During the latter part of 1967 and the first few months of 1968, the Labour Government took bold steps to re-evaluate certain aspects of British foreign and domestic policy. Not only was the Government re-considering the level of Britain’s foreign military commitments, it was also desperately attempting to remedy a financial crisis in which the decision was, eventually, taken to de-value the pound. Indeed, a substantial amount of primary evidence is available in files recently released at the Public Records Office in Kew, prompting, perhaps, further investigation into the British Government’s economic decision making process immediately before the devaluation of sterling in 1967, and up to the debates on post-devaluation measures and defense expenditure in early 1968. With regards to British military commitment overseas, Jeffrey Pickering, in particular, has provided a comprehensive discussion and analysis on the factors that constituted Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez, announced by the Government on 16th
Pickering concludes that, from this point forward, “Britain became principally a European rather than a global power.”
The decision to reduce a significant number of Britain’s overseas forces was part of a program to help initiate a concerted effort towards British integration with the European continent. On the February 27th, 1968, Cabinet level discussions stated that Britain “should [now] aim to become part of a more cohesive Western Europe, which would provide a power structure able to exert worldwide influence in defense of its interests.”
A premise of this study is that part of the reasoning behind the reconsideration of British foreign affairs was due to the events that took place in Vietnam between October 1967 and March 1968. General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the North Vietnamese military forces, initiated a ‘general offensive/general uprising’ in a bid to deal the United States “thundering blows so as to change the face of the war, further shake the aggressive will of US imperialism, [and] compel it to change its strategy and de-escalate the war.”
President Johnson did declare an American policy of de-escalation, and, to some extent, it is possible to connect the North Vietnamese offensive to the changes in British policy and attitudes around 1967-68. Both devaluation and the withdrawal east of Suez were to have an affect on Anglo-American relations, and, with the conclusion of the Tet Offensive, Britain found itself relinquishing a considerable amount of global authority and a substantial degree of influence in its perceived mediatory role in the Vietnam War.
It is a purpose of this study to describe the nature of the Labour Government’s response to the American War in Vietnam from 1967 up until President Johnson’s declaration to de-escalate hostilities, in March 1968. In particular, a principal consideration will be to focus on British concerns during the events that led up to the Tet Offensive, its duration and concluding stages. The nature of the North Vietnamese offensive has provided a substantial amount of information regarding the opinions and thoughts that emanated from the British Embassy in Saigon during the period in question, chiefly from dispatches and letters sent to the Foreign Office before, during and after the conclusion of the major hostilities. Additional comments and perspectives at Cabinet level help illustrate the nature of the Government’s attitude towards the war in South-East Asia, and, in part, this essay will refer to the historiographical themes attributed to British involvement in the Vietnam War. While in opposition, Harold Wilson had openly criticized the United States policy in Vietnam, but the Prime Minister’s disposition and guiding principles would change once elected to a position of political authority. The historical debate on Wilson’s policy toward the Vietnam War has generally centered on the extent to which Britain provided aid to the United States, the mediation and peace initiatives engaged in by the Prime Minister, and the various ways in which Wilson avoided the commitment of British troops to the conflict. For example, these topics have recently been considered by John W. Young in Britain and ‘LBJ’s War,’ 1964-68 (April 2002), Sylvia A. Ellis: Lyndon Johnson, Harold Wilson and the Vietnam War: A Not So Special Relationship? (2001), John Dumbrell and Sylvia Ellis: British Involvement in Vietnam Peace Initiatives, 1966-1967 (January 2003), and John Dumbrell, War: A Special Relationship, Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After, Chapter 7-Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf (2001).
It is not the aim of this work to re-examine or test the merits of expositions put forth by historians of British foreign policy and its attitudes toward Vietnam, however, it is possible to build upon previous investigation and add a touch of detail gained from research into some of the sources made available to the general public since 1999. By consulting the primary sources accessible at the Public Records Office, in particular, the Prime Minister’s Private Office papers, Foreign and Commonwealth Office files, and Cabinet records from 1967 to mid 1968, it is possible to provide a picture of the Labour Government’s political position on the Vietnam War for the period. The nature of the primary sources utilized in this study, therefore, constitutes, for the most part, an Anglo-centric view of the time scale in question. The information contained in the sources provides an indication of the Government’s concerns regarding Britain’s world status and the financial difficulties the country was facing at the time. Not only did the Vietnam War have an impact on the political integrity of the Commonwealth and British domestic stability,
perhaps more notably in contemporary British political circles, as well as regarding the historical investigation of Anglo-American associations, the war influenced the nature of the supposed ‘special relationship.’ Although by no means an exhaustive study on Anglo-American relations, it is possible to include an analysis of the political and personal attitudes within the Government regarding the contemporary relationship with the United States, principally with reference to Harold Wilson’s attitudes towards the American administration.
Anglo-American Relations and the Balance of Power
On coming to power in 1964, Wilson may have remembered Dean Acheson’s speech from 1962 in which the American Secretary of State remarked that Great Britain had lost an Empire and had yet to find a role.
The Prime Minister may not have been influenced directly by Acheson’s comment, but, at times, Harold Wilson is portrayed as a stubborn individual obsessively hanging onto a belief that Britain should remain a grand world power.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister drew a favorable judgment from some of his contemporaries. James Callaghan later described Wilson as “a fighter who never lacked courage when his back was to the wall,”
equally impartial, Callaghan observed Lyndon Baines Johnson as “so huge a personality…and despite his faults, a very warm-hearted and human man.”
