This presidential address was delivered at the 116th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in San Francisco, January 4, 2002.

The Dissolution of the British Empire in the Era of Vietnam

My purpose this evening will be threefold: to reflect on British imperialism in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, to establish a connection between the British colonial experience and the American presence in Vietnam, and to pursue the idea of memory, time, and place in the context of those themes.

Following the frequent custom of an AHA presidential address, I begin by commenting on the extraordinary experience of reading former presidential addresses. In 1958, my predecessor Walter Prescott Webb, the only other AHA president from Texas, remarked that presidential addresses were notably solemn occasions, usually without a particle of humor. Since then, wit and humor have been somewhat more conspicuous. I can’t match Webb’s wit or iconoclasm, but at least I can say that he managed to present an address that ranks, in my judgment, with the best ever delivered, including those by Samuel Eliot Morison, C. Vann Woodward, and Robert R. Palmer, all of whom responded differently to the problem of how to entertain an audience on this annual occasion. It was disconcerting to find that Palmer questioned the utility of it all and wondered whether the tradition should be abandoned. Although I disagree with him, I can see his point, because there is no particular form or set purpose to the presidential address. Some seem to have been born in desperation. Many resemble exemplary scholarly articles, while others in one way or another wrestle with the problems of the AHA. Presidential addresses are frequently autobiographical. They sometimes read like sermons.

I have no intention of delivering a sermon, and I have already written an autobiographical account as well as an assessment of some of the salient problems of the AHA for Perspectives.1 By studying past presidential addresses, I have become painfully aware that the quickest and surest way to make a fool of oneself is to move beyond one’s area of specialization, yet I know also that the most certain way to be deadly boring is to stick narrowly to one’s own subject. My address tonight will remain mostly within my own domain, the history of the British Empire, principally its dissolution in the 1960s. I’ll say a few words more generally about that era, which can now be studied with a measure of emotional detachment that would have been virtually impossible only a few years ago. Perhaps we are beneficiaries not only of distance in time but also more specifically of the end of the Cold War. In any event, to paraphrase John Hope Franklin in his presidential address on the Civil War, it is now possible to study the 1960s without losing ourselves to fire and brimstone.2 It would be an exaggeration to place the Vietnam debate within the AHA on the same level as that of the Civil War, but the wounds of the 1960s have been slow to heal.

The Vietnam War is of course within living memory, although it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that it is as remote to our students as World War I was to me as a young assistant professor at Yale in the 1960s. The liquidation of the British Empire is also a matter of the immediate past, especially if one brings the end of it down to the reversion of Hong Kong to China in 1997. My points of concentration in the 1960s will be the legendary naval base and colony, Singapore, and the creation of the state known today as Malaysia, or Greater Malaya. I also mention, as part of the background, Aden and Rhodesia as two other major colonial problems of the 1960s. Aden was the colony and protectorate at the tip of the Arabian peninsula. Some commentators at the time described Aden as Britain’s Vietnam—although part of my conclusion will be that Malaysia’s confrontation with Indonesia in the mid-1960s was, at least potentially, a much more serious conflict. Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) was the breakaway, internally self-governing African colony that in 1965 declared unilateral independence on the model of the United States. Rhodesia held a much more prominent place in British consciousness than did Singapore, Malaysia, or Aden, but all are examples of what has been called the death rattle of British imperialism. In a more general way, my address concerns memory, time, and place, the passions of the 1960s in our collective memory, and the continuity as well as the different shapes of British imperialism in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Discussing such controversial subjects will force me to take a position, and I shall develop the argument that the events in Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia were not merely interconnected but can be studied in such a way as to illuminate the spirit of the age—a deeply anti-imperial age but then as now not without champions of the British imperial mission or, in this country, the American cause in Vietnam. In the 1960s as much perhaps as in any other decade in our national history, some historians believed that they should play an activist role in public affairs, while others held that the job of the historian is to write about the past and to teach the subject of history. Some, indeed many, managed to do both. As William E. Leuchtenburg pointed out in his presidential address in 1991, there is a creative tension between these two positions, but in 1969 this tension nearly burst when the mounting protest against the war in Vietnam came close to politicizing the AHA.3 In 1970, Robert R. Palmer in his presidential address asked the question point blank: “Are we activists or academics?”4 The lesson I draw from studying this episode is that the AHA made the right decision by rejecting politicization. I myself stand in the camp of C. Vann Woodward, Robert R. Palmer, and William E. Leuchtenburg in believing that eternal vigilance is needed in resisting political pressure and refusing to make the AHA anything other than an association dedicated to the study and teaching of history.

The ideological currents of the Vietnam War and decolonization are at last ebbing, although, as I discovered while working on the Oxford History of the British Empire, the controversies of substantive interpretation continue unabated. The purpose of the OHBE was to provide a new assessment of that empire from its beginnings. There were some 125 historians who took part in the five-volume project. In its historiographical dimension, we reaffirmed that historical judgment changes dramatically from one generation to the next. Ideological engagement fluctuates in relation to the temper of the times, but the issues of historical controversy remain fairly constant. For example, we had as much difficulty in agreeing on when the empire began as when it ended. Would the point of demarcation be the transoceanic voyages for trade and the establishment of colonies in America or the Anglo-Scottish domination of Ireland? Determining the end of the empire raised similar questions. In the popular view, the empire came clattering down—Winston Churchill’s phrase—in the 1960s, but the withdrawal of all forces east of Suez was not completed until 1971, and the major issue of Rhodesia was not resolved until 1980. The empire continues today in such places as Gibraltar, the Falklands, scattered islands throughout the world, and, some would say, Northern Ireland. I am concerned with the 1960s, but by concentrating on Southeast Asia, or for that matter the Middle East, there is a danger of conveying the impression that the British Empire came to an abrupt end. Like the beginning, the end was complex, and a broader unfolding would begin at least as far back as Indian independence in 1947 and would extend to the present.

In 1968, the U.S. secretary of state, Dean Rusk, commented that he was “profoundly dismayed” by the British intention to evacuate all forces from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. “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.”5 His lament, of course, has to be understood in the context of Vietnam, where the United States found little support among Western countries other than Australia and New Zealand. A perceptive British observer of American politics commented: “most Americans feel rather lonely about Vietnam.”6 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.”7

Some of our AHA presidents were outspoken about the war in Vietnam, and their views expressed a sense of widespread unease and dismay on the part of the American public. John K. Fairbank, for example, in his address in 1968 described Lyndon Baines Johnson (as an adopted Texan from Oklahoma, I’ll take the liberty of referring to him as LBJ) as “a President who talks like a Baptist preacher and who inherited his disaster from a Secretary of State [Dean Rusk] who was also a ruling elder of the Presbyterian Church.”8 That comment was not unrepresentative of British views as well. The British prime minister Harold Wilson was always studiously polite to LBJ, and LBJ in turn referred to Wilson in public as “Shakespeare.”9 But at other times, Wilson had to endure the president’s sanctimonious and earthy invective. Once asked why he put up with it, and why Britain did not take a stronger line against the war in Vietnam, Wilson gave an entirely candid reply: “Because we can’t kick our creditors in the balls.”10 In that single crude phrase, he identified the crux of the matter.11 In the 1960s, the United States still propped up the faltering British economy, which in three successive decades had lurched from the convertibility crisis of 1947, to devaluation in 1949, to economic hemorrhage during the Suez emergency in 1956–1957, and again to devaluation in 1967. 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. On November 28, 1967, the prime minister announced that the pound would be devalued by 14.3 percent to $2.40.12 Devaluation, as the British rediscovered, is one of the most serious steps a government can take. It not only causes anxiety about inflation and savings but also impinges on national self-esteem. In Britain in 1967, the public mood reflected a general sense of national decline.13

The decision to devalue sterling in 1967 merely accelerated a process long under way of liquidating the major remnants of the empire, but the economic crisis gave the impression, then and forever after, of precipitating a scuttle. The minister of defense, Denis Healey, described the defense budget as a “runaway train.” To reduce expenditures and to minimize the danger of holding a military base in Asia, he had already decided in the previous year to close down the Singapore base—not immediately but at some point in the mid-1970s, perhaps in ten years.14 In mid-1967, these debates on military and colonial retreat took place against the background of momentous events in the Middle East and in the context of possible British entry into the European Common Market. In June, the Six-Day War disrupted the flow of oil and further strained the economy.15 The members of the British Cabinet now proved to be bitterly divided not only on the liquidation of the empire but also on Europe.16 Those who took a robust view, not least the prime minister himself, hoped that it might still be possible to transform the defeatist mood of decline and instill a revived sense of national purpose.17 Regardless of Britain’s future relationship with Europe, might the empire continue to exist in a new or informal guise extending in an eastward arc from Britain to Aden to Singapore?

British sway in the Malayan peninsula can be traced to Stamford Raffles and the founding of a trading settlement at Singapore in 1819, but since my subject deals in part with living or collective memory, I take as my point of departure the Malaya of Somerset Maugham, who was to Malaya as Rudyard Kipling was to India. In Maugham’s Malaya of the interwar years, Singapore society was orderly, stable, and calm on the surface but rotten underneath. British civil servants as well as the owners of the rubber plantations often led dissolute lives of drink, gambling, horses, and womanizing.18 Though a caricature, the notion of moral degeneracy became indelibly associated with the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces on the 15th of February 1942.19 The sense of ethical decadence or culpability lived on from one generation to the next. Sir Arthur de la Mare, a British official who at one stage of the Vietnam War presided over the South-East Asia Department of the British Foreign Office, reflected late in his career that Singapore exerted a strange fascination at once attractive and repellent, attractive because of its “vigour, industry, bustle and thrust,” repellent “because I am reminded of the shame of 1942.” He emphasized the word “shame” in a passage describing the sense of guilt at the worst military defeat in British history.

[E]very day I am reminded of the shame of 1942. It was as a diplomatic prisoner in Japan that, on my birthday, I heard of Singapore’s surrender. Mercifully for all of us held captive in the enemy’s capital we were then too numbed and too uninformed to realise that what had taken place was not only an appalling military disaster but the most shameful disgrace in Britain’s imperial history.

