HC Deb 18 January 1967 vol 739 cc425-38
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to take this first opportunity to report to the House on recent developments in Vietnam and the efforts that the Government have continued to make to stop the war there.

A number of hon. Members have tabled questions on this subject and I should like to take this opportunity to give them a full statement.

Our policy continues to be directed towards stopping the fighting and promoting a comprehensive and lasting settlement on the lines of the plan I put forward at Brighton on 6th October last year and to the United Nations General Assembly on 11th October.

Because of the loss of life and other suffering in both South and North Vietnam, and with a view to providing the climate for discussion of the political and other issues raised by the conflict, we believe that all immediate efforts should be concentrated on stopping the war. If this could be done there would be so much more chance of working out a political settlement.

The Government deplore the loss of life in Vietnam however it is caused and in whatever part of the country. In our view, this makes the need for action the more urgent. We are sorry that the Soviet Government are unready to join with us in reconvening the Geneva Conference or, indeed, to join in any other positive step to halt the conflict. We feel that this must not be regarded as debarring us from action.

On 30th December, therefore, I sent messages to Mr. Rusk and to the South and North Vietnamese Foreign Ministers, suggesting a meeting of representatives of the three Governments principally concerned to arrange a cessation of hostilities. I offered facilities on any suitable British territory and said that I would arrange for the secret transmission of messages between the parties if it was considered that this would help.

In making this proposal, I took into account the fact that it has already been made clear that the representation of the Liberation Front at any discussions was not a real problem. I believed, therefore, that the appeal should be directed in the first instance to the Governments who hold major responsibility in this conflict.

As the House knows, the United States and South Vietnam accepted our proposal. We are, therefore, the more disappointed at Hanoi's refusal. Nevertheless, we are continuing to seek ways of bringing the parties to this conflict together and are in close consultation with the United States and other Governments. The United States Government have repeatedly made clear their earnest desire to end the fighting and their readiness to negotiate with the other side. We support the efforts which the United Nations Secretary-General is now making and have made known our readiness to collaborate with any nation or individual within or outside the Commonwealth, in any action offering the prospect of progress towards negotiations.

In conclusion, may I give a purely personal impression to the House? While I cannot quote chapter and verse for this, I have the feeling, and, I repeat, the feeling, that there is at last the possibility of change in this problem. This feeling results from all that reaches me from many different sources. Hon. Members will wish Her Majesty's Government to continue to do everything they can to encourage and promote this possibility.?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will understand that there is no need to persuade the House of the Government's wish to end the war. We all understand that. Is he not aware that there can be no settlement of the problem unless Hanoi agrees and the Soviet Union concurs? Is that not much more likely to be achieved by diplomatic means behind the scenes, than it is by the kind of open diplomacy in which the right hon. Gentleman is indulging? As to the right hon. Gentleman's hunches, I think that it is perhaps kind that I should not refer to them any further.

Mr. Brown

I am not sure that I know what that last remark means. On the first point, the right hon. Gentleman will know from his own long experience that there is more than one level on which these things have to be done and can probably be dealt with. Doing everything by secret diplomacy is also a very dangerous and, I should have thought, out-of-date way of looking at these matters. There is the need to reassure people. There is the need to operate in the open. There is the need to bring other kinds of influence to bear. To do that, one has to make public as well as private efforts. The right hon. Gentleman may assume that the latter are going on.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

While fully sympathising with and congratulating my right hon. Friend on the continuing efforts which the Government make to bring the fighting to an end altogether, does he not consider that the character of the methods with which the war is being carried on is itself a difficulty and an obstacle to the institution of any kind of civilised negotiations?

Does my right hon. Friend remember the Prime Minister publicly dissociating the Government of this country from some of the methods adopted by the American Government long ago? In view of the fact that the American Government have continued and intensified methods which can only be described as barbarous, does not my right hon. Friend think that the dissociation of this country from those methods ought to be repeated and made clear as a step in the direction of successful negotiation?

