Bertrand Russell on Harold Wilson

A letter from Bertrand Russell to Harold Wilson written on March 27th, 1967

Detail from a drawing by Gerald Scarfe of Wilson in his 'reversible turncoat', walking both ways at once, with two faces simultaneously smiling and frowning, and with thumbs both up and down. Scarfe appears to put less work into his more recent works. -RW



Dear Mr. Wilson,
      Thank you for your letter of March 14th, in reply to my request that you reverse the Home Secretary's decision to withhold visas from my guests from Vietnam.

      Your refusal to do this is arbitrary in the extreme: those who do not agree with your policy are to be banned. Such an illiberal action is in keeping with the record of your Administration, which has been unhappily disposed to settle many issues by peremptory fiat instead of the customary open discussion. I am still surprised, however, that you feel able to take such a retrogressive decision without even troubling to offer a plausible explanation. Such a visit as that which I propose might, you claim, "increase international tension". At the same time you continue to ignore my question about such American visits to Britain. Did Mr. Cabot Lodge's speech at Oxford "increase international tension"? If it did not, how can my attempt to redress the grossly unequal balance, between the sustained American propaganda drive in Britain and the truth as it is seen by Vietnamese people themselves, do so?

      Although I should be extremely pleased to arrange for a public confrontation between Mr. Brown and my Vietnamese friends, my request for visas was in no way conditional upon the readiness of your colleagues to expose themselves to the risk of debate with my visitors.

      You say that I must be aware of your efforts to bring the fighting to an end. I must tell you plainly that your repeated public apologies for the United States have ensured the failure of any such effort. In these apologies you have at times gone further than anything emanating from even Saigon or Washington. A recent example of this was your claim in the House of Commons that during the four-day Tet truce "the massive southward movement of troops and supplies in the North . . . threatened to create a severe military unbalance". No other Western spokesman, however enthusiastic about the pursuit of the war, claimed that troops as well as supplies had been moved south, let alone that what did not happen could produce a "severe military unbalance". You must know that what happened during the truce was exactly the reverse of what you claimed. The Chicago Daily News service reported from Saigon on February 10 that U.S. officials knew of no troop movements from the North into the demilitarised zone. But on the first day of the truce "a new one-day record of 2,762 tons was set for cargo delivered by air to units in the field" by U.S. forces. The same news service reported that, according to U.S. figures, "U.S. planes - not counting truck and ship movements at all - carried 7,042 tons of supplies and more than 17,000 men during the first three days of the cease-fire". Similar reports appeared in the Washington Post of February 12.Le Monde of February 12-13 reported massive U.S. reinforcements being taken during the truce to the boundaries of War Zone C. The New York Times of February 12 reported that during the truce "extraordinary amounts" of supplies and ammunition were taken by U.S. forces "to forward positions". Le Monde of February 25 described the use of the Tet truce by U.S. forces to prepare the "Junction City" military operation. Many of these reports were summarised in a front-page dispatch from Washington in The Guardian.

      I do not mention these reports in many Western newspapers in order to encourage you to ban their entry into Britain, but to show that what you are telling the nation about the war is quite untrue. In addition you have refused steadfastly to condemn American atrocities, in spite of the numerous appeals of your own supporters and of liberals in the United States itself. You continue to ignore the resolution of the Labour Party Conference which called for "the cessation of the bombing by the United States of North Vietnam". You have not even intervened to prevent the issue of British medals to belligerents on the side of the aggressor. You maintain a series of military and diplomatic links with the aggressor which positively abets his aggression. You are financially indebted to the present American Administration on a large and inhibiting scale. In spite of the fact that less than three years ago you told the Trades Union Congress that if you "got into pawn" you "could not afford an independent foreign policy", you nonetheless claim continually that your attitude, which seems to nearly everybody in the world to be grotesquely subservient, is not influenced by that circumstance.

      It seems to me that when you call for an end to the murderous aerial attacks of a defenceless population; when you publicly condemn the systematic use of anti-personnel weapons such as the "lazy dog" and the "guava" against peasants and their children; when you inform President Johnson that his policies in Vietnam call forth the utmost revulsion and horror among all civilised men, then it will be possible to accept that you might begin to make a welcome, if disgracefully belated, contribution to the search for a just peace in that country.

      In the context of your present almost total commitment to the American war effort, it requires no little gall on your part to claim that the International War Crimes Tribunal with which I am associated is "one-sided". The Tribunal is composed of persons whose reputation for commitment to humane values and to the pursuit of truth is unchallenged throughout the world. It might have been hoped that you would have approached such persons, all of whom have made an authentic contribution to civilisation, with a certain modesty.

      After all, you did not always condemn as "one-sided" support for oppressed peoples in the world. In rightly opposing United States' policy in Vietnam, in May, 1954, you quite properly said:
"Asia, like other parts of the world, is in revolution, and what we have to learn in this country is to march on the side of the peoples in their revolution and not on the side of their oppressors."
The principal difference between yourself and the members of the War Crimes Tribunal appears to be that they are not prepared to abandon their fundamental convictions in order to secure temporary preferment. If you take stock carefully of your position, I hope that you will agree with me that you have no moral right to impede the work of the International War Crimes Tribunal, and you will quickly see that any attempt to do so can only bring down upon your head the justified contempt of civilisation.

Yours sincerely,
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