Even so, one author suggests rather damningly that President Johnson sometimes came over “like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and John Wayne.”
Apparently, the two transatlantic leaders shared a sense of equally undesirable and admirable character traits, often at odds with each other and with a tendency to conflict over important political issues. Anglo-American relations might be viewed in the period as arguably representative of the tension in Wilson and Johnson’s personal interaction, similar to that which characterized the more amiable nature of the wartime relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill. However, it was in Wilson’s interest to play down the connotations of a ‘special relationship’ with the United States in order to safeguard and promote Britain’s position as a mediator in the Vietnam War. By alluding to the idea of a special relationship, Wilson may have faced increased pressure to concede to a certain degree of American expectations, but Wilson refused consistently to entertain the Churchillian philosophy of an Anglo-American affiliation. The Prime Minister preferred instead to maintain a ‘close relationship’ based on “a common purpose, common objectives, and, as far as can be achieved, community of policy. A relationship based not on condescension or on a backward looking nostalgia for the past, but on the ability of both parties to put forth their strength and their own unique contribution to our common purpose.”
Sylvia Ellis has argued that Anglo-American relations in this period reflected what she describes as the ‘not so special relationship’ between Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson. In Ellis’s opinion, the Anglo-American alliance was ‘weakened substantially’ during the 1960’s, a decline epitomized by the “frosty or, at best, cool relationship between Wilson and Johnson.”
 John Baylis shares a similar sentiment and describes the Wilson-Johnson relationship as one of ‘antagonism and animosity.’
Nevertheless, despite the political antipathy between the two men, Ellis concludes, “no country’s verbal support was more important than the United Kingdom’s. Not only was Britain the United State’s closest ally…it was also a leading social democratic nation whose example was important, not least to the Commonwealth nations and in American liberal circles.”
In 1965, McGeorge Bundy informed the President that support from the Labour Government was “not only harder to get, but somewhat more valuable in international terms.”
Furthermore, at times, Johnson found moments to be supportive, if not politically courteous towards Wilson, verified by a personal telegram in October 1967 from the President to the Prime Minister in which Johnson implicitly referred to the war in Vietnam. As an appreciative gesture, the President wrote, “I think you understand how much it matters that the Government of the country which means most to me, aside from my own, is lending its support for what we all know is right, despite the storms around us.”
David Bruce, the American Ambassador in London observed that conversations between the two transatlantic leaders were “lengthy, [but] marked by the utmost courtesy.”
In a conversation with the British Ambassador to the United States, President Johnson reminded Patrick Dean that the American people “owed an incalculable debt to the British for the time when they stood steadfast and virtually alone against the scourge of Hitler.”
Summing up eloquently the state of affairs regarding Anglo-American relations during the Vietnam War, Lord Paul Gore-Booth, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office reflected upon the nature of the ‘special relationship’ while he was in office. There was, he said, “a natural closeness of cooperation between people in the American administration and in the machine in the State Department, and people doing the same sort of thing in Britain,” adding that “President Johnson entirely understood Mr. Wilson’s domestic difficulties,” and was “grateful that…we at least didn’t get pushed over emotionally into an officially anti-American attitude.” In Gore-Booth’s opinion, when the American military entered Vietnam, the United States did not expect Britain to do the same, but added, “I have no doubt they’d have been delighted if we did.”
Nonetheless, despite Johnson’s sometimes heated requests, Wilson resisted all American pressure to commit ground troops to the war, and, in the six months leading up to the Tet Offensive, Britain continued to pursue a policy of peaceful conclusion to the Vietnam War. However, Britain’s role in the world and Indochina drew opinions in some quarters of North Vietnam that displayed little sympathy for the United Kingdom’s predicament. In mid 1967, observations from the British-Consulate General in Hanoi noted that there was no change in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s basic attitude towards Great Britain, and as an example, the report mentioned a particular ‘snide and ungracious assault on Her Majesty’s Government.’ It was claimed that an article printed in the ‘Peoples Daily’ in July 1967 referred to British imperialism as “an old lion who has not enough strength to guard his few remaining interests. His shaky teeth are in the process of gradually falling out.” Moreover, the article claimed with reference to the recent British Government defense white paper and the proposed withdrawal of British forces in the Far East, that Britain’s decline was a “bitter consequence of the Wilson policy of imitating the United States.”
To some extent, the United Kingdom was intimately connected to the policies of the United States and subject to a reluctant reliance on American assistance, a sign that Great Britain was, indeed, not only hanging on to a few ‘shaky teeth,’ it was also preparing to have some of them extracted.
It was increasingly obvious in London and Washington (and Hanoi) that a stark power differential existed between Britain and the United States, and that Britain remained, to a substantial degree, economically dependent on American participation. Both countries were aware that Britain’s role as a world power was rapidly diminishing, Britain was not only militarily over-stretched, but the country’s economy was also weakening and facing a series of financial crises. During the 1960’s, the United States Government had provided a series of economic measures designed to shore up an ailing pound that, if left unchecked, may have threatened the stability of the dollar as well as British overseas commitments.
