In the months January–July 1966 there was particular strain in the relationship between Harold Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. The Labour government won the general election of 31 March with a comfortable majority of ninety-four, but this margin of victory gave rise to a vigorous ‘New Left’ within the Labour Party which would bedevil Wilson’s commitment to Washington. To placate this group, he ‘dissociated’ Britain from the US bombing of the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, which was carried out on 28–29 June. He stated that Britain still supported the general principle of the United States’s policy in Vietnam and, on a personal level, he was as committed as ever to close relations with Johnson. But Johnson failed to understand why, with Labour’s position in the Commons newly-secured, Wilson had acted as he did. The US Ambassador David Bruce and the British Ambassador Patrick Dean both helped ease the rift, but Wilson’s questioning of US policy in Vietnam and the more general problems of continuing British economic difficulties precipitated a concern in some quarters of the White House that Britain’s claim to a ‘great power’ role and a close relationship with the United States should be discouraged. Johnson had never favoured the idea of close relations with the British, but he wanted Britain to retain its global role. On 29 July, Wilson visited Washington for the fourth time since assuming office in October 1964. Despite his prior intimations of uncertainty about the future of Britain’s position East of Suez, his loyalty to Washington and his desire to overcome the ill will engendered by the criticisms over Vietnam led him to reaffirm his commitment to East of Suez and to the parity of sterling – both of which were important to the ‘special relationship’. Wilson’s performance delighted Johnson, with the result he used his luncheon toast not only to eulogise the Prime Minister but as a means of bolstering sterling in the eyes of currency speculators.
The general election
In 1966 Wilson was, as ever, concerned that Britain should have the sympathetic understanding of the White House. Hence he wrote especially often to the President. According to Henry Brandon, the American correspondent of the Sunday Times, the letters were well received. He told Wilson on 24 May that Johnson ‘last week in private conversation with me went out of his way to emphasise how much he enjoys communicating with you and reading your personal messages’. Brandon was certain that Wilson was ‘the only foreign statesman who has succeeded in establishing this kind of rapport – and personal relations matter a great deal with this President’.1 Despite the upbeat tone of Brandon’s comments, Johnson was at best ambivalent towards Wilson himself. Generally, he disliked seeing the Prime Minister face-to-face, because he thought that most foreign statesmen were opportunists who used their visits to the White House mainly to secure political advantage at home. He also had little desire for ‘hot-line’ conversations, as he resented being put ‘on the spot’ over the telephone. But Wilson’s letters did not place him under pressure as did the more direct means of communication, and they were of growing interest to the President as US ties with Britain grew more problematic. The Prime Minister wrote thirty-one times in January–July 1966 – on average, more than once a week.2
On 27 February, Wilson wrote a typically candid and long letter to the President, explaining that he and his colleagues had decided ‘to hold an immediate general election’. The Labour government needed to boost its majority, which had fallen to one, in order to safeguard its position and to ‘toughen up and speed the measures needed to strengthen our economy’. Though he used diplomatic language, Wilson invited Johnson to visit Britain for the campaign: ‘I am not proposing to ask you to come and help us during the election’, but there were ‘of course, abundant precedents’. In 1955 President Eisenhower ‘agreed to Eden’s request for an early Summit meeting to which, in fact, Eisenhower was strongly opposed’. In 1959 the President ‘conferred the same benefit on Macmillan and indeed allowed himself to be toted through fourteen London marginal constituencies in an open car with Macmillan beside him’. The issue of Anglo-American relations featured in British domestic politics: Wilson told Johnson that Edward Heath, the new Conservative leader,3 was ‘now attacking our defence review on the grounds that it drives us too closely into relations with you’. In a similar vein, Heath’s predecessor, Alec Douglas-Home, had called on ‘the electors to vote Conservative so that we do not accept satellite status to the United States’. Wilson anticipated that ‘this will be one of their themes and that they will make an appeal to the latent anti-Americanism amongst some of our electorate which they called into being with some success at the time of Suez’ in 1956. The ‘big issue’, though, in which Wilson wanted to confide to Johnson, ‘relates to sterling’. Election speculation had ‘led to a little weakness in the last week or two because elections mean instability and also because there has been some fear that if the Conservatives got in they would do what we did not do and devalue sterling on the day they took office, blaming it on their predecessors’.4 The President’s reply was brief and impersonal, and showed no inclination to visit Britain as the Prime Minister had wanted: ‘I will not break the rules by wishing you good luck’.5
On 31 March, Labour won the election with a decisive ninety-four seat majority, but the size of the victory brought problems for Wilson and his commitment to the Washington axis. A State Department analysis some months later reflected that Wilson, ‘like his predecessors as head of the Labour Party, is feeling the sting of opposition yapping at his heels from within his own party’s ranks’. This opposition was ‘much more worrisome to him than that of the entire Conservative Party’. Previously, because of the ‘bare majority in the last Parliament, he used the threat of the government’s fall to quell rambunctious back benchers’, and his success in doing so ‘contributed greatly to his image as an able leader and his stunning electoral victory last March’. But the substantial victory was a double-edged sword, as it created a ‘situation where unruly backbenchers cannot be contained, but offer opposition to his leadership’. The Labour left posed the greatest difficulty for Wilson. He had ‘sought to secure this flank by including in his cabinet most of the top leaders of the traditional left-wing’, but a strident ‘New Left’ had developed nonetheless. Its standard-bearers included some ‘traditional left-wingers such as Michael Foot’, along with some ‘new elements, principally educators or journalists, who are doctrinaire, articulate, and constructive’. Unlike their ‘Bevanite forbears, the New Left is not trying to displace’ Wilson, but to drive him back to a more ‘socialist’ approach.6 This would involve a more independent line towards Washington.
