Britain’s secret role in the brutal US war in Vietnam

by Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 16 November 2022

There is a myth the UK did not support Washington’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, Labour and Conservative governments backed every phase of US military escalation and played secret roles in the conflict, declassified files show.

  • UK sent SAS team to Vietnam in 1962, flew secret RAF missions to deliver arms, and provided intelligence to US 
  • UK governments lied to parliament they were not providing military advice to South Vietnam’s brutal regime
  • Labour government secretly gave arms to US for use in Vietnam, stressing need for “no publicity”
  • It also connived with Washington to deceive UK public over its support for US
  • UK governments knew of atrocities against civilians but backed US war aims
  • Whitehall only started to advocate a peaceful solution, on US terms, once the war became unwinnable

During its war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s the US dropped more bombs than in the whole of World War Two, in a conflict that killed over two million people. The wholesale destruction of villages and killing of innocent people was a permanent feature of the US war from the beginning, along with widespread indiscriminate bombing.

Britain’s role in the war has been largely buried and must be almost completely unknown to the public. When the UK media mentions the war now, reports often simply reference the refusal by Harold Wilson’s government to agree to US requests to openly deploy British troops. 

Although this was certainly a public rebuff to Washington, Britain did virtually everything else to back the US war over more than a decade, the declassified documents show.

Popular revolution

After France was defeated in 1954 in its eight-year attempt to reconquer Vietnam, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam between North and South, with the northern half of the country 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, land reform to benefit the rural poor, the overthrow of the US-backed regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and abolition of the US bases in the South.

Land reform lay at the root of the war. The Viet Minh movement redistributed huge areas of land under its control to previously landless peasants but by 1961 hundreds of thousands of hectares 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 by the early 1960s Communist Party members began to take over many villages in the South, mobilising people and calling for land for the peasants.

The major concern in Washington was fear that the incipient communist revolution in Vietnam would spread, threatening US security and business interests in the region. 

British planners recognised the liberation movement in the South was far more popular than the Diem regime. It was also understood by early 1962 that the Viet Minh were in control of the “majority of villages in South Vietnam” and were winning “the battle for minds of the peasantry”.

The Foreign Office said in July 1961 the Diem regime was “a clumsy and heavy-handed dictatorship which is conspicuously lacking in popular appeal”. It was also “absolutely dependent upon the Americans for survival”. 

Yet, “we are committed to backing Diem to the end”, the British embassy noted, also in July 1961. By then, some 66,000 people had been killed by the regime since 1957. 

Britain’s major interest was not only to support its key ally; it also feared 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”.

But as for whether the Soviet Union and China were behind the uprising in South Vietnam, the Foreign Office noted in June 1962 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”.

Support for US intervention

The first major US intervention was in November 1961 when the Kennedy administration sent helicopters, light aircraft, intelligence equipment and additional advisers to the South Vietnamese army. Soon after this the US air force began combat missions.

“The [US] administration can count on our general support in the measures they are taking”, British foreign secretary Alec Douglas Home said. It was understood in various memos by UK ministers and officials that this intervention violated the 1954 Geneva Accords which put limits on the number of US military forces acceptable in Vietnam and which was now being broken.

The UK had a particular responsibility to uphold the Accords 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.

If the British had acted at this stage as guarantor of the Geneva Agreements, it is possible they might have prevented or reduced US intervention. Whitehall could have at least made it more difficult for Washington by stressing the stipulations in the accords for elections and limits on military involvement.

Indiscriminate bombing

Throughout 1962 and 1963 the US poured money and military equipment into South Vietnam while US ‘advisers’ “daily accompanied the Vietnamese forces into battle”, British ambassador in Vietnam, Harry 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 and “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.

UK officials were perfectly aware of what was happening to ordinary Vietnamese. In December 1962, for example, Ambassador Hohler noted 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 was “grist to the mill of local communist propaganda”.

Agent Orange

January 1962 is the first mention in the British files that I found 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”, adding that “we believe that these chemicals are a legitimate weapon” to destroy the insurgents’ cover.

He noted that the Soviet government had asked the International Control Commission (ICC) of the Geneva Accords to mount an investigation. But UK official Warner said this was simply a matter for the ICC, not Britain, again protecting Washington.

Over a nine-year period beginning in late 1961, 20% of Vietnam’s jungles and 36% of its mangrove swamps were sprayed with defoliants 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 was confirmed by 1967 but never affected policy.