To some extent, additional historical analysis has focused on the reputed existence of a deal commonly known as the ‘Hessian Option,’ whereby Britain would have been required to extend limited support to the United States in Vietnam in return for American financial loans to salvage an increasingly fragile pound.
Britain appeared caught between conflicting priorities. On the one hand, Britain remained in the short-term protective of its own interests, in particular Commonwealth commitments in Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore. On the other hand, it was desirable to escape an ongoing dependence on the United States, but, at the same time, remaining aware of the crucial need to engage American military and economic aid in the European theatre. This state of affairs provided ample justification for Wilson to make efforts to somehow redress the situation, and economic dependence on the United States was no reason to sit back and allow the circumstances to continue without doing something. At the very least, it might have been possible for Wilson to attempt to strengthen Britain’s remaining influence upon the rest of the world, perhaps, as a key player in finding a peaceful solution to the Vietnam War. All the same, the period reflects a Prime Minister struggling to reconcile a belief in Britain’s global status, but facing the reality of the gradual decline of the United Kingdom’s influence and prestige in world affairs. By acting as a peace broker in the Vietnam War, Wilson was, perhaps, at the very least, able to play Britain’s political cards before his hand was taken away from him.
British Commitment and Foreign Policy in Vietnam
Britain’s position in 1967-68 was one of conflicting loyalties between continuing Co-chairmanship of the Geneva Conference on Indo-China and preserving a viable political relationship with the United States. Both, the American and British administrations had differing expectations from their transatlantic allies regarding each other’s foreign military and political commitment. There was no possibility that Britain was going to commit troops, both ,financially and practically it appears inconceivable that the Labour Government would have entertained such an idea. Ministers were often pre-occupied in looking for options to resolve Britain’s domestic financial difficulties as well as minimising defence expenditure in Europe and elsewhere abroad. Moreover, during the latter half of 1967, discussions were already underway concerning plans for the withdrawal of all British military influence east of Suez. Against this backdrop of political and economic difficulties, a commitment of British troops to Vietnam was certainly out of the question.
Although it was argued in Government circles that no-one “wished to see South Vietnam captured by the North and its inhabitants submerged in a totalitarian regime,” it was still believed that Britain should continue to resist any American pressure to provide a military commitment.
Ultimately, Britain’s “right and duty of intervention” was it seems, based on the “responsibilities for achieving peace.”
Nevertheless, Johnson observed that those countries that were not militarily committed often viewed the American war in Vietnam from an “above-the-battle stance.” The President noted wryly that the “British Government’s general approach would have been considerably different if a brigade of Her Majesty’s forces had been stationed just south of the Demilitarised Zone in Vietnam.”
Wilson for his part would later acknowledge that for those not involved in the fighting it was ‘all to easy’ to volunteer suggestions and advice for the American administration.
After the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation Council meeting in Washington during April 1967, Britain had come in for criticism for not committing any ground troops in Vietnam. However, according to George Brown there was no military ‘obligation’ on Britain under the SEATO agreement and that the “most valuable contribution that [Britain] could make lay in continuing [the] diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting.”
Despite the criticism levied at Britain in April 1967, it was Wilson’s opinion that Johnson was anxious to reach a settlement, and had made it clear that Britain must feel free at any time to take further initiatives in pursuit of a settlement if the British Government judged it opportune to do so.
In January 1967, the prospects of resolving the conflict in Vietnam remained ‘confused and uncertain,’ but the British Government asserted their belief that it was still possible to negotiate a peace settlement and maintain a position of importance in global terms.
Britain remained confident that it could promote an effort, ‘both in public and by confidential diplomatic discussions’ with the Governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, in a bid to advance some form of ‘mediation between the parties to the dispute.’
Wilson had already seen several efforts at brokering a peace settlement in Vietnam come to nothing, moreover, the initiatives had somewhat strained the Prime Minister’s patience with the American administration.
In February 1967, Wilson had met with Alexei Kosygin and offered the Soviet Premier a proposal from the United States that if accepted by the North Vietnamese, could have potentially led to the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam. The United States Ambassador congratulated Wilson’s endeavour and declared the Prime Minister’s efforts as “the biggest diplomatic coup of this century.”
However, soon after the draft of the proposal was handed to Kosygin, Walt Rostow informed Wilson that the terms of the proposal were subject to textual alterations that for the Prime Minister, appeared to be a ‘total reversal’ of the policy the United States had initially put forward. Wilson was ‘furious’ and contemplated whether the United States administration was “suffering from a degree of confusion about a possible and unfortunate juxtaposition of certain parts of their anatomy, one of which was their elbow.”
One suggestion is that a reason for the failure of the peace initiative might have been due to the British Prime Minister’s ‘wishful thinking,’
although Wilson later claimed to have displayed a realistic degree of political pessimism and restraint regarding Hanoi and China’s possible reaction.
Furthermore, records show that on the 9th
February 1967, the Prime Minister voiced his opinion that although the recent Anglo-Soviet discussions had been ‘friendly and constructive,’ “it was still uncertain whether progress could be made on this occasion.”
