In “God, Greed and Homophobia” (January SR) John Newsinger writes, “the great Clement Attlee did send 20,000 British troops to Saigon in 1945 to fight alongside the French against the Communist resistance!” Not quite true. John has written some splendid denunciations of British imperialism, but here he is too kind to Attlee.
France, recovering from four years of Nazi occupation, was still trying to get its armed forces together. Only in October 1945 did the first French troops leave for Vietnam, and it was well into 1946 before they could regain control of their colony.
But the crunch had come earlier. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
It was troops under British command (mainly Indians and Gurkhas doing Britain’s dirty work, plus some recently defeated Japanese soldiers) who prevented the establishment of an independent regime — there were no French troops to fight “alongside” (though Britain did arm some French settlers).
When Labour MP Tom Driberg tried to mediate, this was obstructed by the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Land Forces, General Gracey.
If an independent Vietnam had been set up in 1945, not one but two savagely destructive wars would have been unnecessary. Over three million people died in the French and American wars.
The great Marxist historian John Saville described Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s statement to parliament justifying the British intervention as “a louche statement of lies”. Most other historians have simply ignored the whole episode.
The NHS is indeed a splendid thing (I for one should very probably be dead without it). But we should never forget Britain’s criminal and murderous role in preparing 30 years of war in Indochina.