The Viet Nam War and the British Student Left: A Study in Political Symbolism
Anthony O. Edmonds, History Department, Ball State University
In the fall of 1985, I took a group of Ball State University students to Oxford, England, as part of an exchange program. Before the term began, we did the traditional tour--London, Cornwall, York, and finally Scotland. On emerging from a particularly trendy Edinburgh disco (where my students had dragged me), we were accosted by some unruly teenagers, one of whom greeted us with: "Fucking Americans! Look what you fucking did to Viet Nam!"1 I whisked my charges away as quickly as possible, and back in our hotel, they were naturally curious. Why the hostility? Why Viet Nam, after so many years? I had no easy answers. Surely these young Scots had no memories of the Viet Nam war. After all, it had ended while they were still in nappies. (Indeed, British involvement in Viet Nam was minimal at best after 1954.) Perhaps their parents had been deeply committed anti-Viet Nam war activists who had passed on their ideals. Or, were they simply using United States' involvement in Viet Nam as a symbol appropriate for a little late-night American-bashing? But why Viet Nam? Why not Grenada? Or El Salvador? Or Pershing and Cruise Missiles? Why Viet Nam?
This small incident raises some interesting questions. While a considerable amount of scholarly attention has been lavished on the antiwar movement in the United States, until very recently2 historians have generally ignored the impact of the Vietnam War on British society. What kind of antiwar movement existed in Britain? What role did Vietnam play in British attitudes toward the United States? Was the Vietnam War a key issue, deeply felt, or was it used primarily for other purposes?
I want to take a few tentative, introductory steps in answering these questions. I will argue that, although it was small and derived from the U.S. movement, Great Britain had a flourishing anti-Vietnam war movement in the late 1960s, comprised largely of young people. To be sure, many who protested against the war did so because of a deep hatred for the suffering experienced by the Vietnamese. However, this movement used the Vietnam war for the most part as a political and cultural symbol--to embarrass the Labour government of Harold Wilson, to organize British youth, and to develop a theory of imperialism implicating expansive U.S. hegemony. In other words, the reality of the Vietnam war was less important than the war as a potent symbol.
While time limitations prohibit a detailed analysis of British youth protest and culture in the 1960s, most students of the phenomenon3 agree on certain basic points. First, the British movement, especially its political activists, was not very large. Indeed, it never encompassed a majority of youth, much less of a whole society. It "never achieved the status of a mass movement" and was hardly "comparable with the American or even the European student movement" of the 1960s.4 Indeed, according to David Widgery, it was "a puny specimen."5
Second, "the counter-cultural protesters... of the 1960s were... mainly middle class."6 More specifically, they were largely the product of a "small, elite" British university system.7 Concretely, according to Nigel Young, "Student activity was the most important single factor in providing a... base for the Vietnam War protests of 1968, drawn disproportionately from the campus constituency."8
Third, there was little original in British youth protest. In his comparative study of British and American "ideologies of revolution" in the 1960s, David Bouchier states at the outset: "Material from Britain is therefore presented to set the American examples in their wider context and to demonstrate the spreading influence of American forms of protest."9 Indeed, in the late 1960s, the British "movement" became essentially "an echo... [a] postscript, to American developments rather than a leading section...."10
Finally, the British movement was extremely fluid and difficult to pin down. It exhibited the usual tensions between political activism and cultural rebellion, between the raised fist and the raised joint. Moreover, political activists often split into bitter sectarian struggles between pacifists and revolutionaries, Trotskyites and old-left Marxists, anarchists and moderate Labourites. Nonetheless, most studies agree that the issue of the Vietnam war did, at least temporarily, unite protest factions around one issue. In the words of oral historian Ronald Fraser:
Clearly, this "common ground" attracted considerable attention, especially in 1968. Two major demonstrations in London, sponsored by the VSC, drew more than 100,000 participants. According to its newsletter, VSC branches were active in many British cities--Glasgow, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Swansea. Even small towns, including Falkirk and Northold Park, counted VSC members.12 The substantial branch in Edinburgh briefly published its own newsletter.13 Underground periodicals and newspapers like International Times, OZ and Black Dwarf were filled with articles and letters condemning the war. Mainstream newspapers and journals of opinion, while less strident and hardly unanimous in their opposition to the war, nonetheless contained a substantial number of editorials and letters calling for an end to the conflict. Thus, the Vietnam war was an issue in Great Britain, one around which a number of articulate young Britons wrote, spoke, demonstrated, and organized.