Mr. Brown

As I said when I last answered Questions, as I said in my statement, and as I say again now, we deplore the slaughter which is going on in Vietnam. We deplore it, no matter by what means it is being caused. It is as unpleasant by one means as it is by another. I have not the slightest hesitation in stating that I deplore it in the strongest terms, and all the parties involved know our feelings about it. I repeat that I think that it will be of more use, instead of just reiterating our feelings, to try to do something practical to bring the fighting to a stop.

Mr. Heath

Will the Foreign Secretary agree that it is unlikely that Hanoi will come to the conference table until she can be convinced that the Americans will not by any means be driven out of South Vietnam except by agreement at a conference. Will he accept that he and the Government are right to give all the support that they can to the United States? Will he also agree that, when Hanoi is prepared to come to the conference table, safeguards will be required from both sides to all Governments concerned that no one will be able to take advantage of anyone else? Can he assure us that diplomatic talks are going on behind the scenes to achieve that purpose?

Mr. Brown

There are many explanations about Hanoi's reluctance or unwillingness so far to come to the conference table. I am sure that the point which the right hon. Gentleman made is one of them. But there are other factors in this situation, and the events taking place in Asia at the moment may not be unconnected. Therefore, I do not speculate on what has up to now kept her away from the conference table. We must keep on trying to bring about a situation where she will come.

On the question of safeguards, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the past there have been allegations from Hanoi as well as others that they have been let down from time to time, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure had this in mind, that in anything we do we must try to make sure that we do it in such a way that we are covered against that kind of breakdown and allegations of that kind. One of the reasons which I had in mind for making my six points was that when we got the conference it might be better if it were held at some stage under the ægis of the Geneva co-Chairmen.

Mr. Winnick

Can my right hon. Friend explain why, if we dissociated ourselves from the bombing of oil installations by the Americans last June, we do not dissociate ourselves from the large-scale bombing attacks on Hanoi, which, without doubt, are causing heavy civilian casualties? Will Britain dissociate herself from these bombing attacks? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend urge on the United States and on President Johnson the need to accept the three points put forward by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to bring this bloody and disastrous civil war to a final end?

Mr. Brown

The three points in the statement by U Thant, taken together, provide a basis for ending the war, and they are, if not in exactly the same words, the three basic points in the plan which I put to the Labour Party Conference and to the United Nations Assembly. This is why, when I wrote to U Thant a little while ago, I told him what we were doing was seeking to reinforce his own actions.

There is no need to restate anything that was said some time ago. I am certain that we are at the moment more likely to help in this situation if we make it clear that our opposition is to the whole form of that war, the whole nature of it, and that our intention is to bring it to an end as soon as we can usefully help to do so.

Mr. Burden

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that everybody in this House and outside would wish to see an end to this war? Would he not also agree that there have been many initiatives before? We all welcome the action which the right hon. Gentleman is taking, but I am sure he would not wish it to be inferred that this is the first initiative which has been made. In the past difficulties have arisen because Hanoi has refused to come to the conference table.

Mr. Brown

I certainly would not suggest that nobody was working in this field until I thought of it; certainly not. On the other hand, however, so far none of them has had much success, and one must keep on trying regardless of that. I accept that Hanoi could bring the war to an end today by announcing that she was coming to the conference table, and herself being willing to take the steps to bring it to an end on her side.

Many other suggestions have been made, which I ought not to go into across the Table, about ways and means by which it can be done. All of them so far are held up by the unwillingness of Hanoi to say anything at all.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does not my right hon. Friend appreciate that what he seemed to say about U Thant's proposals appeared to me to be a misrepresentation of them? Will Her Majesty's Government now say quite plainly that they give unqualified support to U Thant's proposals, including his first proposal that we should demand the unconditional cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam? Can he say whether representations to that effect have been made in Washington?

Mr. Brown

I repeat what I said. I believe that the three points made by U Thant, taken together, provide the basis on which the hostilities can be concluded, and I support those three points. They are the same as the ones in my proposals last October and I repeat and support them taken together.

Mr. James Davidson

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what information he has about the use of bases in Thailand by the United States Air Force for its bombing attacks on North Vietnam, and will he say whether he considers that this prejudices our membership of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation?

Mr. Brown

My understanding of the situation is that the bases in Thailand are not being used for bombing operations.

