The Dissolution of the British Empire in the Era of Vietnam
The British Empire was one of the longest lasting empires in the Western world, stretching from the Americas to Africa to Asia and into the Pacific. This led to the iconic phrase – ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’. However, empires rise and fall and the British were no exception to the rule.
This article looks at the dissolution of the British Empire in Asia during the period of the Vietnam War, concentrating on the influence of the United States and the war in Vietnam.
In 1968, the U.S. secretary of state, Dean Rusk, remarked that he was “profoundly dismayed” by the British aim to withdraw all forces from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He stated “This represented a major withdrawal of the UK from world affairs, and it was a catastrophic loss to human society. These decisions involved the highest level of judgment and of instinct about where the human family was going. We were facing a difficult period in world affairs and Britain was saying it would not be there”.
This was a remark found in the context of the Vietnam War the Americans were involved in – America had little support from the rest of the world apart from Australia and New Zealand. This was a period where America was ‘lonely’ in its brutal campaign against Vietnam.
“The year 1967 saw the publication of Bertrand Russell’s War Crimes in Vietnam, and one British politician commented in retrospect that “the feeling against the war in Vietnam was so strong that [the]Labour [Party] … regarded [it]as the most immoral act since the Holocaust.””
One of the reasons British dissolved in this period was due to financial reasons. ‘British trade deficits plunged to their worst level in history in October 1967, the same month as the 50,000-strong march on the Pentagon and antiwar demonstrations throughout the world’. Since America had been propping up the British economy and since they couldn’t make too much fuss over what they thought was a terrible war, they pulled out of Asia. “British failure to influence either the United States or the Soviet Union at the level of international politics only deepened British despair. The British ambassador in South Vietnam wrote: ‘It is only too clear that over all our efforts hangs the black cloud of our own military and economic weaknesses’”.
Louis Wm. Roger (2002) The Dissolution of the British Empire in the Era of Vietnam, The American Historical Review, American Historical Association.