For many, opposition to the war surely involved, in large measure, deeply-felt moral outrage. A pacifist like Bertrand Russell--long active in the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament--opposed the war in part because American weapons were killing innocent people. One of Russell's most articulate disciples was Tariq Ali. This Pakistani-born, Oxford-educated activist almost single-handedly founded the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. In his revealing autobiography, Ali admits that by 1966:
He took this passion into a 1966 teach-in at Oxford. Former American Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, was one of the participants. Ali describes the scene with both passion and the kind of ironic humor associated with left youth culture:
Students far less well-known than Tariq Ali shared his obsession. Anthony Barnett, a student a Leicester University in 1968, focused his passion on American bombing:
Much of the underground press echoed Barnett's sense of moral outrage, although tinged more with black humor. The 19 July 1968, edition of Black Dwarf, for example, featured a front-cover montage photograph of Lyndon Johnson as a cowboy riding on the back of napalmed Vietnamese, while the 14 August 1968 issue included a reprint of a French poster "advertising" John Wayne's Green Berets. The poster featured several bombs falling over the title: The Green Berets with John Wayne and costarring the Dead Vietnamese People."17
Not to be outdone, the London OZ weighted in with its own particular brand of visual horror. On the cover of the March 1968 issue was a blood-spattered reproduction of the infamous Colonel Loan photograph, captioned: "The Great Society Blows Another Mind." Inside the same issue was a cartoon which simply and pointedly featured a large bomb sticking nose-first into a small baby carriage.18 Indeed, the first issue of OZ "included an amusing piece on the only political subject always taken seriously within the counter-culture," entitled "Good Vibrations":
Clearly, much of this passionate hatred of the war was directed at Lyndon Johnson. But the British don't vote in American elections, and Johnson, no doubt, paid even less attention to foreign outcries than he did to domestic ones. For many protesters, a more proper target of their rage about Vietnam was the Labour Government of Harold Wilson. Not surprisingly, Tariq Ali condemned Wilson for blatant hypocrisy. According to Ali, "Wilson attacked the Tories as late as 1964 for kowtowing to the United States in Indochina." However, once Prime Minister, the Labour leader revealed himself as "fully support[ing] the action of the United States in resisting aggression in Vietnam." For Ali, such an about face proved that "British Labour leaders were being economical with the truth and acting like tame poodles of the White House." Indeed, during an early demonstration against the war, Ali tweaked the PM:
The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign consistently badgered Wilson and his government over Vietnam. Every issue of the VSC Bulletin contained a special section on "British Complicity" in the war, usually focusing on military R&D carried on by industry and universities.21 In its 1972 Vietnam Handbook, the VSC devoted a major chapter to "British Complicity," accusing Wilson of cutting a "shabby figure" as he consistently supported U.S. policy in Vietnam.22
However, moral outrage and sympathy for the Vietnamese was only the tip of the iceberg. In the eyes of many activists, the Vietnam war became a potent symbol of deeper discontent with Labour's overall failure. Historian David Caute hints at this discontent: "That a Labour Government should condone 'genocide'... with scarcely a murmur of dissent from its backbench MP's angered the young and sharpened their contempt for the reformist left."23 The key phrase here is "sharpened their contempt for the reformist left." In fact, activists felt deeply disappointed, even betrayed by the Wilson government on a number of issues not directly related to the war. Activist David Widgery put this broader discontent in general terms: "[O]n the home front yet another flock of starry-eyed Social Democrats were learning the bitter truth of Labour's betrayal."24 Indeed, "Once Wilson came to power, the optimistic illusions that his diffuse radicalism had encouraged were turned inside out and large groups of bitter socialist students moved towards the revolutionary explanations they had ignored the year before."25
Concretely, some activists believed that Wilson's general foreign policy--especially his opposition to an independent nuclear deterrent and his rejection of "Tory imperialism"--served "to dovetail British armed forces still closer with American imperial strategy... and tailored [British] foreign policy to meet the needs of [the]American co-exploitator better."26 Activists were similarly upset with the Labour government's rejection of such "old standards of socialism... as peace, disarmament, sharing of wealth, military disengagement, [and] radical change in education."27 Pat Mercer's 1 June 1968, polemic in the underground journal Black Dwarf nicely made the connection between Vietnam and other failings of the Labour government:
To be sure, the Vietnam war was a crucial ingredient in the attack on Labour. But in a sense, it was even more important as a symbol of wider failures. As Peter Buchanan suggested, the war was a catalyst but not an end in itself:
Among the other issues pressing upon the activist left was a theoretical one into which America's conduct in Vietnam and the response of the Viet Cong and NVA fit well. An editorial in the June 1968 edition of OZ states this connection clearly:
A number of other sources confirm this crucial insight. According to historian Elizabeth Nelson, the Vietnam war was used to illustrate the "moral bankruptcy" of Western capitalism.31 David Treisman, a student activist at Essex University, proclaimed:
In other words, the Vietnam war as a western phenomenon fed into other issues and symbolized the nature of western neo-colonialism.
