HL Deb 29 June 1966 vol 275 cc690-4

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has just made in another place. His words were:

"The House will have seen the reports that American planes have today bombed fuel storage areas at the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and its main port of Haiphong. At 1.30 p.m. to-day a statement was issued from No. 10 Downing Street about this, and I thought the House would wish to know its terms. It said:

'Her Majesty's Government have noted with regret that United States aircraft have attacked North Vietnamese targets touching on the populated areas of Hanoi and Haiphong.

'It is difficult for the British Government, which is not involved in the fighting in Vietnam, to assess the importance of any particular action which the United States Government regards as militarily necessary in this conflict. Nevertheless we have made it clear on many occasions that we could not support an extension of the bombing to such areas, even though we were confident that the United States forces would take every precaution, as always, to avoid civilian casualties. We believe that the value of each application of force must be judged not merely in terms of the military needs which it is designed to meet but also in terms of the additional suffering and distress which it inflicts upon innocent people and the effect it can have on the prospects for an early move to a political solution.

'For these reasons, when President Johnson informed me that the United States Government judged it necessary to attack targets touching on the populated areas of Hanoi and Haiphong, I told him that, while we naturally accepted his assurance that these attacks would be directed specifically against the oil installations and that everything possible would be done to avoid harm to the civilian population, we should nevertheless feel bound to reaffirm that we must dissociate ourselves from an action of this kind.

'We remain convinced, however, that the United States are right to continue to assist the millions of South Vietnamese, who have no wish to live under Communist domination, until such time as the North Vietnamese Government abandon their attempt to gain control of South Vietnam by force and accept the proposals for unconditional negotiations which have repeatedly been put forward by the United States as well as by Britain and the Commonwealth. We are also convinced that the North Vietnamese refusal alone prevents these negotiations; and we deplore Hanoi's constant rejection of the path of peace. The opportunity for bringing all the fighting in Vietnam to an end is open to Hanoi; and the onus for continuing it rests there also.'"

My Lords, that concludes the Prime Minister's Statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in another place. I think that most Members of your Lordships' House would find themselves certainly in general agreement with the final paragraph of that Statement. But I would ask the noble Earl whether there is yet any evidence of civilian casualties being suffered as a result of this United States action, and whether these casualties are in any way higher than casualties that have been suffered in other raids by the United States Government into North Vietnam which have been approved by Her Majesty's Gov- ernment It seems to me that, unless this evidence is available, it is perhaps a little premature for the British Government to dissociate themselves from the actions of the United States Government.


My Lords, I should like, also, to thank the noble Earl the Leader of the House for making this Statement, but I must say that I take somewhat the same point of view as the noble Lord, Lord Harlech. It is obvious that in the past there must have been a good number of civilian casualties. The bombing in North Vietnam has been on a wide scale. I cannot see why there should be any great difference in degree between the casualties suffered in rural areas—because that is what it amounts to—and the casualties suffered in suburban areas. I suppose it means that there is a certain amount of escalation; and I think it also means that we must urge the Government to do everything they possibly can to bring this most unfortunate war to an end.


My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for any measure of agreement that they have expressed with the Statement. As regards the question about casualties that have actually been suffered, I have no information up to the moment. I can only conclude that this represents—to use the term of the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore—according to our information, a degree of escalation, and therefore this differentiation was considered necessary.


My Lords, while I do not seek to dissociate myself from the Statement of my noble friend, and while I realise that the difference between now and 1950, when the then Labour Prime Minister made an urgent visit to Washington, was that we had troops actually engaged in the Korean campaign, in view of the possible danger of escalation are there not grounds upon which this country, as well as others, could be concerned with possible dangers? Therefore, may I ask my noble friend whether the Prime Minister could either advance his forthcoming visit to Washington—where, no doubt, he will discuss this vital problem of the war in South Vietnam—or, alternatively, through diplomatic channels make the suggestion to President Johnson that the United States Government should suspend all bombing activities in North Vietnam, at any rate against targets which might well be described as non-military targets, pending the Prime Minister's arrival in Washington next month?


My Lords, the noble Lord has worked on these subjects for many years, and anything that he says will be conveyed to the Government. But I certainly could not expect that the visit could be advanced, and I should not like to suggest that the attitude of the Government will go beyond what has been expressed in this Statement.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether an attack on supply lines is not a normal operation in war, and whether oil is not an essential supply during war?


My Lords, I suppose there would be two opinions about this question in general, but there is no doubt that, in the view of the Government, this represents a new development, and the attitude of the Government has been clearly indicated.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Rowley.


My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that these are quite clearly military targets? We are not talking about non-military targets here. As I understand it, these oil depôts are on the outskirts of Hanoi and Haiphong; they are not in the civilian populated areas.


My Lords, the noble Lord will appreciate that I have not had much notice of this, and I have told him all I know about it up to this moment. The expression used to the House is that these are targets touching on the populated areas, and I cannot at the moment go beyond that.


My Lords, is it not possible that, being war targets, the bringing of them into the attack might possibly shorten the war?


My Lords, of course everything is possible, and no doubt the United States believes that. But the attitude of the Government has been made extremely plain here. Clearly there is a difficult balance of decision, and the Government have done the best that occurred to them in face of what could be a very complex problem.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Earl could explain to the House—I think many people will be interested to know—how it is possible for the British Government to support the United States in prosecuting a war of which they disapprove?


My Lords, if I may say so, the noble Viscount has misunderstood the position completely. The Government do not disapprove of the general actions of the United States, but in this case they must dissociate themselves from the step which has been described.