A declining relationship, August 1966–September 1967

in A ‘special relationship’?

The period August 1966-September 1967 saw a decline in Harold Wilson's commitment to President Lyndon B. Johnson and to the United States, both personally and in the wider context of British foreign policy. On 21 April, a State Department analysis suggested that Wilson attached 'the highest importance to his relations' with President Johnson 'and to a continuation of a close relationship between our two countries'. However, the phase A-phase B affair had tested Wilson's commitment to the White House. Wilson's odd request was probably designed primarily to bolster his own standing with the White House rather than for any other purpose, because George Brown had never concealed his commitment to Europe, and, of course, Wilson had himself given Brown the post of Foreign Secretary. East of Suez, as well as British economic troubles and Vietnam, would remerge in the next and final phase of Anglo-American relations under Wilson and Johnson.

The period August 1966–September 1967 saw a decline in Wilson’s commitment to President Johnson and to the United States, both personally and in the wider context of British foreign policy. In February 1967, the Prime Minister tried to use the visit to London of the Russian leader Alexei Kosygin to bring Hanoi and Washington to the negotiating table over Vietnam. Wilson was sincere – if over-optimistic – in his belief that he and his colleagues could play the role of peace brokers, although it is clear that he also wanted to bolster his standing in the eyes of the critics in Britain of American policy in Vietnam. The Prime Minister’s initiative collapsed when the White House toughened its negotiating stance at the eleventh hour, although there had been no real intimations that Hanoi was ready to talk. There were a number of reasons why the White House changed its position, including the fear that the communists would exploit the bombing pause which was central to the phase A–phase B peace formula under which Wilson was operating. Washington also felt little faith in negotiations conducted through third parties and saw Wilson’s efforts as essentially self-serving and a distraction from the more important issue of events on the ground in Vietnam. Wilson’s treatment by the White House led him to question the value of his relationship with Johnson and Britain’s ties with the United States. The British decision in 1966 to seek membership of the EEC strengthened this outlook, as did Britain’s planned withdrawal from East of Suez by the mid1970s. Johnson opposed any announcement of a withdrawal from the region, at least until the United States had succeeded in Vietnam, a position which he stressed in correspondence with the Prime Minister and when Wilson visited Washington on 2 June 1967. However, political opposition at home, economic problems and the turn towards Europe meant that by this stage Wilson had little freedom of choice on the matter. The British government announced its plans for withdrawal on 18 July 1967. This relinquishment of the post-war peacekeeping role alongside the Americans, combined with Wilson’s personal disenchantment with the White House, made this period a transitional one in the Anglo-American relationship.

A ‘hell of a situation’: the phase A–phase B affair

George Brown, the new British Foreign Secretary, was in Moscow in November 1966, when Januscz Lewandowski, the Polish representative of the International Control Commission, was involved in a peacemaking initiative concerning Vietnam. However, Brown could not answer Russian questions about Lewandowski’s activities, as Washington ‘had failed to inform us’ of what was happening, Wilson complained later.1 He told David Bruce, US Ambassador to London, on 10 January 1967 that this lack of communication raised ‘a major issue of confidence in relations between the Foreign Secretary and himself and the President and Mr. Rusk [Secretary of State]’. If he was ‘to work with the President then the British Government must be treated more as a partner in things that mattered’.2 The Prime Minister anticipated that when Parliament reassembled after the Christmas recess there would be ‘much more serious pressure over Vietnam’, including ‘serious disquiet’ in the Labour Party. Although the Government ‘did not intend to “dissociate” from United States Government policy’, the situation was ‘harder to hold, politically, than hitherto’. Public opinion, ‘not just on the so-called left-wing, was much more critical of the United States Government’ than in 1966. Wilson could ‘hold the position’, but the Anglo-American relationship might well face strain.3

A State Department analysis on 15 February also noted the continued controversy in Britain about Vietnam. Both the Conservative and the Labour Parties were ‘officially committed to general support of United States policy in Vietnam’. This approach presented ‘no problem for the Conservatives as they are in the opposition’, but Labour’s official support presented problems for Wilson. It obliged him to ‘bend and shape this general policy to fit specific situations in the light of conditions within his own Party’. British opposition to American activities in Vietnam had ‘waxed and waned depending on developments’. Now the opposition was ‘at one of its periodic peaks, largely because of the United States’ bombing of North Vietnam’. Even those people in Britain, including Wilson, who wanted the United States to succeed in defeating the communists, ‘believe that the bombing of North Vietnam does not bring military results commensurate with its high political cost’. British opposition had ‘always found its most effective voice in a segment of the Parliamentary Labour Party’, though. Labour MPs had ‘a natural forum’ in the Commons and were able to ‘bring pressure to bear directly on the Prime Minister’. This pressure had ‘produced some embarrassing moments for US/UK relations, as was the case last April and June when HMG “dissociated” itself from American bombings of the North’. Nevertheless, Wilson had ‘demonstrated great political skill’ in controlling ‘the vociferous critics of American policy … without making basic alterations in his policy of support for the United States’. His chief argument, ‘the one he always draws on when forced to a wall, has been that the Americans are willing to talk peace whereas the other side is not’.4

Political pressures, a predilection for high-profile diplomacy and a desire for peace meant that Wilson still wanted to try to help to end the Vietnam War. On 28 November 1966, after visiting London, Washington’s Ambassador-at-Large, Averell Harriman, informed Johnson and Rusk that Wilson and Brown were ‘anxious to do everything they can to help bring about the end of hostilities in Vietnam’.5 Wilson’s hopes rose on 2 January 1967, when Johnson told the press of Washington’s appreciation for ‘the interest of all peace-loving nations in arranging a cease-fire and attempting to bring the disputing parties together to work out a conference where the various views can be exchanged’.6 Wilson was especially determined that he should be fully informed about Vietnam for the visit to London of the Russian premier, Alexei Kosygin, in February, as he thought that ‘the way that Kosygin had handled the timing and length of his visit’ implied that ‘the Soviet Government related this to the possibility of a truce’.7 He also believed that the Russians had felt more faith in London’s role as an intermediary since the British ‘dissociation’ from the American bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in June 1966.8 Consequently, Wilson asked Bruce on 10 January ‘for some American representative’ to provide a ‘full and frank’ briefing on Vietnam and the Administration’s attitude towards peace negotiations.9