It was only later that we heard of the irresolution, the incompetence and the bungling of those charged here [Singapore] with the duty of defending not merely Britain’s military interests, but her very name. One may or may not regret the passing of Empire but no loyal British subject living in Singapore can forget that it was here that the hollowness of the imperial ethos was so cruelly and so shamefully exposed.20

I have quoted de la Mare’s lamentation at length because it is an interesting merger of memory, time, and place. Some three decades after the fall of Singapore, the memory and the pain for the British remained as vivid as ever, just as for us three decades after Vietnam the memory and the pain have not faded. In a different way, the events of September 11 will influence our interpretation of earlier historical episodes. In the cases of Singapore and Vietnam, collective memory became legend or myth—which in a positive sense can inspire imaginative understanding of the past. But myth also obscures the historical reality.

Memory, time, and place. Two of my subjects are Singapore since 1942 and Malaya’s independence in 1957 leading to the later creation of Malaysia. According to the heroic rendition, the British after 1945 redeemed themselves for the fall of Singapore by resolution, selfless dedication, and hard work. During the insurrection of 1948–1960 known as the “Emergency,” the British defeated Communist guerrilla forces, they developed the rubber and tin industries to make Malaya a significant part of the world economy as well as a vital component of Britain’s postwar economic recovery, and they built both the infrastructure and the polity of a modern nation.21 In this version of history, the British thus fulfilled their dual mandate to develop Malaya for the benefit of the indigenous peoples as well as for the British themselves.22 This is a myth that cries out for reassessment. The British had not come to Malaya, in the words of a recent historian, “to collect butterflies.”23

In the 1950s, the British were confronted with insurgency, which provided the motivation to build a unified state and to attempt the reconciliation of the indigenous Malays with the Malayan Chinese. Bear in mind these round figures. In 1957, Malaya was a country with a population of 6 million and an area of 50,000 square miles, about one-fifth the size of Texas. The island of Singapore had a population of nearly 1.5 million, more than twice the population of Houston at that time! Singapore’s population was predominantly—three-fourths—Chinese. In the 1960s, the British feared that Singapore might become a Chinese Cuba. How, then, did the British manage to defeat the Communist insurgents so efficiently that Malaya became a textbook case for the Americans in Vietnam, to create a political union of the patchwork of Malay states strong enough to endure after independence in 1957, and to resolve, if only by acquiescence, the problem of Singapore?

In answering those questions, it helps to deploy the fertile concept of the “colonial state,” which like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan set out to raise taxes, suppress revolt, defend the frontiers, and forge a unified economic and political structure.24 All of this amounted to one of the most ambitious state-building projects in the postwar era. From 1945 to 1949, the British pumped into Malaya’s economic development £86 million in grants and loans, a huge amount in view of the Labour government’s scarce resources. Malayan rubber and tin production reached record heights at the time of the Korean War. The rubber and tin boom brought windfall revenues to finance the war against the guerrilla insurgents.25 Malaya was the top producer of the world’s rubber, with rubber plantations covering two-thirds of the colony’s cultivated soil, although its position as a ranking supplier of rubber eroded later in the decade.26 Malaya in the 1950s also provided half the world’s tin. Malaya’s economy boomed, while Singapore made major leaps forward as a thriving trade and manufacturing entrepôt. The numbers of people employed by the Malayan government increased from 48,000 in 1948 to 140,000 a decade later.27 This was state-building with a vengeance, but Singapore remained apart as a separate colony.

As a consequence of 1942–1945 wartime planning, the Colonial Office after the war had detached Singapore from Malaya as an autonomous colony with its own governor. There was an underlying logic in this decision. In a merger with Malaya, Singapore, as an extremely populous and predominantly Chinese city, would intensify Malay suspicions of a Chinese takeover of Malaya itself. On the other hand, Singapore as a separate colony might remain forever under British paramountcy as an impregnable military and naval fortress. Commercially, it might become a Hong Kong of the south. Yet there was a counter logic. Singapore was a city “as large in relation to the country as a whole as London is in relation to the United Kingdom.”28 Keeping the city separate was no more reasonable than sealing off London from the rest of Britain. Economically, socially, and geographically, Singapore was an integral part of the Malayan peninsula. A causeway joined it to the mainland by road and rail. The two contradictory patterns of logic eventually intersected. The colony would develop autonomously, but later on—assuming Singapore did not remain a permanent British colony—it might form part of a federation with Malaya. This idea could be traced to the 1940s or earlier, and then as later it seemed to be a compelling vision: “a substantial block of territories with Singapore as its centre of trade and communication . . . [possessing] a potential strength which would offer promise of economic and political development.”29 Virtually no one in the 1940s or 1950s anticipated Singapore’s future as an independent city-state. The general sentiment in the city could be summed up in the words of a contemporary Singaporean verdict: “Nobody in his senses believes that Singapore alone, in isolation, can be independent.”30 In 1959, Singapore became self-governing, but the British retained rights to the base as well as control over foreign affairs and internal security.

In the 1950s, British forces in Malaya had fought a bitter and ultimately successful war against the insurgents by regrouping some 500,000 rural Chinese into “new villages” where the British attempted to win “hearts and minds.” This is a phrase that Americans associate with Vietnam, but it had its origins in Malaya with General Sir Gerald Templer.31 To mobilize the totality of the colonial state against the insurgents, Templer was given plenipotentiary military and civil powers unparalleled, so it was reiterated in the 1950s, since Oliver Cromwell and the English civil wars of the seventeenth century.32 Templer’s unrelenting drive and ruthless efficiency contributed to the defeat of the Communist guerrilla forces and also to the construction of a powerful, unitary state. This was not without certain comic interludes. Once when addressing the Chinese inhabitants of one of the new villages, Templer said: “You are all bastards.” The Chinese interpreter translated: “his excellency says none of your parents were married.” Templer: “And I can be a bastard too.” Chinese interpreter: “his excellency says his parents were also unmarried.”33

During the 1950s, the infrastructure of Malaya grew to include airfields, roads, bridges, and canals extending into remote parts of the country, along with radio networks, power lines, and electrification. In this complex process, war and economic development forged a new sense of national identity. The British anticipated the rapid growth of Malayan nationalism. In the mid-1950s, when they assessed the prospect of the movement for independence veering out of control, they decided to yield to moderate nationalist demands before it was too late. By granting—or yielding to—the independence of Malaya in 1957, the British avoided the fate of the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in Indochina.

The British were able to defeat the Communist guerrillas primarily because the full force of the colonial state could be brought to bear on the insurgents—in contrast with Vietnam, where the United States was not the colonial master and could only exert, in the phrase of the day, leverage rather than control.34 The winning of hearts and minds in the reconstructed villages in Malaya did actually occur, because it was undertaken—in British self-interest—as a sustained, dedicated effort that held out promise for a better life to the rural inhabitants. This vast experiment in social engineering secured improved living conditions, local representation, and, above all, legal entitlement to the land. Nevertheless, the lessons from Malaya’s social revolution were difficult to apply to the very different circumstances of Vietnam, even though the Americans tried hard to do so by studying closely the British methods of counterinsurgency as well as the techniques and aims in reconstructing rural villages.

In the early 1960s, the British worked in concert with the Malayan prime minister, the Tunku (Prince) Abdul Rahman, to achieve a federation of “Greater Malaysia.”35 The motivation was in part the preoccupation of coping with the increasing instability and radicalism of Singapore. On the left of Singapore’s political spectrum, there was articulate and stalwart sympathy for the People’s Republic of China—Communist China. The British saw the danger of subversion in the active and well-organized trade unions. Federation with Malaya seemed to be the answer, in a narrow sense because internal security would be controlled from the capital at Kuala Lumpur. In a wider sense, there were other significant issues. Federations were the grand design of the 1950s and 1960s, in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean as well as Southeast Asia. Larger territorial units, in this case Malaysia, would be more economically viable than fragmented pieces of empire such as Singapore, which represented the type of “micro-state,” as they became known, that everyone wanted to avoid.

The plan for a greater Malaysian federation included not only Singapore but territories in neighboring Borneo to balance the ratio of Malays to Chinese. The Malays were thus to be reassured that the Chinese would not outnumber them. Malay suspicion of the Chinese, however, could not be overcome. Just as the Africans in the Central African Federation had been apprehensive of the supremacy of the white settlers, so the Malays feared dominance by the Chinese, whatever the numerical proportion.36 The Chinese for their part resented their treatment, at least on the mainland, as second-class citizens who had a restricted right to vote and who bore the brunt of a different scale of taxation. Just as the Malays saw themselves as an ethnic group who by kinship and sentiment were related to the peoples of Indonesia and the greater Malay world of Southeast Asia, so the Chinese of Singapore were conscious of their cultural heritage, although they were bitterly divided on the issue of whether or not Singapore should defy the West and turn to Communist China. The British high commissioner in Malaysia summed up this complex society in a manner hardly profound yet nevertheless revealing of the British perception: “Right-wing Chinese hate Left-wing Chinese, Malays are frightened of Chinese, and the Left-wing Malays dislike the Tunku’s régime.”37

Two dominant but conflicting visions of Malaysia became apparent in the ambitions of the Tunku Abdul Rahman—known universally to the British simply as “the Tunku”—and the politician who emerged as the leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. The Tunku cultivated a reputation for having the “Edwardian outlook” of an Anglicized Malay of an older generation. In a way, the Tunku was to Malaya as Britain’s Harold Macmillan was to his country. The British came to regard the Tunku as a comrade-in-arms, the “brown brother” often sought as a collaborator but seldom found. But he was not a stooge. He sometimes gave the impression of being out of his depth in dealing with the highly intelligent Lee Kuan Yew, but in fact the Tunku knew what he wanted and tenaciously stuck to his goals. Sometimes charming and ebullient, at other times pugnacious and emotional, he aimed to incorporate Singapore into a greater Malaysia to prevent the city from gravitating into the orbit of Communist China.38 But there were great risks. With Singapore and Malaya united, the Chinese would outnumber the Malays. Thus the Tunku planned to include the three British territories on the island of Borneo—Brunei, Sarawak, and North Borneo—to preserve a non-Chinese majority.39 The Tunku also insisted on a precondition for the new state of Malaysia. He wanted the leaders of the radical left-wing opposition of the Barisan Sosialis (the Socialist Front) and other political enemies in Singapore to be jailed indefinitely. This demand for repressive action caused some soul searching on the part of the British. The evidence for subversive activity was slender or nonexistent, nor did the British believe that there was any immediate danger of a Communist takeover. But they agreed eventually to the lock-up.40

