Even before the release of the Chilcot Report on 6th July 2016 the reputation of Tony Blair was tarnished by the controversies surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (2003-2009), his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and the flawed decision-making which took the UK into this conflict. One side-effect of Operation Telic is that it has contributed to the retrospective rehabilitation of another former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with particular reference to his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson is now praised for refusing to send British forces to fight in this conflict, and he has been held up as an example that Blair should have followed.
The comparisons between both conflicts and the leaders concerned are superficially attractive. Both involved Labour Prime Ministers who entered office comparatively young (in their late forties), on the back of electoral disaffection with a tired and discredited Conservative government, and both presented themselves as technocrats who were also down with the kids – Wilson gave the Beatles MBEs, Blair invited Noel Gallagher to No.10. Both faced a dilemma when a Texan President asked them to commit British troops to fight as part of a US-led alliance in a foreign conflict, and had to balance the strategic requirement to uphold the ‘special relationship’ with the political consequences of participating in a war condemned as illegitimate and unjust by a swathe of international opinion, not to mention the ranks of the Labour Party and a vocal anti-war movement.
At face value, Wilson made a significant – and, in the view of his latter-day defenders, brave – decision to refuse Lyndon Johnson’s requests for military support. The reality of the historical record is more complex.
Wilson was originally from the left of Labour, although by the time he became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had moved to the centre, and also selected a Shadow Cabinet from the ‘Atlanticist’ right of the party. During his first premiership (October 1964-June 1970) his two Chancellors (James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins), three Foreign Secretaries (Patrick Gordon-Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown) and Defence Secretary (Denis Healey) were right-wingers who were firmly – if not uncritically – pro-American. Nonetheless Wilson preserved his links with the Labour left via Cabinet colleagues like Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, and he was conscious that Vietnam was in issue which could fracture party unity. This became an increasingly greater problem as the war continued, and as the core of hard-left MPs were reinforced by more centrist colleagues who were appalled by the humanitarian suffering caused by the conflict, and feared that US escalation could provoke a disastrous war with China, and possibly the USSR too.
The Prime Minister was in a bind. The USA was not only Britain’s most important alliance partner, but was also providing financial assistance to prevent the devaluation of the pound. However, Wilson feared escalation, and also fretted over the fact that the conflict between the USA and North Vietnam undermined his efforts to promote improved Anglo-Soviet relations. Wilson did also share the humanitarian concerns of many Labour MPs over the war’s death toll, and had a genuine (if inflated) conviction that it was his role to play peacemaker. As a result, the Labour leader presented the Johnson administration with the following compromise.
Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Britain would not commit a contingent to fight in South Vietnam; officially because the UK was overstretched in the low-level war (or ‘confrontation’) with Indonesia over Borneo, and also because as co-chair of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina it was obliged to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam. But unlike the French President Charles de Gaulle Wilson resisted appeals from Labour backbenchers to condemn US policy in Indochina, offering diplomatic backing for the American war effort, repeatedly declaring that Washington DC was fully justified in supporting the Saigon regime. In essence, British policy on Vietnam was to prove Johnson with all support short of troops.
The Chilcot hearings and the report show that in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was vociferous support – not just in Cabinet but also within the Chiefs of Staff (COS) and also the intelligence services – for a British contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In contrast, Wilson’s compromise over Vietnam was essentially unchallenged in Whitehall. Although Cabinet colleagues like Stewart were prepared to publicly defend US policy, Cabinet Ministers, the Foreign Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the COS alike were collectively unwilling to commit British soldiers to a fight with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. The British armed forces were after all already overstretched by their NATO commitments, and also the ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) and the fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden and South Arabia (1962-1967).
So even if Cabinet colleagues (notably the ever resentful and occasionally well-lubricated Brown) and Foreign Office diplomats were critical of Wilson’s posturing over peace proposals, the policy of non-involvement was never contested. The UK did find discreet means of assisting the US war effort – soldiers from the British Special Air Service on secondment with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts apparently did see combat in South Vietnam – but the idea of even a token overt commitment to the conflict (the ‘platoon of Highlanders with bagpipes’, as LBJ put it) was never seriously mooted in Whitehall.
Wilson hoped that his compromise would satisfy LBJ and the Labour left. It did neither. Johnson and his officials were privately contemptuous of the British Prime Minister, and regarded his repeated engagement with peace initiatives with ill-concealed scorn. Responding to one request for a summit meeting, LBJ replied (with typical profanity) ‘[we] have got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me’. Meanwhile, Wilson himself faced a barrage of invective and fury from anti-war activists, backbench MPs and press critics which was as vitriolic as that which Blair received forty years later. In April 1965 the satirical journal Private Eye printed a front page cartoon by Gerald Scarfe showing Wilson applying his tongue to Johnson’s rear – an image which makes the more recent renditions of Blair as Bush’s lapdog look tame. Wilson also faced public displays of hostility which at times descended into violence. After one visit to Cambridge in October 1967 the Prime Minister was mobbed in his car by protesters who called him a ‘right-wing bastard’ and a ‘Vietnam murderer’, and he had to be rescued by police.
Wilson received little if any contemporary praise for keeping British boys out of the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, or for trying to get the US and North Vietnamese to the conference table. Domestic opponents of the war saw him as a hypocrite who facilitated American imperialism and war crimes against a small and weak South-East Asian country. The US President and his inner circle for their part despised him, regarding him as a faithless ally who had failed to come to their aid. This sentiment was expressed by the habitually Anglophile Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, during the last months of Johnson’s presidency, when he shouted at one Times journalist ‘[when] the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!’
After Chilcot, and with the memory of 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, it is difficult to see how Blair could get the same revisionist reappraisal that Wilson received after his death. Nonetheless, any historian who has studied the Prime Minister depicted as the ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ will find it ironic that Wilson is being presented as the model that Blair should have followed with respect to Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war. For in the eyes of his contemporary critics, Wilson was as discredited and as compromised over Vietnam as ‘Bush’s poodle’ is now.
Images: Harold Wilson at a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Tony Blair at the 50th Munich Security Conference, 31st January 2014; photograph taken by Marc Müller, both via wikimedia commons.