HC Deb 21 June 1966 vol 730 cc281-7
Q4. Mr. Winnick

asked the Prime Minister whether, in pursuance of Her Majesty's Government's initiative to seek peace in Vietnam, he will arrange to visit the United States of America to consult President Johnson with a view to ending the Vietnam war.

The Prime Minister

I shall be meeting President Johnson next month and no doubt Vietnam will be discussed.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Prime Minister aware that there are many people in this country who would like him to do precisely what Attlee did in 1950—to urge commonsense on the Americans? Will the Prime Minister inform President Johnson that the majority of British people have no stomach for this colonial war that the Americans are engaged in?

The Prime Minister

I was a member of the Cabinet when my noble Friend, Lord Attlee, went to Washington to deal with a very serious situation caused by a statement that the atom bomb was to be used in North Korea. I believe that intervention was decisive. It is a point that at that time we had troops in Korea. We do not have troops in Vietnam; we are opposed to having troops in Vietnam. So far as the views of this country are concerned, as I interpret them, they have been regularly explained to the President of the United States and to this House. I took a little time last week explaining them in a meeting upstairs where I think my hon. Friend might have been present.

Mr. Blaker

Has the idea of keeping in existence the Commonwealth Peace Mission so that it could be ready if useful been dropped? If not, is it not rather odd that over the last four months it has contained only one member apart from the Prime Minister himself? What is being done to replace Dr. Nkrumah and the late Prime Minister of Nigeria?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member was worried about this yesterday. The position is that if it becomes possible for the Commonwealth Peace Mission to visit the capitals that we asked that it should visit, it would be possible very quickly to activate it by quick discussion with other Commonwealth Prime Ministers to see who would represent the Commonwealth. That could be done very quickly indeed. The hon. Member knows that what prevented us getting "airborne" last year was the refusal of Hanoi not merely to come to the conference table but even to receive a completely representative mission from the whole of the Commonwealth.

Mr. Maxwell

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what recent representations Her Majesty's Government have made in Moscow with a view to getting the joint Chairmen to reactivate the conference on Vietnam? Can he further tell the House what representations Her Majesty's charge d'affaires in Peking has been making recently in order to get the Chinese to be a little more amenable so that this ghastly war can be brought to an end?

The Prime Minister

As I think the House knows, pressure on our Russian co-partners as co-Chairmen in this matter has been almost continuous, certainly to my knowledge since February, 1965, and I pressed it very strongly on my recent visit to Moscow. This suggestion is still being pressed. We all understand the Soviet Government's difficulties about it. So far as China is concerned, we have repeatedly made clear our point of view. It was regrettable that, whatever our differences of view, the Chinese Government did not agree to welcome this very representative Commonwealth Mission a year ago.

Mr. Goodhew

Is the Prime Minister aware that the vast majority of people in this country would sooner that he did not go rushing off to Washington every other month but stayed here and sorted things out at home?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful for the hon. Member's statement of confidence in this matter. I think it right— this has been the view of previous Prime Ministers—that there should be regular consultation between the Prime Minister of this country and the President of the United States. Certainly when the whole House, I know, feels that this Vietnam situation is not only, as my hon. Friend said, a ghastly war but is capable of escalation to great danger, it is important that we should keep in closest touch by meetings as well as by other means.

Mr. Michael Foot

Before he goes to Washington, will the Prime Minister undertake to study the growing evidence of methods of barbarism resorted to by our American allies in Vietnam, methods which go far beyond even those against which the Foreign Secretary protested when in the United States at one time? Will he study further how much resort to these methods derives from the totalitarian nature of the régime in South Vietnam which our American allies, and unfortunately ourselves, appear to be supporting?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that all modern war involves barbarism. So far as the Vietnam war is concerned, I have said many times that there is a great deal of atrocity on both sides. Therefore, the only answer is to get the war ended. I do not think we shall do very much in the way of civilising a war of this kind. Certainly the methods of which my hon. Friend has complained— and I know he would be equally condemnatory of methods used on the other side by infiltrating North Vietnamese troops —are inevitable in the conditions of this war. They are not in any way related to the political complexion of the Government of South Vietnam and I have said on more than one occasion that we regard the political situation in South Vietnam as an entirely different matter.

Mr. Doughty

Will the Prime Minister point out to the President of the United States that the best way of bringing the war to an end is to win it, unless Peking and Hanoi come to the conference table?

The Prime Minister

One thing is clear. I have said that this war will never end in a military victory for anyone. There has to be a political solution. The problems will not be solved, certainly by the kind of policies advocated which simply represent a victory for Com- munism and there would not be victory for the other side either. This has to be settled by a political solution, by all parties coming to the conference table. Then let us get to Geneva and get a political settlement within the ambit of the 1954 Agreement.

