For most of the 20thand—thus far—the 21st centuries, the American and British governments have stood firmly shoulder-to-shoulder on most global issues and as allies and supporters during times of war and conflict. However, the vaunted “Special Relationship” between the White House and 10 Downing Street has not always been so cozy. During the years 1964-68, large cracks in the bonds between Washington and London developed as the Vietnam War intensified and opposition to the war grew in the governing Labour Party in Britain. Opposition to the war within his party and among the general British public meant that Prime Minister Harold Wilson could not satisfy the United States’ desire for support—particulary the frequent American requests for combat troops. In turn, the absence of direct British participation led President Lyndon B. Johnson to regard Wilson’s various attempts to moderate the war largely as an irrelevance or even as a downright nuisance. Tensions over Vietnam helped ensure that the Wilson-Johnson relationship was probably the worst between any U.S. president and British prime minister.
The Anglo-American special relationship of the 1960s stemmed from the intimate practical cooperation during World War II and rested upon a nexus of ongoing institutional ties in the fields of defense and intelligence, as well as frequent dealings between presidents and prime ministers. Harold Wilson, elected in October 1964, recognized that visibly constructive bonds with Washington helped to preserve Britain’s seat at the top table of world affairs and enhance his own standing as a statesman. He was an especially keen advocate of close Anglo-American ties.
David Bruce, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, explained to President Johnson in 1965 that the prime minister was “anxious to establish…something like the close relationship…which existed between Harold Macmillan and President Kennedy.” Those two leaders had developed a political friendship distinguished by great cordiality, mutual respect and frequent consultation.
However, the Vietnam War dashed Wilson’s hopes of forming similar bonds with Johnson. A1965 British Foreign Office document examined the war in the context of Anglo-American relations, noting that Britain’s direct involvement in Vietnam was “…insignificant. Our major interest in the situation…is to see that it does not escalate into a global or regional war in which we might be involved.” But, it warned, Britain’s “interests as a non-communist power would be impaired if the United States Government were defeated in the field, or defaulted on its commitments.” Britain should therefore satisfy its own interests by “giving moral support to our major ally.”
Wilson supported this pro-American line, with the result that in general terms his government backed U.S. policy in Vietnam. But unlike the mandarins of the Foreign Office, he also needed to address Labour Party and public opinion. In March 1965, Ambassador Bruce explained to Washington that Wilson was “hotly accused by many British, including a formidable number of moderate Labour parliamentarians, of being a mere satellite of the U.S., and of subscribing blindly and completely to policies about which he has not been consulted in advance.”
This unforgiving climate of opinion meant that the Labour government could not consent to providing troops for Vietnam, a matter the Americans first raised at a December 1964 summit meeting in Washington. On that occasion, Wilson justified his response on the grounds that as co-chairman of the Geneva peace conference of 1954 (which partitioned Indochina), Britain should not become involved in the fighting, and also that British forces were already engaged in a counterinsurgency operation in Malaysia, known as a “confrontation.” Since Johnson required only a symbolic commitment of troops to indicate to world opinion that he had British support, involvement in a confrontation was a weak excuse. Once the confrontation had ended late in 1966, the Labour government was still unwilling to send troops to Vietnam, suggesting that the refusal had more to do with domestic politics than with international issues.
It soon became clear response rankled Johnson. On February 10, 1965, the prime minister was in- that Wilson’s formed of a “vicious attack by the Viet Cong in the Saigon area, involving the destruction of a club largely used by U.S. servicemen.” Fearing an exaggerated American response, he conferred with British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart late that night. They concluded that in view of the growing public controversy over Vietnam, Wilson “should fly to Washington to discuss matters with the President.” After further consultations, at about 3 a.m. London Time (10 p.m. in Washington), he finally telephoned Johnson directly. Wilson said he “would like to come to Washington” to help deal with the “high level of concern in London.”
Johnson was distinctly hostile, insisting, “It would be a very serious mistake for the prime minister to come over…there was nothing to be gained by flapping around the Atlantic with our coattails out.” He reiterated that “the U.S. did not have the company of many allies” in Vietnam. If the prime minister had “any men to spare, he would be glad to have them.”
Wilson returned to the question of a meeting in Washington, but Johnson tried to dismiss him entirely by asking: “Why don’t you run Malaysia and let me run Vietnam?” This was the voice of a president under increasing strain over the deteriorating situation in Vietnam and resenting foreign attempts to influence his policies.
Beyond the troops issue, another reason for Johnson’s rejection of Wilson’s request for a summit was the belief that British politicians were inclined to visit Washington to play to the gallery at home. Once, when London requested a routine meeting, the president is reported to have responded to an aide, “We got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me.”
Johnson was essentially a parochial as well as somewhat vulgar politician and was far more interested in domestic politics than foreign policy. British Ambassador Patrick Dean noted in February 1966 that the president regarded the escalating conflict in Vietnam as “a lamentable diversion of money and effort from the more worthwhile task of building a ‘Great Society.’”
