Unhistory: Britain’s Forgotten Indochina Connection

The popular myth concerning Britain’s relation to the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and 70s – accepted and repeated to the point of delirium – is that parliament did not send troops, and therefore had no involvement at all. In a recent think piece for the BBC News website justifying the logic of austerity through a discussion of historical antecedents to military spending cuts, feature writer Tom de Castella argues that Britain had ‘no place in Vietnam’, and that ‘the UK was not involved, prime minister Harold Wilson having refused to send troops’. But Wilson in fact supported the US, since MI6 dispatched a team of Malays and tribesmen from Borneo to South Vietnam to participate in a tour of duty alongside ethnic Montagnards. The Observer reported during the 1972 Christmas bombings that ‘the British government has no intention of joining in the international condemnation’ of US aggression, and ‘private comments leave no doubt that British official thinking supports Mr Nixon’s actions’ (Robert Stephens, ‘Britain silent on bombing,’ 24 December 1972).

British academics have been silent on their country’s role in the Vietnam conflict, in which the US used 15 million tons of munitions, killing between 2 and 3 million people. Mark Curtis explains in Web of Deceit that ‘Britain conducted secret air flights from Hong Kong to deliver arms, especially napalm and five-hundred-pound bombs. MI6 also assisted the Malayan government to transfer arms and other military supplies secretly to South Vietnam. British counter-insurgency experts were also seconded to Saigon as part of a British Advisory Mission. Some soldiers were seconded to Fort Bragg, home of the US special forces, and then inducted into the US army. Britain trained US, Vietnamese and Thai troops at its jungle warfare school in Malaya in the late 1960s, and for several years one of Britain’s leading counter-insurgency experts, a veteran of the war in Malaya, advised the Nixon regime on Vietnam policy’ (Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, London: Vintage, 2003, p. 105).

But Britain’s chief form of solidarity with the US army was intelligence sharing, with MI6 station heads in Hanoi sending reports to the US: ‘The British monitoring station at Little Sai Wan in Hong Kong provided the US with intelligence until 1975. The US National Security Agency coordinated all signals intelligence in Southeast Asia, and Little Sai Wan was linked to this operation. Its intercepts of North Vietnamese military traffic were used by the US military command to target bombing strikes over North Vietnam’ (ibid). Along with the Wilson administration, the Macmillan, Douglas-Home and Heath governments all lent diplomatic support to the US: ‘Conservative governments were especially enthusiastic but Labour leaders were also consistently sympathetic to basic US objectives and most of its actions. Despite occasional criticism of some specific US military strikes, one will search in vain for British government statements questioning the US’ basic right to conduct the war or questioning its supposed noble, moral motives’ (ibid).

Of central concern to Whitehall in its support of the war was to ensure that the US continued to support Britain in its hostility towards the popular nationalist Sukarno’s Indonesia in his conflict with Malaysia, a vital British colony. The consequences for Britain’s policy in Malaya if it decided to defend the 1954 Geneva Accords and oppose US aggression were outlined by the Foreign Office in December 1964, which noted that ‘not least because we need American support over Malaysia, we probably have no option but to give diplomatic support, as long as we can, to whatever policy the US government choose to adopt [in Vietnam]’ (Foreign Office brief, ‘Visit to Washington by Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary’, December 1964, PREM13/692). Lord Milverton once cautioned the House of Lords ‘not [to] forget … that the prize in this contest is the richest country for its size and population in the world’, thanks to its ‘rubber and tin, the coal and iron ore … all the tropical produce of Malaya, from palm oil to pineapples – to say nothing of the oil of Brunei and Sarawak.’ This made Malaya the ‘greatest material prize in South-East Asia’ (House of Lords debate, 27 February 1952, Col. 333).

In a conscious breach of international law, in September 1965 the British Foreign Office ‘agreed to export 300 bombs intended for the US air force “for use in Vietnam”, saying that “there must be no publicity” and that “delivery should be in the UK”. The previous month the Foreign Secretary had agreed to provide the US with 200 Saracen armoured personnel carriers for use in Vietnam “providing that delivery took place in Europe” and that there was “no unavoidable publicity”’ (Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, London: Vintage, 2004, pp. 233-4).

After over 40 years of journalistic experience, John Pilger added in the New Statesman: ‘In the aftermath of the US war in Vietnam, which I reported, the policy in Washington was revenge, a word frequently used in private but never publicly. A medieval embargo was imposed on Vietnam and Cambodia; the Thatcher government cut off supplies of milk to the children of Vietnam. This assault on the very fabric of life in two of the world’s most stricken societies was rarely reported; the consequence was mass suffering’ (‘The real first casualty of war’, 24 April 2006).

In September 1970, Britain relaxed the restrictions on its arms sales and bombs and helicopter machine-gun turrets were sold to Thailand, which was proceeding to engage in air strikes against Cambodia and Laos. Yet major school textbooks in Britain completely ignore Heath and Wilson’s direct support of the US operations in Vietnam, opting instead to harass Sixth Formers and undergraduates with fun and exciting exercises to test their ability to blandly critique some overtly or – for advanced students only! – implicitly patriotic speech or cartoon. Efforts like Edulens, documenting the patriotic and pro-business biases in mainstream education curricula, act as small voices for the suppressed history of British state violence, and it’s not hard to imagine other creative ways to encourage suspicion of official truths. People don’t always react when you tell them things like this, they often nod and raise their eyebrows in bland agreement or shrug it off entirely; the goal is to hammer the point home enough until this form of behaviour turns into serious action.

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