Deception over military support

British aid to Diem’s regime was formally provided in the British Advisory Administrative Mission (BRIAM), which was agreed in July 1961 and began work in Saigon two months later. A small team of experts in ‘counter-subversion’, intelligence and ‘information’ was dispatched, with its activities 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.

Whitehall’s claim that BRIAM had a purely civilian (and not military) role, maintained in various parliamentary answers and debates, was false. The very memo proposing the establishment of BRIAM says that training was to be provided “over the whole counter-insurgency field”.

Hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers were trained in ‘counter-insurgency’ in Malaya in the 1960s while the fiction was maintained that Britain was providing no military advice. By August 1963 the Diem regime was described as “most appreciative of the type of training and of the assistance” provided by the British.

The files show 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, “HMG decided that the additional American payments” were to be paid through the British embassy and not individual contracts.

Officials from Britain’s Jungle Warfare School in Malaya 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”.

British officials were keen to get serving military officers into Vietnam to observe US operations but were fearful of the publicity. Therefore, Labour defence secretary Denis Healey suggested the embassy in Saigon could be used as a cover and two new assistant defence attaché posts were created in January 1966.

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 later technically wound up, it 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”, acting under the cover of an ‘Aid Advisor’.

Boots on the ground

The British government has never admitted British forces fought in Vietnam, yet the files suggest that they did, even though several remain censored. 

In August 1962, the Military Attaché in Saigon, Colonel Lee, wrote to the War Office in London attaching a report by someone whose name is censored but who is described as 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 wrote that: “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”.

Lee further noted that “the Americans are crying out for expert assistance in this field and are extremely enthusiastic that [redacted] 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” was a reference to the Montagnards in the highlands of the central provinces of Vietnam. Lee recommended that secret British forces should “be grafted onto the American effort in the field”, with the military element drawn from the SAS. 

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. 

Other covert aid provided by Britain included secret UK air flights from its colony of Hong Kong to deliver arms, especially napalm and 500lb bombs. The Royal Air Force also flew secret missions over Laos in 1962, helping to close off the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’, a key logistics route that supplied North Vietnamese forces. 

Britain forwarded 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.


Another major British contribution to the war was Robert Thompson’s counter-insurgency programmes, based on 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”. The following year, 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 Mekong delta region. The proposal involved establishing curfews and prohibited areas to control movement on 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”. 

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 ‘strategic hamlets’ programme began in late 1961 and became national policy in April 1962, operating all over the country. It involved constructing fortifications that were often little different from concentration camps. 

Peasants were ordered to abandon their homes and land for new sites in often distant locations, while the cash and building materials they were allocated were inadequate. None of these programmes addressed land redistribution, which explained the ongoing popularity of the NLF.

The end of this first period of the war is marked by the overthrow of the Diem regime in a military coup in November 1963. By September of that year, Britain’s 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 coup 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”.

Military escalation, British backing

After Diem, Vietnam was ruled by a succession of repressive military-controlled governments while the favoured method of controlling the South Vietnamese countryside moved from ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘pacification’.

This was “the most important aspect of the anti-communist struggle”, according to Britain’s new ambassador Gordon Etherington-Smith, who supported ‘pacification’ and was keen to offer the US “expert advice” in this field.

A conservative estimate is that under ‘pacification’ at least half of the rural population, millions of people, was pushed into refugee camps or urban settings one or more times, many repeatedly.

Douglas Home, now prime minister, stated in March 1964 that in recent talks with President Lyndon 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 stated that the UK’s direct involvement in Vietnam was 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 in danger and defeat “would damage America’s standing all over the world”.

Labour support for Washington

After Harold Wilson became prime minister in October 1964, the declassified files show the degree of secret support Wilson gave President Lyndon Johnson, at every stage of escalation. This was proffered behind the scenes since British public opposition to the war was widespread.

In February 1965, the US took the war into a devastating new phase by beginning the bombing of North Vietnam in its ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaign. The files show 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, Wilson’s foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, informed the embassy in Washington of the “military necessity of the action” and told Wilson “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, Wilson’s private secretary, Joe Wright, noted that “for presentational reasons… it was highly desirable that the prime minister should be seen to be consulting the Americans”.

Whitehall knew US strikes on North Vietnam were illegal. In discussions with the US in 1964, then British foreign secretary Richard Butler had privately said that he “did not see how the UN charter could be invoked to justify an attack on North Vietnam”.

‘Extremely loyal allies’

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 ‘measured’ attacks against strictly military targets. Wilson told Johnson personally that “whatever measured response you take… we shall be backing that too” since “we have been extremely loyal allies on this matter”.