The president had long since realized that on the domestic front, the war was likely to become increasingly unpopular. As Oliver Wright of the Foreign Office explained to Wilson soon after the fateful late night telephone call of February 1965, “The man who is at present at the head of the United States is basically not interested in foreign affairs.”
Wright spoke later of attendance at a CIA briefing designed to “demonstrate the degree of direct North Vietnamese involvement in South Vietnam,” but for him, the presentation simply demonstrated that, because of the nature of the war, the Americans “cannot win and cannot yet see any way of getting off the hook which will not damage their prestige internationally and the President’s position domestically.” This, he suggested, explained Johnson’s “bear-with-a-sore-head” attitude on the telephone earlier.
There is evidence that in 1965 at least one of Johnson’s senior advisers considered using what might be described as unorthodox measures to prod the British into sending soldiers to Vietnam. Wilson noted that under his leadership “there was a small minority on the extreme left” in Britain who claimed that short-term monetary accommodation from the United States was made available “only in return for a secret understanding that Britain would support U.S. policy in Vietnam.” No doubt the British government was susceptible to a certain amount of economic arm-twisting by the Americans, as the British economy had suffered for some years because of uncompetitive industrial practices, an overvalued pound and a resulting failure to prosper in foreign markets. These defects brought about frequent sterling crises, which led the U.S. Treasury to orchestrate a number of multilateral bailouts to prevent the British from devaluing sterling, a measure that might have negative repercussions upon the dollar. Britain therefore needed American help to maintain the parity of sterling.
Documentary material from British and American archives indicates that some of Johnson’s advisers determined Washington should only support the pound if Britain continued to maintain its extensive defense commitments East of Suez and in West Germany, as withdrawals from these areas would undermine the United States’ own foreign and defense policies. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy went further by trying to bring Vietnam into the deal, counseling the President on July 28, 1965, that it made “no sense for us to rescue the pound in a situation in which there is no British flag in Vietnam….a British brigade in Vietnam would be worth a billion dollars at the moment of truth for sterling.”
Undoubtedly, the idea of linking support for the British pound with British external policies did influence the president’s thinking. Francis Bator of the National Security Council once noted Johnson’s position that anything “which could be regarded as even a partial British withdrawal from overseas responsibilities is bound to lead to an agonizing reappraisal” of support for sterling.
Johnson did not, however, accept Bundy’s brigade-for-a-billion idea. He understood that if it ever emerged publicly that Wilson had been, in effect, blackmailed into sending troops to Vietnam, then the controversy of America’s stand there might be drastically inflamed still further.
During the sterling crisis of September 1965, Wilson informed Bruce that “at a time when President Johnson would dearly have liked to see United Kingdom participation in Vietnam this had never been raised during all the discussions leading up to the present support operation” for sterling.
Thus the contemporary legend that British policy towards Vietnam—which in any case fell short of what the White House wanted—derived from some financial arrangement has little substance. There was a more public issue in the Anglo-American relationship in June 1966, when the Wilson government felt obliged to distance itself from certain American initiatives in Vietnam. The Labour Party won the general election in March with a decisive 94- seat majority—a great improvement from the single-figure margin Wilson had previously faced—but the victory brought a substantial influx of fractious and anti-American left-wingers that could not be ignored.
On June 28, 1966, the United States began bombing petrol, oil and lubricant facilities in Hanoi and Haiphong, a move that was regarded in many quarters as directed mainly against civilians. To satisfy Labour Party radicals, Wilson dissociated his government from the bombing, causing consternation in the White House at this seeming act of betrayal from an ally. Johnson’s new National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow, suggested that British policy was essentially weak and cowardly. Washington, he argued, faced “an attitude of mind which, in effect, prefers that we take losses in the free world rather than the risks of sharp confrontation.”
Wilson, recognizing the impact on his already shaky standing in Washington, wrote to Johnson about the pressure he faced to denounce American Vietnam policy. Using suitably crude language with the intent of mollifying the American leader, he explained that he had rejected this view, “not only because I distrust the motives of those who put this argument forward, but because their argument itself is balls.”
Johnson opposed the idea of another Wilson visit, as it might appear that the British leader was coming to tell him how to conduct himself—as Prime Minister Clement Attlee had seemed to do when he saw President Harry Truman in December 1950, at the height of the Korean War. On July 4, 1966, Wilson more or less pleaded with Bruce to make another trip to the White House; Bruce wrote to the State Department that Wilson was “absolutely confident he could avoid any embarrassment to the President during his visit.”
Wilson wanted Johnson to understand that he did not “believe in making a mess on another fellow’s carpet.” To his relief, the prime minister won his meeting, and when in Washington his pledges of continued support for the United States brought at least a temporary rehabilitation of the relationship between himself and Johnson.