However, despite Wilson alluding to the American administration’s apparent anatomical confusion, the Prime Minister continued to impress Britain’s role as a mediator and foster a working relationship with the United States. Nonetheless, it is arguable that any United States and United Kingdom co-operation over peace in Vietnam was conceivably destined to fail because of the unconstructive and suspicious state of Anglo-American relations during the period. As a contemporary illustration of American attitudes towards British diplomatic involvement, the United Kingdom’s exclusion from the Soviet-American summit on the Middle East in August 1967 provides an adequate example.
It has also been suggested that Wilson’s ‘feverish efforts’ to establish viable contact between the Soviet Union and the United States, when they had ‘every opportunity of doing so’ without the Prime Minister’s intervention, only ‘depreciated’ the British in Russian eyes.
More controversially, there are indications that from at least 1966, America may have viewed Britain as a relatively unnecessary component in the diplomatic machinery that continued to engage an effort towards ending the war in Vietnam. In their study of British peace initiatives in Vietnam, John Dumbrell and Sylvia Ellis have argued that Washington was prepared to allow London to ‘float ideas and to probe openings,’ but were ‘certainly not inclined to place its faith in constitutive British diplomacy.’
How practical this policy was in the face of Cold War tensions between Moscow and Washington is debatable, thus necessitating some sort of interaction with the British Government, not least as the USSR and the United Kingdom were Co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference.
One suggestion proposes that Britain’s role in the Geneva negotiations, which divided Vietnam into North and South, is evidence that Britain had a keen interest in keeping the region peaceful, ‘possibly through a process of neutralisation.’
Britain’s discernible support for the neutralisation of Cambodia and Laos
appears in direct contrast to the American view that nationalism and neutrality were generally not acceptable to United States foreign policy. Furthermore, although Britain eventually joined SEATO, the Government remained sceptical about its purpose and the long-term implication that pro-Western organisations might propel nationalistic sentiment into the arms of Communism.
The period in question defined the inherent differences between United States foreign policy and British interests, often seen at odds with American agendas. In a later discourse, Wilson claimed that Britain’s role in Anglo-American relations was often “complementary, rather than identical,”
nevertheless, one line of thought suggests, “it has never been a recommendation of a policy to the British people that is favoured by the United States.”
Although the American administration were aware of Wilson’s problems in supporting America, Washington tended generally to see public and political opinion in Britain as ‘defeatist’ towards Communist belligerence, and Johnson remained ‘intermittently annoyed’ at the British Prime Minister’s ambiguous position regarding Vietnam.
Nevertheless, in one regard, the British were correct in their assumption that the Americans seemed to be fighting a lost cause in Vietnam, and with the benefit of hindsight, Britain displayed a notable level of political foresight by acknowledging that the war threatened to unite the forces of nationalism in the Third World.
However, perhaps the significant difference between America and Britain and their approach to policy towards the conflict in Vietnam was the manner in which the two nations judged their relationship with Communist China. The United States tended to see the relation between the North Vietnamese and Beijing as one that could lead to the emergence of Chinese power as dominant in the region, while with a keen eye firmly placed on the importance and safety of Hong Kong, Britain generally preferred a conciliatory attitude towards China.
However, when a North Vietnamese delegation visited Beijing and Moscow to determine the opinion of their allies regarding the war, China insisted that the Vietnamese should persist until America was militarily beaten, adding weight to the United States (and Soviet) argument that China was potentially an aggressive power in the region. The Soviet Union, however, recommended that the North should continue to seek a diplomatic solution demonstrating that in part, Moscow might have been working to a similar agenda as the British Government.
In February 1967, Harold Wilson attempted to establish some form of contact between the North Vietnamese and the United States, but America had recently renewed its bombing campaign due, according to information received within the Cabinet, to “exceptionally large movements of troops and supplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam to reinforce the Vietcong” during 1967 Vietnamese New Year.
At the beginning of 1967, Britain continued to deplore the American bombing of North Vietnam, but the Government realised it would be ‘impolitic to dissociate’ from United States policy,
and instead should continue to engage any goodwill forthcoming from the Soviet Union and the United States Government.
For the time being, Wilson suggested that Britain should ‘make it clear’ that it also understood the position of the Government in Hanoi.”
Even so, the Prime Minister equally insisted that outward support for the United States was still necessary for Britain to maintain Anglo-American relations while at the same time, searching for the opportunity to instigate a peaceful conclusion to hostilities in Vietnam. Conversely, one argument suggests that Britain was so inextricably associated with the ‘moral defence’ of the Vietnam War that is was ‘disqualified from playing the role of a mediator.’
Nevertheless, the Government felt it was important to keep an essential balance between dissociation for its own sake, and Britain’s ability to retain its power to influence events to help bring about an end to the war. Therefore, in the early months of 1967, the British Government appeared to maintain a position that enabled them to play a game of political patience while preserving a less pessimistic view of the future course of the war. This issue highlights the often contradictory position taken by the Prime Minister in a manner that draws a comparison to the ‘juggling’ tactic employed by President Roosevelt toward the Soviet Union and the Allies in World War II. All the same, despite the disappointment of the early 1967 bombing campaign, Wilson declared that Britain “should not now move to a position of dissociating ourselves from the United States bombing, since we should otherwise lose our present influence with the United States administration.”
The premise for this restraint came from a Government that had reason to believe that although President Johnson was determined not to ‘expose United States prestige to a rebuff,’ he was however, continuing to resist pressure within his administration for the adoption of more extreme military measures against North Vietnam.