Lee Kuan Yew had studied law at Cambridge. He was tough-mannered and clear-minded. The characteristic British view was that personally he demonstrated “no warmth, humanity or humour.”41 Publicly, he was a “firebrand.”42 Although the British regarded him as habitually cold and ruthless—and with none of the Tunku’s sentimental attachment to Britain—Lee Kuan Yew had a genuine dedication to building a new state of Malaysia that would be based on absolute equality between Chinese and Malays. The Tunku, on the other hand, viewed the new state essentially as an extension of Malaya with the built-in system or tradition of privilege and class distinctions.43 Lee and the Tunku mistrusted each other. The Tunku believed that Lee aimed eventually to become prime minister of Malaysia, and Lee thought that the Tunku wanted to replace him, perhaps subversively. Nevertheless, an uneasy but indispensable partnership emerged in the early 1960s to build the new state. Lee saw no less acutely than did the Tunku that it would be to their mutual advantage to imprison the ringleaders of the political opposition, including the key left-wing activists of the Barisan Sosialis.

The pretext for the lock-up came, in Lee Kuan Yew’s phrase, as a “heaven-sent opportunity” provided in the form of an insurrection in one of the three Borneo territories.44 In December 1962, a rebellion broke out in the oil-rich protectorate of Brunei. It was quickly suppressed. Its origins had little to do with political unrest in Singapore but rather with the unpopularity of the local sultan and the attempt to overthrow British rule in favor of union with Indonesia. Both the Tunku and Lee claimed that the insurrection in Brunei would lead to trouble in Sarawak and North Borneo. The revolt in turn would spread to Malaya and Singapore. The British government in London now authorized the arrests in Singapore urged by the Tunku and Lee. In February 1963, some two dozen members of the Barisan Sosialis and over a hundred other suspects were imprisoned.45 During the same period, the prime minister himself, Harold Macmillan, took the initiative in overriding Colonial Office objections to pressing the Borneo territories into the new federation. The Colonial Office believed that the peoples of Borneo would be compelled to join before they were sufficiently ready to determine their own future. To use Macmillan’s own phrase, Malaysia was very much a “shotgun wedding.”46 Brunei remained apart, but Sarawak and North Borneo were fused into the union. In September 1963, the new state of Malaysia was born.

At this point, it is worth bearing in mind the British purpose in helping to create Malaysia. The federation would be more viable than the individual units, but there were other basic reasons. One immediate purpose was to prevent a Communist takeover in Singapore. Another aim was colonial and military withdrawal. By incorporating Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah) as well as Singapore in an independent state, the British era of colonial rule in Southeast Asia would virtually be brought to an end.47 Though not entirely dismantled (a few units might stay on), the Singapore base would be closed down, thus relieving an immense strain on the British defense budget and averting the danger, at some point in the future, of a possible clash with a radical socialist or revolutionary regime in Singapore. Immediately after the launching of the new state, however, Malaysia came into conflict with Indonesia in what was known as “confrontation” in the jungles of Borneo. The British also feared Indonesian raids on the Malayan peninsula itself.48 The British now deployed forces on behalf of the nation of Malaysia, a country of 8 million, against Indonesia, a country of 100 million. Some 50,000 British, Malaysian, and Australian soldiers eventually fought in jungle theaters, backed up by one-third of the British fleet. Along with the campaign in Aden, the Indonesian conflict in Borneo was one of two ferocious colonial campaigns that the British fought at the same time that the Americans waged war in Vietnam. Far from resolving Britain’s colonial and military problems in Southeast Asia, the new federation intensified them.

From the American vantage point, the creation of Malaysia seemed to be a dangerous venture from the beginning. Sukarno, the charismatic leader of Indonesia and hero of the revolution against the Dutch, put forward irredentist claims to the British Borneo colonies as lost provinces of the homeland.49 He denounced the new state as an artificial construction of British “neo-colonialism.”50 There was some sympathy for the Indonesian point of view in Washington, in part because turmoil in Indonesia might lead to the takeover of the American oil companies Caltex and Stanvac with some $500 million worth of holdings in the country. On the other hand, American goodwill toward Sukarno was tempered by his dependence on the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI) for support. He now moved to forge closer ties with Beijing. In the British view, the traditional American attitude toward Indonesia could be summed up in a few words: “to keep the largest country in the area non-Communist even if quasi Fascist.”51 By the summer and autumn of 1965, however, it was by no means clear that Sukarno could continue to master tempestuous economic and political challenges to his rule, whether fascist or veering toward Communism. Sukarno’s aim to “smash Malaysia” had international origins as a confrontation with the British, but it was above all a domestic crisis in which his political skills in balancing the PKI against the army were being tested to the ultimate degree. The army supported Sukarno in the initial stage of the confrontation crisis but, in September 1965, turned against him. Neither the British nor the Americans, of course, could anticipate the outcome, but both eventually had good reason to be pleased with the emergence of the army as the decisively dominant force and with the ruthless destruction of the Communist Party and its followers.

Preoccupied not only with Vietnam but also other matters such as arms control and European affairs, the John F. Kennedy administration wanted as little trouble as possible in Indonesia. The creation of Malaysia threatened to destabilize the entire region by bringing the Western powers including Australia into a major war over Borneo that might end in the disintegration not only of Malaysia but of Indonesia itself. When LBJ became president after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he took a much tougher line toward Sukarno, who, the president believed, was an expansionist, aggressive, bombastic, unstable, and dangerous dictator. He agreed with the British that Sukarno was an Asian Hitler. But Johnson, too, was preoccupied with Vietnam. He resented the British lack of support in Vietnam, and at the same time he did not want to provoke Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, into open opposition to the United States. In a moment of anger, he told Harold Wilson that the United States would take care of Vietnam and the British would have to look after Malaysia. “I won’t tell you how to run Malaysia and you don’t tell us how to run Vietnam.”52

One detects a sense of British desperation in the archival records. The British earnestly warned that the Indonesian conflict could prove to be much more serious than the war in Vietnam. They needed American support. One comment, made later in the context of Vietnam, applied just as well to Indonesia: Michael Palliser—who eventually rose to the position of permanent under-secretary in the Foreign Office—stated: “we have . . . opened our hearts” to the Americans.53 Sentiment counts for little in international politics, but in this case the British used every argument available to drive home their commitment to Malaysia. They pleaded with some cogency that, in relation to national resources, the number of British troops in Borneo compared favorably to the number of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam. By late 1964, there were already 8,000 British troops in Borneo and 20,000 on the Malaysian mainland. Borneo, or Malaysia itself, had the potential of becoming to Britain what Vietnam was to the United States.

After the beginning of the confrontation, Indonesian mobs in September 1963 had sacked the British embassy in Djakarta.54 On a note of defiant contempt, the Scottish military attaché marched up and down during the assault playing bagpipes—to the Indonesians, an intolerable act of British colonial arrogance. In Kuala Lumpur, the Tunku urged the British to counterattack Indonesia in the outer islands, thereby sparking anti-Sukarno sentiment throughout the country and breaking up Indonesia itself.55 In this early part of the conflict, the British were of two minds. They could not commit themselves to full-scale or even formal war without running the risk of bankrupting their own economy, not to mention the problem of explaining to a skeptical British public the need for all-out war over Borneo. In 1964, things began to turn in favor of the British. LBJ swung increasingly against Sukarno. Sukarno himself denounced the United States as well as Britain with shrill and extravagant rhetoric. In August, Indonesian raids reached islands off the Malaysian peninsula. According to a British assessment in October 1964, “Events and Sukarno’s own actions have moved the Americans a long way in the last few months without much assistance from us.”56

In March 1965, a month after the United States began bombing North Vietnamese military and industrial targets in the operation called “Rolling Thunder,” LBJ committed himself—so the former British foreign secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, believed—to the British position against Indonesia. Gordon Walker wrote: “at the end of the day, should it become necessary, he [Johnson] would be ready for major war against Indonesia if she raises the stakes too high. This is most confidential.”57 Gordon Walker got the gist of Johnson’s views indirectly through Dean Rusk, and probably the account became exaggerated in the telling.58 Nevertheless, this was an explosive conflict that has largely been lost sight of in the overall context of Vietnam. It bears emphasizing that the United States might have lent support to Britain in a catastrophic war against Indonesia if Sukarno had not followed a path of self-destruction.

Sukarno was a romantic revolutionary. He held a heroic place in the history of Indonesia’s struggle against European imperialism. He had ruled the vast archipelago country since 1949. He was authoritarian, but to Indonesians he represented not only the liberation of their country but a national renaissance. By the early 1960s, however, his powers were waning for various reasons, including the deterioration of his health. He confronted Malaysia when Indonesia itself labored under severe inflation, suffered from food shortages, and hovered on the verge of economic collapse. His crusade against British neo-colonialism and his rhetoric about the class struggle in Indonesia served to rally the Indonesian Communist Party, which was the largest non-ruling communist party in the world and one of the main sources of his strength.59 More and more, however, he alienated the Americans, who feared revolutionary Communism in Indonesia, and those in Indonesia itself who believed that the country stood at a crossroads of domestic economic reform and foreign confrontation. Above all, Sukarno faced a showdown with the Indonesian army, which in the autumn of 1965 intervened decisively in the internal struggle for control.60 The army’s coup d’état released deep cultural as well as political enmities and led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Communists and Communist sympathizers—”one of the bloodiest massacres in modern history.”61 After the virtual destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party, Sukarno gradually yielded political control to General Suharto. Indonesia emerged with an anticommunist military government. The era of confrontation came to an end in 1966, to the immense relief of the Americans as well as the British.

