HL Deb 24 November 1970 vol 313 cc59-88

5.34 p.m.

LORD BOURNE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether, in view of the widening of the war in Cambodia, of the steady withdrawals of United States forces, and of the fact that, after several years of fighting, official figures estimate the number of armed Communists in South Vietnam at over 200,000, they will make a statement of British policy regarding the war in Indo-China. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the reason I put down this Question is twofold. First, we have a new Government, and although the previous Government made a Statement earlier about policy in South-East Asia, the new Government have not yet had the opportunity of doing so.

My second reason is a more personal one. As President of the Military Commentators'

Circle I was invited by the South Vietnamese Government, and made a trip to Saigon and South Vietnam in company with Air Vice-Marshal Menaul, whom your Lordships may otherwise know as the Director-General of the Royal United Service Institution. We did a full trip lasting ten days, helicoptering all over the place. In the South we went to the Delta, and to Cambodia; in Central South Vietnam to the Australians—and it was a pleasure to meet them, because they were so very professional in the way they did things. Lastly, we went to Hué, the destroyed city, and the North, including the Demilitarised Zone again by helicopter.

I should explain that as guests of the South Vietnamese Government we were in their hands (and very good hands they were, too), but as a result the only Americans that I met in South Vietnam officially were in fact advisers to the province chiefs. And a more dedicated group of people I have yet to meet: they were quite splendid.

In the interests of brevity I shall say a few things about what I found in South Vietnam, and then give some conclusions on them; and, finally, make one or two remarks about the outside situation. First of all, it may not be generally realised that inside South Vietnam itself there are still 200,000 armed Communists in the country. Observing that we never fought more than 10,000 (and usually 5,000) in Malaysia, that is an enormous figure; and of that total of 200,000 well over 100,000 are Viet Cong infrastructure. In other words, they are the cousins, uncles and fathers who live round the edges of the villages and on those villages.

To show the impact of the war on the people of South Vietnam I will just quote the figures of kidnappings and assassinations that are taking place every week. The average for the first half of this year was 330—an awful number of murders and kidnappings. That is just to show that the people are still conducting a terrific war. The South Vietnamese Army is 450,000 strong—ten or eleven divisions; and although I did not see the other ranks actually fighting, I saw the staff a good deal and I certainly gained an impression from all around me. One cannot be in an area like that without feeling the atmosphere, and I thought they were not only quite efficient in themselves but also very well turned out (which is only a small point), and had recently gained very greatly in confidence. That, I think, was perhaps because they took part with the Americans in the offensive against the sanctuaries in Cambodia.

The conclusion I came to, and the Air Marshal with me, is that the South Vietnamese Army will be quite capable of taking over the complete ground role at the end of 1971, provided that they are given heavy air support and technical support. In other words, that if a tank or a jeep is driven into a ditch another is provided—and, of course, they are not made in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese must have logistic support. I even see advantages in South Vietnam fighting its own war. I believe that there is a great deal in the argument that the Americans are there as the intruders on the scene, and I am not at all sure that the South Vietnamese would not do better alone, provided, as I say, they were given the air and technical support necessary. Certainly they would do at least as well in the matter of intelligence, because, for a start, they do not have the language difficulty. To show that they are in fact fighting this war very much at the moment I will quote the casualty figures for 1969, which were: for the South Vietnamese Army, nearly 19,000; for the United States Army, 9,000. That has now dropped to a trickle, quite a small figure. So the South Vietnamese are in fact already carrying the load.

On the question of Cambodia, of course I saw only one little section of that country. But I heard a good deal, and my impression is that the Communists are feeling the loss of Port Sianoukville and the truck route from there to the sanctuaries—probably using Chinese trucks. That route was 80 per cont. of their lines of communication; only 20 per cent. at the very most came down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Communists have now invaded Cambodia, and we had a debate on it in May. To my mind the real reason why they are occupying Cambodia is in order to replace that line of communication, because without the safe bases they cannot threaten South Vietnam and Saigon. I personally think that the campaign in Cambodia is a negative one, and I even think that the Cambodians, when they are fully equipped—and, incidentally, they were quite sore because Britain had not offered them any arms—and when they are trained, as they are now being trained by the South Vietnamese, will be very good fighters and capable of holding their own country. Twenty years ago the French relied a good deal on the Cambodians.

The South Vietnamese Air Force has at present 21 squadrons. This is being expanded to 40 by the end of next year, and later on to 50. It will continue to be a tactical air force. At the moment they have 250 helicopters, which is a lot of helicopters, but they do not have heavy air support. They want Phantoms and B.52s, but they are not going to get them—not at present, anyway. The South Vietnamese Navy similarly is expanding to 1,100 ships and 40,000 men; a terrific expansion. Both the South Vietnam Air Force and the Navy are expanding methodically and are very capable of doing so. Incidentally, I visited a South Vietnamese Air Force workshop, and you could eat your dinner off the floor, which is more than could be said of some places.

I was asked questions about reorganisation. I did not suggest it, but I was asked by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs whether I had any comments on reorganisation. I explained that I was not going to offer any suggestions, but as they had asked I would make one suggestion. It is perfectly possible, of course, to argue that the United States and South Vietnamese between them have suffered from, first of all, unclear war aims; secondly, that they are fighting two separate wars and they have never had a single director of operations, never had unity of command; the intelligence is distinctly questionable, the jungle tactics are doubtful. The tactics in the open are absolutely splen-did and so modern that they are bound to win, but, unfortunately, you cannot always arrange your battles in the open. My chief criticism was the lack of a strong police. Previously, we had always had a director of intelligence who was a policeman and the intelligence was run by the police. In South Vietnam it is not run by the police. They are nominally in control, as a lot of co-ordination goes on in Saigon, but in fact they are looked down on. That is the main suggestion I made. At the end of the war police intelligence wants to be absolutely close alongside the Government and they want to know who is the chief Communist living in a flat in Saigon.

