Sunday 22 August 2021

Britain's role in Vietnam

Vietnamese propaganda poster c.1960s
(translator unknown)

When we think of countries that have interfered aggressively against the people of Vietnam over the previous century the Americans are probably the first country that comes to most people's minds, with the French a close second, perhaps followed by Japan, and then China. 
What is less well known is Britain's role in trying to restore French colonialism on the Indochinese peninsula after World War 2 which, like British diplomatic support for US sanctions after the Vietnamese military victory of 1975, is rarely mentioned in official histories.
Most historians, and consequently even some peace activists, tend to look favourably on the stance that Prime Minister Wilson took to the American War, refusing to send British troops to kill and be killed, but preserving the "special relationship" by providing diplomatic support for the US war of aggression. Its image of a cautious approach to foreign policy is as comforting as it is misleading.

This much I was aware of. 

I also knew about the diplomatic support that Prime Minister Thatcher later offered the US during the post-war economic embargo it imposed on the Vietnamese as punishment for their victory. This is less discussed on television documentaries than the period of the war itself and Wilson's stance, and I only know about it because of the work of independent journalists like John Pilger. 
Pilger has also drawn attention to Thatcher's role in lobbying the UN on behalf of the USA to cut shipments of powdered milk to the war-ravaged nation, which Vietnam had been receiving through the UN's food aid programme. (I still wonder why this woman had such a callous disregard for children's nutrition, be they Vietnamese or British.)
On the other hand, I had been far less aware of Britain's role in trying to restore French colonialism to the Indochinese peninsula following the Japanese defeat in WW2. I owe much to the work of historian John Newsinger for bringing this history to light.

The key events happened in the autumn of 1945. 

On September 2, President Ho Chi Minh read his famous speech to a large crowd in Hanoi, proclaiming the independence of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam and reading from their Declaration of Independence. So grateful were the Vietnamese for the material support the Viet Minh national liberation army had received from the US in order to defeat the Japanese military occupation that large sections of the newly drafted Declaration are modelled after the US Declaration. US intelligence officials have been identified applauding in the crowd, presumably hopeful that the new nation of Vietnam would be a useful client state in the region.

On September 6 however we see the first British troops, commanded by General Douglas Gracey, begin arriving in the southern city of Saigon. Viet Minh control is weakest here in the south of the country, and the British seek to exploit this weakness by proceeding to introduce a form of martial law, disarming the nationalists and arming newly released POWs.
By September 23, with Gracey's support, the French were able to seize power in Saigon by taking over the city hall and arresting any Vietnamese they thought were connected to or sympathetic to the new government in Hanoi. 

The historian George Rosie records one clash that took place between 80 members of the British Indian Infantry Brigade (Gracey, like the author George Orwell, came from that tier of British society born to parents living in British India, but educated at private schools back in the UK) that resulted in the deaths of at least 60 Vietnamese.
It was only due to considerable pressure that General Gracey was forced to open negotiations with the Viet Minh, who he had refused to recognise up until this point. However, this was merely a ploy to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

English language film poster for Memories of Dien Bien
(source: IMDB)

The rest is pretty well known history. The French continued their attempts to restore their colonial domination of Indochina until they were finally defeated at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 (a period depicted in the 2004 film Memories of Dien Bien). By this time the Cold War was underway, and the USA was fully in the grip of its anti-communist fervour, so was more inclined to view the new socialist government in Hanoi far more negatively than when it was fighting against Axis-aligned Japan.