In parliamentary debates following the beginning of the US bombing of North Vietnam, Wilson refused to condemn Washington’s actions. Rather, he noted that “we fully support the action of the United States in resisting aggression in Vietnam”.

After Wilson fended off MPs’ questions on Vietnam and offered no criticism of US policy in parliament on 9 March, US 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”. 

This support continued as Britain was informed by the US that attacks would take place against “economic and industrial targets” as well as military targets, in a bombing campaign that would “continue without pause”. 

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”.

The attacks were against bridges, railways and road vehicles, power plants, harbour facilities, military barracks, supply depots, military radio stations and other civilian 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.

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

US air attacks

When the US first used its own aircraft, instead of Vietnamese, in South Vietnam in March 1965, this was also welcomed by the British ambassador, who said that it had “beneficial effects” on the Vietnamese government and the “morale of the American pilots”.

On 8 March 1965 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 American ground forces would be going into combat on a routine basis – another 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”.

On 25 July 1965 Johnson wrote to Wilson saying 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 UK support to Washington “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”.

Bombing Hanoi and Haiphong

The next major escalation was the bombing of North Vietnam’s two largest cities, Hanoi and Haiphong in 1966.

British officials consistently told the US they could not publicly support such US attacks, due to public opposition. They said that if Washington decided to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong they would publicly have to dissociate the British government from the strikes.

Yet the files reveal that when the US told Britain in June 1966 that it was indeed going to bomb the two cities, Britain connived with Washington to continue to back it in private.

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. 

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”.

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.

Deception over arms for the US

The Wilson government also provided arms to the US for use in Vietnam. Ministers debated in 1965-6 whether to impose conditions on such arms exports and decided against. This was done in the knowledge that the supplies were 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, the British government told the Americans that if they requested weapons specifically for use in Vietnam the UK 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.

Peace is war

It was only in 1965, by which time British ministers and officials realised the US war was unwinnable, that they began even half-seriously to promote peace negotiations.

Britain then approached the Soviet Union and other countries involved in the Geneva Accords and essentially called for a settlement along the lines of the 1954 conference. This included free elections in South Vietnam and the neutralisation of North and South Vietnam with no foreign troops, in a settlement that was along the lines that London had previously rejected in favour of the chance of the US winning the war.

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. 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”.

British interests

US brutality increased still further during the late 1960s through deepening ‘pacification’ and ‘Phoenix’ operations. The Phoenix programme 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 one of numerous massacres by US forces and its allies.

As massive public protests against the war took place in the US and Europe, British governments hardly wavered in their support of US strategy. US vice president Hubert Humphrey told Harold Wilson in April 1967 that “there were two prime ministers on whom he could really rely – those of the 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 praise their performances in parliament that fended off criticism of Washington.

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 its prestige. In June 1969, President Nixon announced the first US troop withdrawal and said all US combat troops would leave Vietnam by the end of 1972.

But the war was again escalated – US troops invaded Cambodia in April 1970 and in 1972 Washington inflicted devastating bombing on Hanoi and Haiphong and mined North Vietnamese ports.

In January 1970, a Foreign Office brief warned again of the danger of a “precipitate” US withdrawal within a few months. This would increase the threat to “stability” and “security” in “influential circles” in Southeast Asia and could have “a deeply humiliating effect on American feeling and a traumatic effect on American foreign policy”. 

British interests remained concerned not only with the effects on US foreign policy but “our substantial trade with and investment in the Southeast Asian arena”.

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

These were 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, received none at all that I could find. 

Indeed, the policy was starkly put by the Foreign Office’s Denis Murray, in February 1967. He wrote 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…  since to do so would immediately open the way for a general attack on US policy and on our support for it”. 

“This would”, he continued, “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”.

He added: “Ministers do not wish to reactivate interest, in this country, in our estimate of casualties and damage in North Vietnam’.

No publicity

The British government was so keen not to protest against the US bombing in public that even when the UK’s own consulate in Hanoi 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”.

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. 

The following month, UK 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 wrote 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.

Heath and Nixon

New prime minister Edward Heath wrote to President 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 recently invaded.

In December 1970, Heath told CBS television in the US that Nixon was carrying out “an honourable withdrawal” and that the bombing of North Vietnam undertaken to strengthen the US negotiating position was “quite justifiable”. 

Nixon inflicted massive bombing on Hanoi and Haiphong in April 1972 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 an act of terrorism.

On 17 April 1972 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”. 

The following month, Nixon told Heath 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 its 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”.

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.

This is an updated, edited extract from Mark Curtis’ book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, which includes the full sources.