvin, who wrote in May 1967 that the bombing was ‘unlikely to succeed’ and ‘may produce serious epidemics’ as well as being a ‘cruel and dishonourable tactic’. By this time, officials were noting that the US had flown 13,000 sorties in North Vietnam, an average of 250 a week.

By late 1968 Britain’s Air Attache in Saigon was noting that such bombing, which was being carried out over all of North Vietnam, was aimed at industrial targets, electrical power generating capacity and communications such as rail and roads. ‘On the credit side’ of this, he added, ‘the destruction of the North Vietnamese industrial plant and agricultural production has forced the Russians and to a much lesser extent the Chinese to make this good, as well as to supply the North Vietnamese with increasing quantities of weapons, military supplies and assistance of all kinds’.

A brief for the Prime Minister in October 1967, which was intended to help Wilson answer parliamentary questions,  suggested a reply saying: ‘I do not believe that there has been any change in the American policy of bombing only military targets in the North’. This was fiction since an MoD report two months previously had mentioned the US widening the number of targets in the North so that bombing was ‘increasingly directed toward [sic] interdiction or roads and railways serving Hanoi and Haiphong’. US bombing policy appeared to be ‘to provide a position of greater strength in the event of negotiations taking place’.

The British government was so keen not to protest against the US bombing in public that even when Britain’s own consulate was damaged in a US raid in November 1967, officials decided to bury the matter and not pursue compensation. The Foreign Office noted that ‘our aim is to keep the temperature down and we shall therefore not be giving any publicity to American regrets unless the question is raised in either the House or the press’. When proof was provided that it was indeed a US bomb that damaged the consulate, the Foreign Office stated that ‘we shall not make this public’.

When, in late 1971, British officials were expecting the US to renew their massive bombing of North Vietnam, a Foreign Office official wrote that if such attacks were launched the British government should say that they are consistent with declared US policy and are ‘protective reaction strikes’ in retaliation for US losses over recent days in Laos. In late December the US launched its heaviest attacks on North Vietnam for a year with a force of 200 fighter bombers. The British government reacted as intended, noted above. ‘Provided the raids are short and sharp there will be no too emotive reaction’ [sic], one Foreign Office official commented.

The US invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, a further widening of the war that met with massive public protests in the US, was firmly supported by British officials. Ambassador Moreton wrote that ‘leaving aside the political risks, I am now completely convinced of the soundness of the military arguments in favour of the decision’. He noted that this decision had been taken ‘to improve the chances of a negotiated settlement’ and to proceed with troop withdrawals. Britain’s ambassador in Cambodia noted that ‘this saves Cambodia from an immediate communist take-over but increases the long-term communist threat to the country’. This was no joke as within five years the Khmer Rouge, strengthened as a result of the US violence inflicted on Cambodia, emerged to enact their ‘year zero’, with terrifying consequences for the millions who died in the killing fields.

Edward Heath is remembered for taking Britain into the European Community; he should also be remembered for providing extreme apologias and support for the US violence of terror in Vietnam. Heath wrote to Nixon in July 1970:

‘I do not need to assure you that you have our fullest support in your search for peace in the area. We deeply admire the firmness and persistence which you have shown’.

This was in reply to Nixon’s letter attaching a report on the US troop withdrawal from Cambodia, which the US had invaded three months previously.

In December 1970, Heath told CBS television in the US that Nixon was carrying out ‘an honourable withdrawal. And in the process, if there is difficulty from North Vietnam, then he is bound to take action… And this, I think, is quite justifiable’. This was in reference to US bombing of North Vietnam undertaken to strengthen the US negotiating position as US forces withdrew from the region.

In April 1972, Nixon inflicted massive bombing on Hanoi and Haiphong while other cities were targeted and systematically destroyed. British officials well understood that this bombing was launched ‘to attempt to create a position of strength against which to negotiate’ by sending a signal to Moscow and Hanoi. It was therefore terrorism.

The government’s news department was instructed to say that the Nixon had all long ‘reserve[d] the right’ to bomb North Vietnam. On 17 April Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home defended the US bombing in Parliament which prompted US Secretary of State William Rodgers to phone him ‘to thank him very much’ and to say ‘it was very much appreciated in Washington’. Rodgers informed Douglas Home ‘how pleased the President was’.
The following month, May, Nixon told Heath that he had ordered the mining of North Vietnamese ports to effect a blockade. Heath replied: ‘I fully understand the range of problems caused for you by the flagrant invasion launched by Hanoi’, referring to an offensive into South Vietnam. Heath said there would be effects on shipping and ‘freedom of navigation’ but ‘we shall do our best to avoid adding to your difficulties’.

Britain backed the US to the last, throughout the various military escalations that inflicted increasing devastation on the Vietnamese people. It provided direct support to repressive and unpopular Vietnamese regimes and the US military, some of whose brutal ‘counter-insurgency’ programmes were based on initial British plans. It also engaged in covert action with US special forces and provided important secret intelligence that aided the US prosecution of the war. From the first days of the US intervention in 1961, planners in Whitehall strongly supported the war and obstructed a diplomatic outcome when it believed the US could win. When by mid-decade it became clear the US could not win, London wanted to be seen to be active in searching for a diplomatic solution, primarily as a way of placating public opinion at home and to secure a negotiated outcome on US terms only. As US violence reached unprecedented heights, Britain secretly reassured the US of its complete backing for the war while issuing the mildest criticism in public of some US actions, which were intended primarily to placate public opinion. Throughout, there was not even the pretence of concern for the victims.

This was part of the human cost of the Anglo-American special relationship in the 1960s and 1970s, by no means restricted to South-East Asia, and not a marginal issue today.

1 comment

  1. Steve says:

    Dear Mr. Curtis,

    I’m very fascinated about British-Covert-Actions-Articles you have published on this webpage.
    According to the article “The US war in Vietnam, 1961-73” it would be helpful to give the sources of citations you have made.

    Yours Steve

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