Wilson’s ‘dissociation’ from the American bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong
On 26 January, Patrick Dean suggested that if the Americans became involved in a ‘harder-hitting war’ in Vietnam, then Britain might find itself under ‘increasing fire’. As American casualties rose, ‘and the effects of the Vietnam War on the budget become apparent, Americans are likely to ask more and more insistently what their allies are contributing, militarily and economically, to this defence of the free world against aggression’. The United States was ‘feeling lonely and a bit edgy about Vietnam’.7 Wilson scarcely needed prompting to keep in touch with the White House over the matter. On 9 February, he explained to the President the mounting difficulties he faced from within the Labour Party: ‘the Foreign Secretary and I have had over the past ten days to face by far the most dangerous attack from within the Parliamentary Party on the question of Vietnam’. The attack ‘centred around the decision’ of the United States to resume bombing after a pause over Christmas ‘and was activated by the very clear statement put out by the Foreign Secretary that the bombing decision had not only our understanding but our support’. This led to the ‘despatch on the same Monday evening’ to William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, ‘a telegram signed by 90 Labour MPs, covering … a wide consensus right across the Party, including some who had previously supported our action’. Wilson told the President that two days later he ‘addressed a full meeting of our Parliamentary Party when I repeated my full support of the Foreign Secretary’s statement and took full responsibility for it’. Wilson made a ‘very strong attack on those concerned and got considerable mileage out of our of pointing out that during the 40 days bombing pause [over Christmas] there was not a sound out of them commending the United States administration for the opportunities they had opened up for a peaceful settlement’. He ‘managed to detach from the [anti-American] lobby all but the irreconcilables, but their attack continues and gets a great deal of support from Party supporters in the country’. Next, said Wilson, ‘the Opposition who on the whole have supported the United States position on Vietnam and have given in the main general but not enthusiastic support to Her Majesty’s Government, had yesterday a Parliamentary Day’ on which they chose Vietnam as a topic of discussion, ‘in the hope of exploiting what they called the split’. Wilson and his Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart ‘decided to meet the challenge head on … the operation was a total success’. But the Prime Minister told Johnson that the challenge had shown ‘once again the difficulties I am bound to have from time to time … with a parliamentary majority so much less than my real present majority in the country’.8
Wilson’s account of his victory over the critics of the United States was not exaggerated. David Bruce told the State Department on 2 February that a ‘high placed Labour government source’ had indicated that Wilson was ‘aggressive, uncompromising, and effective … completely overwhelming [the] critics … Wilson never looked better … in dealing with [an] internal Party problem’.9 But the Prime Minister’s difficulty with supporting the American position in Vietnam intensified as the United States stepped up its efforts there. In late May, Bruce informed Wilson that the Administration was contemplating the bombing of POL (petrol, oil and lubricants) facilities in the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. Wilson told Johnson on 24 May that this measure would jeopardise British support: ‘we have always made it clear that bombing either of these cities would create a situation where we would have to disassociate ourselves from the action taken’. Wilson reminded Johnson of his remark to this effect at their last meeting in December 1965, a comment which he had also made ‘more than once when under pressure in the House of Commons’. The President would have to understand that ‘I shall have to make a statement of this kind if this action takes place, though you will realise equally that this will not affect my general support of American policy in Vietnam’. For the record, and with few chances of success, Wilson urged the American leader not to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong: ‘I would … ask you to reconsider whether this action, whatever its results in terms of immediate military advantage, is worth the candle’. But the decision ‘will be yours, and I know you will understand our difficulties and the nature of the statement we would have to make’.10
Wilson understood that he could not exert much influence on US policy in Vietnam, largely because Britain did not have troops there. An MP asked him in the Commons on 23 June 1966 whether he was ‘aware that there are many people in this country who would like him to do precisely what Attlee did in 1950 – urge commonsense on the Americans?’ Wilson responded that he was:
a member of the Cabinet when Lord Attlee went to Washington to deal with a very serious situation caused by a statement that the atom bomb was to be used in North Korea. I believe that intervention was decisive. It is a point that at that time we had troops in Korea. We do not have troops in Vietnam. So far as the views of this country are concerned … they have been regularly explained to the President of the United States and to this House.11
Wilson’s concerns in 1966 about the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong had little impact on the thinking of the White House. Johnson told him on 27 May that it was ‘essential that we reduce the oil supply’ to the communists ‘in the light of the radical increase in the flow of men and materiel by truck to South Vietnam’. The calculus was ‘whether they shall have less oil or I shall have more casualties’.12 Washington sent Colonel Bernard Rogers to explain that the bombing would be directed solely at POL facilities and not at civilians. However, the ferocity of the critics in Britain was such that Wilson would still need to dissociate the Labour government from the measures regardless of the number of civilian casualties. On 3 June, he let Johnson know that ‘the possible military benefits that may result from this bombing do not appear to outweigh the political disadvantages that would seem the inevitable consequence’. But ‘our reservations about this operation will not affect our continuing support for your policy over Vietnam’, said Wilson, demonstrating the delicacy of his position, balanced between the White House and British opinion.13
On 14 June, Johnson warned Wilson that he saw ‘no way of avoiding such action, given the expansion of the illegal corridor through Laos, the continuing build-up of North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam, the growing abuse of Cambodian neutrality, and the absence of any indication in Hanoi of a serious interest in peace’. He ‘deeply hoped’ that the Prime Minister could ‘maintain solidarity with us in Vietnam despite what you have said in the House of Commons about Hanoi and Haiphong’. Johnson then made another low-key plea for British troops in Vietnam, saying that Britain’s role as co-chairman of the 1954 Geneva conference, which partitioned Indochina, did not mean Britain ‘should stand aside’, because the other co-chairman, the Soviet Union, was helping to arm the communists. Finally, he hoped of Wilson:
that you will not find it necessary to speak in terms of dissociation. But it would be important to us if you could include the following elements:
- You were informed of the possibility that such an action would, in our minds, become necessary.