Johnson sent Chester Cooper of the National Security Council to brief the British. On 30 January, he advised Wilson and Brown that Washington’s ‘direct contact with the North Vietnamese … was low-level and fragile’, but the Americans were ‘trying to keep it alive’.10 Cooper outlined the ‘phase A–phase B’ peace formula, which had first been mooted by Arthur Goldberg, the US Representative to the United Nations, in September 1966. The formula held that the United States would ‘order a cessation of all bombing of North Vietnam the moment we are assured, privately or otherwise, that this step will be answered promptly by a corresponding and appropriate de-escalation on the other side’.11 The adversaries would then enter into detailed talks. Yet Johnson had never felt enthusiastic about phase A–phase B, as he feared that the army of North Vietnam ‘might use a bombing halt to improve its military position’.12 In fact, phase A–phase B was but one of ‘at least four de-escalatory proposals’ remaining unresolved between the United States and North Vietnam by early 1967.13 Owing to growing concerns in the White House that the North Vietnamese would exploit any bombing pause, Johnson abandoned the phase A–phase B formula when he wrote to Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, on 8 February. The President offered to stop bombing ‘only as soon as … infiltration into South Vietnam by land and sea has stopped’.14 Johnson gave a broad outline to Wilson of the letter to Ho, but when the Prime Minister asked for a copy he was informed that it was ‘inappropriate’ to provide one because of the need for secrecy on all direct communications with Hanoi.15 The White House did not even tell Cooper – who was to remain in London for the duration of the Kosygin visit – or Bruce exactly what Johnson had told Ho.16

On Monday 6 February, Wilson had outlined the original version of the phase A–phase B formula to Kosygin. Cooper advised the White House that the optimistic Wilson had formed the impression from the Russian premier that North Vietnam was ‘ready to negotiate’. Wilson believed that Kosygin was ‘deeply concerned about the state of Communist China and the threat it represented, and willing, apparently, to underwrite Hanoi’s commitment to talk if we stopped the bombing’. Through Cooper, at 7.35 p.m. that evening Wilson ‘signalled that he wished to talk to the President on the telephone’.17 The message first reached Walt Rostow, the ‘hawkish’ National Security Adviser, who did not share the Prime Minister’s excitement. Rostow advised Johnson that ‘We have a problem: real, but soluble’. The British ‘took our proposal … and put it into A–B form: first bombing halt, then simultaneous stopping of infiltration’.18 Johnson, who was engaged in a Congressional briefing, asked Rostow ‘to telephone 10 Downing Street and tell [Wilson’s Foreign Office aide] Michael Palliser … that we were not prepared to accept talks in exchange for a cessation of bombing North Vietnam’. The Vietnamese would have to make their own sacrifice towards peace before the United States could engage in any discussions. In response, Wilson asked the White House for an ‘alternative proposition’ for Kosygin to pass to Hanoi. Johnson ‘came down to the Situation Room’ of the White House at about 9.00 p.m. Washington time, to discuss the matter. After talking to Rusk, McNamara (Secretary of Defence) and Rostow, he then ‘retired to his bedroom’ while his advisers attempted to draft a peace formula for British use with Kosygin. The message for Wilson was ‘then taken to the President’s bedroom; revised by him; and dispatched directly to the Prime Minister at about midnight Washington time’.19

Johnson believed that any peace negotiations were more likely to prosper if they took place directly between the Americans and the North Vietnamese,20 so he tried to dampen Wilson’s enthusiasm for peacemaking. The President suggested to Wilson that the communists were hostile to peace moves: last year the United States had ‘agreed to meet with the North Vietnamese under Polish auspices but nothing came of it’. Washington had ‘stopped bombing in the region of Hanoi but we have seen neither a corresponding military step on their side nor a use of existing channels to get on with the discussions’. Since 23 December the North Vietnamese had received a number of ‘messages from us but we have not had any replies of substance’. American representatives had told Hanoi that they were ‘prepared to take additional military measures of de-escalation similar to the limitation of bombing on the Hanoi perimeter’. There was no reply to this offer. Johnson said that Washington was ‘ready for private or public talks with Hanoi’, but all the previous American contacts had given ‘no impression from them as to the substance of the issues which must be resolved as a part of a peaceful settlement’. Although he was not explicit on the point, Johnson disdained the phase A–phase B formula under which Wilson was still operating: Washington could not accept ‘the exchange of guarantee of safe haven for North Vietnam merely for discussions which thus far have no form or content, during which they could expand their military operations without limit’.21 Palliser told Wilson of Cooper’s belief that in its pessimism the message was ‘pure Rostow’ and that ‘if it had originated in the State Department rather than from Walt, the tone would have been substantially different’.22 Despite the tenor of the President’s message, Wilson was not discouraged, and pursued the topic of Vietnam with Kosygin several times that week. On Friday 10 February, Wilson informed the President that in public, Kosygin ‘took a hard line on Vietnam and on all the sinful enormities of American policies, and a very gentle line on denunciation of China’, but in private he was ‘less tough on Vietnam, more selective in his criticism of America and quite uninhibited about China’. Kosygin regarded China as ‘an organised military dictatorship’ which sought to ‘enslave Vietnam and the whole of Asia’.23