For the British, there was a crisis within the crisis. In the midst of confrontation with Indonesia, Malaysia had expelled Singapore from the federation. Since the time of the creation of the new state in 1963, communal tension had risen both on the mainland and in Singapore. The great historian Arnold Toynbee commented at one point that the real danger in all of Asia lay in “the Malay peninsula where the Malays and the Chinese could fall into a race war.”62 Lee Kuan Yew’s own rhetoric contributed to a tense and troubled atmosphere. He undoubtedly thought that Singapore’s future lay with the federation, which offered economic opportunity in a common market for goods and services. He continued to hope that a Malaysian society could eventually be created on the basis of mutual respect and equality. Nevertheless, he adopted, perhaps in spite of himself, a belligerent and condescending attitude toward the Malays. He attempted to consolidate Chinese political support on the mainland. In April 1964, he backed candidates on the mainland from the People’s Action Party—his own party in Singapore—in a federal election, despite his pledge not to do so for at least five years after the merger. Lee’s decision to participate in the federal election—on the peninsula proper—was a catalyst in the eventual separation, not least because of the accompanying rise of Chinese ethnic chauvinism. In July 1964, there were communal riots in Singapore in which more than twenty people were killed and 450 injured. From this point on, Lee and the Tunku were on a collision course. Lee calculated in round figures of “40–40–20.” In other words, there was a roughly equal number of Malays and Chinese, with 20 percent Indians, indigenous peoples, and others on the peninsula and in the Borneo territories. He believed that he could gain enough support to become prime minister of Malaysia. The Tunku took the stand that communal politicking would lead to further bloodshed. He had no doubt that Lee aimed to replace him as prime minister. In August 1965, the Tunku made the decision to expel Singapore from the federation.

Lee Kuan Yew was dismayed. During his explanation to the public in Singapore, he broke into tears and said in a famous line that it was his “moment of anguish.” The Tunku was much more down to earth. In identifying Lee’s participation in mainland politics as one of the basic reasons for the decision to sever the tie, the Tunku later used a vivid if brutal physical metaphor. With political gangrene spreading to the main part of the body politic, he explained, Singapore had to be excised: “If you have a bad leg, the best thing is to amputate it.”63

The British played no part in the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. The decision had been made in secrecy. Even Lee Kuan Yew’s acquiescence was kept secret from the British, although the high commissioner, Lord Head, learned of the impending rupture at the last minute. Both the Tunku and Lee had their reasons. The Tunku wanted to avoid British pressure to keep the union intact. Lee feared, quite erroneously, that the British would seize the opportunity to reassert imperial control over Singapore.64 At this stage in his career, he still had the reputation of a fiery, coruscating left-wing politician who passionately denounced Western imperialism, above all American imperialism.65 No one could predict in August 1965 whether or not Lee might turn to Communist China. In fact, he rapidly adjusted his political orientation when he learned that the British would move immediately to secure Singapore’s membership in the Commonwealth as an independent state.

As the decade progressed, Lee Kuan Yew proved to be an adept politician and a staunch enemy of Communist China as well as Indonesia. He quickly espoused the principle that Singapore would prosper only under the protective umbrella of Britain, the Commonwealth, and the United States. According to a typical comment, Lee wanted a continuing British military presence. This remark is also of interest because it reveals Lee’s developing outlook that the American presence in Southeast Asia had prevented a takeover of the region by Communist China:

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew . . . said that he hoped the British would remain in Singapore for a considerable time . . . He did not seem upset at his own forecast that the United States would be fighting a bloody and losing battle in Viet Nam for many years. His point was that only the presence of Western forces could provide a screen against Chinese expansion, whether by aggression or subversion, behind which the indigenous forces of Asia might be mobilised.66

At an early stage, Lee articulated the argument that the United States was losing the battle in Vietnam but winning the war in Southeast Asia.67

He was appalled in 1967 to learn of the British decision to dismantle the vast naval and military complex in Singapore. Although the British did mostly withdraw in 1971, Lee Kuan Yew succeeded in arranging a protracted disengagement that enabled a few British military detachments to stay on and thus to contribute to both Singapore’s security and the local economy. The British maintained a military and naval presence but at negligible risk and expense. The final withdrawal did not occur until 1976.68 In the meantime, British-Malaysian defense arrangements had been replaced by the five-power security treaty between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore.69

Singapore’s independence in 1965 had coincided with a sea change in British strategic and technological calculation. The Royal Navy and the other branches of the armed services now viewed bases on or near the Asian mainland as liabilities—at best as “filling stations” to service aircraft carriers and other vessels that no longer needed traditional facilities.70 The Singapore base had become an anachronism. It was also the largest defense expenditure east of Suez. Confronted with economic emergency at home and mounting defense expenditures abroad, the British decided to withdraw despite American protests.71 It was clear that LBJ felt that it would be “little short of treachery for us [the British] to sound a retreat . . . by abandoning our existing position before we are forced to do so.”72 The British detected a certain American bitterness.73 They were abandoning Singapore, and they sent no troops to Vietnam. According to the British ambassador in South Vietnam, the Americans regarded their behavior as “negative, defeatist and hypocritical.”74 Still, in retrospect, the British could claim that the war in Vietnam paled in comparison to what might have happened in Indonesia: “the East Asia watershed is not ahead of us in Vietnam but lies behind us in Indonesia.” The end of confrontation in 1966 was Britain’s “greatest success” of the decade.75

The expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia was an event of comparable significance. In the 1960s, peoples throughout the world demanded the right to determine their own future, and since then the pattern has been toward ever-greater fragmentation. Malaysia is a partial exception. Since 1965, the federation has survived, minus Singapore. In the case of Singapore itself, independence came unwillingly—to repeat the phrase, in a moment of anguish—but the people of Singapore were among the first to demonstrate that a micro-state can survive and prosper.

It is doubtful that this would have happened if there had been all-out war with Indonesia. One piece of archival evidence struck me immediately when I saw it, although I mention it hesitantly because I have done what a historian should never do: I have lost my citation. But I mention it because it is burned into my memory. It was short and to the point, almost inadvertent. It revealed a chilling prospect. It said simply that the British would follow closely the American bombing of North Vietnam because similar action might be necessary against Indonesia.76

As for my comment on Vietnam, it will be brief. I limit my thoughts to the essential points of the British involvement and the contemporary British analysis of the significance of the struggle.77 First and foremost, the war had the same divisive effect in Britain as in the United States, though of course to a much lesser degree. Both within the British government and in the public debate, there was no agreement on the fundamental premise of self-determination. Those who protested against the war usually believed that the catchword “Communism” distracted attention from aggressive American aims, and in any event that the Vietnamese themselves should be allowed to determine their own fate. Those within the government tended to think that the principle of self-determination would be subverted by the expansionist ambitions of Communist China. “It is this we ourselves are really frightened of,” commented a member of the Labour government: “Chinese domination of the Saigon Government.”78

Even within official circles, no consensus existed on the fundamental point of whether the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the loss of Southeast Asia or, to put it on a grander scale—as did Sir Robert Thompson, Britain’s protagonist in the Vietnam struggle—that “Vietnam is one of the vital issues to the latter half of the twentieth century.”79 In attempting to reconcile contradictory assessments into a coherent policy, the South-East Asia Department of the Foreign Office doubted whether the countries of Southeast Asia resembled dominoes that might topple, and even questioned whether Vietnam itself was particularly significant. The strongest exponent of this skepticism was James Cable, an official of longstanding experience with the region. Cable had participated in the 1954 Geneva Conference, which established a temporary truce at the seventeenth parallel after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.80 “If we had our way in 1954,” Cable wrote, “it [South Vietnam] would have been written off as politically untenable by being exposed to elections under international supervision.”81 Britain’s status as co-chairman of the Geneva Conference (along with the Soviet Union) led to the hope in the mid-1960s that Harold Wilson might be able to act as a broker. But 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.”82

As part of a pattern of analysis that may be taken as representative of mainstream British official thought, James Cable took issue with the theory that the fall of Vietnam would send a fatal shock wave through to Malaysia. Here is a point that deserves clarification. How did the British see the connection between the fate of Vietnam and the future of Malaysia? Cable wrote: “What is at stake is not South Viet Nam, but American prestige in South East Asia.” He believed that “Saigon is emphatically not worth a world war.”81 The principal reason that Britain endorsed American aims in Vietnam was the need for American support in Malaysia. (Although he did not say so explicitly, the British could also provide an excuse for not sending troops to Vietnam by playing up their commitment to Malaysia.) As for the Vietnam War itself, Cable wrote in June 1965, it “cannot be won at all.”83 He took a severe view of American prospects, but there were others who at least believed that the American presence in Southeast Asia had permitted the region to develop economically and had provided an element of stability. Michael Palliser wrote that “the Americans have succeeded for the past ten years in preventing Indo-China from going communist—as I take it would have happened if the Americans had not propped up South Vietnam. This represents ten years gained.”84

The unrivaled British authority on Vietnam was Sir Robert Thompson, who had served in Malaya during the insurgency in the 1950s as the civilian in charge of Malayan defense. From 1961 to 1965, he headed the British Advisory Mission to Vietnam, which was created in 1961 and consisted of four British officers, all with Malayan experience.85 Thompson eventually had the ear of three American presidents—Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—and won friends in the CIA, the Department of Defense, and the State Department. He came into contact with numerous American journalists and academics.86 His acquaintances in Washington were interested in the lessons of counterinsurgency in Malaya and how the idea of the reconstructed rural villages, now known as “strategic hamlets,” might be adapted to Vietnam.87 In Vietnam itself, Thompson met with mixed success both with the American military advisers and with the South Vietnamese Army, even though his influence was widely acknowledged and to some he represented a sort of evil genius guiding American efforts. Noam Chomsky, one of the most prominent critics of the war in Vietnam, referred to him with inimitable irony as “one of Britain’s gifts to the Vietnamese people.”88

