HC Deb 01 April 1968 vol 762 cc37-44
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on Vietnam.

The House will be aware of the statement about the Vietnam war which the President of the United States made last night. Hon. Members will have noted in particular the announcement that the bombing of North Vietnam has been substantially cut back to the area north of the Demilitarised Zone and President Johnson's call to Her Majesty's Government and the Soviet Government to help towards peace in South-East Asia.

The House will also be aware of Her Majesty's Government's statement welcoming this announcement by the President. We believe that it offers a further opportunity, of which all concerned should take advantage, for achieving a just and honourable peace.

We are now examining urgently how we might best give effect to President Johnson's request. Earlier today we were in touch with the Soviet Government in the spirit of the communiqué issued on 24th January at the end of the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Moscow. The House will recall that in this communiqué the two Governments, as co-Chairmen of the Geneva Conferences, expressed their firm intention to take singly or jointly all actions within their power to achieve the goal of a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam conflict. For our part, we are ready as always to co-operate with the Soviet Government in any measures which, in our judgment, could advance the prospects of a just and lasting settlement.

I wish the House to know that I shall be seeing the Soviet Ambassador in London later this afternoon to discuss what I and my fellow co-Chairman, Mr. Gromyko, can do. The House will understand that it is not possible for me to say more at this stage.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The House will be grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement. At this distance, it is rather difficult to interpret the full significance of the President's statement. So far, it seems to mean a limitation of operations of war from one side only. When the right hon. Gentleman sees the Soviet Ambassador, will he remind him that the obstacle to a complete truce so far has been the vulnerability of the American and South Vietnamese forces to a truce which is dishonoured, and bombing pauses have not achieved the result expected so far?

Second, will he, preferably jointly with Mr. Gromyko, but, if not, by himself, get in touch with the Secretary-General of the United Nations so that there might be a force ready to put on the supply routes in order to prevent the truce being dishonoured in this respect?

Mr. Stewart

On a number of occasions already, we have made the point which the right hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his question. On the second point—I noted the report of what he said at the weekend—the House will remember that, so far, North Vietnam has always firmly maintained that it would not accept any status for the United Nations in this matter. But, as matters now stand, we ought not to rule out any possible channel for reaching agreement, and I shall bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Perhaps I might add that I hope—I am not sure of this—that it may be possible for me to see U Thant in the near future.

Mr. Coe

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement on the American Government's initiative and their request for our help, a request which justifies the existing British Government's policy on Vietnam. If my right hon. Friend can get foreign Governments to use their good offices to persuade both North and South Vietnam to make an unequivocal declaration that no peace can come from force of arms, would not this help to provide a climate in which we could have a settlement?

Mr. Stewart

I hope that we shall be able to get such a declaration. The British Government have often emphasised that there cannot be a purely military solution to this matter, and this has now been tragically, and at bitter cost, proved by recent events in Vietnam itself. I noted what my hon. Friend said about the Government's whole approach to this matter. The fact that we are now asked to exercise our rôle, either as co-Chairman or in any other direction, illustrates how important it was for us to keep in touch with the Government of the United States throughout all these months.

Mr. Thorpe

First, may we expect a further statement from the right hon. Gentleman after his talks with the Soviet Ambassador, in the hope that this country will be able to take a positive and successful initiative? Second, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the International Commission is recognised by both sides in this dispute? Third, as the bombing is limited to the demilitarised zone north of the border, will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind that only a total cessation of bombing of North Vietnam is likely to produce positive and lasting results?

Mr. Stewart

It would not be wise at this stage to advance that last point. The statement made by President Johnson removes bombing from that part of Vietnam inhabited by 90 per cent. of its population, and it reduces it to an area and to circumstances which have direct military relevance. This is a very important move by the United States Government. It is extremely important, therefore, to see what response, if any, can be obtained to it. The answer to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is "Yes".

Mr. Barnes

Will my right hon. Friend take it that he will have the good wishes of millions of people all over the world in the important negotiations now ahead of him, but will he ensure that he keeps in the closest possible touch with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who has done so much in the past to urge the American Government towards the steps which they are now taking?

Mr. Stewart

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for what he said. I think that people all over the world are looking at this question with great anxiety, and now with some renewal of hope which we must all earnestly pray will not be disappointed. It has always been our view that the United Nations and U Thant himself had an important part to play in this matter. We have not so far been able to get universal agreement on that point, but it may be that new doors are opening now.

Viscount Lambton

In view of President Johnson's statement, will the right hon. Gentleman, as co-Chairman of the Geneva Conference, take steps to reconvene the Conference to try to bring the main participants in the war to the conference table?

Mr. Stewart

This might be how events will proceed. President Johnson's message refers to the Soviet Government and ourselves both as co-Chairmen and as permanent members of the Security Council, but I do not think that we should choose at this moment one particular framework through which to do it. We may find that there are other more acceptable alternatives.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Whilst everyone must share the hope of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that a conference may soon be assembled, does he recognise that this dramatic change in American policy is a triumph for the forces of democracy and free opinion in the United States of America and elsewhere? Is it still the Government's policy that the full and honest application of the agreements of Geneva and the promised demilitarisation of South-East Asia are the only way to stable peace?