The next thing I learned in South Vietnam was that the Government is gaining ground in the villages—by the way, there are usually six or seven hamlets to every village; a village is quite a big affair—with roads, bridges, aluminium roofs, tractors, schools, and, above all, with land reform. The farmer previously had a job to get any land. Now if he is an approved farmer he is given title to three hectares, which is seven and a half acres, and if it is good rice land and he gets two or three crops he is a prosperous farmer and interested in the prosperity of the community. The big landowners are limited now by a law, which started to be implemented in July, to 15 hectares, which is 45 acres. They cannot sit in Saigon and have hundreds of acres any more. This is very much better than the Communists have been offering to the peasants for many years. They have offered them land, but they have then collectivised the land, as in North Vietnam; in other words, they work for the State for ever after.

On top of that there is a programme called the Chien Hoi programme, which is aimed at rallying the V.C.I. particularly back to village life, back from the V.C.I. back to village life. So far they have rallied 162,000, which is a lot of people. They are doing it at the rate of between 30,000 and 40,000 a year. If you do a little arithmetic and find that there are 100,000 V.C.I., it will not be more than a couple of years before there are practically none left. The great advantage of this programme, if it works, and it is working at the moment, is that it isolates the V.C.I. from its supply line, observing that the Americans knocked the sanctuaries to bits, destroyed them completely. The Communists in the southern half of South Vietnam are very short of ammunition; they have guns and no ammunition. In other words, they are in a very bad position.

Lastly, one thing which you could not help noticing if you were in Saigon for ten days was the economic crisis. It was mentioned by every Minister I met. They are maintaining 1,100,000 men in the armed forces. It is a U.S. induced inflation; the dollar has been revalued from 118 to 275 and that has made a terrific difference. When I was there the poor people, and they were really poor, could not afford to buy their own oranges because of inflation, and it is the poor people in the towns who always suffer first. The conclusion I came to, as did the Air Marshal with me, was this: admittedly we cannot go to war with them, but we ought to give them priority in any practical aid we can, and I suggest that at the moment we ought to give them agricultural aid.

The conclusions I came to as a result of my visit—and I hope I went with an open mind—were, first of all, that these people are really fighting a heavy war against the Communists. They have had Communism once. It is a thing people are inclined to forget. They had it for several months between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of General Gracie, the Indian Commander, and his troops. It was a very painful business. They never want it again. The word "coalition" is a dirty word in Saigon, and I do not blame them. Give—shall we say?—a 10 per cent. share in a coalition to the Communists, a share which happens to include the Minister of the Interior and therefore the police, and we all know what happens. We all know what happened in Czechoslovakia, which is a salutary recent reminder. It has happened many times before, but the case of Czechoslovakia is the last. The people who protest about Vietnam and how the people there ought to patch up their quarrel and come to a solution have never lived under a Communist régime. The people in the American universities and in Grosvenor Square have never lived under Communism; they have never tried it. I do not recommend it.

Another matter which perhaps has been forgotten is that the United States, when they turned from being military advisers to providing armed forces, staved off obvious defeat in a matter of weeks; they went in and did a magnificent job. Unfortunately the Communists do not include the word "defeat" in their vocabulary, so they do not know when they are beaten. I believe that there are great difficulties in Hanoi and North Vietnam. The fact that the North Vietnamese Regular army contains boys of 15 and 16 years of age in quite a high proportion is a sign that they are up against it. On top of that, when they are rather short of ammunition it must be frightful. They do not know when they are beaten, but the conclusion that I came to was that the Viet Cong Infrastructure (the "V.C.I." as they are commonly known) are the key to the situation. Therefore the steady American withdrawal and pacification programme—"Vietnamisation" as I believe they call it—plus the Chien Hoi programme, are absolutely on the right lines, and if they are only given time to work they will show results. Land reform will be better than bullets, and it is much more likely that we shall persuade the V.C.I. to live in the villages than to live outside them.

In contrast to what I found in South Vietnam, I went afterwards to Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore and Bangkok, and I asked businessmen the same questions wherever I went. The businessmen are all terribly busy making money in their own little booms; they are primarily interested in their own little booms. I asked the question: What would you do about it here "—and this was in Bangkok particularly, which is only 400 or 500 miles away from Saigon, "if the war went wrong and the Communists took over South Vietnam?". They invariably changed the subject; they always put up their coat collars and hoped that the storm would blow over. In other words, they are doing nothing about it. I ought not to include the Singapore Government in that because I never met the people at the top of the Government, for they were elsewhere.

Now I should like to come to the conclusions about British policy. We often hear about a political solution, and that it is the only way out. The word "coalition" is often used. I found out—and I entirely agree with the South Vietnamese—that the word "coalition" cannot be included. I have a deep sympathy with the Government and the people who are fighting against Communism. I do not believe that coalition is either desirable or possible in South Vietnam, and I think we ought to stop talking about it. I do not believe that it is any more possible between North and South Vietnam than it has been between East and West Germany for the past 25 years. Trade, culture and sport, yes, but politics, no. Political régime, no. Anybody who has had dealings with the Russians or Communists knows that democracy can meant two entirely different things, and we ought to remember that.

As to the outcome, nobody would be so foolish as to predict it. The South Vietnamese are on the crest of a wave at the moment. And, by the way, going back to the villages, I may say that 63 per cent. turned out to elect half the Senate. Could you imagine 63 per cent. turning out in the middle of a war to vote for half your Lordships' House, if it were on a voting system? I do not think the comparison would be a very good or optimistic one. I thought they were marvellous to turn out in such numbers. Incidentally, the Australians were proud of the fact that they were in the worst province, and the turn out there was 73 per cent. The Government is gaining ground in the villages and it should be helped as much as possible to gain ground.