Thompson’s fundamental idea, based on his experience in Malaya, was that the police were just as important as the army, and that the preeminent function of the police was to protect the public, rural and urban. In Malaya, one of the keys to British success in the insurgency had been the gradual assertion of state control over all parts of the country. Regardless of whether people stayed where they were or were relocated, officials continued to record births, marriages, and deaths.89 The villagers came to believe that they were being protected in all vital respects. No less important were Thompson’s doctrines and techniques of counterinsurgency for which he became famous, but he always returned to the underlying premise of civilian control exercised by one supreme authority. In Malaya, there had been “one plan and one man.” In Vietnam, the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department formed, in his view, an unholy trinity. The rivalry between them often prevented effective action. There was an acute deficiency of institutional memory. There was no American equivalent to Gerald Templer. Nor could there be, since South Vietnam was an independent country and not, like Malaya, a colony.90

Thompson’s thought reflected gradual disillusionment and despondency. At first, he genuinely believed that the war in Vietnam could be won, but he began to think that the Americans were too warm-hearted, impatient, and impulsive to be sufficiently single-minded and pitiless. “Fighting communist terrorism is a tough, dirty, ruthless business,” he once wrote.91 The heart of the problem, however, did not lie with the Americans but with the South Vietnamese. “We are stuck with the legally constituted Government,” he lamented.92 The aims of the South Vietnamese were incompatible with those of the United States because the South Vietnamese government intended solely, in his view, not to reform but to perpetuate itself. By 1965, the principal element of public safety—police protection—still did not exist. When the American bombing of North Vietnam began in the same year, Thompson despaired.93 He did not think that the bombing raids would have any positive effect at all. As in the United States, there were many views on the prospect of American defeat, or victory, but among those who gave serious thought to the subject in Britain, Thompson’s ideas probably expressed a consensus as far as one existed. His thought fluctuated, but from 1965 onward Thompson essentially believed that the United States had lost the war.94 The arrival of American ground troops, and therewith the Americanization of the war, deflected the incentive to reform the South Vietnamese government.

As a historian of the British Empire, I see a connection between the ethical code of conduct of the British district officers in Malaya and the idealism of the Americans in the civilian and military pacification programs in Vietnam. The job of the district officer was not only to collect taxes and administer justice but to help with purification of water, to improve crop production, and to build schools and hospitals. These were also the duties of the American pacification officers, who assumed, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the American presence would be the equivalent of a benevolent colonial power. This was Thompson’s point: after 1965, pacification programs were eclipsed by the intensification of the war.95 Even if the Americans might emerge militarily victorious, which he privately doubted, they had forfeited the chance to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese peasantry through an American-sponsored social revolution. But there is a paradox. If there were ever any chance of Americans functioning as district officers, it disappeared in the mid-1960s with the escalation of the war. Nevertheless, the largest U.S. investment in quasi–district officer programs came after 1965, with Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer driving them.96 The commitment to pacification manifested itself in initiatives of the U.S. Administration for International Development, the CIA, and not least the Marine Corps. The attempt to win hearts and minds continued to the end of the war.97 And the idealistic commitment manifested itself in another way, which forever left its mark on the consciousness of the American public. According to the British embassy in Washington, the young American journalists—”including David Halberstam of the New York Times”—had “made it their sacred duty to reveal the truth” about the conduct of the war.98

I now come full circle to the issues raised in my introductory comments about the passions of the 1960s in our collective memory. LBJ’s decision to escalate the war in 1965 summoned memories in Britain of the Suez crisis of 1956, when the British government had found itself denounced by the United States as well as by many countries throughout the world as an aggressive, imperialistic power flouting the United Nations. In the British collective memory, which exists to the present, Britain was condemned for attacking Egypt. The British public was acutely aware that their country was regarded as an international pariah. Harold Wilson in 1965 now warned that there was “a real danger of the moral authority of the United States diminishing very sharply.” He himself believed that all-out war against North Vietnam would also place the British government in an intolerable situation. Although the British had committed no troops, they had lent moral support. Britain would now be denounced as an American satellite, indeed as “the 51st State.” On the American side, the United States would become “morally isolated” like the British at Suez.99

Memory, time, and place. We now remember the 1960s not only because of the war in Vietnam but also of course because of the Civil Rights movement and student protest. The student takeover of Columbia University had its British equivalent in the student occupation of the London School of Economics.100 In Britain, the debate about the Vietnam War confirmed Harold Wilson’s prophecy that many people in Britain as well as the student generation, on the whole, believed that the United States had betrayed its own principles. The debate spilled over into issues of decolonization. By the 1960s, the reputation of the British Empire had reached its nadir. With the exception of Rhodesia, which continued to hold the public’s attention because of the kith and kin of the white settlers, the dismantling of the empire took place in Aden, Sarawak, and North Borneo with hardly a flicker of attention by the British public, as if the general sentiment conveyed good riddance. Nostalgia for the British Raj in India lay in future decades. In the 1960s, it was the issue of apartheid in South Africa that cast a long shadow. Those who protested against South Africa saw themselves as comrades-in-arms with those who fought for civil rights in the United States, although there was not much immediate contact. The interaction between the American Civil Rights movement and British decolonization is only now being measured on the basis of archival research.101 But the comparison is fundamental for an understanding of the era. Even though the currents were parallel and not directly connected, the rivers of decolonization and civil rights flowed in the same direction.102

An honorary fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, Wm. Roger Louis is Kerr Professor of English History and Culture and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also director of British Studies. As a graduate student, he studied under A. J. P. Taylor at Oxford from 1960 to 1962. Thereafter, he taught at Yale and, since 1970, at the University of Texas. The AHR published one of his early articles in 1966. His research focuses on the interaction of British imperialism and Asian and African nationalism. He has written or edited some two dozen books, including Imperialism at Bay (1975) and The British Empire in the Middle East (1984). He was editor-in-chief of the Oxford History of the British Empire (1997–99). He recently received the award of Pro Bene Meritis, the highest honor in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas. In 1999, a festschrift appeared in his honor: Robert D. King and Robin Kilson, eds., The Statecraft of British Imperialism: Essays in Honor of Wm. Roger Louis (1999). In the same year, in recognition of his contribution to historical scholarship, Queen Elizabeth appointed him Commander of the British Empire.



