When old Labour went to war

Issue: 118

John Newsinger

A review of Mark Phythian, The Labour Party, War and International Relations 19452006 (Routledge, 2007), £19.99

One response to the Iraq war has been an attempt to blame it on Tony Blair personally and to somehow exonerate the Labour Party. To this end, the Labour Party’s past is mythologised, the Labour left (despised and abused at the time) is treated as if it was the authentic voice of the party, and previous Labour governments are celebrated for their commitment to “internationalism”. In this scenario, Blair performs as a sort of Pied Piper, leading the rats of Hamelin or, on this occasion, the Parliamentary Labour Party from the true path. There are a number of versions of this particular salvage operation. The most recent is Mark Phythian’s The Labour Party, War and International Relations 19452006. Here he makes a heroic but, in the end, futile attempt to retrieve something from the Labour tradition as far as foreign policy, international relations and war are concerned.

At the start of his book, Phythian writes that the Labour Party’s first serious consideration of “questions of war and peace” did not take place until 1916-1917. The outcome was a “Statement of War Aims” agreed at a special conference on 28 December 1917. In the extract from the document that he quotes, the Labour Party made it clear that it was only supporting the Allies in the First World War so “that the world may henceforth be made safe for democracy”. The most important of the party’s war aims was proclaimed as being “that there shall be henceforth on earth no more war”. Among other things, the statement also called for “the frank abandonment of every form of imperialism” and “the entire abolition of profit-making armament firms”.

The statement showed, Phythian argues, Labour’s “instinctive pacifism”.1 He fails to mention the section of the statement where the party endorsed the Balfour Declaration, urging that Palestine should be “set free” and that “such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and may work out their own salvation, free from interference by those of alien race and religion”. Whereas even the Balfour Declaration had supposedly guaranteed “the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, the Labour Party statement did not even go this far in acknowledging the existence of the Palestinians.2 It hardly needs pointing out that since December 1917 the statement has remained a dead letter: Labour governments have made war, crushed colonial rebellions and embraced the arms industry, indeed today New Labour is actually privatising parts of the British military. Their Zionist commitment is the only part of the 1917 statement to which Labour has remained true.

More important, however, is the fact that even at the very moment that the Labour Party adopted this idealistic Statement of War Aims it was participating in Lloyd George’s coalition government that was engaged in waging the most bloody imperialist war in history (at least up to that time). The Labour Party was part of the coalition when James Connolly and the other Easter Rising prisoners were executed in 1916. There is clearly a discrepancy between the sentiments of the statement and the support for and participation in the terrible slaughter that had already cost millions of lives, left many more wounded and mutilated, and imposed immense suffering on civilian populations in the combatant countries.

And, of course, Phythian also neglects the extent to which the statement was a response to developments in Russia in the course of 1917. With the overthrow of the Tsar and the coming to power of the Bolsheviks, the Labour leadership recognised that they confronted a revolutionary rival for working class support. The statement was an attempt to meet this challenge from the left by the proclamation of various worthy sentiments that would placate the party’s rank and file, while not compromising its actual support for the war. The gap between Labour’s supposed instincts and its actual conduct in government that was laid bare in 1917 has continued down to today. How effectively does Phythian explain it?

He focuses on the period since 1945, identifying “certain values and currents that have shaped the approaches the party has taken to the question of war since 1945”. First there is “Labour’s insistence on the primacy of the UN”, a principle that is required to carry the main burden of his argument. There is also Labour’s “distinctively restrictionist approach to military interventions”, “Labour’s historic suspicion of power politics and secret diplomacy”, “Labour’s tradition of anti-colonialism”, “Labour’s internationalism” (although he does admit that this is “an at times rather vague notion”), and, most remarkably, “a deep-rooted suspicion of US motives in undertaking military interventions”. Under Blair, he argues, these Labour values were violated so that the Iraq war is very difficult “to reconcile…with the Labour Party tradition with regard to the questions of war”.3 Phythian’s objection to the unprovoked attack on Iraq seems to have more to do with the absence of a UN resolution than with opposition to New Labour’s support for US imperialism in the Middle East. More generally, however, his rehearsal of Labour’s supposed “values and currents” tells us nothing about Labour’s foreign policy since 1945. Indeed much of Phythian’s own account exposes the gap between “values” and actual conduct. Nevertheless, he clings to his idealist interpretation with something like desperation.