In view of British attempts to reach a settlement in Vietnam, this belief warranted a measure of confidence in the search for peace.
By September 1967, George Brown was sufficiently assured to declare the signs were encouraging in that “the United States attitude had changed considerably over the last two years, [and] that they had shown willingness to negotiate was largely due to [Britain’s] influence.”
Even so, similar to Winston’s Churchill’s wartime predicament, Wilson knew that the weight of American authority could prove influential in British domestic and foreign affairs. Questionably, the Government’s willingness to defer dissociation was influenced by the possible long-term consequences of upsetting the American administration whose future actions could affect Britain’s role and status in Western Europe. Dean Rusk had indicated that in the event of isolationist sentiment prevailing in Congress, it would be unwise for Britain to dissociate from United States policy in Vietnam. In a letter to the British Foreign Secretary, Rusk warned, “those very senators who are opposing the President’s policies in Vietnam are among the same senators who are pressing for our withdrawal from Europe.” Rusk continued that these politicians “are just as isolationist about Europe as they are about South-East Asia.”
However, despite these warnings, it is difficult to ascertain how much of a realistic threat this was to Britain’s European affairs, and how rational the idea was that the United States would withdraw from Europe, thus making vulnerable the first line of American defence against possible Communist aggression in the west. Additionally, it is not easy to gauge the level to which British Government figures recognised the seriousness of such a proposition. In an assessment of foreign policy, George Brown did express fears that if dissociation became public, the present and future American administrations might, “cease to exert themselves at all in favour of British interests,” adding that it would be hard to believe “the United States administration will take a helpful line in respect of our financial, economic and commercial problems.”
This last point was particularly central to a British Government that knew devaluation of sterling was imminent. Indeed, practically all the Cabinet meetings in the latter half of 1967 were mainly devoted to the impending reality of the devaluation of sterling, and for the first two weeks of January 1968 while the preparations for the Tet Offensive were continuing, the Cabinet meetings were are all chiefly concerned with post-devaluation measures and difficulties.
Nevertheless, it was thought that disapproving publicly of American policy would damage irreparably Britain’s understanding with the United States, even so, it was believed that any uncritical alignment behind the United States would be an ‘act of folly,’ not only contrary to the majority of public opinion, but also effecting a reduction in Britain’s independent role in political negotiations. It seemed then, that for the British Government there was nothing practical to do but accept the current situation and maintain a continued readiness to act in the cause of peace. It was therefore concluded that Britain “should maintain, and if possible improve [its] present policy of committed detachment,” while hoping for some sign of change in American policy.
As early as June 1967, after a conversation with the President, Wilson believed that Johnson was revaluating his policy towards Vietnam in light of incurring costs, particularly in terms of lost American aircraft.
The Prime Minister thought Johnson had “reached the conclusion that the present policy was not achieving results,” and therefore the President intended at the right time to change his policy to confine the American effort principally to the South.
Despite Wilson’s conclusions, the American strategic air offensive persisted, and in some political quarters, it was viewed as a continuation of the United States policy of escalation, and therefore ‘a growing political concern’ on the British home front.
On the 15th
August 1967, the Foreign Office asked Washington to explain whether the most recent United States bombing of North Vietnam represented any change in American policy.
The request informed Washington that the bombing was being interpreted as “marking a change in the general American approach to the war and as an act of escalation which takes unacceptable risks for world peace.”
It appears that the Prime Minister was ‘somewhat puzzled’ by this recent turn of events since he was under the ‘very clear impression’ from recent exchanges between the Americans and the British, and in particular that between the President and himself on 2nd June, that some de-escalation was to be expected in the near future.
Wilson may well have been a little concerned, but it appears he was even more frustrated that the perceived extension of the bombing campaign would only make approaches to Hanoi more difficult, and that the latest intensification would
cause ‘political trouble’ in Britain during the coming weeks.
The Prime Minister continued to encounter the difficulty of balancing private and public views on supporting American policy, especially in light of the seemingly incessant American bombing in North Vietnam. It was a realistic assumption that public and political opinion in the United Kingdom might react adversely to the renewal of the United States bombing in Vietnam, and believing it to be a prelude to further escalation of the conflict, might be liable to increase the pressure against Britain to dissociate from United States policy. The concept of balancing political support and dissociation from American actions in Vietnam proved problematic for the Labour Government, and at least as frustrating for a Prime Minister who faced external opposition as well as criticism from within the Labour Party.
On September 6th
1967, Wilson voiced his concerns regarding possible obstacles to the peace process. “I fear the real difficulty,” Wilson noted, “is that the President is not willing to undertake stopping the bombing ‘unconditionally’ for fear that the knowledge he had done so would leak and damage him electorally.”
The Prime Minister’s conclusion was given added weight three weeks later when he received pertinent information from the British Embassy in Washington. In conversation with the American Secretary of State, Patrick Dean had learned that Johnson was unable to put a stop to the bombing for domestic political reasons and that the next year’s Presidential elections were probably playing a part in Hanoi’s calculations. Rusk informed the British Ambassador that the President was ‘consequently pessimistic’ about the prospects of getting any negotiation before November 1968.