I therefore think that practical British aid, short of war, is what we ought to offer. It may be possible to rid the country completely of Communists. We may not reach a political solution; we may not reach complete military victory. It will be like other places and rather like a disease of the human body; you fight it because you have better corpuscles in your body. It is distinctly possible that the South Vietnamese will get rid of most of the Communism in their country if we support them and give them the chance to do so. I hope for a strong Government Statement on this part of the world. We cannot do better than remember the original United States aid, which was to ensure for the people of South Vietnam a free choice as to whether or not they wanted to be reunited with the North. That was put very well by my noble friend Lord Shepherd—I think he was quoting from another place—in the debate on May 14, when he said, speaking of withdrawals of foreign forces: … as soon as we have secured the elements of a lasting and honourable settlement which assures to the people of Vietnam their own inalienable right to decide for themselves their own future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14/5/70; col. 762.] The year 1971, to my mind, will be the crucial year.

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be very interested in the report that my noble friend Lord Bourne has given of his visit to South Vietnam. It is natural that the noble Lord, as a distinguished General, should devote much of his visit and, therefore, his speech here to-night on the military aspects in South Vietnam and Cambodia, although I was pleased that he touched upon the question of land settlement and other political matters which, in my view, are of considerable importance in a settlement. I well remember the words that the noble Lord quoted. They were the words of my right honourable friend who was then Prime Minister, setting out the Labour Government's view for a settlement in Vietnam. I certainly have not changed my views since May 14 when we had that debate. I am more and more convinced that there will not be, and cannot be, a military settlement in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, and for the long-term peace and settlement of that area a solution at the conference table is a vital necessity.

Before saying a few further words on this matter, I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, that some of us in the debate which preceded this Unstarred Question found ourselves increasingly in difficulties. Certainly my noble friend Lord Shackleton and myself have always taken a very consistent view on Vietnam and on our attitude to the United States. Certainly I came here this afternoon either with the intention of abstaining or of voting against the Bill. In the course of the debate, serious matters of concern were raised, and the more and more the debate went on the greater became my disquiet. In those circumstances I voted for the Bill, so that we should at least have an opportunity to explore the position more thoroughly than we have been able to this afternoon.

Having said that, I wish to state again that my feelings on Vietnam are that the United States went in there on very honourable grounds, and they became increasingly sucked into a conflict which was, I am certain, even to their own military commanders, a situation which would not, and could not, be solved by a military solution. Therefore we applauded the United States, the South Vietnamese Government, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, the N.L.F., when they agreed to go to Paris for talks. Throughout the months we, who were then in Government, did what we could to encourage both sides to talk and to reach a settlement, and certainly we shared everyone's disappointment—particularly that of the United States Government—that progress could not be made. We have applauded every initiative that the United States Government have made in an effort to de-escalate the conflict. We certainly applauded President Nixon's declaration, and in fact implementation, of the withdrawal of United States forces from South Vietnam. We believe that Cambodia and Laos are entitled to a neutrality respected by all countries within the region. We believe that the people of Vietnam, whether North or South, should have ways and means of having a Government of their choice, whether it be Communist or otherwise.

We felt, and still feel, that there is unlikely to be a permanent solution in that part of the world until China has been admitted to the United Nations. I must express, as I am certain the Government will, deep regret that the United Nations have once again barred China from the comity of nations. I was not going to speak this afternoon, as I felt that what. I said on May 14 was sufficient, since circumstances had little changed; but I must say—and I wish to ask a series of questions of Her Majesty's Government—that the recent bombings of North Vietnam by the United States Air Force in retaliation, as I understand it, for the shooting down of a reconnaissance aircraft, must be deeply disturbing. Much as one may sympathise with the search and rescue mission, this also must be regarded in the general situation as a matter for deep concern. At this moment of time anything that can increase tension, or that creates a situation where the other side may decide to escalate the conflict, will not only make it more difficult for the United States Government to withdraw its forces but will clearly reduce any possibility of early progress at the Paris Conference table.

Having said that, and expressed concern, I hope that it will not be construed as criticism, because certainly at this moment of time very little information is available to us other than what has been reported in the newspapers. I wonder whether the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, when he replies, could give us any information as to what the United States authorities had in mind when they undertook those two particular operations. I should also like to ask the noble Earl whether the United States Government consulted, or informed, Her Majesty's Government of their intention to carry out those operations. I shall leave it there for the time being. As I understand it, the bombing operation of North Vietnam has been concluded and I hope it will not be resumed. Here again, perhaps the noble Earl can give us some information.

I conclude by hoping that we shall have some information from the noble Earl and by impressing upon him and his colleagues the need for consistent pressure on all sides in this conflict. In the light of that, I wonder whether the noble Earl can say anything about the conversations that his right honourable friend, the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, will have had with Mr. Gromyko, who, of course, is co-chairman, with him, of the Geneva Conference of 1954.

6.6 p.m.


My Lords, it is with some trepidation, and certainty with humility, that I take it upon myself, at this late hour for your Lordsips, to address this House. I hope, therefore, that I shall be brief. May I say that I know of the wonderful work of the noble Lord who asked the Question. I was swanning around what was then known as Batavia (and I have been there a number of times since), and also Djakarta, when he too was doing a job of work there.

The question I want to address myself to in the ten minutes I intend to take—and at the moment I find this a difficult question as I am writing about this very part of the world—is the pertinent one which has been asked: what is the Government's policy? I sincerely hope that, in the blinding light of the nuclear age, that policy will be adjusted and considered in the light of the experience of one of our own great leaders. I remember the 1954 Geneva Conference, and there are now in this House noble Lords who were then in the other place. I stood up and paid a tribute at that time to the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, now the noble Earl, Lord Avon. I would call noble Lords' attention to his book, Full Circle, which contains guide-lines for this Government. I shall try not to be controversial, but I hope that our foreign policy will be less abrasive than the Government's home policy at the present moment, if I may be allowed that remark, en passant.