- You expressed your own views to us in accordance with the statements which you have already made in the House of Commons.
- The particular step taken by US forces was directed specifically to POL storage and not against civilian centres or installations.
- Since Britain does not have troops engaged in the fighting, it is not easy or appropriate for Britain to determine the particular military action which may be necessary under different circumstances.
- It is a great pity that Hanoi and Peiping have been so unresponsive to unprecedented efforts by the US and others to bring this problem from the battle field to the conference table.
- Britain is satisfied that US forces have no designs against civilian populations and are taking every possible precaution to avoid civilian casualties.
- Britain as a member of SEATO fully understands and supports the determination of its fellow SEATO members to insure the safety and self-determination of South Vietnam.
There had been forewarnings that British dissociation from US actions in Vietnam would strain the Anglo-American relationship. As early as 30 December 1965, Patrick Dean told Paul Gore-Booth, Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign Office, that Averell Harriman, Washington’s Ambassador-at-Large, and Dean Rusk had indicated that ‘if HMG were to maintain their influence with the President it was most important that there should be no statements of “dissociation” from American policy’. In particular, Harriman had said that ‘while the political difficulties of the Prime Minister in Parliament were not underestimated, it ought to be possible … to express disagreement with American policy in a way which would not put the President’s back up’.15 On 15 June, Wilson discussed Johnson’s message of the previous day with Michael Stewart (Foreign Secretary), along with Burke Trend (Cabinet secretary), Michael Halls (Wilson’s Principal Private Secretary), and Michael Palliser (Wilson’s Foreign Office assistant). They decided that Stewart would see David Bruce ‘as soon as possible to obtain from him, on a purely personal basis, his estimate of the likely date of the bombing; and his advice on the desirability of a visit to Washington by the Prime Minister and on the timing of any such visit’.16 But Bruce could offer little concrete information, as the debate in the White House about the virtue of bombing Hanoi and Haiphong, and the possible impact on the Russians and the Chinese, was still proceeding.17 When the discussions had ended, Johnson wrote to Wilson to say that ‘we now feel it necessary to go ahead with the operation against POL installations’.18 In view of the growing international controversy surrounding Vietnam, Wilson’s diplomatic support was important to the White House, which therefore tried to keep him ‘on board’ as far as possible by telling him in advance of the attacks. Only he, the ‘chiefs of governments with troops in Vietnam’ (such as Australia) and Lester Pearson of Canada were thus favoured.19
Wilson wanted the Americans to realise that Britain was fundamentally a faithful ally despite the talk of dissociation. On 2 June, Bruce told Johnson that Wilson wanted to visit the White House again: ‘It has been about six months since he last saw you, and there are many things he would like to discuss’. The Prime Minister was concerned, though, ‘to avoid speculation whether his trip was in connection with whatever decision you make about bombing’ – a visit ‘might be construed as a last minute plea for you to abandon the project’. If bombing took place, ‘his journey might be interpreted in Britain as representing a summons from you to rake him over the coals for not having supported you in this respect’.20 On 10 June, Wilson informed Johnson that ‘it is right for us not to meet too near the bombing. It would be a political mistake for both of us if people could say I was making a trans-Atlantic dash, with my shirt-tails flying, to put pressure on you’.21 Johnson agreed, telling him on 14 June that ‘there should be a great deal of blue sky between your visit and possible action on Vietnam’.22 Johnson was worried that Wilson would exploit his odyssey to give the impression of dictating to the White House. Dean Rusk shared this view, fearing that the ‘timing of a brief visit from the Prime Minister’ might suggest ‘that he is coming to Washington to persuade our President to be a good boy’. The Secretary of State recalled ‘Attlee’s frantic visit during the Korean War’.23 But the Prime Minister’s efforts to see Johnson were supported by Bruce, who commented on 15 June that Wilson should visit Washington to help ‘keep up’ ‘the personal relationship’ with Johnson.24
Walt Rostow, the new National Security Adviser in the White House, compounded Johnson’s reservations about another visit from Wilson. Rostow was one of the chief ‘hawks’ in the Administration, and had little patience with those American allies that would not send troops to Vietnam. On 28 July, he told Johnson that British reticence towards Vietnam meant that Washington faced ‘an attitude of mind which, in effect, prefers that we take losses in the free world rather than the risks of sharp confrontation’.25 In connection with the British threat of dissociation and the prospective Wilson visit, Rostow advised the President on 17 June:
as things stand I take it to be our task to make bloody clear to the British Embassy in Washington and the British Government in London that (1) the visit must be very carefully prepared; (2) the Prime Minister, whatever his pressures at home, should not come here unless what he says here in public and private reinforces your position on Vietnam; (3) if this is impossible for him, he must find an excuse for the visit not to take place.26
On 22 June, Patrick Dean wrote to Michael Palliser, Wilson’s Foreign Office secretary, about the efforts of Rostow and Rusk to make sure that Wilson should behave properly lest he alienate the President completely. Rostow said that Johnson ‘had now accepted the Prime Minister’s suggestion for a visit and was ready to receive him towards the end of July’. The President’s ‘first reaction to the suggestion, however, had been far from favourable’. He was ‘under great domestic pressure and was, because of Vietnam, having to sit by’ as ‘his overwhelming political power fragmented’. The polls ‘showed about 52 per cent against the President’s policy, and of this only 10 per cent was on the side of the doves in Vietnam and some 40 per cent wanted the President to use more military power’. Johnson was ‘under great personal pressure, but remained determined to pursue the line of policy he judged to be right’. He considered that the British refusal to provide troops violated the country’s ‘obligations under SEATO’. He thought ‘that as one of the co-Chairmen under the Geneva Accords we had a special responsibility, since the use made by the North Vietnamese and their friends in transitting Laos in order to attack South Vietnam was a clear violation of the Geneva Agreements’.27