It also appears that the Kremlin shared Wilson’s scepticism. On the 23rd
January 1968, while in Moscow, Wilson was engaged in conversation by Kosygin during a performance of the opera ‘Carmen.’ Kosygin probed Wilson as to the extent of American peace proposals, suggesting forcefully that Johnson was ‘playing election politics’ rather than genuinely searching for a peaceful settlement in Vietnam. Wilson tactfully informed Kosygin that he knew the President as well “as I know most people” and was “absolutely convinced [Johnson] was sincere in wanting a settlement.”
However, just over a fortnight later, the Prime Minister expressed a similar sentiment concerning the role the American elections might play in future negotiations. Perhaps influenced by his recent trip to Washington, Wilson observed that Johnson might, “before the presidential election in November make a dramatic bid for peace,” but it was noted only ‘conditionally’ and on the premise that such a bid would enlist public support in achieving re-election.
For the time being, Wilson was subject to whatever political manoeuvres suited Johnson in the run up to 1968, and for as long as suspicion of the President’s motives remained, Wilson was probably unable to ascertain a suitable window of opportunity in which to initiate some form of peace proposal.
The Prospects for 1968
In September 1967, the British Government’s position remained practical and defiant concerning the conflict in Vietnam. George Brown reiterated: “The Government did not support the war. They deplored its escalation. They condemned the continued bombing on North Vietnam.”
British policy towards Vietnam War had been to secure a lasting solution to the conflict, not by military means, but through a negotiated settlement that would secure the legitimate interests of all concerned. Yet, on the 16th
October 1967, it was observed, “the North Vietnamese were showing no signs of wanting to talk peace.”
In October 1967, the British Embassy in Washington provided an assessment of American policy in Vietnam. The report concluded that Johnson and Dean Rusk’s current course of action was to stop the “North from providing men and munitions to carry on the war in the South. [Strike] wherever possible at the Vietcong units in the South so as to destroy their military strength, [limit] their dominance over the local populations, [and prosecute] the Revolutionary Development programme so as to encourage the South Vietnamese Government to become, and be seen to become, an enlightened master in its own house.”
Despite the apparent British conclusion that United States were attempting to extricate their forces out of Vietnam, the current policy was attracting domestic criticism from both American pro and anti war campaigners; from the “doviest of doves to the most hawkish hawks and even a few vultures.”
In October 1967, Patrick Dean noted that not only was President Johnson an ‘unlovable man,’ more importantly, it was believed that he had lost his touch both with the Congress and the American people.
Despite a concerted American media propaganda effort to promote the United States conduct of the war in Vietnam,
the British Embassy view of the conflict was “painfully aware… of the difference between the relative optimism of those on the ground that the situation is improving and the lack of any evidence that the American press accept this.”
In some respects, it was advantageous for the British Government that a significant section of American opinion was fervently against the continuation of the war in its present state. American attitudes generally demanded either a full cessation of hostilities or a change in current military strategy, a sentiment similarly shared by the British Government. The British Embassy in Washington reported that a large part of the United States population did not support the methods employed by the President in pursuing the war, but it was conceded that critics had difficulty in suggesting what alternative policy should be implemented with a view to extracting the United States out of Vietnam. By and large, it was felt the common sentiment shared by the majority of Americans of ‘whatever political colour, or of none,’ was a wish to ‘bring the boys home and to get out of that benighted country.’
Nevertheless, by November 1967, it was recognised in British Cabinet meetings that the Government of South Vietnam had the right in international law to resist the North and to request American help; furthermore, the Cabinet regarded United States policy as reasonable in their readiness to negotiate a political settlement.
Even so, whether politically or militarily, President Johnson remained determined to see the war through to a successful conclusion.
By 1967, the North Vietnamese were also contemplating a victorious finale. According to Ang Cheng Guan, “The Official History of the Vietnamese People’s Army” reveals that in April 1967, an examination of the North’s military position was initiated to gain a better understanding of the ‘military-political’ situation to help put together an appropriate strategy for future action.
It was believed that a ‘prolonged or protracted’ war would only lead to a build up of American military strength, and as such, a short decisive victory was needed in 1968.
The decision was taken to instigate a vigorous attack and destroy the American forces while building up the impetus to a general offensive. The intended strategy was to limit the capacity of American forces by launching all out attacks on the major cities, followed by a general uprising throughout the countryside, a role assigned primarily to theNational Liberation Front of South Vietnam. 
Shortly before his untimely death, General Nguyen Chi Thanh established a set of planning proposals for the offensive in May 1967, and then presented his strategy to the Political Bureau and Military Central Commission two months later.
By the beginning of July, British sources speculated as to the possible reasons for the increase in North Vietnamese diplomatic manoeuvres. The Foreign Office questioned the return of North Vietnamese diplomats from abroad during the first half of the year, and suggested that the moves were ‘maybe connected with some North Vietnamese re-appraisal of their present policies.’
Mistakenly, Foreign Office officials and their American counterparts interpreted the action as a possible move towards a negotiated settlement,
when the reality suggests the activity was designed to inform the North Vietnamese diplomats of an impending change in military policy.
Nevertheless, for the British, who were still intent on finding a peaceful settlement, the initial reports may have come as a welcome addition in the Government’s efforts toward the search for a negotiated settlement. However, as the year progressed the British prospects for a future peace in Vietnam appeared to reflect an unstable mix of diplomatic conditions that swayed between hopeful highs and dispiriting lows.