If noble Lords will turn to page 108 of Full Circle, they will see these words: The Americans continued to believe that some action must be taken outside the conference. That was the Geneva Conference. Some of us were in Geneva listening at the time. They wished to encourage the French to keep fighting and prevent a steady Communist advance in South-East Asia. The then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, was asked what his policy was, and he replied in these words—and they appear on page 111 of the same book: Her Majesty's Government are not prepared to give any undertakings about United Kingdom military action in Indo-China in advance of results of Geneva. We have not entered into any new political or military commitments. Foster Dulles had asked the then Sir Anthony Eden if we would back him in his occupation of Indo-China, and he was asked what kind of action they were going to take. The story is told in the book, on page 111. Foster Dulles said—and it was like the South Sea Bubble: We do not know yet, but we want your backing. Certainly the Churchill Government had more sense than to follow him in that kind of agreement.

The then Sir Anthony Eden went on to say: Meanwhile Mr. Robertson (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State) whose approach to these questions is so emotional as to be impervious to argument or indeed facts, was keeping up a sort of theme song' to the effect that there were in Indo-China some three hundred thousand men who were anxious to fight against Vietminh and were looking to us for support and encouragement. I said that if they were so anxious to fight I could not understand why they did not do so. The Americans had put in nine times more supplies of material than the Chinese and plenty must be available for their use. I had no faith in this eagerness for the Vietnamese to fight for Bao Dai. Lord Reading then indicated to Foster Dulles that his policy would mean that war in Indo-China would be on the boil for years and years—and that is to be found at page 113 of Full Circle. Mr. Dulles replied that this would be a good thing. My Lords, I leave it at that. I do not want to bore you with masses of pregnant phrases from that constructive job of work which was done by the then Foreign Secretary.

Some time later I spent a long time in Peking with Chou En-lai. For hours we discussed the work of the then Conservative Foreign Secretary, and he praised him for having achieved neutrality in Laos and Cambodia and for the pacification which hitherto had been unknown for some 20-odd years. We must remember that there has been almost perpetual war for 30 years in that country, to say nothing of revolutionary activity against the French, which some of us knew about long before World War II. In other words, the constructive work of Lord Avon at the Geneva Conference was being destroyed by the emotional stress of the then Secretary of State, Foster Dulles. That is not casting aspersions on the Americans at all; it is simply pointing out that at this juncture in the blinding nuclear age in which we live we want no more geological politics.

The geology of politics is strewn with fossilised ideas about defence, fossilised ideas about the world in which we live to-day. The first axiom is that one half of the world is Communist; the second is that the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945 has changed the history of the world. We are at a watershed of man's destiny. I hope that I am not being didactic or pontifical. I shall finish in about three more minutes, but this is a very difficult subject to pack pregnantly into a constructive, coherent statement in a brief time. But I sincerely believe that, whatever policy the Government initiate, it must be shot through with this fact: that the logistics of World War II are as dead as the dodo. Liddell Hart himself said: You must never get your opponent into a corner. Give your opponent an opportunity to save face. With all due respect, this is what the Americans are failing to do. They have piled Pelion upon Ossa by their increase in bombing, in their effort to reach the Kingdom of Heaven and peace. But the more they have piled this mountain upon mountain, the further away they are from peace.

So I come to my last two minutes, having swept aside quite a number of arguments which I should have liked to deploy. I look to the roof of this marvellous building, and I see some of the coats of arms of the barons who made King John sign the Magna Carta in 1215. But in 1215 the Khmer civilisation, right from the borders of Pakistan to the arc of Indonesia, was dominant. There are about 600 temples at Angkor Wat, which were occupied by some 80.000 priests, and Pnom Penh had a million population. They believed in something, but we are living in the 20th century with the apotheosis of growth. I am a Celt myself, and my nation lived in guerrilla war against the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons for about a thousand years. The art of guerrilla warfare was picked up from Llewellyn the Great. Most Celts believe in something, thank God! and it seems to me that the more we worship economic growth and power, then so, in inverse ratio does man's spiritual content seem to shrink, and we are losing a lot which Oriental man could teach us.

Another night I may be a little more controversial, but to-night I would say to the Minister who is going to reply: if a policy is being struck, then for heaven's sake! do not let us have the platitudes about having to protect the Indian Ocean from the Russian ships; having to protect Indonesia; having to protect Indo-China. We can no longer do it. If you take the mighty arc of the Indian Ocean from Latitude 40 South, Longitude 30 East, which passes roughly through Cairo, and go up to about the Tropic of Capricorn further North to the Sunda Trench or the Java Trench, you will see how foolish it is to believe that with a few ships you will solve the problems of man's peace.

I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, say from this side that we must get China into the United Nations. Our fundamental policy should be, out of friendship and understanding with the Americans, to show them that there is a new China emerging. I was in Canada talking to Trudeau and to U Thant only a few months ago, and inside Washington there are men who know that they must get a modus vivendi with the Chinese; they must be brought into the comity of nations. If we want to do a job of work, let us get on with the Mekong project. Finally, I wonder whether noble Lords will agree with me about a first-class job of work which was mooted 70 years ago. I should like to see the modern United Nations at work cutting a canal 10 degrees North of the Equator at the Kra Isthmus. I believe that it would make such a difference to the economy of that area.

Whatever answer we receive from the Front Bench to-night, I hope that it will be qualified with the fact that, as much as anything, we will help to encourage the United States, in its mighty strength, to remember the formula of Liddell Hart, "Give your opponent a chance to save his face, and do not push him into a corner"—though that is what the Americans, by increasing the bombing, seem to be doing.

6.18 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has just spoken started with an expression of humility. I should like to echo that expression in my capacity as a former public servant by welcoming to one part of the Legislature a new noble Lord who has done a quarter of a century's service in another. We have already heard something of his great knowledge in the field of history and we welcome to this House something of a rarity—someone who has an expert knowledge of the Far East and South-East Asia. From the way he spoke I think we may say that if at any time we feel dispirited he as a Celtic Member of our House can "call spirits from the vasty deep".

