It is a very rare occasion that the antics of a Leek MP would be the subject of a question at a US Presidential Press Conference, but it did happen. The President was Lyndon Johnson, the Leek MP and the extraordinary incident was a secret peace mission to North Vietnam undertaken by Harold Davies at the behest of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in July 1965.
But first a little explanation is required Davies a fiery left wing MP from south Wales was first elected to the Leek constituency in the Labour landslide of 1945.
He was a very assiduous MP, which is proved by the incredible hard work he put into a constituency, which at the time included a part, of what is now Stoke on Trent. Reading the newspapers from the 1950s and 60s it seems that Davies was everywhere. He was involved in rural issues especially the supply of water to the remote parts of the constituency, helped secure the main office site for the Britannia Building Society, and a keen interest in comprehensive education were just some of the many initiatives that wore the Davies stamp.He was an ardent supporter of public housing in areas of the constituency such as Weston Coyney as well as keeping the Post and Times regularly supplied with copy of his parliamentary exploits. He was a regular contributor in debates. It seems he had to be as his parliamentary majority leastways in the 50s barely rose above 1,000 votes.
Davies was also well connected and during the 50s a stream of principle Labour Party figures spoke in the constituency including future Labour party leaders in Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot. But perhaps the greatest coup was during the 1955 General Election when the great hero of the left the creator of the NHS and fellow Welshman Aneurin Bevan spoke at Kidsgrove Town Hall.
However one thing is certain Davies was an expert on South East Asia and wrote frequently on the subject often in learned journals which were carried fatefully by the Post and Times.
Davies wrote critically of American action in Korea especially the gung ho tactics of the American general McArthur during the early 50s. The Leek MP visits Moscow in 1952 commenting that he had previously visited the Soviet Union capital in 1938 when he was a WEA Lecturer. He seems remarkably uncritical of life in Moscow in whet was the last year of the tyrannical rule of Stalin. Davies writes about the happy citizenry when the reality for many Soviet people was terror and repression and the Gulags, but then many on the left were blind to the cruelties of the Communist system.
In 1955 Davies undertakes a long and difficult trip to Mao’s China writing regular articles to the Post and Times on what he found in the People’s Republic
“ China is not a side-show in world affairs. She is a living and powerful reality. The West must adjust itself to the regime of Mao Tse Tung and it is here to stay.” He visited farms, factories and mines in China and praised the economic development in the country barely a decade from the time that the Communists had taken power.
“ The miners would have been home in the North Staffs Coalfield. The seam I saw was at an angle of 45 degrees and some six feet in height was being cut at a time. I crawled for some thirty yards to the main conveyer belt and followed it to the main loading belt where a Russian diesel engine puffed along, pulling some twenty or more trams to the pit bottom”
“This is China the old and the new tumbling incongruously into the lap of history”
In 1959 Davies was on his travels again to the Philippines and Viet Cong when he met the leader of the North Vietnamese Communist Party Ho Chi Minh. Ho had fought in campaigns firstly against the Japanese during the Second World War and in the early 50s against the French. The French colonialists were beaten and the country became involved in a civil war between the Communist North and the Non Communist South. 1959 involved North Vietnamese in insurgency actions in South.
To his credit Davies at an early stage did not believe in the prevailing military doctrine espoused by elements of the American Government that Vietnam was another piece in the falling dominoes following China and Korea and that the country was rife for a communist take over. Davies believed and history has proved him correct in this analysis that Vietnam was a civil war.
By the early 60s it was clear that Britain would soon see a return of a Labour Government and with a new Labour Party leader Harold Wilson in 1963 the return of a Labour Government at the General Election in the following year occurred. However the Labour Government was not in a strong position with a majority of 4. The new Prime Minister had to appease the left wing of the Labour party represented by people like Harold Davies and there was also the problem of the Americans. The US President in this period was a no nonsense bluff Texan Lyndon Johnson who had succeeded the assassinated Kennedy in 1963. Johnson was convinced of the need to escalate the war in Vietnam and wanted to involve British troops. Wilson pointed out to the President that Britain was doing its bit fighting Communist rebels in Malaysia. This would not rub with the President and Wilson conceived of the idea of a secret peace mission to involve a man who was known to have a keen interest in the region. He asked Davies to take part in a secret peace mission.
In July 65 Davies was prepared to take the long trip to South East Asia. The hope was that Davies would be allowed a visa to visit Hanoi and be able to see the senior political figures in the North Vietnamese capital. However it was important that the trip was kept secret from both the British and Vietnamese perspective. According to Wilson the details of the visit were disastrously leaked to the British press. By the time the Leek MP got to Hanoi there was bitter recrimination and Davies was ostracised seeing only minor officials and no meeting with Ho Chi Minh.
The Americans were highly critical of the visit and had no confidence in the Welshman. They were that Davies was travelling on his own, did not have diplomatic experience, did not speak French was a talkative left wing sympathiser and “ and is not noted for his judgement”
Some British Foreign Office officials agreed with the judgement of the Americans and the British Ambassador to the US David Bruce believed that Harold Davies was a person who “ could be easily used by the communists” and that the Prime Minister should never have supported the proposal. One of the Labour Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman damned the initiative as a gimmick. Another Barbara Castle was aware that Harold Wilson feared the press leak undermined the secrecy of the visit but was “well satisfied with the gesture” mainly because it put some distance between the British and the Americans. The central problem was that neither the Vietnamese nor the American were in the game of going down a path of a negotiated settlement. The Hawks outnumbered the Doves and both were committed to escalating the war. President Johnson still felt that there was something to gain by building up American military involvement in South East Asia. News came from the White House that “ further British initiatives such as the Davies trip would do more harm than good because it undermined the American position and gave an impression to the Communists that the Americans were suing for peace.
Back in Leek the Post and Times carried a small article headlined “ Leek MP hits world headlines with visit to war torn Vietnam”. The article mentioned the visit in the briefest of details.
The Vietnam War of course dragged on throughout the 60s and is regarded as part of the iconography of the decade. It effectively wrecked the political career of President Johnson and ended with the South Vietnamese capital Saigon to Viet Cong forces in 1975. Many millions of Vietnamese were killed, as were 60,000 Americans and it has taken for some time to recover. Harold Davies finally lost the Leek seat following boundary changes in 1970 and went to the House of Lords as Lord Davies of Leek