1960-1969 | United States | VIetnam

Labour Government supports American bombing of North Vietnam

A B-52 dropping bombs over Vietnam
A B-52 dropping bombs over Vietnam –
US Federal Government photo/Wikimedia

3 February 1966

In the Cabinet minutes, it’s described as ‘considerable disquiet’ and in Transport Minister Barbara Castle’s diaries as ‘the most spirited wrangle yet.’  On 3 February 1966, there was a furious argument in the Cabinet over a Foreign Office statement, issued the previous evening, that ‘Her Majesty’s Government understand and support the decision of the US Government to resume the bombing (of North Vietnam) which they had suspended.’1 The Labour Government’s cheerleading for more bombing came at a time when the United Nations was struggling to find a peace compromise to prevent the conflict escalating at the cost of thousands of lives and the very real possibility of a terminal nuclear conflict.

Although the Cabinet minutes do not reveal which ministers spoke in defence of the statement, we know from Barbara Castle’s memoirs that four relatively junior ministers spoke against, Richard Crossman, Minister of Housing, Frank Peart, Minister of Agriculture and Frederick Lee, Minister of Power and Castle herself.2 The rebels spoke up with considerable passion, but the majority doggedly defended the Foreign Office position, claiming that ‘the United States had no alternative’ and that ‘we should have been subject to even greater embarrassment if we had attempted either to defer any public indication of our attitude or to evade the issue of the extent to which the United States had our general endorsement.’3

Later the same month, President Johnson ordered Defence Secretary Robert McNamara to initiate Operation Rolling Thunder which would rain a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than had fallen on Europe throughout the Second World War. He confessed to McNamara: ‘Now we’re off to bombing these people, we’re over the hurdle. I don’t think anything is going to be as bad as loosing, and I don’t see any way of winning.’4  An admission that he had ordered the bombing operations not to win the war, but to avoid any concessions to obtain a peace settlement which would be politically construed as ‘loosing’.

By late 1967, the US government estimated that that there had been 48,000 Vietnamese civilian casualties as a direct result of bombing since 1965. The CIA explained that ‘although civilians sustain the greater number of casualties’compared to the Vietnamese military, this was because many civilians were engaged in ‘truck driving, transport repair and other war-related activities.’6According to the target lists these ‘other war related activities’ included all those working in the shipyards, maritime ports, factories, electric power plants and petroleum storage facilities as well as employees on the railways, river barges and ferries.7


  1. Hansard North Vietnam ( United States Bombing ) HC Deb 01 February 1966 vol 723 cc887-9 accessed online at url https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1966/feb/01/north-vietnam-united-states-bombing
  2. Barbara Castle, ‘The Castle Diaries, 1964-1976,’ Papermac, London, 1990, p. 52.
  3. CAB 128/41/5 The National Archives.
  4. Michael Beschloss, ‘I don’t see any way of winning,’ Newsweek, 11 November 2001, accessed online at url https://www.newsweek.com/i-dont-see-any-way-winning-149405
  5. CIA Intelligence Memorandum, An Assessment of the Rolling Thunder Program Through December 1967, March 1968 p. 32 accessed online at url https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80T01629R000300080012-1.pdf
  6. Ibid, p. 33
  7. Ibid, pp. 35-47.

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