Mr. Stewart

On the first part of my right hon. Friend's question, I am sure that he would not wish me to make a statement about the internal policy of the United States. The House may remember that nearly two years ago Her Majesty's Government expressed the view that the bombing of the thickly-populated regions, and Hanoi and Haiphong in particular, was in our judgment an error, but I believe that if I had pursued the policy of total dissociation from the United States which was urged on me in some quarters it would have destroyed our rôle as co-Chairman, and we should not now be asked to give this help.

Sir A. V. Harvey

In view of the important statement from the United States, will the Foreign Secretary ask the Prime Minister if he will now go all the way with Mr. Lyndon Johnson?

Mr. Shinwell

Does my right hon. Friend realise that we welcome his statement but, in the spirit of the Question I ventured to put on the Order Paper which has not been answered, in addition to the decision of President Johnson to limit bombing operations on the North, would it not be advisable now to make a direct approach to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to ask for a complete cease-fire for, say, a week or a few weeks, in order to find time to facilitate the negotiations? Is that not a possible approach, and will my right hon. Friend take it into consideration?

Mr. Stewart

When my right hon. Friend says "a complete cease-fire" I take it that he means by all the parties concerned. That is certainly a possible approach, but I hope that the House will not press me apparently to make choices between one approach and another. At this early stage we must have an opportunity for further consultations with our co-Chairman and, I hope, with U Thant.

Mr. Goodhart

If there is no visible response from Hanoi, how long does the Foreign Secretary believe that the pause can continue?

Mr. Stewart

That is the kind of question that I should not answer at this stage.

Mr. Mendelson

Now that so many millions of Americans have recognised that the bombing policy is both futile and immoral and have forced on President Johnson a limited change of policy, will my right hon. Friend now press the President to stop all bombing operations, as U Thant has demanded? Does he realise that the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam must also be called into consultation at the same time, as was officially indicated to the Swedish Government the other day in Hanoi by the Government of North Vietnam?

Mr. Stewart

At a time when the Government of the United States have made an important new move in this direction, it would not be wise for me to demand—I think that that was my hon. Friend's word—further changes by them until we see whether there is any response to what has already been done.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the American de-escalation, if it is to last, will require reciprocity? In such talks as he has with the Soviet Ambassador, will he underline the necessity, if President Johnson's initiative is to bear fruit, for it to be matched by the stopping of aggression from the North?

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Gentleman will remember that first there was the San Antonio formulation. The President's statement takes that a bit further in that the United States has now made a very considerable restriction of the bombing, and in the statement there is reference to the hope that the United States Government may be able to assume that there is the response by Hanoi of the kind described in the San Antonio formula. My hope is that through one channel or another—and I do not want to be dogmatic about that at this point—we may be able to get a response which makes further progress possible.

Mr. John Dunwoody

I accept that my right hon. Friend cannot be dogmatic at this stage, but does he agree that the Control Commission is an international grouping acceptable to both the United States and North Vietnam, and will he, as co-Chairman, consider making approaches through this channel as well as the others?

Mr. Stewart

I shall certainly consider it.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Regardless of any partisan statements made, does the Foreign Secretary realise that he will have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House for any initiative he can take now to bring this frightful war to an end?

Mr. Stewart

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I believe that these events and the part we are now called on to play are in line with the Government's approach to the Vietnam problem throughout.

Mr. Heffer

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations has at no time suggested that there should be a United Nations force on the soil of Vietnam, will my right hon. Friend take into consideration that some hon. Members might consider that such a proposition at this stage would be highly dangerous to the prospects of getting a peace settlement?

Mr. Stewart

A good many arguments could be advanced for and against any particular method of handling the matter. That is exactly why I do not think that I should be drawn into further argument at the moment.

Earl of Dalkeith

Does not the foreign Secretary think that it is very wrong that our co-Chairman should be thought to be supplying arms to one of the participants in Vietnam? Will he take the opportunity of his meeting with the Soviet Ambassador to say how regrettable this is in view of the need to make progress?

Mr. Stewart

If I adopted all the suggestions that are being made to me as to what I should say to the Soviet Ambassador the interview might prove to be more long than productive.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us who have opposed American policy in Vietnam hope that negotiations can begin to bring this horrifying war to an end? Will he bear in mind that rightly or wrongly Hanoi and the National Liberation Front believe that they are waging a struggle as justified from their point of view as when the Vietminh fought the French and defeated them in 1954?

Mr. Stewart

It very often happens when nations are at war that both sides at the time are deeply convinced of the rightness of their cause. That is what sometimes makes these struggles so bitter and prolonged and makes it necessary for men of good will to snatch at any reasonable opportunity of bringing them to an end.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Will the right hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the President of the United States, who has voluntarily put a term to his own political career in order to achieve peace in Asia?

Mr. Stewart

The hon. and learned Gentleman should understand that I should not say anything that might be construed as a comment on American internal politics. But Her Majesty Government have already most cordially welcomed the President's statement about Vietnam, and I most emphatically underline that welcome.

Mr. James Griffiths

Does my right hon. Friend realise that as he meets the Ambassador of the Soviet Union this evening he will carry with him a message from the House and our country, that we hope that both countries will have the wisdom and strength to seize this initiative and bring this horrible war to an end as soon as possible?

Mr. Stewart

I think that my right hon. Friend has expressed what is in all our minds.