Mr. Roebuck

Has my right hon. Friend seen the dispatch in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor, in which President Ho gave his first interview to United States newspapermen for many years and in which he made not unfriendly remarks about the American people as a whole and indicated that he would welcome American technicians in Vietnam? Will my right hon. Friend see this as a ray of light, that it is still possible to get all sides to the conference table, and will he continue his sterling efforts in this direction?

Mr. Brown

That was one of the things, though not by any means the only one, which I had in mind when I said what I did in the last paragraph of my statement. I think that there is a sense of change.

Mr. Sandys

If the Government are actively trying to promote a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, may we ask them to show the same energy in trying to promote a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia?

Mr. Brown

The answer to that is not only that we did, but it was there, and it was rejected by the other party to the talks. May I tell the right hon. Gentleman, with respect, that I think he totally misunderstands the emotion in this country about the Vietnam war if he thinks that that is a suitable basis for that kind of political manoeuvre.

Mr. Mendelson

Has my right hon. Friend seen the latest statement by U Thant in which he told the American Government that after his first contact in the direction of preparing a peace negotiation he was fully convinced that the cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam was the essential first pre-condition for getting a settlement going? Will he give the full support of the British Government to U Thant in that proposal, knowing that all his supporters in the country and many beyond will be behind him if he does?

Mr. Brown

The Americans have repeatedly made it clear, as recently as the State of the Union message, and many times before, that they are ready to stop the bombing the moment they receive some indication, privately or publicly—and I quote—"that that stopping would be followed by some response from the other side". Nothing could be clearer than that, and I think that I ought not to be asked to call on them for more.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it plain to the House that he appreciates the courageous stand taken by President Johnson, both in defending Western interests in Asia, and in standing up to those Americans who want an escalation of the war?

Mr. Brown

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I was looking at some papers. Will he repeat his question?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I apologise to the House for a repeat performance. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that he appreciates President Johnson's courageous stand, both in defending Western interests in Asia, and in standing up to those Americans who want an escalation of the Vietnam war?

Mr. Brown

As I said when I spoke here before, I was most impressed when I was in the United States, and I have been since, with the way in which President Johnson, faced with what must be an exceedingly difficult situation, is resisting the pressure to escalate this war, and is lending all his authority and all his efforts to finding a basis on which hostilities can be called off. I think that that should be said. Our business is to try to help to find a basis for it.

It must be remembered that the bombing stopped once before, and stopped for some time, but nothing happened in response. What I think we must try to do here is to bring home to Hanoi that if we can get, I repeat, privately or publicly, through any recognised channels which can be relied on, some indication of what would follow in response, then I think we could start doing business right away.

Mr. Atkinson

Five or six answers ago my right hon. Friend said that he deplored this whole war and rejected its whole purpose. Is he now saying that the British Government now reject totally the whole purpose and strategy of American policy in Asia, and particularly in Vietnam, and that the whole basis of future initiative by the Government will be their rejection of the purpose of an American existence in Vietnam?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend has his own views on record. He has used me as a vehicle for them quite improperly. I never said anything of the sort. I deplore the war. I reject the means by which this or any other war is carried on. But I was not discussing the policy of either side that has brought it about. I would refer my hon. Friend to the speech that I made at the weekend—I will be glad to send him a copy of it—in which I spoke in the opposite sense to that in which he now invites me to speak.

Mr. Goodhart

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that these grossly exaggerated and inaccurate attacks on the American policy of comparative restraint only strengthen the hands of those Americans who wish to intensify the war in North Vietnam, in order to win a quick victor?

Mr. Brown

Yes, but one must not go from one extreme to the other. What is happening there is deplorable, and one might just as well say that whether it happens in North or South Vietnam. The point is that the Americans are ready, willing and anxious to stop, and are inviting the help of people to enable them to stop. We have not had that approach at all from the other side yet.

Mr. Driberg

When my right hon. Friend says, as he did in his statement, that representation of the National Liberation Front is "not a real problem" in connection with peace talks, does he mean that that is now acceptable not only to the Americans, who originally rejected it, but also to the Saigon Government? Is he satisfied that his phrase will be understood in Hanoi, in Saigon, and by the National Liberation Front?