Wilson wanted to make ‘absolutely certain’ that his understanding of the US position on peace talks was fully ‘approved by the Americans’. He invited Bruce and Cooper to draft a letter to hand to the Russians, to ensure that it reflected the American position on the prospect of peace negotiations.24 On 10 February, Bruce and Cooper transmitted to the State Department the peace terms that the British intended to pass to the Russians. The terms included the phase A–phase B formula: ‘The United States will stop bombing North Vietnam as soon as they are assured that infiltration from North Vietnam to South Vietnam will stop.25 When the telegram arrived, Rusk was ‘tied up in a lunch with the King of Morocco and the signing of a treaty with him’, with the result that ‘the meeting to formulate the requested response could not take place until about 3.15 p.m.’. At Johnson’s instruction, Rostow told the Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend at Downing Street that Washington ‘would transmit a reply but we could not quite meet the 10.30 (London time) deadline and they might have to transmit it in writing somewhat later’. Johnson ‘had every reason to think nothing would be transmitted to Kosygin’ until Washington had replied.26 For reasons that remain obscure, Cooper and Bruce gained the impression that the formula was acceptable to the White House.27 That evening, Bruce handed the ‘validated’ text to Wilson. In Wilson’s account, the Ambassador is alleged to have said that the Wilson–Kosygin initiative was ‘going to be the biggest diplomatic coup of the century’. This was probably Wilson’s own thought, not that of the more realistic Bruce, but, regardless, the text was passed to Kosygin, and, by now, a copy had reached the White House. Fatefully, at 10.00 p.m. British time Rostow phoned London to say that Johnson wanted the text for Kosygin to be redrafted. A ‘new text would come over the White House–Downing Street teleprinter, starting now, and should be the one to be used with the Russians’, Rostow said. If the earlier text had been handed over, then ‘the new text should be substituted’.28 Cooper noted that in the new text from Washington the ‘sequence of phase A and phase B had been reversed, and the whole formula had been distorted’.29 The new text held that the United States would ‘order a cessation of bombing of North Vietnam as soon as they were assured that infiltration from North Vietnam to south Vietnam had stopped’. The attention of the British was finally ‘drawn to the difference between their sequence and the one envisioned by the US in the President’s letter to Ho’.30 The new, tougher formula had to be given to Kosygin, who was by then catching a train for a visit to Scotland.31

Bruce and Cooper reported to Washington that Wilson and Brown, embarrassed and angry at the change of tenses in respect to the stoppage of bombings, subjected them to a ‘stormy session’ of complaints about the latest message from the White House.32 Bruce and Cooper were themselves perplexed, and struggled to explain the change to the British.33 As Washington had not objected to the original version of the phase A–phase B formula earlier in the week, Wilson and Brown had ‘assumed they were on safe ground’. But now the ground had ‘shifted [from] under them’. They demanded to know why, if Washington had told Hanoi that the United States was willing to stop bombing only as soon as infiltration into South Vietnam had already stopped, ‘why did we not inform them of this?’34 Wilson was deeply embittered about what he described as the American exercise in ‘switch-selling’. Cooper reported the Prime Minister’s conclusion that:

Washington did not know what it was doing from one day to the next, or that Washington knew what it was doing but did not wish to keep the British informed, or that Washington was consciously trying to lead him up the garden path by tightening its negotiations posture while letting the British proceed on the basis of an assumption that Washington was in fact ready to reach a settlement.35

The Prime Minister felt that ‘his credibility … was now badly damaged’. If he could not reach an agreement with Kosygin in their next meeting – at Chequers on Sunday – ‘it would largely be the fault of the United States because of its shifting position’. He warned that he ‘might be forced at some point to say this publicly’ and to take a much more ‘independent position with respect to Vietnam’. Anglo-American relations ‘could never be the same’, he said bitterly.36 He also reflected that ‘the situation had become so confused by the misunderstandings which had arisen that he felt there was an urgent need to re-establish a personal relationship with the President’.37 But Bruce dissuaded him from flying to the White House to see Johnson: ‘it would not be wise for the Prime Minister to dash off to Washington … since it would appear to be an act of panic and hysteria’.38

Wilson managed to restrain himself and to collect his thoughts. He expressed ‘considerable anguish about the shift in tense’39 in a telegram to the President despatched on Sunday 12 February: ‘You will realise what a hell of a situation I am in for my last day of talks with Kosygin … I have to re-establish trust because not only will he have doubts about my credibility but he will have lost credibility in Hanoi and possibly among his colleagues’. Wilson faced ‘very great difficulties’ on the ‘vitally important question of whether’ as he had ‘told him a cessation of bombing depends on a prior secret assurance by Hanoi that infiltration will stop’, or ‘will only take place after infiltration has stopped’. Wilson told Johnson that ‘You will realise that on lunchtime on Friday [Kosygin] suddenly bit hard on what I said to him, namely that all that was required was a private assurance that infiltration would stop’. He ‘bit on this because he clearly knew as I did not, that your message to Hanoi was the tougher version which requires a prior stopping of infiltration before bombing could cease’. Kosygin thought Wilson was ‘telling him something new’, while in reality Wilson was ‘merely repeating what I had told him earlier with as I thought your authority’. Wilson could not ‘get out of this position’ by saying ‘either that I am not in your confidence or that there was a sudden and completely unforeseeable change which as a loyal satellite I must follow’. He and Brown had discussed this ‘dilemma for some three hours with Chet [Cooper] and David [Bruce]’.40

In the absence of any real alternative, Wilson decided to stand by ‘the document which I handed to Kosygin at 7.00 p.m. GMT on Friday before I received Rostow’s message for transmission to Kosygin’. Wilson could only ‘say to Kosygin that if he will go along with’ the original version of phase A–phase B, ‘and press it on Hanoi, I will similarly press it on you’. If Kosygin agreed, said Wilson, ‘then I must press our line on you and if it is impossible for you to accept, we shall have to reason together about the situation which will then arise’. In view of the ‘clear breakdown in communication and understanding which has occurred this week, and the need for the fullest understanding in the future, we ought to meet very soon’. Wilson sent another message to the President that day, describing in more detail the misunderstanding between him and Washington. He complained that if the White House was going to repudiate the original phase A–phase B formula, ‘as indeed it was [repudiated] on Friday night by Rostow’s telegram, I cannot understand why I was not told earlier’. Kosygin would find this matter ‘even more difficult to understand’.41