Mr. Thorpe

In view of the dangers of escalation mentioned by the Prime Minister from this extremely senseless and sordid war and, further, in view of the mandate which the Prime Minister has now obtained—on a limited basis—for his east of Suez policy, would he at least make one point clear to President Johnson, namely, that our contribution to the settlement of this affair is that we no longer offer training facilities for South Vietnam soldiers, in order to exercise our neutrality as co-Chairman?

The Prime Minister

I do not go round hunting for mandates. The mandate for the Government's defence policy was given in the vote in the House when we had a two-day debate on the Government's Defence White Paper. It has been explained to the House a number of times that the question of training is on a very limited scale. It is certainly nothing inconsistent or incompatible with our duty of co-Chairman. If that were the case, one would have to say that the Soviet co-Chairman, who are very much more involved with this war by the supplying of munitions than we are, would also not be behaving in the right way. It was always accepted that of the two co-Chairmen, one represents generally a Western point of view, the other an Eastern point of view. We are certainly not in any way prejudicing our position as co-Chairman.

Mr. Mendelson

In view of the expressed wish by growing numbers of the people in South Vietnam for an immediate end to the war and the repressive military measures taken by the Ky Government, would the Prime Minister now, in the light of the statement made by President Johnson last Saturday that he intends to step up the bombing operations against North Vietnam closer to the population centres, make it clear that Her Majesty's Government are totally opposed to any such policy?

The Prime Minister

Sir, I am in no doubt at all that all the population of South Vietnam and, I believe, of North Vietnam, too, would like to see an end of this war, because the fighting has been continuous over 20 years. This is but one reason for Her Majesty's Government trying to get the conditions for a settlement.

With regard to various reports I have received from Washington, I should want to study them very carefully to see exactly whether they will bear the interpretation put upon them by my hon. Friend, but I have made clear repeatedly in the House that we should be opposed to the bombing of the big centres of population.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

The right hon. Gentleman said in reply to a supplementary question put by one of his hon. Friends that his most recent statement on the policy of the Government in Vietnam was taken—I believe the expression was—in a meeting upstairs. Is not the House entitled to a copy of the Prime Minister's speech and should it not be laid in the House?

The Prime Minister

I think that it is not out of accordance with past practice that there are sometimes meetings upstairs. On this occasion, I think to the hilarity of some hon. Members opposite, I took the unusual step of making sure that an accurate version of what I said is available. If it is not in the Library, I will put it in the Library. It has been fully published in the Press. If the hon. Gentleman would like to study it, I should be very glad to send a copy to him.

Mrs. Anne Kerr

Does not the Prime Minister appreciate that very large sections of British public opinion are utterly sick at heart with the continuation of the British Government's support of America's policies in Vietnam? Will he make it absolutely plain to the House and to the nation that the only people who are carrying out bombing raids are in fact the Americans?

The Prime Minister

I think that the great mass of the British people— including, I am sure, my hon. Friend— agree with Her Majesty's Government that what we want to do is to bring this ghastly war to an end. We believe that the policies we have undertaken are best directed to achieve that. We have had many disappointments. We have called, with the Commonwealth Prime Ministers, for an end of the bombing and an end of the infiltration by North Vietnam. I think that these two do go together. The only reason why we have not had success is because of the refusal of one side to the dispute, even during 37 days of bombing pause, to come to the conference table.

Mr. G. Campbell

In view of what the Prime Minister has been saying, should he not seek to reactivate the Commonwealth Peace Mission now? Yesterday we were informed that it was appointed ex officio and that its membership could be varied only by the Conference of Prime Ministers. As there is now no President of Ghana and no Prime Minister of Nigeria, what is its present membership?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that contacts between Commonwealth Prime Ministers do not depend only on annual conferences or on conferences at infrequent intervals. If we had been given any encouragement at all for the view that the Mission would be received, we could within a matter of 24 hours reach agreement on the composition of the Mission.

Mr. Heath

I am sure that the whole House agrees with the Prime Minister that this country wants to see a political settlement of what is a very horrible and cruel war, as I believe do the whole American people and the American Administration. Does the Prime Minister agree that such a political settlement is unlikely to be achieved until the Viet-cong and the North Vietnamese, and indeed the Chinese, recognise that they cannot win? This is different from a victory on either side. Therefore, while he presses his objection to the bombing of centres of population, will the Prime Minister make it quite clear that he does not object to the bombing of fuel tanks which are enabling the North Vietnamese to send their forces down into South Vietnam?

The Prime Minister

What the right hon. Gentleman has said about the feeling of some people that they are going to get a military victory is what we have all been saying. We said it a year ago. One reason we felt then as to why the Commonwealth Peace Mission was not accepted was that with the monsoon season coming on perhaps the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong thought that victory would come quickly. I am certain that it will not come quickly. I am certain that there will be no victory, only possibly by the end of the day almost total annihilation. This is why we want to get the parties to the conference table.

In regard to bombing policy, we have made it clear that we would totally oppose any bombing involving Hanoi or Haiphong.

Several Hon. Members rose


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are well past Question Time.