Mr. Brown

I carefully used words that have been used in public about this matter, and I am quite convinced that they are right, and that if we can get discussions set up the question of the representation of the National Liberation Front will not be a problem for either of the participants.

Sir C. Osborne

Has the right hon. Gentleman used the offices of our Chargé d'affaires in Peking to see whether anything can be done from that quarter to help to end the war?

Mr. Brown

It would be injudicious of me to pick out any of our missions abroad, especially in that part of the world, and to discuss what they have been doing, but the hon. Member can assume that I am in the closest touch with them all.

Mr. Orme

Are not the facts the opposite way round to what my right hon. Friend has stated, in respect of the reticence of the Americans to extend the war? Are not they escalating the war? What comment has he to make on the movements now taking place in respect of the fighting in the Delta triangle? Will this mean an extension of land warfare into North Vietnam? What are my right hon. Friend's views about that?

Mr. Brown

One reason why I am so anxious about all this and have been pressing so hard, both publicly and privately and in all kinds of quarters, is that I recognise only too well that if this war goes on one of the inevitable consequences is that it will escalate. It is not the sort of conflict which can be maintained at one level. That is the great danger. That is one reason why we must try to concentrate everybody's attention on the grave need for bringing about a cessation as soon as we can.

I have seen the reports of the operations in the Mekong Delta. A cleaning-up operation in the villages there, so that some kind of regular, civilised, orderly life may go on there, is inevitable. I know that South Vietnam and the United States are making determined efforts in education, health, the care of refugees, agricultural improvement and the control of inflation to re-establish effective and proper life in that area. It is worth calling to mind the fact that the American Government alone contribute 700 million dollars a year to these constructive efforts.

Mr. Hastings

How exactly does the right hon. Gentleman feel reassured—to use his own words—by this initiative in view of the not inconsiderable vocal group of his own hon. Friends who are no more than apologists for the Vietcong?

Mr. Brown

That will be seen everywhere as a notably helpful contribution. As I said at the time, I still puzzle over those who find it more convenient and to their taste to attack those who are trying to get the war stopped, instead of trying to do so themselves.

Mr. Will Griffiths

Does my right hon. Friend recall that a few weeks ago, in the House, he appeared to accept the American military claim that non-military targets were not being bombed in Vietnam? Has he since seen photographs in British newspapers showing the wholesale destruction of homes in Hanoi 100 yards from the centre of the city? What has he done about that? Has he at least repeated to the President of the United States the protests that the Prime Minister made a few weeks ago, or is he going on giving the appearance of a kept man of the Pentagon?

Mr. Brown

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. In view of what was said at the time I checked up the report of what I said in this House on 19th December and discovered that there is nothing there that is inconsistent, inaccurate or needs explaining away. It is not American policy to bomb civilian targets. That is what I said I accepted, and that is clearly still the position. I never said—and I would not be so concerned about stopping the war if it were possible to say it—that in such a war civilians will not get killed. This is one reason why I am so concerned to stop the war. In any case, my hon. Friend will have noticed that since December the Americans have not bombed targets nearer than 15 or 16 miles to that city.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that in spite of his goodness of heart the attitude of the Government is becoming daily more absurd and is carrying less and less conviction in the rest of the world, for the simple reason that he is neither genuinely neutral nor genuinely partisan?

Mr. Brown

I do not know which of those two the right hon. Gentleman would wish me to be. If he means that he wishes me to commit Britain to the war I cannot think of anything more out of keeping with the views of people in this country and elsewhere. As for his view of our efforts, my impression in going round the world, as well as being in daily touch with colleagues of all kinds all over the world is that hardly anybody would share his views.

Dr. Owen

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his initiatives for peace have reassured many Members of the House and millions of people in this country, and that this is not a laughing matter? Most people are desperately concerned about this war and realise that the Foreign Secretary must adopt a position between the two extremes, and that there are many things which cannot and should not be said in this House?

Mr. Brown

I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend. The Opposition are entitled to make their own choice of what they regard as laughing matters. They are entitled to decide that it is their business to oppose all the time, irrespective of the merits of what they are doing, but the country will draw the proper conclusion from that attitude.