Before the events of this weekend, I had hoped that we might be discussing in an atmosphere of comparative tranquility the situation in Vietnam, and with reference to possible long-term progress towards a solution. With that in mind, I would express great gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for having initiated this debate and given us a feel of South Vietnam which one does not often get, either from reading or from people one meets. This has been most valuable. Of course, during the weekend we have had a bit of a jolt. Vietnam has become for a moment topical again; and I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that we should be careful how we comment. I hope that the noble Earl who winds up the debate will be able to tell us a little, if he has been told, of what went on to bring about these rather melodramatic events. Of the rescue act, I think perhaps we should be wise to judge it in this way: to say that this is one of those things which, if it had succeeded, would have been hailed as a piece of resourceful heroism. As it did not succeed, everybody is bound to ask why it was attempted at all. I think that we can view it in those proportions, and not let it disturb our consideration of the longer-term objectives.

Now, if I may, I should like very briefly to allude to the current situation in the three countries of Indo-China; to say a word, if I may, and ask a question, on possible steps towards peace; and, finally, say a word on what Britain can and should do. On the present state of affairs in Vietnam, it is really very difficult to give a summing-up of how things really are. You can take the version of an Australian General whom I heard on the radio and who said, in a clipped voice, "The war's over"; or you can read articles in American newspapers which say that the North Vietnamese have regrouped with fantastic efficiency. I should think, from what the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, told us, that the true situation is somewhere between the two.

In Cambodia, one is bound first to think back six or seven months in a wry kind of way at the hysteria which greeted President Nixon's moves to mop up the sanctuaries in the salient near Saigon. It was an hysteria which, I regret to say, made it, in another place, very difficult for the then Foreign Secretary to be heard and, in Oxford University, impossible for him to be heard at all. But now I think we have recovered from this emotional reaction. We have seen that the Americans did an economical operation of considerable service to the South Vietnamese, and retired 24 hours before the deadline which they had announced. So I think we can consider all these things with a certain calm which was absent at that moment except in your Lordships' House. In Laos, all one need say is that we have the continued deadlock of Princes.

The question is whether, in this situation, with, as I say, comparative calm and with, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, almost a cessation of casualties, anyway of American casualties, one can once again look forward to some effective search for peace. The obvious way to do this, if it can be done at all—and it is a very real "if"—is through the framework which already exists: the framework of a Geneva Conference, or a variant upon it. On this score, both Her Majesty's previous Government and Her Majesty's present Government have an excellent record. In other words, our half of the co-chairman-ship has been ready to go, and has been ready to go for years. The other half, the Soviet Government, has always refused. The argument has always been that the time was not ripe. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to give us a little encouragement out of the visit of Mr. Gromyko, although I am not over-hopeful myself. I hope that, if the argument still is that the time is not ripe, the Government will continue to question the validity in this context of the principle of perpetual unripe time, and I will quote to the noble Earl, although he probably knows it already, that excellent little phrase: Remember, Sir, that time is like the fruit of a medlar—rotten before it is ripe". That may well be the case in this part of the world.

However, if we are blocked, is it worth considering, in the context of this debate and in ruminating about longer-term prospects of peace, whether there are any possibilities that the fighting in all these three countries might somehow grind to a stop; that the whole weariness of war might cause fighting to die out? I think that in Laos this might be the case. It would, of course, leave these three countries divided; it would make a mess of the map; it would leave a lot of Cambodia in somebody else's hands—in the hands, in fact, of the invaders, if people would be courageous enough to say so; it would leave Vietnam divided, as we have it now. But it is just conceivable that the weary people of that part of the world could arrive at a settlement on that basis. I mention it only as something which would perhaps be more tolerable than going on simply because we cannot at this stage have a formal negotiation. It is not an easy thing to work for, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, the hard-core Communists are not likely to agree to give up. But, still, it is a possible dimension in which we can think if, as I say, the formal approaches to peace are blocked.

In this connection, I thought that one or two noble Lords—if I may very mildly criticise the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek—were a little unfair. During this period the Americans have indeed made—perhaps, wisely, not proclaimedx2014;very conscientious efforts precisely to enable the other side to save face, and I do not think it is on that point that negotiations have failed. I should also like to say something which I had hoped to say at one time in this House: that another evidence of the earnestness of the Americans in trying to bring this situation to a close is the fact that their frontline negotiators, Mr. David Bruce, in Paris, and Mr. Ellsworth Bunker, in Saigon, are two diplomats whose capabilities would put them at the top of any Diplomatic Service anywhere at any time—and if that is not an earnest of good faith, I do not know what is.

There is one snag about this idea of the war petering out. I think it would mean that at some moment there would be a crunch in the process, because there would certainly be some among the Communist leadership who would think of this situation in the terms, "The Americans go: we do not shoot at them while they are going, but the moment they are gone, in we go". It may be that in course of time the South Vietnamese may be able to cope with this situation, but it might mean—and I think it is as well that we should have this in the back of our minds—a very difficult dilemma for the United States Administration, who in those circumstances might have to retain some small stiffening in Vietnam to make sure that the war really did grind to a close and was not simply reopened the moment their last transport ship and aircraft had left.

Finally, my Lords, the British role. There has been considerable controversy about whether the dispositions made by the present Government for retaining a modest presence in South-East Asia are the right ones. Militarily, this is disputable: diplomatically, it is not, in this sense. We are bound to have a little more credibility in our advice, which we give so freely, if we are modestly on the spot and say that we propose to remain there, than if we are in full flight shouting advice over our shoulders. It may not make a great difference, but it makes a little difference—and our credibility as advisers is just that much greater. And this may, in the end, help the situation. What we can do, however, is not very great. We can go on urging a conference; we can go on urging restraint. But, equally, in this urging we must always be careful not to be naive and not, as one noble Lord said, just produce clichés because they are virtuous ones.