George Brown returned from a recent visit to America where discussions on Vietnam had been discouraging. Brown had found the Soviet attitude “totally inflexible,” moreover, the United States attitude was “not much more hopeful.”
To make matters worse, the situation in Vietnam appeared to mirror the discouraging attitude on display in the White House. The view from the Saigon British Embassy in June 1967 reported an uncertain and unstable internal situation in South Vietnam with the possibility for future stability not encouraging.
By August, the Embassy was growing increasingly concerned by the friction between Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, especially in light of the forthcoming South Vietnamese elections. There was no particular reason to suspect that a coup d’etat might occur in the Saigon Government, however, the Embassy warned that the possibility could ‘never be altogether discounted.’
Despite the political uncertainty, the British pressed forward with plans for diplomatic negotiation. On the 15th
August 1967, Paul Gore-Booth requested advice from the American Undersecretary of State in Washington, Nicholas Katzenbach. Gore-Booth enquired as to what would be an appropriate time to make further diplomatic moves to end the war after the South Vietnamese elections had taken place. The reply came that after the new South Vietnamese Government had formed in October, the most probable timing for a peace initiative might be any time between 3rd
September and the end of March 1968. However, Katzenbach noted that the most likely period to approach Hanoi would be early in the New Year.
Further prospects for peace was enhanced by a belief in December that the Foreign Minister for North Vietnam had indicated, and in light of the preparations for the Tet Offensive, a certain understandable ‘willingness’ to accept cessation of the bombing under certain conditions.
Nevertheless, British observations from Saigon voiced concerns that “the local omens for any peace opening during the proposed truce periods [Tet New Year] in the next two months are bad.”
The subsequent Tet Offensive proved that initially, the prospects for peace were unforeseeable and indeed ‘bad,’ however; it seems the British Government probably considered some degree of preparation for future negotiation for around the same time as the Tet New Year festivals. Based on previous activities by the United States and North Vietnamese military around this time of year, in particular the 1967 ceasefire and subsequent hostilities, it would have been prudent to accept that similar circumstances would develop again in the near future, but for the time being a measure of optimism appears to have pervaded Britain’s diplomatic machinery.
During December 1967, the North Vietnamese appeared to believe that the American war effort had peaked and was in a position of ‘strategic stalemate.’
Indeed, in late 1967, McNamara and his advisors put forward to Johnson a policy memorandum that recommended a change in American strategy, an approach that led to a proposed shift from ‘search and destroy’ to ‘clear and hold’ battlefield tactics.
However, Johnson did not implement a change in policy for the remainder of 1967, and in January, General Westmoreland presented an optimistic and ‘friendly picture’ of the forthcoming year.
For the British, the American belief in the potential of future military success appeared to signal that any peace negotiations were far from viable in the event of United States claims that the war was being conducted effectively. A British assessment from Saigon in December noted that the American military had so far achieved ‘rather more’ than expected, and had started to make what looked like ‘solid progress.’
Consequently, such progress may have induced the North Vietnamese to hasten preparations for the general uprising/general offensive in a bid to counter increasing American pressure.
Although January 31st
1968 traditionally marks the start of the North Vietnamese military offensive, the attacks during the Tet festival period constituted the second phase of Giap’s strategy.
Although there were attempts to extend North Vietnamese gains during the ‘mini’ Tet in March,
February 1968, the major offensive had run out of steam and ended in a virtual military defeat for the North Vietnamese and NLF forces.
There has been speculation that the North Vietnamese politburo had deliberately set the South Vietcong forces in a position where they would take the brunt of the casualties in the event of a possible defeat, possibly as a strategy to undermine the Vietcong as a political force in future negotiations over a ‘united’ Vietnam.
Indeed, nearly three weeks before the January phase of the offensive took place, an internal assessment by a Foreign Office official speculated that the situation between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the NLFSV command might not have had the level of comradeship expected. It was even felt that China had ‘been at pains’ during the past six months to underline the separate identity of the NLFSV, adding to the idea that there was a degree of political tension between the Northern politburo and their southern counterparts. As an interesting observation, it is worth quoting a relevant paragraph from the report in full. Regarding the motivation of the North Vietnamese leadership, it was thought “the whole concept of negotiation could well be even less popular amongst the NLFSV leaders than in the DRV, if only because they cannot hope to have talks without the participation of the Saigon Government: i.e. by weakening in some measure their claim to be sole authentic representatives of the South Vietnamese people and blunting their much-repeated call for the overthrow of the puppet southern regime.”
The premise of the judgement came from the belief that there were several indications that military operations had not been going well for the Peoples Liberation Armed Force. The official remarked that recent Vietcong casualties had been high and defections were on the increase. Added to this was the failure to prevent or disrupt the South Vietnamese election process in September/October of 1967, a collective series of events that provided a ‘sober indication of the extent of the NLF control in the south.’
For some in the Foreign Office, the NLF may not have had widespread authority in the South, but the Tet Offensive proved that the Vietcong certainly had an extensive presence in the urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, the general uprising failed to materialise and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, alongside American forces, eventually reduced the North’s initial military operations and reversed the majority of the successes achieved at the commencement of the Tet Offensive.