What we shall do here is examine Labour’s foreign and war policies, laying bare the real motives that have guided Labour governments since 1945. It is these motives, the Labour leadership’s understanding of the best interests of British imperialism, rather than any supposed values or instincts that have determined Labour’s conduct in power. How else can one seriously explain how a party with an “instinctive pacifism”, according to Phythian, could take the decision in January 1947 to develop a British atomic bomb!4

At the risk of oversimplification, as far as the Labour Party was concerned, the values and instincts were there for the consolation of the party membership, while the business of government operated according to a different agenda altogether. As a reformist party, the Labour Party identified the British state, a capitalist state, as the agency of reform and improvement. This identification, as far back as the first Labour government in 1924, produced a determination to protect the interests of the British state and this has, in turn, produced a history of war and colonial repression.

More specifically, since 1945, far from Labour governments being motivated by Phythian’s “values and currents”, they have been motivated by the need to maintain Britain’s role as a junior partner of American imperialism. Indeed, Labour embraced this role earlier than the Conservatives, who still thought Britain strong enough to go it alone as late as the Suez invasion of 1956, and later, under Heath, briefly looked to Europe rather than to the United States. The only time that Labour governments have equivocated in their support for American imperialism has been moments when they too looked to the European Union as an alternative. These moments always passed and “America right or wrong” has remained the Labour leadership’s watchword.

The discussion here will focus on three wars: Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.


The Attlee government’s decision to send British troops to fight in Korea in 1950 had one clear overriding motive: the need to sustain Britain’s alliance with the United States. A failure to rally to the American cause would inevitably have done serious damage to relations between the two countries. In the circumstances the despatch of troops was inevitable. The war was, of course, sanctioned by the UN, but this was a mere fig leaf for America’s war. Labour’s participation was determined not by any loyalty to the UN, but by the need to show loyalty to the United States. This need derived from the government’s awareness that post-1945 the British state no longer had the power to protect British interests throughout the world. The British were forced to turn to the United States for support and protection even though this involved having to make serious concessions to American interests and, of course, participate in a war in which no British interests were involved other than the American alliance. Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevan and Co resented being placed in this subordinate position and hoped that economic recovery would eventually enable them to deal with the Americans on more equal terms. For the time being they had to defer to the Americans and attempt to pass off their subordination as “influence”.

What is missing from Phythian’s account of Labour and the Korean War is any awareness of the actual conduct of the war. The US Air Force general Curtis LeMay was quite explicit about the impact of aerial bombardment: “We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both…during the three years of warfare we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue”.5 This was a terrible war that left Korea laid waste. The bombing was carried out with even less restraint than the United States was to show in Vietnam. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was flattened, a fate that never befell Hanoi. The Americans used napalm against civilian targets on an astonishing scale. According to one authoritative account, the US Air Force “on an average day…dropped 45,000 gallons” of napalm. On 29 August 1952 (by now Labour was in opposition) the Americans carried out their heaviest raid on Pyongyang, dropping 697 tons of bombs and 10,000 litres of napalm. The raid left 6,000 dead, overwhelmingly civilians: there was “only the shell of buildings and the remaining inhabitants to remind an observer that a city had ever existed on the site”.6 Even Winston Churchill, by now prime minister, complained of how the Americans were “splashing it [napalm] about all over the civilian population. I will take no responsibility for it”.7 The Labour front bench was silent.

Nevertheless Attlee did manage to dress British subordination up as influence. At the end of November 1950 President Truman announced that the use of nuclear weapons was under consideration, prompting Attlee to fly to Washington on 4 December and supposedly exercise a restraining hand on the Americans. This, as Ralph Miliband put it, is “a legend”.8 The British received no right of veto over the use of atomic bombs, but were assured that they would be the first to know if the decision was taken. What we can be certain of is that if the Americans had used nuclear weapons, the Labour government, with whatever reservations, would have supported them. It is worth remembering that Attlee, not Churchill, was prime minister when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atom bombed.

