Harold Wilson statue

Harold Wilson: The Man Who Kept Us Out Of Vietnam

Harold Wilson statue
With the Iraq Inquiry's findings having finally been published, it's a good opportunity to compare today’s Middle East with Vietnam.
It's a tale of two very different Labour Prime Ministers - Tony Blair and Harold Wilson.
At the outset, the political situation between the two was quite similar.
In 2003 George Bush pushed for British support in Iraq from Tony Blair; in the 60s, Lyndon Johnson wanted Harold Wilson to support his escalation of the Vietnam War.
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Prime Minister Tony Blair with President Bush in the Rose Garden
But from there, events diverge sharply.
Wilson chose to offer token support to the US, and, it's been argued, for good reason.
Hospitals stayed open, pensions were paid, and university students funded only because the wheels of the British economy still turned with American money.
Britain had been left in dire need of economic assistance after the Second World War and was only able to rebuild and create its welfare state by securing a huge loan from the US.
Bernard Donoughue, who served as head of the Number 10 Policy Unit during Wilson’s time as PM, spoke about his old boss in a Commons event commemorating the centenary of his birth, on Tuesday night.
In the speech, he gave some key insights into Wilson’s thinking about Vietnam.
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President Lyndon Johnson (left) escalated Vietnam, while Prime Minister Harold Wilson (right) kept Britain out
He indicates Wilson’s private stance against going to war in Vietnam may have more practical than principled, with Wilson believing that joining the war wasn’t something the Labour Party should be doing, and that Britain simply couldn’t afford it.
Despite committing no troops, Wilson still faced huge public criticism for not outright condemning the conflict – the mood was angry and rebellious, with police only just stopping protesters breaking into the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square during a protest on March 17th, 1967.
When his own cabinet turned on him and asked why he wouldn't criticise the Americans, he reportedly snapped "Because we can’t kick our creditors in the balls!!”.
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The American Embassy in Grosvenor Square where the 1967 protest occurred (picture: http://www.geograph.org.uk/)
Donoughue also noted that the political character of the two prime ministers differed greatly:
"Wilson was a very pragmatic man… He was totally different to Tony Blair, who was a messianic character." 
However, Donoughue also pointed out that while Wilson wouldn’t have felt any sense of identification with Blair, Iraq aside, he probably would have supported him politically because he produced results:  
"He would have supported what Blair did in the party, certainly. Wilson rose on the centre-left and governed on the centre-right [like Blair]"
What is also often not highlighted is that Wilson was no dove. 
While the US was escalating the conflict in Vietnam, Britain was fighting a cheaper, stealthier war in Borneo, utilising the SAS to fight a covert jungle war.
Click below to see former SAS soldier Lofty Large talking about his jungle experiences in Malaya and Borneo...
Defence Secretary Dennis Healey once argued that the conflict was the most successful war Britain has ever waged.
"We won it [Borneo] after four years, with a loss of only 134 men, whereas the Americans tried to win the Vietnamese war by bombing and millions were killed, and they lost."
After America entered Iraq in 2003, the strategy options for succeeding at the time were presented as a choice of going big, going long, or going home.
Had Wilson’s strategy been analysed, the two options might instead have been go in quietly, or just stay home.

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