Cooper tried to placate Wilson by telling him that ‘the President and top Washington officials had been sufficiently concerned about his problems to have met through Saturday night’.42 Indeed, Wilson’s two messages of 12 February were ‘considered in the Situation Room’ of the White House by Johnson, Rusk, McNamara and Rostow, though less out of sympathy for the Prime Minister’s predicament than from the need to ‘assure that the expected failure of the Wilson–Kosygin talks could not legitimately be blamed’ on American policy. Finally, the President sent a telegram at 3.36 a.m. on Sunday morning, ‘explaining temperately’ the American position to Wilson.43 Johnson dismissed Wilson’s argument that ‘the matter hangs on the tense of verbs’. Hanoi had received the phase A–phase B formula ‘from the Poles’ in 1966, but the North Vietnamese had not shown more than a ‘flicker of interest for more than two months’. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese military ‘build-up continues and they have used three periods of no bombing (Christmas, New Year and Tet) for large-scale movement and preparation of their forces for further military action’. Johnson stressed that ‘we have had nothing yet from Hanoi. They receive our messages – but thus far it has been a one-way conversation’. Many intermediaries had ‘attempted, from time to time, to negotiate with us. Everyone seems to wish to negotiate except Hanoi.’ Johnson wished that ‘someone would produce a real live North Vietnamese prepared to talk’, and complained that Kosygin had failed to transmit even ‘one word from Hanoi’. The United States ‘cannot stop the bombing while three (possibly four) divisions dash south from the DMZ [Demilitarised Zone across the 17th parallel] before their promise is to take effect’. The problem was that no peace formula ‘can be satisfactory to us – and perhaps to Hanoi – unless there is clarity about two matters’: firstly, ‘the timing of a cessation of bombing, cessation of infiltration, and no further augmentation of forces’, and, secondly, ‘how assurance in the matter of infiltration will be established’.44

Wilson told Cooper that he was ‘mollified by the tone of the President’s message and said he had “muted” the message he … sent to Washington later in the morning’.45 In this message Wilson expressed ‘full agreement’ to the President ‘about the grave danger of a PAVN [North Vietnamese army] rush southward if there is an interval of even two or three days between the stoppage of bombing and the stopping of infiltration’. He had been ‘considering an alternative way of securing the required guarantee, namely that the prior two-way assurance should contain a time-table if possible underwritten by or communicated through the Russians’. The United States might ‘agree in advance to stop the bombing in return for Hanoi’s prior assurance that they would stop the infiltration, say six hours or less afterwards’. Wilson would try his idea on Kosygin ‘if the time were right’.46 Wilson thus wanted ‘one last chance at an A–B formula’, to try to bring his peacemaking initiative to fruition.47 Cooper suggested that in choosing this course of action the Prime Minister ‘obviously felt that even if Kosygin rejected the formula, he would be better off in the House of Commons for this last minute attempt’.48 Johnson, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, McNamara, William Bundy of the State Department, and Rostow met for discussions in the Cabinet Room of the White House at about 5.15 p.m. Washington time on Sunday.49 Finally, Johnson sent a message at 7.00 p.m., midnight in Britain, where Wilson had been ‘practically hanging on to his guest’s coattails’ to ensure that he stayed long enough to receive word of Washington’s revised position.50 The President attempted to assuage Wilson, telling him that ‘you have worked nobly this week to bring about what all humanity wants; a decisive move towards peace … I feel a responsibility to give you this further chance to make that effort bear truth’.51 Wilson, said the President, ‘should go forward and try once again with Kosygin’, telling the Russian that:

If you can get a North Vietnamese assurance – communicated either direct to the United States or through you – before 10.00 a.m. British time tomorrow that all movement of troops and supplies into South Vietnam will stop at that time, I will get an assurance from the US that they will not resume bombing of North Vietnam from that time. Of course the US build-up would also then stop within a matter of days. This would then give you and me the opportunity to try to consolidate and build on what has been achieved by bringing the parties together and promoting further balanced measures of de-escalation.52

At 9.30 p.m. Washington time on 12 February, Palliser and Cooper called Rostow, to say that Wilson and Brown had ‘thrown their weight behind’ the latest formula. Kosygin agreed to send it to Hanoi, but he complained that the 7 or 8 hours on offer were not enough. Half an hour later, Wilson pleaded over the telephone to Rostow, asking that the Russians and Hanoi should be given more time. Kosygin ‘needed time to talk to his colleagues’, and the Hanoi government was ‘run by a committee and they were split between a pro-Chinese faction and others’. Rostow asked how much more time was needed, with Wilson suggesting twenty-four hours. Johnson deliberated with his advisers about how to respond to Wilson, suggesting cynically that they should give him ‘a little palaver where he’s really complimented and we can keep him aboard when he loses the battle and the war’.53 Finally, Johnson ‘personally dictated the message’ which was sent to Wilson at about 1.00 a.m. Washington time on Monday 13 February.54 He told Wilson that ‘after careful consideration … we are prepared to extend the time by six hours’, to 4.00 p.m. British time. Washington could offer no more because the communists had ‘had the possibility of responding to essentially this message for the three months’ since they had first learned of it. If there was ‘any interest in the A–B proposition, there has been ample time for them to agree or to come back with a counter-proposal … A few hours either way cannot be significant.’55

Wilson later informed Johnson that Kosygin had told him that he had no reply from Hanoi, but that Moscow was pursuing the matter. The British also passed to the White House details of ‘an intercepted telephone message’ from Kosygin ‘to Moscow en clair’ which suggested that Moscow was pressing Hanoi on the grounds that ‘all they had to do was give a confidential, positive answer’. Once again, Johnson was obliged to assemble his team, at 8.30 a.m. Washington time on Monday 13 February. Concerned about continued communist infiltration of the South, it was decided that there was little hope of the Wilson–Kosygin initiative bearing fruit, and that military operations over North Vietnam should be resumed (the bombing pause had, on the advice of David Bruce, been extended for the period of the Kosygin visit to Britain). Wilson had exhausted Johnson’s patience, with the result that the Prime Minister was to be told of the resumption of bombing ‘on a routine basis’ via the State Department, ‘not via a message from the President to Wilson’.56 Hanoi never responded concerning the revised peace formula which Wilson had passed to Kosygin. As Johnson commented later, ‘how in the hell’ could anyone say ‘that you can have peace with somebody that has never even answered you?’58