There is one other thing that we can do, and I hope that we shall do it. It has also been urged that we should continue in a small way—and it will have to be a small way—to show our interest in the furnishing of aid; and that in the furnishing of aid we should continue any programmes in Vietnam and in Laos and not neglect to furnish some aid in Cambodia. That little country has shown extraordinary bravery and an unexpected access of national feeling in this situation, and deserves a little friendliness and support. So, my Lords, while one cannot foresee early developments in the direction of peace, we can keep our eye on both the possibility, which always exists, of getting the existing framework working again and also on the possibility that the hostilities may somehow eventually die of their own inanition. In the meantime, by giving a little understanding aid we can show that we have not lost interest in the suffering people of that area.

6.31 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to participate in this debate, but before the noble Earl rises to reply I should like to ask one or two questions. Can be tell us what is the position of the British medical mission now working in Saigon? When we were there two years ago they were working under appalling difficulties; they were a small group of British volunteer workers, deprived of a great deal of assistance that they badly needed. May I ask him whether the Government are now willing to look favourably on their humanitarian efforts, and, if at all possible, enable their activities to be extended?

On the wider issue around which this debate has ranged, my own lasting impression was of the terrible complexity of the situation in Vietnam. We were out there two years ago, and nothing that has happened since has tended to simplify the situation. Quite the contrary: everything that has happened during the last two years has only increased the complexity of the whole position in that unfortunate country. Whatever may have been the motives that first brought America into the war, the position to-day is that it is virtually impossible for America suddenly to extricate herself from Vietnam.

I believe that the problem of Vietnam could be settled to-day if it were not bedevilled by outside intervention by Russia and China on the one hand, and America, on the other. If only the Vietnamese were deprived of all forms of outside activity on behalf of either North Vietnam or South Vietnam, I believe that, inevitably, they would have to learn to live with one another and to reach some solution. I am still under the impression that the South Vietnamese would be willing to accept partition at the level of the 17th Parallel—just as in Korea the final solution was reached only on the basis of partition, and just as, nearer to us here in this country, Germany has been prepared to accept partition for the sake of peace, partition on the Oder-Neisse line, to enable its two halves to continue existing together somehow on the basis of some sort of a peace.

I can only pray that the United States, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, may get together, whether through the admission of China to the United Nations, or even if China remains outside the United Nations, to bring pressure on the Vietnamese to force a settlement of this dreadful, horrifying, destructive war. Many of the people we met in Vietnam two years ago were youngsters of 20 and under who had never known any condition other than war, who had never known what it is to be given a chance to live together in peace. To me this is not at all an issue of Communism versus capitalism or free enterprise, or call it what you will. It is not even an issue of politics. It is simply an issue of millions of fine people, decent, simple, humble people, longing for peace and begging the whole world just to give them the chance to live together in peace.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Earl rises to reply, and with the approval of the House, may I ask a very brief question? I am not sure that he will be able to answer it. Can the noble Earl tell us what is the American commitment militarily to Thailand? My thought is that should the war flare up again and go wrong, and should Communist troops advance into Thailand, our small force in Singapore will find themselves on the flank of this operation and, I should think, in a very awkward military position.

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bourne, for asking this question in the House this evening, not least because I think he has given us the opportunity of a very interesting short debate. It was particularly useful for all of us to see through the informed eyes of a very experienced observer something of the scene in Vietnam, speaking as he was from a background of fresh firsthand experience. This came through very much in the speech of the noble and gallant Lord. We have heard from a senior colleague of mine—if I may say so in, I hope, not too patronising a way—a very thoughtful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth. We have had the usual moderate and sensible speech from the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, who gave his explication de vote which he dragged in somehow (I do not know with what precise relevance), and, to use a phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, en passant, but much more than en passant, I should like not only to welcome Lord Davies to your Lordships' House but to congratulate him on a charming speech and to assure him that we were far from bored by it. He speaks with real knowledge of this whole area, and we look forward, again to use his own words, to many more of his "pregnant phrases".

I am also grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bourne, because his Question gave me a peg on which to hang an explanation of Her Majesty's Government's policy and attitude towards these appallingly complicated problems of Indo-China and of the area. Let me say, by way of background—and I am not mincing words, and this may not be very acceptable to all noble Lords—that I think we must remember that wherever the historic causes in history may lie, the prime cause of the fighting in Indo-China lies in the efforts of North Vietnam to take over South Vietnam by force. Those efforts, which have continued for many years, include the invasion of South Vietnam territory by North Vietnamese Regular troops and the active encouragement of insurgency and insurrection in South Vietnam. Those efforts have also involved the illegal use of Laotian and Cambodian territory by the North Vietnamese to provide base areas and supply routes.

This has resulted in the spread of hostilities to those two countries. Restoration of peace and stability to Laos and Cambodia must, in Her Majesty's Government's view, ultimately depend on a settlement of the war in Indo-China as a whole. Although the fighting flares and dies away and flares again in intensity from time to time, we can find some comfort in the fact that the general level of hostilities in South Vietnam has been declining steadily during the past year. The fighting in Laos and Cambodia is also at a relatively low level at the present time (I will come later to the question of the bombing); this we must all be thankful for. Nevertheless, my Lords, the killing will not stop entirely until there is a comprehensive and negotiated settlement covering the whole of Indo-China; and I think that on one matter we are all agreed: this slaughter just has to stop. Save for brief intervals Indo-China has been the centre of armed conflict for almost thirty years. Most of us who read our history know of the state of Europe after the Thirty Years War and it would not be too difficult for us to imagine, even those of us who do not have first-hand experience of the area, what this endemic struggle has meant to the gifted people who inhabit this very large area of South-East Asia.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have always believed in the desirability of a negotiated settlement of this war. That continues to be our belief, and I do not think that in this we part company in any way from the attitude taken by the previous Administration. For this reason Her Majesty's Government welcome, and have welcomed, President Nixon's latest proposals for such a settlement. In our view these represent a reasonable basis for negotiation. For that reason we are, naturally, disappointed that the other side has rejected them so quickly and so categorically, without any apparent attempt—I use the words "apparent attempt" advisedly—to explore their possibilities. This example of North Vietnamese intransigence means that although the talks in Paris have been going on for nearly two years, a peace is still no nearer.