If the United States and Britain became world-historical villains for the student left, then the Viet Cong soldiers became its heroes--more for what they symbolized than the national unification they fought for. The war provided an "immensely important model of guerrilla warfare," and a VC victory "would represent a victory for all the aspirations" of student activists. It would mean a triumph of "an authentic popular army" over the "highly bureaucratized armed forces of the largest imperial power in the world...."33 Thus, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign
Ronald Fraser claims the ultimate meaning of the Vietnam war was, finally:
Britons who opposed the Vietnam war did so for a variety of reasons. Some were humanitarian pacifists who said "no" to wanton death and destruction. Some focused on the complicity of the Labour government in the horror. But beneath sympathy for the Vietnamese lay a deeper concern. The Vietnam war was a powerful and useful symbol--one with which youthful activists could excoriate Labour for betraying its (and their) ideals. And ultimately the war became even more abstract, as the combatants became symbols of evil and good. As mere abstractions, the Johnsons, the Wilsons, even the Vietcong guerrillas, lost flesh and blood and became, for some, shadowy actors in a mystery play. As Ronald Fraser suggests:
And, he might have added, sometimes beyond the confines of reality itself.
1 Inadvertent interview, unidentified Scottish male, September, 1985. 2 See, for example, David Caute, Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988); Ronald Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988); Robert V. Daniels, Year of the Heroic Guerrilla: World Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1968 (NY: Basic Books, 1989).
3 For general accounts of the British New Left/youth culture, see Elizabeth Nelson, The British Counter Culture; 1966-73 (NY: St. Martins, 1989); David Bouchier, Idealism and Revolution: New Ideologies of Liberation in Britain and the United States (NY: St. Martins, 1979); Bernice Martin, A Sociology of Contemporary Social Change (NY: St. Martin's, 1981); Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder: The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge, 1977); David Widgery, ed., The Left in Britain, 1956-1968 (London: Penguin Books, 1976); Colin Crouch, The Student Revolt (London: Bodley Head, 1970). The best contemporary account is Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (NY: Delta Books, 1968); while the most helpful autobiographical account is Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (London: Fontana, 1987).
4 Bouchier: 5; Young, 158.
5 Widgery, ed.: 305.
6 Nelson: 10.
7 Young: 158.
8 Ibid.: 157.
9 Bouchier: 3.
10 Young: 52.
11 Fraser: 111.
12 Vietnam Solidarity Campaign Bulletin (Feb-Mar-Apr 1968):passim.
13 Edinburgh Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Vietnam News-Sheet No. 1-2, nd.
14 Ali: 46.
15 Ibid.: 51.
16 Fraser: 80.
17 Black Dwarf (16 Jul 1968), front cover; 14 Aug 1968, np.
18 London OZ, 10 (Mar 1968), front cover: 25.
19 Quoted in Nelson: 68-69.
20 Ali: 38-39, 46.
21 Vietnam Solidarity Campaign Bulletin, 1968, passim.
22 Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Indochina Handbook (1972): 42.
23 Caute: 73.
24 Widgery: 28.
25 Ibid.: 309.
26 Ibid.: 201.
27 Nelson: 71.
28 Pat Mercer, "Autumn Offensive," Black Dwarf (1 Jun 1968): 8.
29 Peter Buchanan, "Spontaneity or Organization," Ibid. (27 Oct 1968): 6.
30 OZ (Jun 1968), quoted in Widgery: 18.
31 Nelson: 49.
32 Fraser, ed: 110.
33 Crouch: 23-25
34 Bouchier: 88.
35 Fraser: 34.
36 Ibid.: 89.