It was exactly 40 years ago this week that the White House announced the end of the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam and the renewal of peace talks in Paris. It was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, but looking back at that conflict from a European perspective, the interesting thing is just how much criticism there was of it from western European leaders.
Take this example from late 1972: We should call things by their proper names. What is going on in Vietnam today is a form of torture. There cannot be any military justification for the bombings. People are being punished, a nation is being punished in order to humiliate it, to force it to submit to force.
That’s why the bombings are despicable. Many such atrocities have been perpetrated in recent history. They are often associated with a name — Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka. Violence triumphed, but posterity has condemned the perpetrators. Now a new name will be added to the list: Hanoi, Christmas 1972.
That fiery condemnation of US bombings was not made by Leonid Brezhnev, the then leader of the Soviet Union, or by Fidel Castro, but by the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme.
That’s right, the prime minister of a western European and non-communist nation was likening US policy in Vietnam to Nazi war crimes. If you are surprised, then you have got good reason to be, as today it will be unheard of for the leader of a major western European country to criticise the US in such strong terms.
However, Palme was not the only western European leader of the ‘60s and ‘70s to stand up to the superpower and take an independent stance on foreign policy issues.
In 1966, the then French president, Charles de Gaulle, pulled his country out of Nato’s military command and a year later, all US military bases in France were closed down and Nato’s headquarters moved to Brussels. In a letter to US president Lyndon B.
Johnson, De Gaulle declared that France needed to “recover the full exercise of her sovereignty across her entire territory”.
Like Palme, De Gaulle was an opponent of US policy in Vietnam, urging the superpower to withdraw. Even in Britain, Harold Wilson, criticised by the Labour left for being too pro-American, resisted US calls for British troops to be sent to Vietnam.
Just imagine if Tony Blair had been PM in the ‘60s? Edward Heath, meanwhile, who succeeded Wilson as PM in 1970, was arguably the post-war British prime minister least enamoured by the so-called “special relationship”. In smaller countries in Europe too, leaders were not afraid to follow their own line, like Bruno Kreisky in officially neutral Austria and the feisty Dom Mintoff in Malta.
Fast forward to 2013 and it is a very different story. You might have thought that with the end of communism in the East, western Europe’s leaders would become even more independent of the US, but in fact the opposite has happened.
Sweden, that beacon of progressive politics in the 1970s, is now a loyal ally of Washington. France is back in the Nato fold. The UK elite obediently follows the US line wherever it leads our country. When criticism of the US does come, as over the Iraq war, it has been muted and nowhere near as strong as Palme’s denunciation of Vietnam.
How have we got here? What has happened over the past 30 years is that the main parties of the left and right in several European countries have become more Atlanticist and the neo-conservative movement has successfully hijacked Britain’s Conservative party and made inroads in France as well.
While the staunchly pro-US “anti-anti-war left”, to use Jean Bricmont’s phrase, have come to exert great influence in the parties of the left and centre-left. We see that quite clearly in the transformation of the British Labour party, from one which stood on a platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1983, to one whose leadership was lining up with the most right-wing US administration in living memory over the invasion of Iraq 20 years later.
There are, I believe, generational factors at play too. The likes of Palme, De Gaulle, Heath, Kreisky and Mintoff knew the horrors of war and were instinctively anti-war and anti-imperialist. The new right and the new left, personified by such figures as Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Tony Blair, were not even born when the Second World War ended and don’t share their predecessors’ opposition to military solutions.
However we explain it, the consequences of the shift have been calamitous. European countries have tagged along in a series of military adventures and signed up to economic policies, such as an embargo on oil exports from Iran on account of that country’s unproven nuclear weapons programme, which are clearly not in their best interest.
The US, meanwhile, has been emboldened to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, at great detriment to the majority of its citizens. And these US-led military interventions and the regular threats of more to come have undoubtedly made the world a much more dangerous place. We need an Olof Palme today to “call things by their proper names” and oppose this new age of militarism.
Guardian News & Media Ltd