In Paris the Communists continue to make two unrealistic demands as preconditions for the discussion of other issues. These are the unilateral and unconditional withdrawal of all American troops from Soul h Vietnam and the setting up in Saigon, in advance of fresh elections, of a coalition Government from which the leaders of the present elected Government in Saigon would be excluded, and which the Communists obviously would hope to control. The first of these preconditions amounts to a call for American surrender and the second (here I agree entirely with the noble and gallant Lord) amounts to a call for a South Vietnamese surrender.

At this point I should like to dwell for a moment on President Nixon's five-point packet of proposals. First, I would remind your Lordships that he called for the immediate negotiation of a cease-fire in places throughout Indo China. Accepted by the other side, this would put a rapid stop to the killing and destruction. Secondly, the President proposed a peace conference covering the whole of Indo-China, because he recognises that any future settlement will have to include not only Vietnam but also Laos and Cambodia. Until such a conference can be got going he will continue, as I understand it, to work for a Vietnam settlement at the Paris talks. Third, President Nixon has offered to negotiate a complete withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam as part of an overall settlement. My Lords, we hold this to be a fair proposal which could lead to the end of the American presence if only the other side would agree to negotiate seriously.

Fourth, the President has invited the Communists to join in the search for a political settlement in South Vietnam which would reflect the will of the South Vietnamese people and also the existing relationship of political forces there. Perhaps I should remind your Lordships that in the same context President Thieu of South Vietnam has committed himself to abide by the result of internationally supervised elections in which the Communists would take part and which they could help to organise. This again, in our view, is a very fair offer to which, surely, the other side might be expected to respond if they were as confident of their popular support in South Vietnam as they sometimes suggest.

Lastly, President Nixon has proposed the immediate exchange of all prisoners of war held by both sides. This is a gesture of humanity which, if agreed to by the North Vietnamese, would certainly help, in our view, to lighten the atmosphere for negotiation on other issues. I should like to make clear that this Government, again like their predecessors, have very real sympathy for the tragic plight of those American servicemen captured or missing in Indo-China; and not least for that of their relatives. Because of the continuing North Vietnamese refusal to divulge complete information about the prisoners they hold, many of these men's relatives do not even know, after years of waiting, whether their kinfolk are alive or dead.

My Lords, perhaps it is not for us, who are not so directly involved in all this issue as are others, to pass judgment on these matters, save as human beings. However, as human beings, I think that all of us must feel that the refusal of the North Vietnamese authorities even to say when they are holding a prisoner is a form of mental cruelty practised on the innocent and unhappy relatives of those who are missing which all of us would condemn. It is against that background that I think it would not be unreasonable to consider the recent abortive attempt to liberate American prisoners from a supposed camp near Hanoi. In any event, like our predecessors, we have kept in close touch with the American Government on this particular issue and we are ready to seize whatever opportunity presents itself to assist them in their efforts to get the North Vietnamese to accord at least the minimum standards of the Geneva Convention in the treatment of their prisoners. Unfortunately, of course, our opportunities for influencing the North Vietnamese are very limited.

President Nixon's proposals, which have been supported by the Governments of Laos and Cambodia and South Vietnam, reaffirm his desire for a negotiated settlement which would restore peace and security in Indo-China. If accepted as a basis for negotiation by the other side, they would also ensure that the peoples of the area would be able to decide their own future, free from all outside interference whatsoever. This we believe to be absolutely right, and that is why the efforts of the American Administration to achieve a settlement on this basis will continue to have Her Majesty's Government's wholehearted support.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd—in very moderate terms, for which I am grateful—whether I could accord himself and your Lordships any further information about the recent bombing attacks carried out South of the Nineteenth Parallel by the United States Air Force. I am afraid that so far as the background and the actual operational context is concerned I cannot add any more to what the noble Lord will have seen reported by the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Laird. The noble Lord asked me whether Her Majesty's Government had been informed, and I can tell the noble Lord in return that we were not told in advance by the Americans about these air strikes. The noble Lord would not expect me at this stage to elaborate very much on this operation, which, so far as I know, is now concluded. All I would say is that operations of this limited kind have taken place before; and I am not saying whether I feel this is right or wrong.

Secondly, I would urge that prime responsibility for the continuation of the war and all that it entails must rest primarily with the North Vietnamese because they have not responded to the many offers made to them to bring about a peaceful settlement, the most recent being the offer made by President Nixon on October 7. That, I feel, and I have summarised the proposals briefly to your Lordships, was an offer which, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, provided a way out for both sides. As I see it, there is no great loss of face for either side in the acceptance of the broad line of President Nixon's proposals. But so long as the other side continue to frustrate a settlement, it is my understanding that the Americans will continue with their policy of Vietnamisation.

This involves, as the noble and gallant Lord reminded the House, turning over to the South Vietnamese responsibility for their own defence on a phased and progressive basis. I was interested to hear the noble and gallant Lord say that, save for logistic backing, it was his feeling that the South Vietnamese land forces would be able to cope with the position by themselves by the end of 1971. I would merely remind your Lordships that this policy has enabled the Americans to withdraw a very large number of their men from South Vietnam. By the spring of 1971, the total of United States forces in Vietnam will have been reduced by nearly half, compared with the position when President Nixon took office. From a maximum of just over half a million troops at its highest point, the United States forces will be reduced, according to present plans, to just over a quarter of a million by the middle of next year.