Rostow had told Dean that Johnson was ‘receiving messages from Mrs. Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew and even the Israeli government, urging him not to give way or abandon South Vietnam, but publicly he received little support’. He wanted ‘practical help, not advice about how to run the war and conduct limited military operations from those who were taking no active part’. Johnson’s ‘first reaction to the Prime Minister’s message’ about dissociation from the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong ‘had therefore been very strong, particularly to the implication that he was about to order the bombing of civilian centres when in fact all that the Americans intended to attack was oil installations and trucks’. Both Rusk and Rostow ‘hinted strongly’ to Dean ‘that they had had a very difficult time with the President in order to persuade him not to react very sharply and to agree that there were a number of subjects which he could usefully discuss privately and with no holds barred with the Prime Minister’. He had now agreed, ‘but kept on asking why the Prime Minister wanted to come’. Rostow said that Johnson ‘had very much admired the way in which the Prime Minister had stood his ground and given the President such firm support when he had only a majority of three’ in the House of Commons. Now Johnson ‘could not understand why, when Mr Wilson had a really big majority, he felt it necessary to dissociate himself much more than before from American actions’. Johnson feared that Wilson ‘might cut away the ground from under his feet in the same way as Mike Pearson had tried to do in his speech at Philadelphia over a year ago’.28 (On 2 April 1965, Pearson, the Canadian Prime Minister, in an address at Temple University in Philadelphia, criticised US policy in Vietnam. His comments reinforced Johnson’s suspicions that foreign statesmen used their visits to Washington mainly so that they could play to the gallery at home.)29 Rostow had told Dean that if Wilson acted rashly then ‘the damage to Anglo-American relations would be great and long-lasting’, as Johnson felt that ‘if for any reason the Prime Minister could not say helpful things about Vietnam both privately and publicly, i.e. to leading Senators and so on, when he was in Washington, it would really be better for the visit to be postponed’. Dean Rusk ‘did not go so far’ as to say that the visit might have to be cancelled, ‘but he did say that the terms in which the Prime Minister dissociated himself from the bombing of the oil installations, if and when this took place, would be crucial’. Dean apologised to Palliser that the letter did ‘not make very pleasant reading, but both Rusk and Rostow were at pains to emphasise the strength of the President’s feelings’. In order to ‘ensure the success of the visit the first requirement is to reassure the President about the purpose and objectives of the Prime Minister’s visit’. The best way, said Dean, ‘would be to let the President and Dean Rusk have as soon as possible a list of topics which the Prime Minister wants to talk about’. In order to play down differences over Vietnam, the topics might include ‘East– west relations, European problems including especially Germany, NATO and French policy, disarmament, Rhodesia and any other African problems and defence East of Suez including Malaysia’.30
Wilson’s concerns for his ties with Johnson could not overcome his domestic need to dissociate from American actions. The US Embassy noted that following the raids on Hanoi and Haiphong on 28–29 June, 10 Downing Street ‘issued a statement disassociating the UK government from the US bombing of fuel storage facilities in the Hanoi–Haiphong areas’. The statement indicated, though, that ‘the British Government continues to support the US policy of assisting South Vietnam to resist Communist domination’, and it largely conformed to Johnson’s suggestions to Wilson in the letter of 14 June.31 Wilson repeated the statement of dissociation in the House of Commons. As Patrick Dean noted, the statement ‘had been very carefully worded and two thirds of it had been devoted to confirming that US basic policy as regards Vietnam still had the support of the British government’.32 The US Embassy in London noted that in the subsequent debate Edward Heath ‘strongly supported US policy’. He charged that ‘the Government’s endorsement of US policy in Vietnam but disassociating itself from the implications of that policy was an untenable position’. The Labour left ‘condemned the US action and called on the Prime Minister to disassociate the UK completely from US Vietnam policy’. Wilson ‘rejected the left-wing demands and reiterated UK support for American policy’, placing ‘the onus for the continuation of the conflict squarely on North Vietnam’.33
Wilson practically apologised to the President after the dissociation: some ‘actions and statements of ours in the past few days have not been helpful’. He spoke of the pressure he was under ‘to acknowledge that the logic of disagreeing with this particular operation would be a total denunciation of the whole of your Vietnam policy’. Wilson had rejected this view, ‘not only because I distrust the motives of those who put this argument forward, but because their argument itself is balls’.34 The vivid language did not mollify the President, who was deeply weary of the war in Vietnam. As Patrick Dean noted, he regarded the conflict as a ‘lamentable diversion of money and effort from the more worthwhile task of building the “Great Society”’.35 Johnson sought Bruce’s opinion to try to understand the British dissociation. On 11 July, the Ambassador explained that as ‘a political animal, highly skilled, intelligent, a master at infighting’, Wilson was ‘usually adept at making ambiguous public statements to serve his political aims’. However, in December, while ‘reporting to the House of Commons … on his trip to Washington’, he said ‘that he had discussed the bombing of North Vietnam with the President’ and that the UK opposed the bombing of ‘the major cities in North Vietnam’. In subsequent months, Wilson had ‘repeated this so frequently to meet tactical pressures from within his own party that … he had left himself no room for manoeuvre’. When Wilson first took office in October 1964, said Bruce, ‘he accepted the principle of the continuity of British foreign policy, which was based upon the long established friendly relationship with the US’. This meant that Wilson was ‘prepared to cooperate with the United States on major American policies in a measure that would not always be popular’ in Britain. ‘Nevertheless, to counter the charge of being a mere puppet or satellite of the US, HMG would, from time to time, assert its independence by taking exception to certain details of policies to which he is ready to give general support’.36
