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Harold Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, 1964-68

by Jonathan Coleman, University of Aberystwyth

American Studies Today Online

Britain has long claimed a special relationship with the United States in terms of foreign policy, but this has not always meant giving unquestioning support to American military involvement overseas. Jonathan Coleman explores the strained relationship between Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson which resulted from the Labour Government’s refusal to send troops to support the Americans in Vietnam.

by Jonathan Coleman

Posted 07 December, 2004

War dashes Wilson's hopes

Tony Blair and George Bush may stand ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ on most issues, but the vaunted ‘special’ relationship between 10 Downing Street and the White House has not always been so cosy. The years 1964-68, when the Labour government of Harold Wilson and the Democratic administration of Lyndon B. Johnson were in power, saw pronounced strain at the highest levels of Anglo-American bonds, caused to a significant extent by differences over America’s war in Vietnam. Opposition to the war within the Labour Party and among the British general public meant that the Wilson government could not satisfy the United States’ desire for support; certainly, London had to reject the frequent American requests for combat troops. In the absence of direct British participation, the Johnson administration tended 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 British prime minister and US president.

The Anglo-American ‘special’ relationship of the 1960s stemmed from the intimate practical cooperation against the Axis powers during the Second World War and rested upon a nexus of continued institutional ties in the fields of defence and intelligence, as well as frequent and prominent dealings between presidents and prime ministers. Harold Wilson, who was elected in October 1964, was an especially keen advocate of close Anglo-American ties, recognising that visibly constructive bonds with Washington would help to preserve Britain’s seat at the ‘top table’ of world affairs and enhance his own standing as a statesman. The US Ambassador to London, David Bruce, 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’. These two leaders had established a political friendship of great cordiality, frequent consultation and mutual respect.

War dashes Wison's hopes

First Air Cavalry Division landing at Song Re, South Vietnam in 1967




The Vietnam War helped to dash Wilson’s hopes of forming similar bonds with Lyndon Johnson. A 1965 Foreign Office document examined the conflict 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 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 interests by giving moral ‘support to our major ally’. Wilson did favour this pro-American line, with the result that in general terms his government backed US policy in Vietnam. But unlike the mandarins of the Foreign Office, he also needed to address Labour Party and public opinion. In March 1965 Bruce explained to Washington that the British leader was ‘hotly accused by many British, including a formidable number of moderate Labour Parliamentarians, of being a mere satellite of the US, 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 which the Americans first raised in December 1964, at a summit meeting in Washington. On this 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 because British forces were already engaged in a counterinsurgency operation in Malaysia known as ‘Confrontation’. But given that the President required only a symbolic commitment of troops to indicate to world opinion that he had British support, involvement in ‘Confrontation’ was a weak excuse. Nor once ‘Confrontation’ had ended late in 1966 did the Labour government show any greater willingness to send troops to Vietnam, suggesting domestic politics had more to do with the refusal than did international issues.

It soon became clear that the refusal rankled with Johnson. On 10 February 1965, the Prime Minister learned of a ‘vicious attack by the Vietcong in the Saigon area, involving the destruction of a club largely used by US servicemen’. Fearing an exaggerated American response, he discussed the matter with his Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, at 11:30 pm that day. 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 3:15 am GMT, 10:15 pm EST, he finally telephoned Johnson directly. Wilson stated ‘that he would like to come to Washington’ to help deal with the ‘high-level of concern in London’. Johnson was distinctly hostile, insisting that ‘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 US 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, a further reason for Johnson’s rejection of Wilson’s request for a summit was the belief that British politicians were inclined to visit Washington in order to ‘play to the gallery’ at home. Once, when London requested a routine meeting, the President is said to have responded to an aide that ‘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’’’

at home and had long since ‘realised that in terms of domestic politics the war was likely to become increasingly unpopular’. Oliver Wright of the Foreign Office explained to Wilson soon after the fateful telephone call of February 1965 that ‘the man who is at present at the head of the United States is basically not interested in foreign affairs’. Wright spoke later of his recent 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.

