Britain backs escalation of U.S. assault on Vietnam

US aircraft dropping tons of toxic defoliants to destroy crops in South Vietnam.
The U.S. National Agricultural Library via Wikipedia.

[ 13 June 1965 ]

Today in 1965, Labour MP Tony Benn noted in his diary, regarding the situation in Vietnam, that ‘the Americans are now deciding to invade in full strength and we are left in the embarrassing position of appearing to support them.’1 Washington’s role had previously been limited to deploying military advisers and providing equipment to prop up the deeply unpopular South Vietnamese military junta, but President Johnson was now pouring US troops and arms into the country.

He had also ordered the United States Air Force to pulverize industrial targets and civilian infrastructure in North Vietnam, which was supporting the Viet Cong guerrillas, while drenching South Vietnamese rural areas with highly toxic chemical defoliants. In public, Washington had declared that the main aim of the aerial spraying was to clear areas of jungle used by the insurgents, though in reality the main target was crops. This led to widespread famine, with tens of thousands dying from diseases linked to malnutrition and slow starvation.2

Some left leaning media outlets in Britain voiced their concern. The New Statesman asked ‘When is the British government going to offer the smallest whisper of criticism of American policy in Vietnam ?’ and the Guardian was even more outspoken, asking ‘Why does Mr. Wilson (the British Prime Minister) say nothing about the futility and wickedness of what the Americans are doing ?’3 However, the Daily Mirror was more typical of a general reluctance to criticize the United States, explaining that ‘Britain, alone, has given consistent support to the American policy,’ and adding that ‘The Mirror believes the Prime Minister has been right, so far, to attempt to persuade in private rather than condemn in public.’4 Despite its editorial supporting Wilson’s silence, the newspaper carried a report the very same day on page 24, admitting that in South Vietnam there was no longer any pretense of representative government, or even the rule of law: ‘There is now no government, no constitution – not even the guidelines for a constitution… The American view is that it does not matter… whether there is a government or not the American army will stay put and fight communism.’5

FOOTNOTES

  1. Tony Benn, Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963-67, Hutchinson, London, p. 273.
  2. Wil D. Verwey, Riot Control Agents and Herbicides in War, A. W. Sijthoff International, Leyden, 1977.
  3. The New Statesman and the Guardian cited in ‘Vietnam: The meaning of Mr. Wilson’s silence,’ The Daily Mirror, 14 June 1965, pp. 1-2.
  4. ‘Vietnam: The meaning of Mr. Wilson’s silence,’ The Daily Mirror, 14 June 1965, p. 2.
  5. ‘Vietnam “Waiting Game,”‘ The Daily Mirror, 14 June 1965, p. 24.

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