Bruce said that, to Wilson, Vietnam posed ‘in acute form the problem of defining acceptable limits of Anglo-American cooperation’. American moves had ‘increased his fears of escalation and certainly cut against the grain of his belief that there could be no clear cut military victory in Vietnam’. Wilson believed, too, that ‘a basis for a political settlement must be found, and he was increasingly frustrated’ that it had proved elusive. The Prime Minister’s ‘internal party problem was not only one of dealing with the small band of leftist militants who long ago wanted him to break unconditionally with the US’. He did not have ‘much to fear from them, despite their noise and pressures’, but when ‘the dissidence over Vietnam widened to include a substantial number of Labour MPs in the centre and on the right-wing … the problem of party management threatened to get out of hand’. Wilson was forced finally to adopt ‘the view of those elements which though generally moderate would not accept unconditional support of US military policy in Vietnam’.37
Bruce added that Wilson could not ‘ignore the pressures on him from many sides after the bombing decision without endangering his leadership of the Party’. If all else failed, and ‘he did not secure the support that he wanted, he even hinted at dissolution’ of Parliament. Wilson ‘almost certainly did not believe that the situation would come to that, but it was a possibility’. Summit trips to Moscow and Washington, ‘announced at the height of the crisis, were particularly designed as insurance against the extreme possibility of going to the country, and also more immediately as a means of isolating the extremists and forcing the waverers to fall into line’. As well as needing to ‘placate dissidents by a show of independence, the PM was, I think, influenced by an exaggerated idea of his possible effectiveness as a mediator with the Soviet authorities’. Bruce advised that Johnson should ‘content himself with remarking on his disappointment … and say he expects continuing fidelity to the promise of adherence to our overall objectives in Vietnam’. The President could ‘add that after reviewing the debates in the House of Commons he had noticed that Heath, Douglas-Home and others of the Opposition had been much stronger advocates for American policy than Wilson’s government’. Bruce concluded that given Wilson’s ‘overriding desire and necessity’ to get along with the President, ‘or to restore any impairment’ of relations, ‘he will be doubly careful to try to avoid saying anything embarrassing to us’.38 Dean wrote to Michael Palliser again on 2 July, reporting Walt Rostow’s further efforts since the dissociation to make it clear that Wilson should not antagonise the White House any further. Rostow told Dean that the President ‘fully realised that the Prime Minister had got political difficulties which had to be handled carefully’. Nevertheless ‘the visit must not be used in any way to undercut the President’s position, particularly on American soil’. The Prime Minister had to realise, Rostow emphasised to Dean, that the object of his trip ‘must be to strengthen the President and that the visit must not be used for political purposes at home’.39 After talking to British representatives, Rostow informed the President on 3 July that he had ‘worked on the British Ambassador here’ and that ‘David Bruce has talked … to Wilson’. The Americans had been as ‘bare-knuckled … as diplomacy permits and Wilson appears to have the point loud and clear’.40
On 2 July, George Ball advised Bruce that the President was willing to meet Wilson on 29 July, but only on ‘two conditions: careful preparation for the meeting and that the Prime Minister, whatever his pressures at home, not come unless what he says here in public and in private reinforces the President’s position on Vietnam’.41 On 3 July, Ball explained further to Bruce that Wilson’s ‘preparations’ include expressing ‘strongly optimistic views about the progress of free Asia’, such as ‘the forthcoming elections in South Vietnam … and the progress being made toward improving economic conditions in Southeast Asia’. Ball said that the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt had given the Americans fulsome support on a recent visit. This had been a ‘great shot in the arm’, and there was no reason, argued Ball, why Wilson’s visit ‘could not have the same public effect without any way compromising the position he feels compelled to take in Britain on specific aspects of the South Vietnamese conflict’.42 On 4 July, Bruce saw Wilson, who more or less pleaded to be able to see Johnson: he was ‘absolutely confident he could avoid any embarrassment to the President during his visit to Washington’. Wilson emphasised that he was ‘a politician and, as such, highly sensitive to other statesmen’s concerns. He has never yet embarrassed [Johnson], and would on no account do so’. Wilson wanted the President to be absolutely sure that ‘he does not believe in making a mess on another fellow’s carpet’. The ‘showdown with his own party will soon be over, and though it will be a violent episode, he has no doubt of winning’. Bruce regarded Wilson’s ‘assurances’ as ‘sincere and determined’.43
Wilson and the problems of British decline
On 3 February, Dean told the Foreign Office that on the matter of British defence policy there was ‘a sense of relief’ in Washington that ‘we have managed to make such a good showing with what is by American standards a very modest sum of resources, and that we are not in quite such a hurry to implement the more drastic measures as they had feared’. So far as the Far East was concerned, Washington believed that Britain’s ‘physical withdrawal from the Southeast Asian mainland would have profound psychological repercussions on Asian and indeed on American opinion and create a climate which would fatally weaken their position in Vietnam’. There was however, ‘a deep satisfaction that Her Majesty’s Government is prepared to remain committed to Indo-Pacific defence’.44 In a further letter to the Foreign Office on 16 February, Patrick Dean wondered ‘whether it is still the Prime Minister’s intention to communicate with the President’, in the light of possible developments stemming from the ongoing British Defence Review. Dean realised that although ‘the Prime Minister has many other preoccupations (and so has the President), I think there would be advantage, if only to keep the record straight’. Such a message could ‘recapitulate the basic principles underlying Her Majesty’s Government’s 1970 defence plans … and show the extent to which we have responded to American preoccupations’. It could ‘also serve as a vehicle for reminding the President of the heavy balance of payments burden which we are accepting in maintaining our world-wide defence role and the continuing need for United States cooperation in mitigating its effects on our external financial position’.45 Wilson wrote to the President the