Attlee’s concern, moreover, was not with the loss of Korean or Chinese lives, but with the danger of the war expanding to involve the Soviet Union. The Russians were in a position to retaliate with nuclear weapons, and Britain, with its US bases, would have been a prime target. Labour had, of course, allowed the Americans to establish air bases for B-29 bombers in Britain in the summer of 1949, and the following year these were equipped with nuclear weapons. The Labour government did not secure any effective veto over their use, let alone over the use of nuclear weapons in Korea.9 And, as Ralph Miliband once again points out, on two occasions in May and September 1951 the Labour government assured the Americans that it would support military action against China.10

Far from Blair’s support for the United States being some sort of aberration, he can clearly be seen as continuing the policy of junior partnership begun by Attlee and Bevin. There is a dreadful continuity here, even down to the attempt to dress up subordination as influence. In 1952 Hugh Gaitskell, soon to become Labour leader, urged that more effort had to be made to present the American alliance as a partnership because otherwise Britain looked “too much like a satellite”.11 This has remained a problem.

From Vietnam to Iraq

With regard to the Vietnam War, Phythian considers Harold Wilson’s greatest achievement to be “a negative one—not committing British troops”. His refusal certainly marks his government out as an aberration. How far this was Wilson’s achievement is another matter. The Wilson government was every bit as committed to the American alliance as Attlee and Bevin had been. He was, for example, to collaborate in the CIA’s overthrow of Cheddi Jagan’s government in British Guiana, still a British colony.12 The problem for Wilson was that he came to power in 1964 with a majority of only four in the House of Commons and was reliant for his position on the left of the Labour Party. He was, moreover, threatened by powerful rivals on the right: George Brown, James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins. This seriously limited the options available to him. If Hugh Gaitskell had still been Labour leader in 1964 he would certainly have despatched a token force to fight alongside the Americans regardless of the Labour left. Indeed in August 1965 George Brown actually argued that if Gaitskell were prime minister he “would have put a token force in Vietnam last fall”.13 Was Wilson any different?

The only reason Wilson did not send troops to Vietnam was because he dare not, with a majority of four, while dependent on the Labour left. Given his general support for the American alliance and his consistent support for the American war in Vietnam, it seems certain that if he had had a large enough majority, then troops would have been sent. By the time Wilson had won a large majority in 1966 the war’s unpopularity, together with scepticism about the prospects of American victory, led to a continued refusal to send even a token force. There was, it must be remembered, not just opposition to the war, but growing support for the Vietcong.

Wilson’s refusal to send troops was not the result of any “instinctive pacifism” on the part of the Labour government, which was at the very same time engaged in confrontation with Indonesia and fighting a guerrilla insurgency in South Arabia. And, of course, the government was wholehearted in its diplomatic support of the war, indeed it bent over backwards to give the Americans every assistance short of troops on the ground. The US ambassador, David Bruce, explained Wilson’s occasional public criticisms of US policy as necessary “to counter the charge of being a mere puppet or satellite of the US”. The Labour government would, he informed President Johnson, have to sometimes “assert its independence by taking exception to certain details of policies to which he is ready to give general support”.14 And, as we now know, when Wilson disassociated his government from the escalation of American bombing of North Vietnam in June 1966, the statement was actually agreed with the Americans beforehand.15

Once again it is worth remembering that the Labour government was supporting an American war that involved an unprecedented level of bombing of both the North and the South, the use of death squads and widespread torture (the Phoenix Programme), the routine brutalisation and murder of civilians culminating in numerous massacres—indeed, just about every war crime imaginable. Supporting this war was not an achievement of any sort.

Which brings us to the Iraq war. Here, according to Phythian, Blair broke with Labour tradition by supporting the Americans. This break is portrayed as very much Blair’s responsibility. What Phythian does not explain is why the United States went to war in Iraq, which is surely a necessary preliminary in understanding British participation.

The war was fought to secure US domination over the Middle East. Everything else was a pretext. The British decision to participate was motivated by a continuing belief that American power was necessary to protect British global interests, and more particularly by a determination to be a beneficiary of the American victory. This was not some idiosyncrasy of Blair’s. When in July 2002 he told a meeting of senior officials and ministers that not to go into Iraq with the Americans “would be the biggest shift in foreign policy for 50 years”, he was absolutely right.16 When it was said that “supporting the Americans is part of Tony’s DNA”, this was once again absolutely right, but the same is true of the British state itself.