Wilson was greatly vexed by the phase A–phase B imbroglio, telling Rostow on 25 February that he ‘resented’ the fact that the White House had ‘not cut him in fully in respect to the direct channel between Hanoi and Washington’.59 On 24 February, Wilson even suggested that a full enquiry be made into the failure of the phase A–phase B initiative, along the lines of Richard Neustadt’s account for President Kennedy of the Skybolt crisis of 1962.60 However, Donald Murray of the Foreign Office, along with Paul Gore-Booth, Permanent Under Secretary, had reservations about the idea of Wilson re-opening with Johnson ‘the whole question of what exactly went wrong’. Murray noted Patrick Dean’s report that ‘the President evidently believes that Hanoi is just not willing to talk at present’. Johnson ‘probably also believes that, even if different but still US-endorsed proposals had been put through Mr. Kosygin to Hanoi during the fatal week, the reaction from the North Vietnamese would still have been an uncompromising “no”.’ Consequently a ‘suggestion from the Prime Minister … that he and the President might judge to be an “inquest” into what went wrong, might well increase the President’s frustration and not in fact clear up the mystery’. If the President ‘were to become irritated, the effect might be felt throughout Anglo-American relations, not only on the subject of Vietnam’. Moreover, ‘if the question were reopened now, in the way the Prime Minister suggests, it is quite possible that news of an Anglo-American argument might leak’. Murray believed that Wilson should confine himself to addressing the matter in a ‘heartto-heart’ with Johnson when they met in June.61

George Brown put views of this nature to the Prime Minister.62 Wilson replied on 15 March that he was sceptical ‘about the likelihood of Walt Rostow having conveyed a full and accurate picture to the President of the very serious anxieties I expressed to him’, and he suspected that Rostow ‘was largely responsible for the misunderstandings during the Kosygin visit’. Wilson wanted Johnson ‘to be in no doubt of the fact that we also are worried at the way things went during this week’.63 On 23 March, Palliser concurred with a still-bothered Wilson that there was a ‘need to get Pat Dean to clear the air with LBJ’. Palliser suggested that firstly ‘we should arrange for Pat Dean to be very fully briefed by Donald Murray who has all this at his fingertips and with whom I have discussed it today; and that you can give him the personal touches that you want conveyed to LBJ’.64 Wilson sent Dean to probe the phase A–phase B affair with the President. The Ambassador, who had had little direct involvement with the matter, shared the view that a post-mortem could only do harm. As Rostow told Johnson on 7 April, ‘The truth is that Dean believes that Wilson should not be pushing things any further, and he is extremely anxious that his call on you not make things worse’.65 On 10 April, the Ambassador saw the President. Dean reported Johnson’s comment that there had been no ‘breakdown in communication’ between the White House and 10 Downing Street, despite what Wilson had alleged. The ‘difficulty with Kosygin arose from the fact’ that the British had ‘given him a written communication when the President and his advisers were busy drafting a message for you to pass on’. In any future peace negotiations ‘communications should only pass directly’ between the White House and Hanoi. Shortly after Kosygin had arrived in London, ‘the threat from the North Vietnamese through the DMZ had suddenly become so great that the old Phase A–Phase B plan was no longer tolerable’. This, plus ‘the interposition of other people in the direct line of communications had caused the misunderstanding’. Dean told Wilson that the President’s comments ‘amounted to a clear admission that there was a change in the American attitude during the critical three days and that the Americans were at fault’ in not informing London. They were ‘genuinely preoccupied by the sudden and increased threat from the North’. They informed the British of this new threat but not that it had ‘altered their view about the Phase A–Phase B plan’.66

On 25 February, Rostow had reassured Wilson that ‘the President and his top advisers … fully appreciated the motives of the PM and the FonMin and thought their attempt had been magnificent’.67 In reality, Johnson and his colleagues had doubted the wisdom of Wilson’s desire to broker a peace in Vietnam. Johnson wrote later that the Prime Minister:

seemed to feel that he and the Soviet leader could serve as mediators and bring about a settlement of the war. I doubted this strongly. I believed that if the Soviets thought they had a peace formula Hanoi would accept, they would deal directly with us rather than with a fourth party.68

Similarly, Johnson told his advisers on 13 February that he:

had not expected anything to come of probes at this phase; and his anxiety was to separate Kosygin and Wilson and avoid their heading for Hanoi; or Wilson’s heading for Washington. He held to his fundamental view that successful negotiations – if and when they came – would have to be direct and bilateral.69

The affair had also strained the President’s regard for David Bruce, leading him to say that ‘he wants to be a Goddamned peacemaker’.70 There were also suggestions in Washington that Wilson’s involvement in the peace initiative was largely self-seeking. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earle Wheeler, suggested to McNamara on 11 February that Wilson was ‘operating basically from a narrow objective of obtaining importance and prestige in the British domestic political scene; i.e., his “peacemaking” efforts are pointed primarily at maintaining ascendancy over his political opponents within and without his own party’.71 A State Department analysis also attributed questionable motives to the British: they were eager ‘to participate with maximum personal visibility in bringing peace to Vietnam – in early February alone Wilson proposed travelling personally both to Washington and Hanoi’. This zeal was ‘sometimes embarrassing to the US, which greatly preferred confidential dealings with a minimum of participants’. On the other hand, ‘the domestic-political value to Wilson and to Brown of such a role and the importance of their support for US policies … made the US willing to bring the British into negotiation efforts’. Moreover, Kosygin’s visit to London made British participation nearly inevitable, the analysis suggested. If Washington ‘stood aloof … the results could be harmful’ to the international standing of the United States. The analysis criticised Wilson’s overt references ‘in Parliament and to the press to the transactions of Marigold and Sunflower [peace initiatives based on the phase A–phase B formula]’. He did not criticise the United States but his comments ‘gave those not previously informed reason to believe that something of substance had been afoot’. Wilson’s remarks caused ‘alarm’ in South Vietnam and in the governments of ‘Troop Contributing Nations’ such as Australia. Furthermore, Wilson ‘seemed to contradict the President, who on February 3 had said he had seen no action by the other side that he could interpret as “a serious effort to either go to a conference table or to bring the war to an end”.’72