Mr. Heath

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that for the first time he has rather lapsed below the level which he had been maintaining? Will he agree that the Opposition have been supporting him both in the efforts that he has made to work with the Americans and his efforts to achieve a peaceful solution of this problem? In fact, we have been supporting him against the attacks of many of his own side below the Gangway.

Mr. Brown

When the right hon. Gentleman looks tomorrow at the OFFICIAL. REPORT of some of the questions that have been put to me from his side of the House he will find that that support is sometimes curiously expressed.

Mr. Shinwell

Referring to the statement made by an hon. Member opposite that hon. Members on this side of the House who have been vocal and even aggressive about seeking to bring the war in Vietnam to an end, is my right hon. Friend aware that those hon. Members are associated also with people like myself, who are not apologists for the Vietcong? We praise my right hon. Friend for the efforts that he has made, but feel that all the exhortations, appeals, protestations, resolutions, and even the efforts of U Thant are of little avail. and that something constructive has to be put to the United States and Hanoi?

May I make a suggestion to my right hon. Friend and ask him—

Mr. Hastings

On a point of order. Is it not incumbent even on the right hon. Gentleman to ask a question?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is coming to his question.

Mr. Shinwell

I apologise to the House for the length of this question, but I have listened to many questions from both sides of the House and I want to put my point. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] If hon. Gentlemen opposite will not have it this way, they can get it another way. There is nothing on that side that I am afraid of.

Would my right hon. Friend consider the proposition that the United States should offer to withdraw—not immediately, because it requires logistic preparations and would obviously have to be phased over a period—on the understanding from Hanoi, either directly or through U Thant, that it is prepared to desist in aggression against South Vietnam? If that offer is made—so far I am not aware that any such offer has been made—would it not be worth putting to both sides?

Mr. Brown

I should like to associate myself with my right hon. Friend in wholly deploring the question from an hon. Member opposite about the association of those who feel that I ought to do something different or something more with the Vietcong. This was quite unworthy. There is room here for more than one point of view about how far one ought to go and I do not complain that some of my hon. Friends are passionately concerned about the things involved in this war and the whole question of peace, but who think, perhaps, that one ought to do something different. Equally, I must be allowed to justify my choice of the way to proceed.

As I said in my statement and have said many times, if Hanoi would give an indication, publicly, privately through U Thant or direct through the Russians or ourselves, of some significant act of deescalation, if I may use that horrible word, which she would put into operation, there would be no difficulty, as the President himself has declared, in getting the bombing stopped and starting on the road which would lead to the ending of hostilities and the calling of some kind of conference. The difficulty is that so far we have not been able to get any kind of sign from Hanoi. That is precisely one of the things which we are continuing to operate for.

Mr. Blaker

With regard to the attitude of Hanoi, what is the Government's latest information about the rate at which troops are being infiltrated from North Vietnam to South Vietnam?

Mr. Brown

I. do not carry that information with me and it is unlikely that I would be able to provide very much which is accurate in that field. We are, of course, represented in Hanoi, but, as the House will know, the movements of our representative are fairly limited and our opportunities to observe or assess movements of that kind are pretty well non-existent.

Mr. Rankin

Would my right hon. Friend consider this? He wants Hanoi to give a sign. Would he not also ask the Americans to give a sign and remember that they have an invading force in Vietnam of 425,000 troops? Would it not be a good indication of their desire for peace if they stated that they would withdraw that invading force if Hanoi were to give a sign that it wanted to talk?

Mr. Brown

We ought to remember to be fair here. We must, if we hope to influence the course of events. The Americans have said repeatedly, not only to me privately when I saw the President, but in public, that they are ready to take the first step. They are ready to join in either de-escalating or ceasing hostilities. They are ready to go to the conference table to work out a political settlement. They have no desire to maintain a military presence for any length of time, let alone for ever. They have said all these things. What we are waiting for is Hanoi to indicate that she will join in and how she will join in. It is no use my hon. Friends thinking that they are making a contribution to a good, acceptable and honourable settlement of this war merely by saying that the Americans should go away and the Communists take over.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must proceed with the business of the House.