All the same, it was an effective, and damaging political and diplomatic defeat on the American administration and its forces in South Vietnam, not least because the offensive came almost immediately after the American public were informed that the war in Vietnam was being won. Moreover, as late as January 1968, General Westmoreland had presented an optimistic and encouraging picture of current events in Vietnam and predicted ‘increased success’ for the coming year.
 The general offensive/general uprising may not have been a total success, and although Giap would later concede that Tet had been “directed primarily at the people of South Vietnam,” the General observed, “our biggest victory [was] to change the ideas of the United States.”
Britain’s Response to the North Vietnamese Offensive
Arguably, Wilson had similar thoughts to Giap on changing the opinions of the United States, although the Prime Minister would presume to offer the wisdom of his own diplomatic expertise regarding the difficulties in Vietnam. In mid 1967, Wilson even suggested to Johnson that as a Texan, the President should be able to recognise a ‘dying horse’ when he saw one, and at the very least he should get the ‘best possible price’ for the beast ‘before morbidity set in.’
The following year, the Prime Minister’s advice became more pertinent and less nonchalant. On the 8th
February 1968, whilst on a visit to the United States, Wilson gave an after dinner speech at the White House in which he referred explicitly to the ongoing North Vietnamese offensive, and posited an opinion for the ears of President Johnson. Around the same time that North Vietnamese Army tanks overran territory outside Khe Sanh,
Wilson asserted “the hardest part of statesmanship is to show restraint in the face of that exasperation,” and addressing Johnson directly, Wilson declared, “the problem of Vietnam…can never be settled on a durable and just basis by an imposed military solution.”
Britain’s view that the United States could not force a military victory in Vietnam had evidently come true, and Wilson probably wrote with a sense of self-justification when he noted in his memoirs that “the virulence of the Tet Offensive showed that any US hope of a military solution was…ill-founded.”
Nevertheless, although Wilson was convinced that American military force was not the way to settle the war in Vietnam, the Government displayed signs that it was concerned that the North Vietnamese themselves were perhaps able to exert a substantial military victory over the United States.
Soon after the North Vietnamese offensive, the preliminary thoughts of the British Government appeared less optimistic in relation to the United States military and political position in Vietnam. Opinions expressed within the Cabinet on the 15 February 1968 suggested that if there were to be a second wave of attacks, the American forces might find themselves in serious danger of being overwhelmed, noting that “from a military point of view the Viet Cong were playing from a strong hand.”
It was suggested that the preliminary United States Embassy view was that the purpose of the offensive was essentially political in a bid to undermine the Saigon Government. Indeed, the British report suggested that Tet would “feed criticism to the effect that United States forces have once again had to pull South Vietnamese chestnuts out of the fire.”
Moreover, without any foresight into the American position at this moment, it was assumed that President Johnson was “almost certainly postponing consideration of immediate negotiations.”
One week after the second phase of the Tet Offensive, the Foreign Office provided an evaluation of the ‘Viet Cong’s’ objectives and long-term intentions. The appraisal showed that British intelligence gathered from a variety of sources including the interrogation of prisoners, had concluded correctly that planning and preparation for the Tet Offensive had been in progress for weeks, if not months in advance. According to the Foreign Office assessment, the immediate objectives were, pending reinforcements, to capture as many towns as possible in the South and to hold them at least for a limited time, and then make a special effort to hold whatever territory was captured in the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam, particularly around Hue. The report noted accurately that the North Vietnamese intentions were essentially diversionary in a bid to draw American forces away in preparation for the general uprising. It was believed the tactics were designed to undermine the confidence of the South Vietnamese and the ability of the Allies to protect them, and to a degree, the objectives had been ‘partially attained.’ Despite the effort to repel the Communist forces, it was believed they were still capable of a ‘full-scale attack’ in the Demilitarized Zone, further aggression in the towns, and ‘diversionary activity’ in less populated areas. It was understood that the “Communist forces have gained, at least externally, an important psychological and political success.” Nearly one week after the onset of the offensive, the Foreign Office assessment revealed an insightful conclusion to Tet. The report observed that it was probably not necessary for the Vietcong to mount another operation perhaps for years, because “the population will remember, and the Viet Cong will encourage memory.” In the days following the circulation of the report, the Embassy despatches from Saigon were at least confirming the extent of the immediate situation. The offensive was described as ‘immense, both on the military and particularly on the political planes,’ and the initial reaction of the townspeople in Saigon was apparently one of ‘partly stunned, partly resilient… rather like a blitzed town in the United Kingdom during the war.’ On the 1st March, the British Embassy observed on a personal note, that the somewhat cheerless South Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Dr Tran Van Do, although he always looked sad, on the occasion of the Tet Offensive, ‘he positively exuded gloom.’
Conclusion of the Tet Offensive
A few days after Tet, Wilson speculated that the reasons for the offensive might have been that either the North Vietnamese did not wish to open negotiations, or it was a desire to avoid giving the impression that they might be driven to the conference table by the lack of military success.
To a point, the latter was true as the North had planned to seize some military initiative to give strength to any negotiations that might be forthcoming as a result of the uprising-offensive. As Ang Cheng Guan has explained, a basic assertion of the North Vietnamese strategy was ‘one could only win at the conference table what one had already won on the battlefield.’
For Harold Wilson, it was open to question how events would develop and whether the North Vietnamese really desired the opportunity to talk peac