Harold Wilson, Financial issues and the Vietnam War

Why the risky decision by the UK to remain out of the Vietnam War is one which paid off

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The Vietnam War is one which defined a generation and changed the way the world viewed the USA as a military and political stage. It is also a war in which it asked the UK for support, a request which was never fulfilled.

The UK would have kept a close eye on south east Asia, through the repelling of the French colonial forces in the 1950s and the rise of communism in North Vietnam through the 1960s. Yet when American troops landed at Da Nang in 1965, there were no British boots alongside them.

Harold Wilson was elected UK Prime Minister the previous year. President Lyndon Johnson came to Wilson for his backing in Vietnam, yet from the off the PM was against the war, on financial and moral grounds.

The Second World War took a significant financial toll on the UK. That and military involvement in Korea had also drained resources and morale for another war. Wilson and his Labour government needed to make significant changes to the fortunes of the UK, they felt that sending thousands of troops to the rice paddies of Vietnam was not the answer.

The Vietnam War was a conflict which stirred huge public protests around the world, and the UK was no exception. Harold Wilson had kept UK soldiers out of south east Asia, yet still came under scrutiny for a lack of an outright condemnation of the war.

There were protests in the streets of the UK despite Wilson keeping soldiers out of Vietnam. Public reaction would have perhaps been enough to topple the government had the UK entered the war.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was a situation which Wilson couldn’t really win. if he entered the war, then he would have been potentially looked upon as the man who sent thousands of British troops to fight and die in a war on the other side of the world. The war changed America and prompted millions to protest their government, this fate was spared for the UK government.

Other leaders would have bowed the American pressure, even more so because the UK was relying on a bail out from the USA to prevent a run on the pound, but Wilson persisted. His time as Prime Minister saw some major changes in the UK, including the rare example of the nation not sleepwalking into a war nobody wanted.

Within the context of the time, thousands of soldiers dying overseas in a war which would drain an already fragile British economy was a step which Harold Wilson was wise not to take. The UK’s entry into the Vietnam War could have shaped the rest of the 20th century in a very different way.

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I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. Passionate writing about politics, culture, sport, society and more

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