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’’


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 combat soldiers to Vietnam. Wilson noted that under his premiership ‘there was a small minority on the extreme left’ in Britain who maintained that ‘short-term monetary accommodation’ from the United States was made available ‘only in return for a secret understanding that Britain would support US policy in Vietnam’. Certainly, the British government was susceptible to a certain amount of economic ‘arm-twisting’ by the Americans. The economy had suffered for some years as a result of uncompetitive industrial practices, an overvalued pound, and a resulting failure to prosper in foreign markets. The frequent sterling crises effected by these defects led the US Treasury to orchestrate a umber 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 US archives indicates that some of Johnson’s advisers decided that Washington should only support the pound if Britain continued to maintain its extensive defence commitments ‘East of Suez’ and in West Germany, as withdrawals from these areas would undermine the United States’ own foreign and defence policies. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy went further by trying to bring Vietnam into the deal, counselling the President on 28 July 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 pound with the nature of 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 agonising 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 men to Vietnam then the controversy of America’s stand there might be inflamed still further – and drastically. 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 ‘dissociate’ itself from certain American initiatives in Vietnam. Labour won the general election in March with a decisive 94-seat majority – a great improvement from the single-figure margin with which Wilson had previously had to contend - but the victory brought a substantial influx of fractious and anti-American left-wingers who could not be ignored. On 28 June 1966, the United States began bombing POL (petrol, oil, lubricants) facilities in the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, a move regarded in many quarters as directed mainly against civilians. To satisfy Labour radicals, Wilson ‘dissociated’ his government from this measure, producing consternation in the White House at this seeming act of betrayal from an ally. The White House’s new National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow, suggested that British policy was essentially a weak and cowardly one: Washington 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, recognising the impact of ‘dissociation’ on his already shaky standing in Washington, wrote to Johnson about the pressure he faced to denounce ‘the whole of your 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 a further visit, as it might appear that the British leader was crossing the Atlantic in order to tell him how to conduct himself – as Clement Attlee had seemed to do when he saw President Truman in December 1950, at the height of the Korean War. On 4 July, Wilson more or less pleaded with Bruce in order to secure another trip to the White House: he was ‘absolutely confident he could avoid any embarrassment to the President during his visit’. He wanted Johnson to understand that ‘he does not believe in making a mess on another fellow’s carpet’. To his relief, the Prime Minister gained his meeting, and when in Washington his pledges of continued fealty to the United States brought at least a temporary rehabilitation of the relationship between him and Johnson.

The President once recorded that with regard to Vietnam there were over 70 peacemaking initiatives during his presidency, and of these initiatives the British were responsible for nine. The Wilson government had several motives behind putting forward its various arbitration schemes. Firstly, as well as ending the sheer destruction and bloodshed in Vietnam, success in peacemaking would extricate its American allies from a difficult situation; secondly, it would prevent any possible escalation of the war to involve China and the Soviet Union; thirdly, visible efforts to mediate would soothe feelings within the Labour Party and among the British general public; and, finally, for Wilson personally, well-publicised mediation efforts would bolster his standing with the Labour Party 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, not least because a reluctance to do so would antagonise world opinion. In private, however, there was a great deal of cynicism about the Commonwealth scheme. At one point, 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.

There was an equally high-profile, and unsuccessful, example of the Prime Minister’s zeal for peacemaking in February 1967, when he and a number of colleagues such as Foreign Secretary George Brown tried to use the visit to London of the Russian 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 own 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 Russians 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 appear to be an act of panic and hysteria’.

A visit would not have prospered, not least 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 travelling personally both to Washington and Hanoi’. This enthusiasm was ‘sometimes embarrassing to the US, which greatly preferred confidential dealings with a minimum of participants’. 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 had exacerbated the rancour, as it seemed to undermine American policy in Asia at an especially vulnerable juncture. Yet especially with regard to Vietnam, the Prime Minister struggled to please all of the people all of the time. Bruce had 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’.


American soldiers on patrol in Vietnam

To conclude, it is worth remembering 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 has been astonished 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’. As a social democratic government with ample experience in diplomacy, British support, qualified though it was, went some way in helping to legitimise American policy in Vietnam. However, in the absence of British troops, Johnson and his advisers were never inclined to take heed of British concerns about the course of the war; it must be underlined that Britain did not manage to exert any moderating effect upon American military operations. Nor of course did the schemes to broker a 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 President to be able to play the role of disinterested mediator. Vietnam helped ensure that the Wilson-Johnson relationship was an especially troubled one, characterised by varying shades of strain, resentment and mutual incomprehension. Ultimately, Wilson’s policies towards the Vietnam War satisfied neither the White House nor the Labour Party, but he did at least avoid a major breach with either. How far the apparently cosy relations between Tony Blair and the White House continue to prevail remains to be seen.

Jonathan Colman, A ‘Special Relationship’? Harold Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson and Anglo-American Relations ‘at the Summit’, 1964-68 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).

See also Sylvia Ellis, Britain the United States and the Vietnam War (New York: Praeger, 2004).


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