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  • All the Way with JFK? Britain, the U.S., and the Vietnam War
  • Philip E. Catton
Peter Busch , All the Way with JFK? Britain, the U.S., and the Vietnam War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003. 240pp. £30.00.

Given the recent U.S. and British intervention in Iraq, a book that deals with both Anglo-American relations and a controversial war is likely to make for compelling reading. Indeed, with respect to the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, the parallels between the past and the present are often striking, notably Britain's determination to remain a player on the world stage and to prove itself a loyal ally of the United States. These aspects of the special relationship are the chief theme of Peter Busch's book, which examines British policy toward the Vietnam conflict in the period 1961–1963. In an absorbing narrative, Busch charts London's support for Washington's increasingly forceful response to the insurgency in South Vietnam. [End Page 148]

Busch takes issue with the conventional wisdom that Britain played the role of peacemaker in Southeast Asia. He argues that studies focusing on Britain's co-chairmanship of the Geneva Conference in 1954, its support for a negotiated settlement in Laos in 1960–1961, and its refusal to answer Lyndon Johnson's call for troops in 1965 have obscured the nature of British policy in the region during the Kennedy administration. In this period, Busch observes, Britain staunchly supported the U.S. policy of bolstering Ngo Dinh Diem's regime and attempting to defeat the Vietnamese Communists. Busch attributes this support to several complementary British concerns: preventing Communist expansion in Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia; preserving influence with non-Communist Asian states, especially members of the Commonwealth; and influencing U.S. policy in the region by convincing President John F. Kennedy that Britain was a reliable Cold War ally. In short, despite the question mark in the book's title, Britain did seek to go "all the way with JFK."

The book is organized thematically, though it makes a broadly chronological progression as well. First, Busch analyzes Britain's military posture in Southeast Asia, particularly its efforts to maintain its base in Singapore and its role in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). He argues that the British were "certainly more committed to the SEATO alliance than previously assumed or even recognized at the time" (p. 33), although it is questionable whether they would have been willing to go to war under the SEATO umbrella if push had come to shove. On the diplomatic front, Busch demonstrates that, despite being a co-sponsor of the Geneva Accords, Britain did not attempt to use its position to promote a settlement of the growing conflict in Vietnam or to rein in Kennedy's nascent military buildup. On the contrary, the British worked hard to place the blame on North Vietnam for violations of the Geneva agreements, while at the same time downplaying U.S. transgressions.

Britain's support for U.S. policy in Vietnam took more concrete form in 1961 with the establishment in Saigon of the British Advisory Mission (BRIAM), a small team composed of veterans of the Malayan Emergency led by the counterinsurgency specialist Robert Thompson. As Busch makes clear, the British initiated this effort to "show the flag"; they were not responding to pressure. In fact, they struggled to win acceptance for the mission in the face of mixed signals from the Diem regime and bitter opposition from the U.S. military. Once established, BRIAM became heavily involved in efforts to quell the Communist insurgency through the Strategic Hamlet Program, although, as Busch rightly notes, Britain was not the originator of this approach. The book's concluding chapter examines a Vietnam-related conflict in Southeast Asia that also serves to illustrate the tenets of British policy in the region: the konfrontasi with Indonesia over London's sponsorship of the new Federation of Malaysia. In the same way that the British had sought to hold the line in Vietnam, they adopted a tough approach toward Indonesian threats against Malaysia. In a reversal of the traditional stereotypes, Busch...