same day, stressing the continuing British commitment to a global peacekeeping role alongside the United States: ‘The Cabinet have now taken their decisions and these will become public knowledge when the White Paper on Defence is published on 22 February … our decisions follow very closely the outlines I gave you of our provisional thinking when we met last December’. The adjustments ‘provide a sound basis for our continued cooperation which, as you know, is at the heart of all our overseas policies’.46 The Defence White Paper of 22 February indicated that Britain would remain a world power, but acknowledged that although the country would retain a presence in Singapore and Malaysia, it would reduce its forces when Malaysia’s confrontation with Indonesia ended. The British base at Aden would be abandoned by 1968, but British forces in the Persian Gulf would be augmented to some extent. There would be some cutbacks in the Mediterranean. The UK would keep its 51,000 man British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) intact, consistent with its NATO obligations, provided that the German government was prepared to offset fully the foreign exchange costs of the BAOR.47
For Wilson, defence issues were entwined with his concern for Britain’s standing in the eyes of the Americans. He told his Cabinet on 17 July 1966 that a ‘complete withdrawal of forces from one of the three main theatres – Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East – would be contrary to the commitments we had indicated, when discussing the results of the Defence Review with our allies, that we would continue to discharge’. A large withdrawal ‘from any of these theatres could hardly fail to do incalculable harm to our international standing’.48 But as 1966 drew on, fewer of Wilson’s colleagues accepted his thinking. Housing Minister Richard Crossman complained that Wilson had delusions of grandeur: ‘it’s all a fantastic illusion. How can anyone build up Britain now as a great power East of Suez when we can’t even maintain the sterling area and some of our leaders are having the idea of creeping inside Europe in order to escape from our independence outside?’ Wilson was ‘trying to be some kind of British de Gaulle, but, unlike the General, at the same time he wants to nestle under the shadow of the USA and restore Ernest Bevin’s concept of the special relationship’.49 Anthony Wedgwood Benn argued that ‘this country is dependent on the United States and cannot act in a military sense apart from the United States’. Referring to certain allegations of British dependence on the United States, Benn said that for the ‘right wing of the Labour Party to say this is significant, since it has been denied so often in the past’. Benn contended that ‘most people realise now that a continuation of permanent bases East of Suez is bunk, or at any rate a declining policy’.50
On 9 June, the US Embassy noted the increasing opposition to the government’s East of Suez policy. Although ‘left-wing elements oppose government policy on doctrinal grounds, the size and character of the dissidents suggest that current dissatisfactions are not predominantly doctrinal or ideological’. These dissatisfactions stemmed primarily ‘from most middle-of-the road and right-wing Labour MPs who oppose the continuation of a British role in the east, from a conviction that the UK has no longer the economic resources to uphold an independent position in this theatre’. Although the Labour government was not ‘likely to make precipitate or unilateral decisions’, the ‘differences over East of Suez policy, now acutely focused in parliamentary Labour circles and reflected in both the Conservative and Liberal Parties, could impose a serious strain on the Anglo-American alliance’.51 On occasions even Wilson seemed to doubt the viability of the posture East of Suez. On 10 June, he told Dean Rusk that preserving this role ‘involved deep domestic problems’. In 1965 he had ‘got away pretty well with a tough line on Vietnam but the situation was now changing’. The Vietnamese lobby was ‘no longer standing alone and a big fight was brewing not only with the pacifists but with the sophisticated Europeanists’. The East of Suez commitment faced ‘heavy attack and a much more dangerous line-up against the British policy was now coming about’. Both of ‘these factions were afraid of Britain getting dug in Southeast Asia in a policy of containment of China’. It was ‘not only the pacifists and the Europeanists who opposed the East of Suez policy, but the economists, who felt that more foreign exchange was seeping away than was justified by British interest in the area’.52
Britain’s economic difficulties required firm remedies. On 15 July, Henry Fowler of the US Treasury advised James Callaghan, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, that ‘if the United Kingdom is to avoid devaluation, to maintain the pound as a reserve currency, restore its position, and avoid the risk of dangerous dislocation of international financial affairs, much stronger stabilisation measures than those presently invoked are required’.53 This Wilson realised. On 20 July, he told Johnson that the next budget ‘must have – and will have – a very hard disinflationary impact’. It would mean ‘a total standstill for the next six months on prices and incomes and a further six months period of very severe restraint’ in that field. In order to bear the sacrifices, the public needed ‘to be satisfied that they are not carrying a disproportionate share of the general cost of Western defence’. But Wilson wanted to reassure the President that despite Britain’s financial problems ‘any cut of this nature should not affect the basic lines of foreign policy on which the defence review was founded’. Cuts in overseas spending ‘must be consistent with our international commitments and with our common policy in defence of Western interests across the world’.54 The budget, announced on 20 July, included a £500 million combination of reduced spending and increased taxes, a wage–price freeze, and cuts in direct overseas spending, including cuts in defence and aid of about £100 million per year.55 The budget met with White House approval, with Dean Rusk informing the President on 27 July that it comprised ‘the most severe deflationary measures of any postwar British Government’.56 Johnson himself told Patrick Dean on 22 July that ‘the measures … were helpful and should succeed’.57
