British imperialism in Vietnam

Many people, including much of the Left, believe that British troops did not fight in Vietnam and that Britain gave the US political, but not military, support. For instance, Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party in Socialism Today (November/December 2003), comparing Prime Minister Wilson to Blair, claims that Britain did not send troops to Vietnam and that Wilson played the role of peacemaker. The Communist Party of Great Britain made a similar point in the Weekly Worker on 15 March 2001. This is a myth. Britain fully supported the US in Vietnam and even had troops there. Thomas Atkins examines the evidence.

On 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh proclaimed Vietnam independent on behalf of its people. The Japanese occupation and Vichy French colonial troops had been disarmed. France, the pre-war colonial power, was in no position to intervene. Britain sent its 20th India Division to occupy Vietnam on behalf of the French. They rearmed the fascist Japanese and Vichy troops and re-imposed French rule.

In 1946 the British withdrew and the Viet Minh began a liberation war against France. France was defeated on 7 May 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. Under the 1954 Geneva Accords the French then pulled out and the country was divided at the 17th Parallel. By 1956 the north had established a socialist state, whilst the south was ruled by corrupt despotism.
Britain and the Soviet Union were co-chairs of the Geneva Accords. An international control commission set up to police the settlement made it illegal for Britain to play any role in the war.

Diplomatic support
The word diplomacy comes from the ancient Greek for ‘two-faced’ – an accurate description of the ‘diplomatic’ support given by both the Tories and Wilson’s Labour government for US policy in Indo-China. In February 1965 the US began its ‘Rolling Thunder’ bombing campaign of North Vietnam. Britain promised ‘unequivocal support’. Just two days after the attacks began Labour Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart told the British Embassy in Washington of the ‘military necessity of the action.’ He informed Wilson ‘I was particularly anxious not to...appear critical of the US government.’

In June 1966 the US began to target civilians in North Vietnam. Protests in Britain forced the government to publicly disassociate itself from US actions. However, privately Wilson assured President Johnson of his continued support.
In June 1965 US National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy was impressed by ‘the overall strength and skill of Wilson’s defence of our policy in Vietnam and his mastery of his own left wing in the process... [British support] has been of real value internationally – and perhaps of even more value in limiting the howls of our own liberals.’

That year prominent Labour Party member philosopher Bertrand Russell resigned from the Labour Party after 51 years over Vietnam and Labour’s ‘shameful betrayal’. In contrast Tony Benn – still a Labour Party member today despite his professed opposition to the war in Iraq – joined the Labour government as a minister and kept his mouth shut in conformity with the principle of ‘Cabinet collective responsibility’.

The GCHQ station in Hong Kong monitored Hanoi’s military radio traffic and passed it on to the US. MI6 operating from the British embassy passed on information about bomb damage, surface-to-air missile sites etc. (See Stephen Dorrell, MI6: 50 years of Special Operations).

Logistics and material
Declassified documents now prove that the Wilson government illegally supplied the US with arms including, in 1966, 300 bombs and 200 armoured personnel carriers.

The Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell provided the US armed forces with fuel throughout the war. The British crews of the British-registered Shell tankers were paid a war bonus. In the 2001 Discovery TV documentary The authorised history of the Royal Air Force, Captain David Green of the RAF claimed to have been a Beverley transport pilot based at Nui Dat because the US did not have military transport aircraft capable of landing on short airstrips hacked out of the jungle. Throughout the war the RAF supplied US troops from RAF Buttersworth in Malaya and from Hong Kong.

In September 1961, Tory Prime Minister Macmillan appointed Brigadier Sir Robert Thompson as head of the British Advisory Mission Vietnam (BRIAM). Both Tory and Labour administrations claimed that BRIAM was a civilian advisory team. It was nothing of the kind. During the 1950s, in Malaya, Thompson was involved in developing a strategy to put down a communist-led liberation movement. They brought the rural population into fortified villages, cutting them off from the freedom fighters, and imposed collective punishments. Massive areas of the countryside were declared ‘free-fire zones.’ The British used head hunters as mercenaries and tortured prisoners. Thompson brought this strategy to Vietnam where it developed into the infamous Strategic Hamlets programme. BRIAM also trained US and South Vietnamese troops at the British Army jungle warfare school in Malaya. From 1962 to 1963, over 300 South Vietnamese troops were trained.

In summer 1962 Britain mounted a military expedition into Vietnam commanded by Colonel Richard Noone. Noone, an MI6 officer and special forces soldier, was involved in using Malayan and Burmese Defence Force soldiers and mercenaries who spoke the same dialect as some Vietnamese tribes, to act as interpreters between US special forces and South Vietnamese troops and fight against the liberation forces. This was in violation of the Geneva Accords.

There is evidence that British specialist troops and special forces served in Vietnam. Websites for British veterans reveal that over 70 campaign service medal Vietnam clasps were issued to British troops. The recipient would have had to serve at least 28 days in the theatre of operations. The US Library of Congress records that on 18 January 1964 a US Army Huey helicopter attacking enemy positions crashed into the South China Sea. Two crewmen were rescued and two posted as missing in action, but Wing Commander Allan H Lee RAF was posted as killed in action.

On 28 July 1965 Bundy did propose to President Johnson that Britain be paid a billion dollars for a brigade in Vietnam. Johnson rejected the idea, but is alleged to have quipped to Wilson ‘At least give me a bagpipe band.’ The evidence shows that Britain had already provided a great deal more.

FRFI 196 April / May 2007


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