  1. “Historians I Have Known,” Perspectives 39 (May 2001); “The Challenge of the Annual Meeting Program,” Perspectives 39 (October 2001); “The American Historical Review,” Perspectives 39 (November 2001). []
  2. John Hope Franklin, “Mirror for Americans: A Century of Reconstruction History,” AHR 85 (February 1980): 14. []
  3. William E. Leuchtenberg, “The Historian and the Public Realm,” AHR 97 (February 1992): 17. []
  4. R. R. Palmer, “The American Historical Association in 1970,” AHR 76 (February 1971): 1. []
  5. Memorandum of conversation, January 11, 1968, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968: Western Europe, James E. Miller, ed. (Washington, D.C., 2001), 12: 608. []
  6. N. C. C. Trench to J. E. Cable, Confidential—Guard [Guard = not for American eyes], August 13, 1965, FO 371/180543. (Archival references are to documents at the Public Record Office, London [Kew].) Part of Trench’s job in the British embassy in Washington was to gauge the reaction of the American public to the war. Another official commented: “what the President wants is for a few British soldiers to get killed in Viet Nam along-side the Americans so that their photographs can appear in the American press and demonstrate to American public opinion that the principal ally of the United States is contributing to a joint effort.” Minute by A. M. Palliser, July 28, 1965, FO 371/180543. []
  7. Roy Hattersley, Fifty Years On: A Prejudiced History of Britain since the War (London, 1997), 184. []
  8. John K. Fairbank, “Assignment for the ’70s,” AHR 74 (February 1969): 879. []
  9. Or, to place Wilson much more accurately in British political tradition: “he had an almost Gladstonian belief in his own righteousness . . . He was [also] somewhat like David Lloyd George.” Chris Wrigley, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Harold Wilson and Labour’s Foreign Policy 1964–70,” in R. Coopey, S. Fielding, and N. Tiratsoo, eds., The Wilson Governments, 1964–1970 (London, 1993), 126–27. []
  10. Philip Ziegler, Wilson: The Authorised Life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx (London, 1993), 228–29. The other major biography is Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (London, 1992). Both biographers assess Wilson favorably though not uncritically. It is useful to bear in mind more severe appraisals, for example: “Wilson was . . . a mediocre but ruthless man . . . The Labour government which Wilson led . . . was immolated morally by its support of a war of atrocity and aggression in Vietnam and immolated politically by its fetishisation of an impossible and illusory position for sterling . . . The price exacted by Lyndon Johnson for support of sterling was that British Labour lent its vanishing prestige to his Indochina adventure. This was and remains a worse historical humiliation even than Suez.” Christopher Hitchens, “Say What You Will about Harold,” London Review of Books (December 2, 1993). See also Clive Ponting, Breach of Promise: Labour in Power, 1964–1970 (London, 1989). For Wilson’s own memoir, see Harold Wilson, The Labour Government, 1964–1970: A Personal Record (London, 1971). []
  11. As did Philip Toynbee in the New Statesman, January 5, 1968: “We protest against the government’s wretched support for the American crime in Vietnam . . . [But] we are economically dependent on the US. If we incensed the American government either by withdrawing from our East-of-Suez commitments or by condemning the Vietnam war, then the Americans would make it unbearably hot for us economically.” Rpt. in Kingsley Amis, ed., Harold’s Years: Impressions from the “New Statesman” and the “Spectator” (London, 1977), 56–60. []
  12. For the background to the decision in both Washington and London, and generally on Anglo-American economic relations in the 1960s, see Diane B. Kunz, Butter and Guns: America’s Cold War Economic Diplomacy (New York, 1997), chap. 6. Other useful works on Anglo-American relations relevant to my themes are C. J. Bartlett, “The Special Relationship”: A Political History of Anglo-American Relations since 1945 (London, 1992); John Baylis, ed., Anglo-American Relations since 1939: The Enduring Alliance (Manchester, 1997); and Alan P. Dobson, The Politics of the Anglo-American Economic Special Relationship, 1940–1987 (Brighton, 1988). []
  13. For the sense in the American government that  “British  political  culture  was  permeated  by a kind of defeatist and disenchanted apathy,” see John Dumbrell, The Making of US Foreign Policy (Manchester, 1990), 224. On the general subject of decline, see Peter Clarke and Clive Trebilcock, eds., Understanding Decline: Perceptions and Realities of British Economic Performance (Cambridge, 1997). []
  14. See above all Matthew Jones, “A Decision Delayed: Britain’s Withdrawal from South East Asia Reconsidered, 196168,” English Historical Review (forthcoming, June 2002); Karl Hack, Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore, 1941-1968 (Richmond, Surrey, 2001); and two carefully written and useful articles by Simon J. Ball, “Harold Macmillan and the Politics of Defence,” Twentieth Century British History 6, no. 1 (1995); and “Macmillan and British Defence Policy,” in Richard Aldous and Sabine Lee, eds., Harold Macmillan and Britain’s World Role (London, 1996). See also C. J. Bartlett, The Long Retreat: A Short History of British Defence Policy, 1945-70 (London, 1972); Phillip Darby, British Defence Policy East of Suez, 1947-1968 (Oxford, 1973); M. L. Dockrill, British Defence since 1945 (Oxford, 1988); and Michael Carver, Tightrope Walking: British Defence Policy since 1945 (London, 1992). []
  15. The Middle Eastern war revived a longstanding analogy, used by the Chinese themselves, about the Chinese of Singapore as “the Jews of Asia … Singapore was to become ‘Little Israel,’ a diminutive, bellicose, indigestible socialist state bracketed by the bigger, predominantly Muslim sister-nations of Malaysia and Indonesia.” Dennis Bloodworth, An Eye for the Dragon: Southeast Asia Observed, 1954-1986 (Singapore, 1987), 306. In October 1967, the government of Singapore recruited  Israeli military advisers (under the official designation of “Mexican agricultural advisers”) to train the armed forces. See T. J. S. George, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (London, 1973), 170. “Singapore’s decision to follow the Israeli pattern …  suggested  that  the  confrontation  between  the Chinese  of  Singapore and the non-Chinese of neighbouring countries was similar to that between  the  Jews  and  the  Arabs” (p. 170). []
  16. See John Darwin, “Britain’s Withdrawal from East of Suez,” in Carl Bridge, ed., Munich to Vietnam: Australia’s Relations with Britain and the United States since the 1930s (Melbourne, 1991). []
  17. Roy Jenkins, chancellor of the Exchequer from 1967 to 1970, recalls the pro-empire members of the Cabinet as “worthy of a conclave of Joseph Chamberlain, Kitchener of Khartoum and George Nathaniel Curzon.” In 1967, their counterparts would have been George Thompson (Commonwealth secretary), Denis Healey (minister of defense), and George Brown (foreign secretary)—although Jenkins, alas, did not make direct individual comparisons. Roy Jenkins, A Life at the Centre (London, 1991), 224-25. []
  18. As a corrective to Maugham’s Malaya, see especially T. N. Harper, chap. 1, “The Passing of the Somerset Maugham Era,” in The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (Cambridge, 1999). For the African equivalent, see Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (London, 1992). The closest Asian parallel is that of Shanghai. See Robert Bickers, “Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937,” Past and Present 159 (May 1998). []
  19. There is an abundant and ever-growing literature on the fall of Singapore. For important recent essays, see Malcolm H. Murfett, et al., eds., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (Singapore, 1999); and Christopher M. Bell, “The ‘Singapore Strategy’ and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty and the Dispatch of Force Z,” English Historical Review 116 (June 2001). []
  20. De la Mare to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, October 2, 1970, FCO 24/885. Those were stern words, and de la Mare regretted equally the signs of hedonism in the postcolonial Singapore of the early 1970s. It is thus ironic that today’s Singapore not only bears the permanent features of Britain’s architectural legacy, with the Raffles Hotel, for example, restored to a degree of garishness and luxury that Somerset Maugham would have found virtually unrecognizable, but also that the government of Singapore enforces a severe disciplinary code for the abuse of drugs and in general a certain puritanical standard of behavior. Lee Kuan Yew (prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990), once commented on three hippies whose hair had been cut off by Singapore police: “Things like this happen in the best of places. If any embarrassment has been caused, we can send them three wigs. We make wigs here.” Quoted in Thomas J. Bellows, “Big Fish, Small Pond,” Wilson Quarterly 7 (Winter 1983): 80. See also Bellows, The People’s Action Party of Singapore: Emergence of a Dominant Party System (New Haven, Conn., 1970). []
  21. For a careful examination of the extent to which the insurrection was inspired or led by Communists, see A. J. Stockwell, “‘Widespread and Long-Concocted Plot to Overthrow Government in Malaya’? The Origins of the Malayan Emergency,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 21 (September 1993). []
  22. On this theme, see Robert Heussler, British Rule in Malaya, 1942-57 (Singapore, 1983). []
  23. Harper, End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, 58. []
  24. See  especially  Crawford  Young,  The African  Colonial  State  in Comparative  Perspective (New Haven, Conn., 1994); for the colonial Leviathan, Ronald Hyam, “The British Empire in the Edwardian Era,” in Judith Brown and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1999), 58-61. []
  25. See Richard Stubbs, “The Malayan Emergency  and  the Development  of  the  Malaysian  State,”  in Paul B. Rich and Richard Stubbs, eds., The Counter-Insurgent State: Guerrilla Warfare and State Building in the Twentieth Century (London, 1997). []
  26. See especially Nicholas J. White, Business, Government, and the End of Empire: Malaya, 1942-1957 (Kuala Lumpur, 1996), which portrays the vulnerability or fragility of the Malayan economy and the ambivalent relations between business and government. For the modernization of the rubber industry in the 1950s, see Martin Rudner, “Malayan Rubber Policy: Development and Anti­ Development during the 1950s,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 7 (September 1976). []
  27. Richard Stubbs, Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare: The Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960 (Singapore, 1989), 263. This number included some 500 former members of the Palestine Police, who helped to transform the Malayan police into an effective paramilitary force. See A. J. Stockwell, “Policing during the Malayan Emergency, 1948-60: Communism, Communalism, and Decolonisation,” in David M. Anderson and David Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism, and the Police, 1917-65 (Manchester, 1992). []
  28. Minute by Sydney Caine, December 1, 1943, in A. J. Stockwe ll, ed ., Malaya, British Documents on the End of Empire, Series B, 3 vols. (London, 1995), 1: 63. The British documentary series (BDEEP) is indispensable for all aspects of British colonial history since 1945. []
  29. Quotation from.a 1942 Colonial Office document in A. J. Stockwell, “Colonial Planning during World War II: The Case of Malaya,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth  History 2 (May 1974): 338. []
  30. Quoted in C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 18/9-1988, 2d edn. (Singapore, 1989), 267. []
  31. See Stubbs, Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare. []
  32. “With the  powers of  a Cromwell  at his disposal, he often looked  like  the Lord  Protector, albeit in his English rather than his Irish role.” Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960 (New York, 1975), 386. Short’s book is the classic work on the insurgency. For the military campaign, see especially Richard L. Clutterbuck, The Long Long War: Counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam (New York, 1966). []
  33. Heussler, British Rule in Malaya, 186. []
  34. For other critical differences, including those of geography and ethnic composition of the two countries, and for comparisons as far afield as Algeria and the Congo, Clutterbuck’s Long Long War is unconventional and useful despite its insistent Cold War tone. []
  35. See Matthew Jones, Conflict and Confrontation in South East Asia, 1961-1965: Britain, the United States and the Creation of Malaysia (Cambridge, 2002), a major new work on which I have relied for my own interpretation. See also especially S. J. Ball, “Selkirk in Singapore,” Twentieth Century  British History 10, no. 2 (1999). For the Tunku in Malaysian politics, see Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region, 1945-65 (Kuala Lumpur, 1974). []
  36. See especially Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore, 1998). []
  37. Lord Head to Commonwealth Relations Office, December 11, 1963, FO 371/175065. []
  38. The following passage well reflects both the contemporary and retrospective British view of the Tunku, who served as prime minister of Malaya from 1957 to 1963 and of Malaysia from 1963 to 1970: “The Tunku was straightforward, steady and slow … No one could have survived in office for so long without political skills of the highest order … Perhaps it was the fact that many of them [the British] looked down on him intellectually-he always consulted the racing calendar before agreeing to an official engagement-that made them so fond of him.” Brian Lapping, End of Empire (London, 1985), 188-90. []
  39. The population of the territories were Brunei, 118,000 (mainly Malay); Sarawak, 750,000 (130,000 Malay, 230,000 Chinese, plus 238,000 Sea Dyaks [Ibans] and 58,000 Land Dyaks); and North Borneo, 450,000, including 104,000 Chinese and the rest indigenous peoples. The total Chinese population of the Borneo territories was calculated generally as less than 350,000. In round figures, the Chinese in the new federation of Malaysia would be 3.7 million and would be outnumbered by 4 million Malays. In dealing with these nominal and, in the case of Borneo, highly hypothetical figures, Lee Kuan Yew preferred a calculation that would establish an equal number of 4 million Chinese and 4 million Malays. But in any estimate, the additional Indians, indigenous peoples, and others would constitute a non-Chinese majority.