The State Department analysis noted that the ‘battle of the tenses brought additional friction to the Anglo-American relationship, including emotional personal communications between Wilson and the President, Brown and the US Ambassador’ and others, ‘in which the British leaders claimed to have been put in a “hell of a situation” and questioned US intentions and consistency of policy in the search for a negotiated settlement’.73 Cooper suggested that Wilson’s zeal for peacemaking ‘might have been somewhat dampened if he had known that Johnson, Rostow, ‘and a few people in the State Department took a rather dim view of his eagerness to discuss Vietnam with Kosygin’. There was a ‘sense that the British Government was pushing hard, perhaps too hard, to undertake the role of mediator’. There was ‘another, less articulated but more deeply felt attitude … that contributed to the failure of the talks’, namely that ‘the prospect that Wilson might be able to use American chips to pull off peace talks was hard for the President and some of his advisers to swallow’. If the time was ‘now ripe to get Hanoi to talk, Johnson, not Wilson, should get the credit’.74 George Brown reflected that the British efforts to broker a peace in Vietnam in February 1967 foundered partly because Wilson’s relations with the President were so poor:

The Prime Minister’s hot line to President Johnson was not as reliable as it ought to have been. I think that the fact of the matter was that Mr. Johnson didn’t really like the Prime Minister much, and the hot-line from No. 10 that went allegedly directly to the President was inclined to go instead to Mr. Rostow.75

The most recent appraisal, that of John Dumbrell and Sylvia Ellis, suggests that the initiative was ‘almost doomed to failure, not least because of the negative and distrustful state of Anglo-American relations at this time’. There were other reasons, too, including a lack of clear direction on Johnson’s part, Wilson’s unrealism, and Rostow’s scepticism as well as the ambivalence of Moscow.76 It is certainly clear that the affair did strain an already fragile relationship between the Prime Minister and the President.

The ‘special relationship’

On 1 January 1967, Cabinet minister Richard Crossman complained that the ‘personal reliance on LBJ’ evident in Britain’s dull, ‘Bevinite’ foreign policy ‘could be described as a peculiarly Wilsonian touch’.77 Early in 1967 Wilson’s commitment towards the American leader was still in evidence, to the extent that he even told the President of the circumstances of his meetings with Robert F. Kennedy, one of Johnson’s political rivals.78 Similarly, Rostow informed Johnson on 28 February that Wilson’s office ‘wanted you to know that as a matter of courtesy – but no more – the Prime Minister has agreed to see Mr. Richard Nixon when he goes through London’.79 On 21 April, a State Department analysis suggested that Wilson attached ‘the highest importance to his relations’ with President Johnson ‘and to a continuation of a close relationship between our two countries’.80 However, the phase A–phase B affair had tested Wilson’s commitment to the White House. On 2 April, he told Hubert Humphrey, US Vice-President, who was on a visit to London, that ‘the key to peace’ in Vietnam ‘lay through the Soviet Union and the key to the Soviet Union lay with Britain’. He felt that in February he had had ‘a real opportunity to act as a middleman between the US and USSR to reach a negotiated settlement’. Wilson said that he had been ‘considering the possibility of moving toward the middle, between the two nations, on Vietnamese policy’. Humphrey responded that he should ‘consider very carefully any change in the UK position’, because this might ‘jeopardise his relationship with the President’. Bruce reiterated this, ‘urging that he keep in close contact with the President, being mindful of the close relationship between our countries and of the friendship of the President’.81 Two days later, Humphrey warned Wilson:

against doing or saying anything which could imply a shift in the British position away from Washington and towards Hanoi … President Johnson admired and trusted the Prime Minister. He had heard him say several times to doubters or critics that if only a few more Americans had the courage of Harold Wilson the war would already be over. The President saw these matters in intensely personal terms. If he were given cause to think that, as he would see it, he was being ‘betrayed’ by the Prime Minister his reaction could be very violent indeed.82

Later that day Palliser reaffirmed these views to Wilson.83 The Prime Minister’s comments to Humphrey and Bruce reached the President, who responded in a tone of mollification. On 10 April, Dean told him that Wilson wanted ‘to be assured that the President saw his close relationship’ with the Prime Minister ‘as a very valuable asset in these difficult days’, and that the ‘apparent failure of communication’ in February ‘must not be allowed to prejudice the future utility of this relationship either personally or as between leaders of our two countries’. Johnson responded by saying that he had ‘the greatest of respect’ for Wilson and ‘a great affection for Britain’. He and the Prime Minister ‘could continue to work usefully together’.84