Under New Labour the British Army has been reconfigured to fight in America’s wars; the British intelligence services have an ever closer relationship with the Americans (the presence of a CIA representative on the Joint Intelligence Committee in the run up to the Iraq war seems to have escaped the various inquiries),17 the British arms industry is increasingly tied to the US military industrial complex with parts of the Ministry of Defence being privatised, sold off to companies with US involvement, and, of course, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is completely dependent on the Americans. None of this is new, but it has reached new levels under New Labour. Far from being an aberration, Blair was the culmination of the Labour Party’s post-1945 commitment to the American alliance.


1: Phythian, 2007, p3.

2: Stansky, 1969, pp318-326.

3: Phythian, 2007, pp6,8,10,11,12.

4: Phythian is not alone in his idealist account of Labour foreign policy and the problems it involves. Rhiannon Vickers, for example, can emphasise the party’s “belief in anti-militarism” and then go on to argue a couple of pages later that “Labour when in power, however, tended to view Britain’s need for a strong military in much the same way its opponents did. To some extent, it had to be more hardline when in government than the Conservatives because of its apparent weakness in the eyes of the electorate on the issue of defence. Thus, while Labour’s instinct has been for anti-militarism, its policies have not.” See Vickers, 2003, pp201, 203. An instinct, it has to be said, is something one cannot help acting upon, rather than something that has no relation to what one does other than help cover it up.

5: LeMay, 1965, p382. His was a conservative estimate.

6: Sandler, 1995, pp226, 287-288.

7: MacDonald, 1986, p235.

8: Miliband, 1979, p312. Phythian describes the visit as “a qualified success” (p45). Ralph Miliband was, of course, the father of David Miliband, the New Labour foreign secretary and Ed Miliband, another cabinet member. As the joke goes, the father argued that the Labour Party would always betray the working class, and the sons have helped prove him right. At the end of his Parliamentary Socialism, Miliband called for socialists to abandon “the belief that the Labour Party will eventually be radically transformed” and to begin preparing the ground for a socialist alternative. He urged that part of that preparation “is the dissipation of paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party” (p377). He certainly seems to have convinced his sons that the Labour Party was not socialist and, as they weren’t either, they promptly joined.

9: In her Old World, New World (2007), Kathleen Burk quotes an incredulous US Air Force commander saying, “Never before in history has one first class power gone into another first class power’s country without any agreement” (p595). Not until October 1951 was “an agreement of sorts reached” (p757).

10: Miliband, 1979, p312.

11: Callaghan and Phythian, p203.

12: For the overthrow of Jagan see Rabe, 2005. Jagan had already been removed from office once before in 1953. The Conservative government in London regarded him as dangerously left wing. The Labour opposition gave them their full support.

13: Phythian, 2007, p74.

14: Phythian, 2007, p71.

15: Young, 2003, p75.

16: Campbell, 2007, p630.

17: One interesting example of this close relationship is that the current head of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, better known as Chatham House, is a former CIA analyst, DeAnne Julius. She worked for the CIA in the early 1970s. Gordon Brown first brought her into the British establishment in 1997 when he appointed her to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. For some reason her biography on the Chatham House website does not mention her time with the CIA.


Burk, Kathleen, 2007, Old World, New World (Little, Brown).

Callaghan, John, and Mark Phythian, 2007, The Labour Party and Foreign Policy (Routledge).

Campbell, Alastair, 2007, The Blair Years (Hutchinson).

LeMay, Curtis, 1965, Mission With LeMay, (Doubleday).

MacDonald, Callum, 1986, Korea: The War Before Vietnam (Palgrave Macmillan).

Miliband, Ralph, 1979, Parliamentary Socialism (Merlin).

Phythian, Mark, 2007, The Labour Party, War and International Relations 19452006 (Routledge).

Rabe, Stephen, 2005, US Intervention in British Guiana (University of North Carolina).

Sandler, Stanley (ed), 1995, The Korean War: An Encyclopaedia, (Routledge).

Stansky, Peter, 1969, The Left and War (Oxford University).

Vickers, Rhiannon, 2003, The Labour Party and the World (Manchester University).

Young, John, 2003, The Labour Governments 19641970: International Policy (Manchester University).