    For North Borneo (Sabah), see M. H. Baker, Sabah: The First Ten Years as a Colony, 1946-1956 (Singapore, 1965); for Sarawak, Vernon L. Porritt, British Colonial Rule in Sarawak, 1946-1963 (Kuala Lumpur, 1997); for Brunei, Donald E. Brown, Brunei: The Structure and History of a Bornean Malay Sultanate (Brunei, 1970); and David Leake, Jr., Brunei: The Modern Southeast-Asian Islamic Sultanate (Jefferson, N.C., 1989). []

  40. See Matthew Jones, “Creating Malaysia: Singapore Security, the Borneo Territories, and the Contours of British Policy, 1961-63,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28 (May 2000). []
  41. Minute by T. J. Bligh reporting the views of the British commissioner-general for Southeast Asia, Lord Selkirk, Secret, May 16, 1962, PREM 11/3735. C. Northcote Parkinson, the distinguished historian of the British Empire and also the inventor of Parkinson’s Law-in this case that footnotes in presidential addresses usually fill the amount of space allocated  to  them and then some-once wrote of Lee: “Utterly without charm, his expression is one of barely concealed contempt for his opponents, for his followers, perhaps for himself … One cannot imagine that … he is even capable of friendship.” Parkinson, A Law unto Themselves: Twelve Portraits (London, 1966), 174. This is a harsh judgment, but it reveals a certain strain of British opinion. Harold Wilson on the other hand got on well with Lee and admired his intellectual sophistication. (Wilson, Labour Government, for example, 195.) Lee’s own autobiography is remarkably charitable and, on the whole, honest. Though silent on certain points, it clearly reveals that his passion was the building of Singapore. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore, 1998). []
  42. So described by Sir Robert Scott (commissioner-general in Southeast Asia, 1955-1959), quoted in John Drysdale, Singapore: Struggle for Success (London, 1984), 148. []
  43. For his own rather fragmented autobiographical account, which throughout emphasizes horse racing, football, the virtues of the Malayan aristocracy, and the general theme that “we in Malaysia are among the happiest people in the world,” see Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-haj, Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories (Kuala Lumpur, 1977), 332. Beneath the platitudes lay a shrewd grasp of Malaysian politics. Lee’s contempt for the Tunku as a man whose purpose in life was “to preserve the orchid from wilting” was a radical misperception. George, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, 167. []
  44. See Jones, “Creating Malaysia.” []
  45. They included Lim Chin Siong, the spokesman of the Chinese working class of Singapore and a vital figure in the opposition. See T. N. Harper, “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story,’ ” in Tan Jing Quee and Jomo K. S., eds., Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (Kuala Lumpur, 2001). This is a seminal essay. []
  46. See Ronald Hyam and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., The Conservative Government and the End of Empire, 1957-1964, British  Documents on the  End of Empire, Series A, 2 vols. (London,  2000), 1: lviii-lx, 718-49. See also especially Nicholas Tarling, The  Fall of  Imperial Britain in South-East Asia (Singapore, 1993), 199-201. []
  47. The British Protectorate in Brunei continued until 1984, when Brunei became an independent sultanate within the Commonwealth. North Borneo in 1963 was renamed Sabah. []
  48. See John Subritzky, Confronting Sukarno: British, American, Australian and New Zealand Diplomacy in the Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation, 1961-5 (London, 2000); Greg Poulgrain, The Genesis of Konfrontasi: Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, 1945-1965 (London, 1998); and J. A. C. Mackie, Konfrontasi: The lndonesia-Malaysia Dispute, 1963-1966 (Kuala Lumpur, 1974). []
  49. The balanced and judicious study by J. D. Legge, Sukarno: A Political Biography (London, 1972), repays re-reading in this context. For example, from the Indonesian perspective: “In social terms Malaya, with no revolution to launch her into the modern world, appeared a conservative, aristocratic country as compared with Indonesia’s radical nationalism. Symbolizing this difference of temperament was the personal contrast between the Tengku [the Tunku] and Sukarno-the English-trained, racehorse-owning, Malay prince and the Jacobin leader drawn from the lower aristocracy of Java and trained through the long struggle against Dutch rule” (p. 364). []
  50. The considered definition of neo-colonialism by the Foreign Office is of interest: “that the West will seek to recapture by economic means the predominance which it once held by arms” (Foreign Office memorandum, May 5, 1961, FO 371/161230). Note also the carefully constructed definition of “anti-colonialism” by Sir Robert Scott, who had served in China before becoming commissioner-general of Southeast Asia: “It is a frame of mind, resentment at patronage, resentment at fancied Western assumptions of superiority whether in social status or culture, reaction to the Western impact on Asia in the past centuries. This frame of mind, expressed in terms of opposition to Western control or interference, explains the paradox of ‘anti-colonialism’ in countries that have never been colonies, directed against countries that have never had them. Americans are sometimes baffled to find that Asian sentiment towards Britain, the greatest colonial power of all, is apt to be more cordial than towards the United States despite their remarkable record of generosity and altruism in dealings with Asia.” Scott to Macmillan, Secret, November 13, 1959, FO 371/143732. []
  51. Minute by J. O. Wright, January 22, 1964, PREM 11/4906. Wright was private secretary to the prime minister, later ambassador in Washington from 1982 to 1986. []
  52. Record of telephone conversation, February 11, 1965, PREM 13/692. Wilson, Labour Govern­ment, 80. []
  53. Minute by Palliser, March 18, 1966, FO 371/185917. []
  54. The British ambassador commented on the destruction of his automobile , a Leyland “Princess”: “The charred corpse of my poor old Princess is causing an elegant traffic-j am.” The prime minister minuted: “I hope the historian will not misunderstand this . . . ” Minute by Macmillan on Djakarta to Foreign Office, September 17, 1963, PREM 11/4310. []
  55. The Tunku had expansionist aims of his own. Malay ties of kinship extended to Indonesia . He believed that the Sumatran and other Malay rulers in Indonesia would welcome intervention and that they would spontaneously join their “Malayan cousins” to bring about “an all-embracing Federation of all the Malaysian countries.” Jones, Conflict and Confrontation, 214. []
  56. O. G. Forster to Foreign Office, October 21, 1964, FO 371/176454 []
  57. Record of conversation, Secret, March 6, 1965, PREM 13/693. Robert Pearce, ed., Patrick Gordon Walker: Political Diaries 1932-1971 (London, 1991), 303-04. Gordon Walker had been foreign secretary for two months (November-December 1964) before resigning after the loss of his parlia­ mentary seat in a by-election the following January. []
  58. He admitted later that he was “not very good at taking records,” but the point must have stood out in Gordon Walker’s mind because he wrote that Rusk had made it “with great emphasis.” See Wright to Henderson, Secret, March 11, 1965, FO 371/180540. I have not had any luck on the American side in tracing the conversation. []
  59. See Rex Mortimer, Indonesian Communism under Sukarno: Ideology and Politics, 1959-1965 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1974). []
  60. See Harold Crouch, The Army and Politics in Indonesia (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978). For the destruction of the myth that the CIA engineered the coup in a major way, see H. W. Brands, “The Limits of Manipulation: How the United States Didn’t Topple Sukarno,” Journal of American History 76 (December 1989). The article by Brands was written before the publication of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, vol. 26, which deals with Indonesia. The documentary record largely confirms his account. The CIA part in the coup was minimal, with little money or advice, but afterwards the CIA helped to provide equipment to the army as well as information about Communist leaders. The question remains open about the extent of CIA involvement in Indonesian affairs after October 1965. []
  61. Legge, Sukarno, 399. []
  62. As paraphrased by George, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, 157. []
  63. Quoted in Lee, Singapore Story, 662. []
  64. See, for example, George, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, 90-91. []
  65. For Lee’s denunciation of the Americans for, among other reasons, “their lack of civilisation,” see James Minchin, No Man ls an Island: A Study of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (London, 1986), 158. []
  66. Minute by J. A. Thomson, April 22, 1966, FO 371/185920. []
  67. The champion of the view of having lost the battle but having won the war in the region is W. W. Rostow, for example, “The Case for the War: How American Resistance in Vietnam Helped Southeast Asia to Prosper in Independence,” Times Literary Supplement, June 9, 1995. []
  68. For the extended British withdrawal, see Hack, Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia, chap. 9. []
  69. In 1971, the Five Power Defence Arrangement provided for a joint British-Australian-New Zealand fleet to be stationed in Singapore and for an integrated air defense system for Malaysia. See Chin Kin Wah, The Defence of Malaysia and Singapore: The Transformation of a Security System, 1957-1971 (Cambridge, 1983), chaps. 8 and 9. For a succinct discussion of these issues in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory (Diego Garcia) and the British “abracadabra” strategy, see W. David McIntyre, British Decolonization, 1946-1997: When, Why and How Did the British Empire Fall? (London, 1998), chap. 5. []
  70. “The Chiefs of Staff (believed] … that by the exercise of strategic mobility-and with the nuclear deterrent discreetly in the wings—Britain could continue to play a starring part on the international stage.” Anthony Verrier, Through the Looking Glass: British Foreign Policy in an Age of Illusions (London, 1983), 173, See also Ian Clark, Nuclear Diplomacy and the Special Relationship: Britain’s Deterrent and America, 1957-1962 (Oxford, 1994). []
  71. For the connection of these issues, see John Durnbrell, “The Johnson Administration and the British Labour Government: Vietnam, the Pound and East of Suez,” Journal of American Studies 30, no. 2 (1996); and Alan Dobson, “The Years of Transition: Anglo-American Relations, 1961-1967,” Review of International Studies 16 (1990). []
  72. Memorandum on “Indo-Pacific Policy,” May 10, 1966, CAB 148/28. []
  73. For example, in a conversation between Dean Rusk and Louis Heren of The Times of London: “We had all had enough to drink, and he [Rusk] came over and asked me why Britain had not sent troops to Vietnam. He knew well enough, but rather lamely I began to repeat the obvious. He cut me short and said, ‘All we needed was one regiment. The Black Watch would have done. Just one regiment, but you wouldn’t. Well, don’t expect us to save you again. They can invade Sussex, and we wouldn’t do a damned thing about it.”‘ Louis Heren, No Hail, No Farewell (New York, 1970), 230. []
  74. Gordon Etherington-Smith to Foreign Office, July 15, 1966, PO 371/186331. []
  75. Foreign Commonwealth Office memorandum, no date but March 1967, FCO 15/4. []