The underlying strains in the Wilson–Johnson relationship attracted public comment. Bruce noted in his diary on 14 April that Palliser had called ‘to say that the Prime Minister was concerned over an article’ by the Labour MP Eldon Griffiths in the Times, which ‘alleged dissatisfaction and lack of warmth on the President’s part toward the Prime Minister’. Under instructions from Wilson, Palliser asked Bruce if he could find ‘any recent statements by the President laudatory of the Prime Minister’. Bruce assumed that Wilson expected to be ‘questioned about this article in the House’. But there were ‘none such’ statements, ‘for there has been no occasion for the President recently to make such pronouncements’.85 On 28 May, the Washington correspondent for the Sunday Times, Henry Brandon, noted a recent ‘deterioration in the personal relations between President Johnson and the Prime Minister … both have somehow come to feel more cynically about each other as politicians’. Johnson was ‘uncertain how much reliance to place now on the words of the British Government, on Mr. Wilson’s own promises, and on past policy declarations and white papers’. The White House was ‘disturbed even more’ by the ‘hint Wilson threw out recently in private that he is thinking of moving the British government more toward a middle position, presumably between Washington on one hand and Moscow and Hanoi on the other’. According to Brandon, ‘the uncertain feeling that maybe Mr. Johnson is not as eager to find a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam as he claims’ had ‘undermined Mr. Wilson’s confidence’ in the White House. Brandon suggested that there was a ‘need to remove the misunderstandings and suspicions’ festering between Wilson and Johnson.86 Part of the difficulty of the relationship stemmed undoubtedly from the fact that while Britain had continued to seek a peacemaking role over Vietnam the fact remained that there was no prospect of a British troop commitment. In late April, Wilson and Johnson met briefly in Bonn at the funeral of the former West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, where the President allegedly told Wilson that if only he would ‘put troops into Vietnam’ then his ‘worries over sterling would be over’. Wilson responded that if he did so he would be ‘finished’.87 Johnson also asked Wilson if he was ‘going crazy’ by planning to pull troops out of Asia, where the communist threat was at its most potent.88

Britain’s turn towards Europe

The difficulty of sustaining the global role and the need to reinvigorate the British economy led Wilson from 1966 towards the idea of British membership of the EEC. The strains in his relationship with Johnson notwithstanding, this meant that the United States was becoming less central to his foreign policy outlook. An American analysis noted later that the ‘conversion of Harold Wilson and the Labour Government’ on the question of joining the EEC ‘came late and suddenly but, when it finally did come, it was complete’. Wilson’s intention ‘to re-apply for membership … announced on November 10 1966, enjoyed far broader support – in the government, within the political parties, in business and labour circles, and among the public – than did the first decision to apply, in 1961’. The 1966 decision ‘reflected a recognition that Britain had been trying to play a role beyond its capabilities and had been over-extended for too long’. While ‘British spokesmen continued to point to the UK’s extra European commitments and to talk about its remaining a world power and maintaining the special relationship with the US, there was no question that the commitment to gain entry into the EEC was complete’.89 On 11 November 1966, Wilson outlined his thinking to Johnson. The Prime Minister said that he had ‘never been one of the little band of so-called “Europeans”’ seeking ‘a tight little inward-looking group of countries concerned essentially with their own affairs’. He and Brown, in probing visits to European capitals, would make it clear ‘that a forthcoming attitude towards the Kennedy Round’ of tariff negotiations ‘will be a significant earnest of their desire for British membership in a joint enterprise with them’. On the other hand – ‘and this is perhaps the main reason why I feel that our present initiative is right – I believe that the situation in Europe has changed pretty fundamentally since 1962 and is continuing to change … the prospects of building a new and wider community … are now much more promising than they were’. However, this concept of ‘an outward looking European community, designed to play the constructive role in world affairs that each of us individually is now finding too difficult, is bound to raise once more the fundamental issue of our relationship with the United States’. The ‘prophets of gloom say that this remains as total an obstacle to our present approach as it proved for our predecessors. We shall see.’ But Wilson expressed to Johnson ‘the firm determination of my colleagues and of myself that there shall be no change in the fundamental relationship between and in our own basic loyalty to and belief in the Atlantic concept’.90

Although Wilson had told the President that the Anglo-American relationship would not impede British membership of the EEC, in private he said otherwise. He suggested to the publisher Cecil King on 13 May 1967 that a more critical attitude towards American conduct in Vietnam would ‘stand us in good stead in Europe, wouldn’t it? And at the right time, too. You’ve got to think politically’.91 Wilson told his Cabinet on 6 June that the turn towards Europe meant that ‘the concept of a special relationship between the United States and ourselves was … undergoing a gradual modification, although close relations in the shape of continuing consultations on international affairs would no doubt continue’.92 On 8 May, Bruce, ruing Britain’s relinquishment of its East of Suez commitments, wrote that if the British entered the EEC ‘Neither Britain nor ourselves would lose anything substantial’. The ‘so-called Anglo-American special relationship is now little more than sentimental terminology, although the underground waters of it will flow with a deep current’. The ‘entry of the UK into Europe, via common institutions, should strengthen, not impair, our easy intercourse with it and its new associates’.93 Johnson told Wilson on 13 November that he felt ‘immensely heartened’ by the British willingness to join the EEC, taking Wilson at his word that the initiative would help to ‘strengthen and unify the West. If you find on the way that there is anything we might do to smooth the path, I hope you will let me know’.94 Francis Bator noted in a press briefing on 1 June 1967 that the President had ‘on two occasions [in speeches] … indicated that we are very much in favour of the British move’ to join the EEC. Washington looked on ‘with very great sympathy at the British application’.95 However, compared to the question of the British stance East of Suez, the question of British membership of the EEC simply did not engage Johnson’s attention.

Wilson’s turn to the EEC was shown by his appointment of George Brown as his new Foreign Secretary. The Prime Minister suggested to Johnson on 11 August 1966 that Brown would bring ‘a new kind of robustness to the foreign office and you can count on him as a staunch supporter of the Atlantic Alliance’.96 Indeed, Brown did not oppose the idea of a close Anglo-American relationship; the State Department told Johnson on 10 April 1967 that in the Commons Brown had defended ‘the Wilson government’s policy of support for US objectives in Vietnam’ with ‘steadily growing effectiveness and recently, even brilliance’.97 Bruce suggested on 6 May that Brown was, ‘more than any other Cabinet member, except possibly the PM, anxious to preserve close comity with USG, and even more than the PM, sensitive to the fragility of our present connexion’.98 However, Brown did not support Britain’s position East of Suez, believing that British money was better spent at home and that the country should moderate its diplomacy by joining the EEC. On 13 October 1966, John Leddy of the State Department told Dean Rusk that Wilson had asked that the Administration should ‘enlighten Brown on the importance of Britain’s world role and thus hopefully dampen his enthusiasm for Europe’.99 Wilson’s odd request was probably designed primarily to bolster his own standing with the White House rather than for any other purpose, because Brown had never concealed his commitment to Europe, and, of course, Wilson had himself given Brown the post of Foreign Secretary.