Johnson once boasted regard to Vietnam there were more than 70 peacemaking initiatives during his that with presidency, and the British were responsible for nine of them. The Wilson government had several motives behind putting forward its various arbitration schemes. First, besides ending the sheer destruction and bloodshed in Vietnam, success in peacemaking would extricate its American ally from a difficult situation. Second, it would prevent possible escalation of the war to involve China and the Soviet Union. Third, visible efforts to mediate would soothe feelings within the Labour Party and among the British public. And finally, for Wilson personally, well-publicized mediation efforts would bolster his standing with Labour and on the world stage.
The two most prominent British attempts to start peace negotiations were the Commonwealth Peace Mission of June 1965 and the Kosygin Initiative of February 1967. In June 1965 Wilson and three other leaders of Commonwealth nations announced that they would speak to the governments chiefly concerned to try to bring about a peace settlement in Vietnam. Publicly, Washington was willing to support the project, primarily because a reluctance to do so would antagonize world opinion. In private, however, there was a great deal of cynicism about the scheme. At one point, according to CIA Deputy Director Richard Helms, Johnson voiced considerable concern about the Wilson mission and said that he saw no point in having the Prime Minister come to Washington if Washington and Saigon were the only capitals which would receive him. Such a visit might be an embarrassment to the United States. The Commonwealth Peace Mission came to nothing, not least because the North Vietnamese mocked Wilson’s status as the mere errand boy of the White House.
An equally high-profile, and unsuccessful, example of the Prime Minister’s zeal for peacemaking took place in February 1967, when he and a number of colleagues, including Foreign Secretary George Brown, tried to use a visit to London by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to initiate fruitful contacts with the North Vietnamese. As with the Commonwealth Peace Mission, Hanoi had given no intimation that it was ready to make significant concessions at the negotiating table, and for reasons of its own Washington decided to toughen its policy toward negotiations at the eleventh hour. A distraught Wilson cabled Johnson to complain that he now found himself in “a hell of a situation,” because his credibility with the Soviets had been shattered. Bruce had to dissuade him from the usual impulsive desire to make a transatlantic odyssey to try to sort things out with the president. “It would not be wise for the Prime Minister to dash off to Washington…since it would be an act of panic and hysteria.”
A visit would not have prospered, chiefly because of the widespread conviction in Washington that Wilson’s peace initiative was largely self-serving. A State Department analysis noted the British desire “to participate with maximum personal visibility in bringing peace to Vietnam—in early February alone Wilson proposed traveling personally both to Washington and Hanoi.”
This enthusiasm was “sometimes embarrassing to the U.S., which greatly preferred confidential dealings with a minimum of participants,” according to a State Department report. Vietnam continued to strain the Anglo-American relationship. After a phone call to Washington in November 1967, Bruce noted that Secretary of State Dean Rusk was in “a dour mood…caustic, even bitter, about the British…not sending troops to help us in Vietnam.”
The British announcement in July 1967 of the intention to withdraw from military bases in the East of Suez region by the mid 1970s exacerbated the rancor, as it seemed to undermine American policy in Asia at an especially vulnerable juncture. Yet, especially with regard to Vietnam, Wilson struggled to please all of the people all of the time. Bruce recorded in October that when Wilson had visited Cambridge University, eggs and tomatoes were thrown at him, and cries of “right-wing bastard and Vietnam murderer were uttered. His car was kicked, thumped and beaten upon, its roof dented, the radio aerial smashed, and he was only extricated by the efforts of the police.”
It is worth noting that there was at least some appreciation in the White House for even the relatively modest extent of Britain’s support over Vietnam. In June 1965, for example, McGeorge Bundy advised the president that every experienced observer from David Bruce on down was astonished by the overall strength and skill of Wilson’s defense of American 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.”
As a social democratic government with ample experience in diplomacy, British support, qualified though it was, went some way in helping to legitimize American policy in Vietnam. In the absence of British troops, however, Johnson and his advisers were never inclined to take heed of British concerns about the course of the war. It must be underscored that Britain did not manage to exert any moderating effect upon American military operations.
Nor of course did the schemes to broker peace achieve much, either in terms of easing tensions between the Americans and the North Vietnamese or in terms of enhancing British standing in American eyes. The White House seemed to regard the British initiatives as motivated above all by happy delusions of winning Nobel Peace Prizes; and it was ironic, considering the poor personal relationship, that in public perceptions Wilson remained too close to the Americans to be able to play the role of disinterested mediator. Vietnam helped ensure that the Wilson-Johnson relationship was an especially troubled one, characterized by varying shades of strain, resentment and mutual incomprehension. Ultimately, Wilson’s policies toward the Vietnam War satisfied neither the White House nor the British Labour Party, but he did at least avoid a major breach with either.
Jonathan Colman is a historian and freelance writer, as well as a former lecturer at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. For additional reading, see his book A “Special Relationship”? Harold Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson and Anglo-American Relations at the Summit, 1964-68; and Britain, America and the Vietnam War, by Sylvia Ellis.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.