  76. As events transpired, the British were able to keep the Borneo campaign a “low intensity conflict” despite its fierceness. According to Denis Healey, the defense secretary: “At a time when the United States was plastering Vietnam with bombs, napalm, and defoliant, no British aircraft ever dropped a bomb in Borneo.” Healey, The Time of My Life (London, 1989), 289. For quite a different perspective, see Verrier, Through the Looking Glass, 254: “The war was fought by British, Gurkha, and Malay troops with obsolescent weapons and inadequate equipment, and it was no comfort to these men on the spot to know that V bombers from Singapore (armed with ‘conventional’ bombs) could easily reach Indonesian targets. This subaltern’s and platoon sergeant’s war was won by troops whose units were under strength, made up to the order of battle by cross posting on a scale which revealed the strain on Britain’s most valuable strategic resource: trained men.” []
  77. On the United States and Vietnam, I have found it useful to re-read or in some cases read for the first time the following works: David L. Anderson, Trapped by Success: The Eisenhower Administration and Vietnam, 1953-1961 (New York, 1991); Larry Berman, Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam (New York, 1989); Lloyd Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago, 1995); William C. Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, 4 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1985-95); George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 3d edn. (New York, 1996); Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modem Historical Experience (New York, 1985); Walter LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-1996, 8th edn. (New York, 1997); George McT. Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York, 1986); John Prados, The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War (New York, 1999); Andrew J. Rotter, The Path to Vietnam: Origins of the American Commitment to Southeast Asia (Ithaca, N.Y., 1987); and Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York, 1991). In my education about Vietnam, I have benefited especially from Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 (New York, 1997), both because it is a state-of-the-art study of the Vietnam conflict and because of its pursuit of certain literary themes, for example, Graham Greene’s portrayal of a CIA operative in Vietnam in The Quiet American (London, 1955), and William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s prototype of committed American pacification officers (as they were later known in the 1960s) in The Ugly American (New York, 1957). “As political propaganda setting the stage for a war, The Ugly American had an impact similar to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the years before the American Civil War.” Schulzinger, Time for War, 98. []
  78. Minute by Lord Walston, July 27, 1966, FO 371/186331. Walston was parliamentary under­ secretary. []
  79. Thompson to Peck, Secret and Guard, April 22, 1964, FO 371/175496. For Thompson, see especially his memoirs, which are written with subtlety, humor, and extraordinary comparisons. For example, he wrote of one of the great British soldiers of the twentieth century-and also one of the last viceroys in India-Sir Archibald (Lord) Wavell, in comparison with one of the leading American military figures in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams: “I found him [Abrams] … to be a quiet, thoughtful, kind but rather dour person, not unlike Lord Wavell … Classical music was his solace, as poetry had been Wavell’s … I came to regard him as one of the greatest American Generals of this century.” Sir Robert Thompson, Make for the Hills: Memories of Far Eastern Wars (London, 1989), 159. []
  80. See his own historical account, James Cable, The Geneva Conference of 1954 on Indochina (London, 1986); see also especially R. B. Smith, An International History of the Vietnam War: Revolution versus Containment, 1955-61 (London, 1983), chap. 2. For a contemporary, sustained attack on successive British governments for supporting the United States, see William Warbey, Vietnam: The Truth (London, 1965). []
  81. Minute by Cable, April 25, 1964, FO 371/175496. [] []
  82. Etherington-Smith to Foreign Office, Confidential, January 14, 1964, FO 371/175065. []
  83. Minute by Cable, June 2, 1965, FO 371/180595. []
  84. Minute by Palliser, June 29, 1964, FO 371/175092. Palliser’s thought flowed in the same direction as that of Walt Rostow, who believed, then as later, that the presence of the United States in Southeast Asia provided the necessary security for the region to develop economically. See Rostow, “Case for the War”: “The pain, loss and controversy resulting from Vietnam were accepted for ten years by the American people. That acceptance held the line so that a free Asia could survive and grow.” []
  85. See Ian F. W. Beckett, “Robert Thompson and the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam, 1961-1965,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 8 (Winter 1997). See also especially Alastair Parker, “International Aspects of the Vietnam War,” in Peter Lowe, ed., The Vietnam War (London, 1998). []
  86. For an example of his exchange with American intellectuals, see Richard M. Pfeffer, No More Vietnams? The War and the Future of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1968). Thompson regarded Bernard Fall as his most formidable intellectual adversary. See Bernard B. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (New York, 1963). []
  87. See especially Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (Garden City, N.Y., 1967), 429-39, 461-63, and 522-25. []
  88. Noam Chomsky, The Backroom Boys (London, 1973), 116. []
  89. On this point, see Short, Communist Insu”ection in Malaya, 500: “para-normality … created at least the impression of stability and this both encouraged and was reinforced by the fact that, for the most part, District Officers, police, planters, tappers, peasants and miners remained where they were in spite of often continuous danger.” []
  90. “We discussed turning Vietnam into a theater of operations, as we had done for World War II, and concentrating all authority in the theater commander, with the ambassador as the political adviser. We decided against that because such an arrangement might have downgraded the Vietnamese role and Americanized the war even further. Also, the Koreans, Australians, South Vietnamese, and other allies might not have liked an ‘American warlord’ running the war.” Dean Rusk as told to Richard Rusk, As I Saw It, Daniel S. Papp, ed. (New York, 1990), 453-54. []
  91. Thompson to Foreign Office, Secret, October 30, 1963, FO 371/170102. []
  92. Thompson to Foreign Office, Secret, October 9, 1963, FO 371/170102. []
  93. Thompson’s “gloomy,” “depressing,” and “deeply pessimistic” outlook (words used by others to describe his views) can be traced mainly in records of conversations with him after his departure from Vietnam. See, for example, Minute by James Cable, March 21, 1966, FO 371/186351; Trench to Murray, Secret and Guard, March 25, 1966, FO 371/186350; and Minute by D. F. Murray, April 21, 1966, FO 371/186351. []
  94. For the fluctuation of Thompson’s views, see Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York, 1988), 734. Thompson later believed that 1968 was the critical year, and his views evolved in a certain manner parallel, at least until the late 1960s, to those of John Paul Vann, the subject of Sheehan’s book. In conversations with American officials as well as in his essays and books, Thompson tempered his pessimism. See especially Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (New York, 1966); and No Exit from Vietnam (New York, 1969). To the Americans, Thompson must have seemed eternally optimistic. He wrote to Henry Kissinger as late as 1975, on the eve of the fall of Saigon: “South Vietnam has played its part in a manner unsurpassed in history … It is ready to continue fighting and, given the minimum of support … [can] hold out successfully.” See the report submitted by Thompson to Kissinger, February 23, 1975, White House Operations File, National Security Adviser, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. I am indebted to John Prados for this quotation. []
  95. This was also the view of Robert Komer, the chief U.S. pacification officer in Vietnam. See Robert W. Komer, Bureaucracy at War: U.S. Performance in the Vietnam Conflict (Boulder, Colo., 1986), 140-41: “Pacification Takes a Back Seat-1965 to 1966” and 152: “it seems clear that a predominantly counterinsurgency-oriented strategy would have had its best chance for success prior to 1964-1965, before insurgency escalated into a quasiconventional war” (emphasis in the original). On the dark side of Komer and pacification, see Young, Vietnam Wars, 212-13. Young’s work has a penetrating originality in demonstrating the brutality of the war and thereby the senseless violence of all wars. []
  96. The classic work is Douglas S. Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance (New York, 1977). See also especially Richard A. Hunt, Pacification: The American Strnggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds (Boulder, Colo., 1995); and Jefferson P. Marquis, “The Other Warriors: American Social Science and Nation Building in Vietnam,” Diplomatic History 24 (Winter 2000), which is a comprehensive review emphasizing social science and political change. In view of this theme, it seems worth mentioning that Robert Thompson, in his own words, “would not touch political reform in these territories [Southeast Asia] with a barge pole—and I certainly would not touch it with an American political scientist.” Pfeffer, No More Vietnams? 244. []
  97. From the British perspective, see Thompson, Make for the Hills, chap. 16. Thompson believed that in the Nixon era “the emphasis in Vietnam had at last been placed on pacification, that is regaining Government control over the populated areas of the countryside, and Vietnamization, that is the handing of the war back to the Vietnamese”; 160. But by then it was too late. []
  98. Trench to Foreign Office, August 13, 1965, FO 371/180543. See David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire (New York, 1964); and Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York, 1969). []
  99. Record of conversation, March 12, 1965, FO 371/180540. []
  100. But at the other extreme: “Neither the Cultural Revolution nor undergraduates succeeded in penetrating All Souls.” David Caute, The Year of the Barricades: A Journey through 1968 (New York, 1988), 354. []
  101. For example: Monica Belmonte, “Reigning in Revolution: The United States Response to British Decolonization in Nigeria, 1953-1960” (PhD dissertation in progress, Georgetown University). For background on the American side, see Penny M. von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997). []
  102. I owe the metaphor to Brian Urquhart (former under-secretary at the United Nations), with whom I had the extraordinary experience of teaching a course on the Middle East at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs in 1988. Since then, I have found it a useful concept to explore in both teaching and writing. See Brian Urquhart, Decolonization and World Peace (Austin, Tex., 1989); and Ralph Bunche: An American Life (New York, 1993). Bunche’s life was devoted in about equal measure to civil rights and decolonization. In an earlier work, John Hope Franklin wrote: “Negroes were heartened … when Ralph Bunche … joined the United Nations to work with the Trusteeship Council [in 1946]. They hoped that this Negro specialist would, somehow, be able to advance substantially the welfare and interests of those people who would be unable to promote their own interests.” Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (New York, 1947), 585. On the British side, see Stephen Howe, Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire, 1918-1964 (Oxford, 1993), 308, which stresses “betrayed hopes.” This interpretation should be compared with that of Kenneth 0. Morgan, “Imperialists at Bay: British Labour and Decolonization,” in Robert D. King and Robin W. Kilson, eds., The Statecraft of British Imperialism: Essays in Honour of Wm. Roger Louis (London, 1999), 253. “To adapt Alan [A. J. P.] Taylor’s controversial phrase (originally applied to Munich) it [decolonization] was a triumph for all that was best in British life.” []