Unfortunately, we must recognise that for their part the North Vietnamese have as yet made no really constructive proposals for a just and peaceful settlement. Madam Binh's recent amplification of the National Liberation Front's position amounted to no more than a restatement of their unrealistic preconditions. I find it sad that for a long time the negotiators in Paris have been saying that the fact that Mr. Lodge has not been replaced shows that the Americans are not in earnest. Now they have in the person of Mr. Bruce a diplomat of whose quality we are all well aware. It is sad that that particular argument has been so transparently punctured. In any event, it is our earnest hope that the Communists will reconsider their position and respond to the American desire for meaningful negotiations. If only for humanitarian reasons, we urge them to do so. Whatever else we feel about this, we must all feel that the people of Vietnam have suffered quite enough. I would just remind your Lordships of the casualties, although you are probably well aware of them. Dealing only with war casualties and not with the countless civilian casualties, on the American side there have been nearly 44,000 killed, more than in the whole Korean campaign. On the South Vietnamese side, there have been 117,000 killed. This is from January 1, 1961, to November 7 of this yeas. On the Communist side, it is estimated that no fewer than 682,000 have been killed.

After this general sketch, I turn to our specific concern with the problems of Indo-China in our capacity as cochairman of the Geneva Conferences. On a number of occasions, like our predecessors, we have already urged the Soviet co-chairman to join with us in convening an international conference on Indo-China. The noble Lords, Lord Gore-Booth and Lord Shepherd, who have asked me about this, do not feel, I expect, that I shall be able to give a very optimistic reply and I am afraid that I am not able to do so. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs raised the matter again with Mr. Gromyko, when he was in London recently, but Mr. Gromyko, I am sorry to say, again declined to co-operate, maintaining, as the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, anticipated, that the time is not ripe for such a conference.

While, therefore, we are frustrated for the present from fulfilling our role as Geneva co-chairman, nevertheless we are ready to assist in the search for peace in any other way which would be acceptable to the parties directly concerned. Here I should like to repeat again our conviction that a peaceful solution which would take just account of the interests of all parties concerned in Indo-China is perfectly feasible, perfectly on the cards, but it will not be achieved until both sides, not merely one, realise that their own interests, as well as those of others, will be best served by serious negotiations instead of continued bloodletting.

In any event, we are encouraged in certain other, perhaps peripheral, respects, not on central issues—for example, by the contacts which have been taking place between the opposing parties in Laos. This is a country which I have had the pleasure of visiting, and I feel that your Lordships will agree with me that Prince Souvanna Phouma, the Prime Minister of Laos, deserves our praise and support for his skilful and sustained efforts to preserve the neutrality and integrity of his country. We very much hope that the present contacts between the Royal Laotian Government and the Pathet Lao will develop into meaningful talks and that these will lead to an improvement in the situation in Laos. We had discussions with Prince Souvanna Phouma when he was in London in the autumn, and as Geneva co-chairman I should like to make it quite clear that Her Majesty's Government are ready to play their full part in helping to make these talks, if they come about, a success. But there is, of course, an obvious limit to what they may achieve, because the situation in Indo-China is to a large extent indivisible. A final, comprehensive settlement will only be made possible by the ending of the war in Vietnam.

Coming to the wider regional and economic contexts, may I just say this? We have welcomed action by the countries of South-East Asia to get together to tackle their own regional problems. The initiative earlier this year by the group of Asian countries which met in Djakarta to discuss the situation in Cambodia was an important instance of this. But in the economic field the South-East Asian countries are likely to continue for some time to need assistance from more developed countries outside the region. We fully recognise this and are doing what we can within our limited resources to help in Indo-China, as in the rest of South-East Asia. I should like to instance, as an illustration of our support of regional economic development, the support (of which I have some personal knowledge) which Her Majesty's Government have been extending and are still extending towards the Asian Development Bank.

Finally, may I turn to some other matters which I know are close to your Lordships' hearts and which have been mentioned in this short debate? Our civil aid to South Vietnam over the last five years has been considerable, covering the provision of a pædiatric medical team in Saigon, the building of primary schools, the provision of a substantial amount of road-building equipment and aid over civil police training. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Segal, that so far as the pædiatric team are concerned we are now considering, in consultation with our South Vietnam friends, what further contribution might usefully be made in this important field.

While we are on this subject, I should like to pay tribute to what the British voluntary agencies have been doing in South Vietnam. They have been working there in extraordinarily difficult circumstances for a long time. I should like to mention what the Save the Children Fund have been doing in running a clinic for the post-operative care of children near Hanoi. In this and in other ways we can bring some assistance, within our limited resources, to the people of South Vietnam; and it is certainly our intension to continue these efforts.

Now that the security situation in South Vietnam is better, we are considering what other help we can give, particularly to promote South Vietnam's economic development, not least in the field of agriculture, to which the noble and gallant Lord referred. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Royle, has reaffirmed in another place our support and sympathy for Cambodia. We are also considering ways in which we might help the Cambodians, including, in response to a request from the Cambodian Government, the setting up of an English language teaching centre in Phnom Penh.

I should like to remind your Lordships that we contribute to the extent of something over £710,000 a year to the Foreign Exchange Operations Fund for the stabilisation of the Laotian currency. This is an important contribution to the economy of Laos. We have also assisted the Laotians, and will continue to do so in other ways.


I was interested when the noble Earl spoke of the postoperative clinic. Near to Hanoi? Did he mean that?


No; I did not mean that. Near to Saigon. It is at Qui Nhon to be precise.

To sum up, Her Majesty's Government believe that the conditions for a peaceful settlement in Indo China exist. We believe that President Nixon has put forward proposals which, if taken up by the other side as a basis for serious negotiations, could bring the fighting rapidly to an end. The South Vietnamese Government has offered the Communists the opportunity of taking part in free and fair internationally supervised elections, and has committed itself to abiding by the outcome. North Vietnam, which has itself suffered grievously as a result of this war, has as much to gain by responding positively to these offers as any of the other parties involved. We must hope that the North Vietnamese will soon come to realise, as the Americans have already come to realise, that a military solution of this war is not possible, and that they will then indicate their willingness to join in serious negotiation to try to reach a settlement acceptable to all the parties concerned. For our part, I can assure your Lordships of one thing: that we will do anything within our power to promote that process.

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