Despite these votes of confidence in Washington, more widely ‘the immediate reaction to Mr Wilson’s measures, especially in the exchange markets, was only lukewarm, reflecting scepticism that he would adhere to a sufficiently deflationary course to meet the problem’.58 The budget created as many problems as it solved for Wilson. A State Department analysis of 27 July noted that many of the Labour government’s moves ‘come down hard on the toes of trade unionists, who are now joining the left-wing back benchers in opposition tactics’. Difficulties over the government’s incomes policy had ‘brought about the first resignation of a member of his cabinet, Minister of Technology Frank Cousins’. This departure ‘represents a visible split in the leadership of the Labour Party … and raises prospects of a more intensive intra-party opposition’. One of the key issues ‘will, of course, be the kind of support Wilson receives from the trade union segment of the Labour Party’. Much of the ‘burden of his austerity programme falls upon the average consumers, and the wage-freeze portion hits directly at the working-class, Labour’s main electoral support’. Wilson would face continued strong pressures, and would need ‘to take the bit in his teeth in the future and push relentlessly forward with programmes, which, like the austerity measures, may be unpopular’. As a ‘talented politician’ he had managed to ‘extricate himself from some tight spots in the past, but … there comes a time when there is no place to dodge’.59
British problems led Washington to see Britain more and more, as Henry Brandon put it, ‘with humiliating sadness – her prestige and her power position have not been so low for a long-long time’.60 Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence, Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow still believed that Britain could and should uphold its commitments East of Suez,61 but on 23 May a composite report from the US Embassy in London had argued that on most ‘hard’ calculations ‘the British appear to have a limited future in international power terms, certainly small indeed if they persist in over-stretching themselves and fail to manage their economy’. Britain ‘lacked the material resources, the vantage points, and the leverage to play their own Great Power role, even if economic fortune favours them’. More than ever before, Britain’s foreign policy and international role ‘must be tailored to harsh economic imperatives’.62
The Americans had played a critical role in helping to bail out sterling in November 1964 and in August 1965, but throughout 1966 they gave few indications that they might do so again. John Stevens, an economics minister at the US Embassy, explained on 27 July that the ‘failure of the exchanges to turn round, the continued doubts about when the United Kingdom economic situation will show clear improvement, as well as the size of the recent exchange losses’ led him to believe that ‘opposition to devaluation of sterling at the highest levels’ in Washington ‘may be changing’. There was a growing feeling, said Stevens, ‘that if it has to come, the sooner the better, and in that case the United States dollar can look after itself’. This outlook stemmed in part from the US Defence Department, which felt that ‘continued United Kingdom psychological support of the United States in the Far East is of more importance than the sterling rate; some stems from what seems to be an excessively confident feeling’ on the part of Henry Fowler, US Secretary to the Treasury, ‘that the United States can get their way on international liquidity’. Stevens concluded that ‘if there is a real risk of a further heavy run on the pound after the publication of the July figures and of our running out of ammunition, officials cannot be counted upon to suggest spontaneously giving help neither for United States political reasons nor out of fear for what might happen to the United States dollar’.63
On 18 July, Fowler told President Johnson that if Washington continued its pressure on London to remain as a world power, then British economic weakness would simply be exacerbated and prolonged. He noted the most recent sterling troubles: ‘Last week’s severe losses – $200 million on Friday alone – followed a month of weakness’. If the British did not take ‘severe measures, they very likely will face an avalanche by the end of the week’. Austerity measures would ‘solve’ Britain’s payments problem only ‘at the cost of recession now, and over the longer pull, unacceptable unemployment and little or no growth’. Wilson would still face ‘the basic problem faced by every British government since the postwar recovery – how to keep his international payments in order, and, at the same time, keep unemployment at a tolerable level and maintain a good rate of growth’. Fowler continued to say that ‘there will be great political pressure on him to reduce defence spending – especially East of Suez’. Without such a policy, ‘he will be accused of making his unemployed pay for a neo-colonial policy, under pressure from Washington’. If the British strove at all costs short of devaluation to remain a world power, ‘it will either cost us a weak Britain and a great deal of balance of payments money, or, even more likely, a weak Britain and eventual devaluation of sterling’.64 On 22 July, George Ball tried to persuade the President to try to discourage British claims of a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, by easing the pressure for a continued British role East of Suez, refusing any further short-term financial support, stressing its willingness to take part in a financial operation that would lead to British membership in Europe, and helping the British phase out their national nuclear deterrent.65
The fourth summit
The auguries for Wilson’s visit to Washington, on 29 July, were not favourable. J. A. Thompson of the British Embassy reported on 18 July that Rostow had said that the mood would ‘not be particularly cordial’, as Johnson had been ‘hurt’ by the British dissociation over the bombings of North Vietnam. The President even ‘wondered why Wilson was coming’, and Thompson thought that ‘if the main reason for the visit lay in domestic political considerations the President would not be sympathetic’. Francis Bator had indicated that Johnson had two criteria for the visit: the effect it would have on ‘his big problem, Vietnam’, and the degree of confidence he could feel in ‘Britain controlling her affairs in such a way that she could play a useful and important role’ in the world. So far as Vietnam was concerned, Johnson hoped that Wilson would ‘express general support’ for his policy; state that ‘the conflict and its continuation was the fault of Hanoi’; and refuse ‘to say anything substantive about the bombing of the oil installations’. However, Johnson wanted to be confident that ‘it was not primarily Vietnam that the Prime Minister wanted to talk about; rather his object was to continue the exposition he had given last December of Britain’s role in the world’.66 Bator also told Thompson that ‘Even those advisers who are most friendly to Britain are expressing doubts about the ability of Britain to sustain her chosen role … [that] the British economic position was trickling away and that this would continue’. Wilson ‘should convince the President against the doubters that Her Majesty’s Government had all the threads of the situation in their hands’, as Johnson feared that Britain ‘might lose control of events and cease to play an important role in the world’. A few days later, though, Patrick Dean recounted to the Foreign Office his latest conversation with the President. Johnson was ‘most relaxed and spoke of the admiration and respect which he had for the Prime Minister’. He said he was ‘much looking forward to talking with him and to learning from him how best to deal with the domestic, financial and economic problems which were very much the same in the two countries’. Sooner or later ‘the Americans might have to take the same sorts of steps and he thought the Prime Minister could tell him a lot of useful things’.67
