Half the way with LBJ

Charles Wheelersuggests that, far from being shameful, Harold Wilson's stance on Vietnam was brave d

When the New Statesman carried out a survey of Labour MPs, to celebrate the party's centenary, it produced a curious result. Asked to rank Labour leaders, the MPs who responded gave Harold Wilson second place, after Clement Attlee. Asked to name the most shameful action in Labour's history, they put the Wilson government's support for America's war in Vietnam at the top of the list, in a tie with Ramsay MacDonald's "betrayal" of the Labour Party in 1931, when he formed a national government with Liberals and Conservatives.

Is there an inconsistency here? More to the point, does this sense of "shame" do justice to Wilson, who had to tread a fine line between outright, public condemnation of President Lyndon Johnson's conduct of the war, as his critics demanded of him, and temporising in the hope of influencing a powerful ally to whom, as ever, Britain was in hock?

Britain's greatest need was for American support of sterling. But Johnson's goodwill depended on Wilson's backing of his foreign policy, holding the line east of Suez and, above all, unswerving loyalty and tangible help in Vietnam, including the provision of British troops.

This last demand Wilson rejected outright. A second test came in February 1965, when several American soldiers were killed in two Viet Cong attacks on US army bases in South Vietnam. These losses provided a suitable pretext for Johnson to bomb selected targets in North Vietnam.

Wilson now overplayed his hand. He decided on a face-to-face meeting with LBJ. Lord Harlech, the British ambassador in Washington, said the White House was "very strongly against" a visit. At 3am London time, the president accepted Wilson's phone call. He was in no mood to be lectured, as a lightly edited transcript of their conversation shows.

Wilson: We are facing quite a serious situation with parliament and public opinion and I have got to face the House tomorrow afternoon. It is very difficult for us to be saying nothing at all except that whatever the US decides to do we shall go along with of course. The feeling is that we tag along afterwards. The feeling is that I should come over as quickly as possible.

Johnson: I think a trip, Mr Prime Minister, would be very much misunderstood . . .

Wilson: We don't want to dash over. We just want to talk.

Johnson: We have got telephones!

Wilson: We don't want to come and plead with you to be peacemakers; we want to come and find out what you feel about things.

Johnson: Well we can telegram that now and it will tell you just what you want to know. I do not want to heat up the situation as it involves your country, whether monetary, Malaysia or whatever it is. I know you don't want to do the same here. Let me send you the exact situation on classified cable so you can say you've been in touch and asked our views and we have given them.

Wilson: I can't show it to the House of Commons, that's my trouble.

Johnson: You would not want to use me as an instrument to deal with the House of Commons.

Wilson: The problem is with escalation . . .

Johnson: I have met escalation in many places and I take it in my stride. I won't tell you how to run Malaysia and you don't tell us how to run Vietnam.

Wilson: We are the only country in the world who has not made any comment on this.

Johnson: You make whatever is required for your future. If you want to help us some in Vietnam, send us some men and send us some folks to deal with these guerrillas. And announce to the press that you are going to help us . . .

Wilson: All I want to do is to reassure the House of Commons. Do you think I can do that on the basis of a transatlantic call in the middle of the night?

Johnson: You needn't say it was the middle of the night.

Wilson: May I come to a serious point. If the point arises where you want a conference, we are prepared to go into it with you. We shall not take an initiative in that and this we have told you. It is because of our concern, what we heard of tonight, that I telephoned my ambassador and speak to you. Whatever the response, and that is not easy, we shall support and stand firmly by whatever action you take.

Johnson: We are not going to be provocative or belligerent. But if they come in the middle of the night and kill all my men, our response will be prompt, adequate, measured. That is what I expect you to do wherever your people are, and in that response you have our full support.

Johnson's response was prompt, but scarcely measured. Within three weeks, he launched Operation Rolling Thunder, an air offensive that lasted until 1973, and sent the first ground troops to Vietnam. When bombers hit the Hanoi-Haiphong industrial area, the Labour Party erupted. Wilson publicly protested, as he had promised he would. But he continued to support American policy. When Frank Cousins asked him why, Wilson replied: "Because we can't kick our creditors in the balls."

"Half the way with LBJ" was not an inspiring policy. But perhaps it was the only realistic one. Peter Shore has said he can't imagine any other Labour leader so successfully resisting the enormous pressure of the Foreign Office, the Treasury and the US to identify wholly with the war and send in British troops.

Which raises the question of what a Conservative prime minister might have done. Edward Heath, then leader of the opposition, denounced Wilson's dual-track policy as untenable, as indeed in many respects it was. But Heath also called for Britain's wholehearted support for the war. Had he been PM, would he have been induced to send a British force to Vietnam?