Wilson was scheduled to spend one hour alone with Johnson from 11.00–12.00 a.m., noon–1.00 p.m. with Rusk, McNamara, Fowler, Ball and others, lunch at 1.00 p.m. with forty-four guests, and at 3.00 p.m. there would be a continuation of the meeting with advisers.68 It became obvious that Wilson’s chief purpose was to strengthen his ties with Washington, post ‘dissociation’. His Foreign Office briefs, for example, presented Vietnam as but eleventh of the sixteen possible topics (ranging from NATO to Latin America) for discussion.69 Vietnam was not ignored in the talks though: while in the White House Wilson ‘affirmed his strong support for US policy in Southeast Asia, Vietnam in particular … disagreement on particular actions did not mean any weakening of support for general policy’. He also stated to the Americans that Britain was ‘more useful to you, as well as to the world, as an ally rather than as a satellite’.70 The country would ‘continue to carry its share of the load’ East of Suez. He said that Britain was interested in joining the Common Market, ‘but not on French terms’, as Paris would ‘insist that the UK break its ties with the US, or at the very least … abandon their East of Suez position’. Britain did ‘not want to become a narrow, Europe-oriented country without an Atlantic role’.71 Wilson stated his ‘absolute and unshakeable commitment to solve the balance of payments problem without devaluation … We mean business’.72 The Prime Minister added that the cost of the British troops in Germany ‘presented a difficult problem’, but he received Johnson’s assurances: the US would ‘purchase ships in the UK to the value of $23 million … Also, some $15 million would accrue to the UK from shifts of some air units out of France to Great Britain. In addition, we would be buying Rolls Royce A7 engines. All of this might add up to $100 million’.73
The President was so impressed by Wilson’s affirmations in support of Britain’s world role that he ‘discarded his original speech for the lunch and had it considerably strengthened during the period between the end of the private talk and lunch’.74 The revised toast was rhetorical and full of hyperbole, but it was significant all the same. It was designed, in the light of Britain’s economic and defence problems, to consolidate Wilson’s commitment to the Washington axis and to give financial markets a degree of confidence in Labour’s management of the British economy:
A nation that has given us the tongue of Shakespeare, the faith of a Milton, and the courage of a Churchill must always be a force for progress; and influence for good, in the affairs of men. In World War II, Mr. Prime Minister, England saved herself by fortitude and the world by example. You personally are asking of the British people today the same fortitude – the same resolve – that turned the tide in those days.75
Wilson was, the President continued with a hint of sarcasm, ‘gallant and hardy … a man of mettle … a leader whose own enterprise and courage will show the way’.76 Dean Rusk was ‘rather surprised at the warmth’ of Johnson’s toast,77 while a State Department official is alleged to have said of the address that ‘there has been nothing like it since the days of Dien Bien Phu, when successive French Ministers were compared to Lafayette in the hope of persuading them to go on fighting in Indochina’.78 On 3 August, a pleased Patrick Dean assessed that the ‘general feeling, both among officials and non-officials, is that the visit was highly successful, certainly more so than people had been expecting’. A number of people had told Dean ‘how well the Prime Minister must have handled the President to have obtained such a satisfactory result and there is … general pleasure on almost all sides that the close and friendly relations established here last December have not only been preserved but strengthened’. Apparently, the President had said of Wilson that ‘I really do like that man’.79 On 6 August, Dean suggested further that there were several reasons for Johnson’s effusiveness towards the Prime Minister. Firstly, there was ‘an obvious interest from the American point of view in doing anything possible to reinforce international confidence in the Prime Minister and HMG, and, hence in sterling’. Secondly:
although the President must have known that he could not expect anything of major importance in the way of additional help or new commitments East of Suez, the negative aim of ensuring that HMG … do not withdraw their general support for the United States over Vietnam and in relation to Southeast Asia generally, acquired an almost dramatic importance when the President began to reflect seriously upon the potential consequences of Britain drifting seriously out of line.80
The British dissociation had ‘rattled’ the President. It was ‘extremely important from the point of view of American standing with world opinion that the leading socialist-governed country in the world should support their objectives in Southeast Asia’. Thirdly, the Administration might soon face ‘the need for fairly stringent economic measures to control the growing inflationary tendencies in the American economy’. Johnson ‘may therefore see a strong vested interest in praising the Prime Minister’s courage, in endorsing HMG’s economic policies and, of course, in the success of a programme of retrenchment which is going to hurt quite a large section of the British public’. Underneath the President’s ‘fair words, which were I am sure genuinely meant, there was a good deal of American self-interest in the whole exercise’. Certainly, ‘the personal rapport between the President and the Prime Minister was reaffirmed and I have no doubt that the President genuinely enjoys seeing the Prime Minister and talking about their mutual problems’. He also felt ‘an admiration for the Prime Minister’s powers of exposition and conviction’. In addition, ‘the meeting brought out quite clearly that both the Americans and ourselves badly need each other, and that although our financial troubles make our present position rather parlous, the Americans are themselves facing equally dangerous potential difficulties’.81 Yet Johnson’s behaviour would soon suggest that he felt little sympathy for the British, whatever Washington and London might have had in common.