East of Suez and the fifth summit

A State Department analysis early in 1967 reflected on Britain’s international standing, noting that in July 1966 the Labour Government had ‘announced a further cut of £100 million in overseas spending, much of it to come out of the military establishment’. The original Labour ‘endorsement of a world role for Britain has now been considerably eroded’, and Wilson had even argued in the House of Commons that Britain ‘had neither the inclination nor the resources to go on being the world’s policeman’. The Defence Review had ‘coincided with a period of national soul-searching and with the severest balance of payments crises since the devaluation of the pound in 1949’. More and more British people were unable ‘to find any real reason why their country should spend blood and treasure in far off places’, and many also believed that ‘Britain’s future’ lies in Europe.100 In spring 1967 Wilson and his Cabinet, as part of the Defence Review, decided on the necessity of cutting Britain’s current strength in the Malaysia–Singapore area by half (to around 40,000) by 1970–71 and to withdraw completely from mainland Asia (Hong Kong excepted) by the mid–1970s. Articulating the Foreign Office’s desire to preserve Britain’s global influence so far as possible, Palliser told Wilson on 21 March that ‘It is not for me to question the implications, in terms of foreign policy, that would flow’ from major withdrawals East of Suez, ‘since this is essentially a matter of policy, of paying our way and of getting the country back on its feet economically’. But Palliser drew Wilson’s ‘attention to the very serious presentational and practical implications … we should be under no illusion that it is anything but the end of Britain’s “world role” on defence’. The move could ‘also be seen, unless it is very skilfully presented, as a reversal of the policy’ that Wilson had himself often advocated publicly, including in his dealings with Johnson. For the sake of a policy ‘which is not due to be fully implemented for another eight years we should incur immediately all the odium at a time when our main allies in the Far East are bogged down in the Vietnam War, and resentful of our failure, as they see it, to help them there’.101 Similarly, Paul Gore-Booth of the Foreign Office believed that ‘there should be further interchanges between the UK, US and other governments … before any final decision by HMG’. Although ‘Foreign Office officials were not without competence to assess the exigencies of British party politics, must a July announcement be made, and also could not any determination on ultimate and complete withdrawal be “fuzzed” in public statement?’102 John Killick of the British Embassy urged Jeffrey Kitchen of the State Department that Johnson should ‘absolutely knock the pants off’ Wilson on the East of Suez question. It was ‘important that the President really hit Wilson hard’, to discourage Britain’s contraction of the global role.103

Conscious of hostility in Washington to further defence cuts, Wilson told Patrick Dean on 30 March that ‘we had to face this problem’ of Britain’s international role ‘sometime with the Americans and we should need to speak to them about it fairly soon’. He ‘could not avoid doing so in May/June’. The question was whether ‘discussion of this now between the two Secretaries of State would ease the way’.104 Rather than tell the White House himself, Wilson sent Brown to outline the British plans. On 8 April, Patrick Dean offered Brown ‘some ideas … about how we might handle these difficult questions’. In the first place, said Dean, ‘I am sure you will already know that though the Americans are not going to like what we intend to do, a great deal will depend on the manner in which we present our decisions to them’. In terms of substance, Washington would ‘probably accept fairly easily that we shall be fully off the mainland of Asia by 1975 and halfway off by 1970’, but, given the uncertainty over what would become of South Vietnam even after an American victory, Britain should make it clear that ‘we also will have a capability of coming back into the area in circumstances in which we judge it to be our interest to support them’. If Britain could provide such an assurance, ‘they will take our decision reasonably calmly’. In terms of appearance, ‘an early announcement of our intentions will be very much disliked and resented particularly if it is made in the next year or so with the election ahead and during a period in which the fighting in Vietnam may well get much worse’. Dean understood that there were ‘strong pressures for an early announcement to be made this summer and for this reason it can be argued that it would be better to make it sooner rather than later’, but he hoped that the Cabinet ‘will agree that the terms and the timing of any announcement should not be settled until you have had a thorough discussion on all aspects of the matter to Mr. Rusk’ and ‘have had an opportunity to discover from him how the US Government see their own commitments and deployments in Southeast Asia in the post-Vietnamese war period’.105

Yet economic and political pressures meant that Wilson could do little on the East of Suez question. Rusk commented that British plans for an announcement in July were designed to meet ‘two objectives: making a gesture to Labour Party critics of present defence policies and at the same time demonstrating to the Six that, as part of its bid for membership in the Common Market, Britain is adjusting its world role and attendant financial burdens accordingly’.106 After Brown had visited the White House, Bruce complained on 6 May that Britain’s intention to make ‘a unilateral determination, and announcing it in July, eight years in advance of its being carried into effect’ was ‘more likely to cause bitter controversy between the US and UK Governments than any other issue between us during the last few years’. If Wilson presented ‘his decision as a fait accompli to our President … and tried to justify it, and a July announcement, on the grounds of domestic-political pressures, he would be inviting, and in my opinion recklessly, a possible rebuke of titanic proportions’. The United States had its own ‘domestic political difficulties in much more acute degree than those afflicting the Labour Party’. Moreover, ‘the appearance of our being deserted … in the midst of our Vietnamese involvement, by a Government assumed to be our most reliable ally, headed by a Prime Minister who had repeatedly declared himself an “East of Suez Man” was unwise, provocative, and absolutely unacceptable to us, to our public opinion, to our fighting allies, to say nothing of Singapore, Malaysia, and most of the rest of Asia’. Bruce believed that the Cabinet should ‘take no binding decision until the PM had seen the President in Washington on June 2’, feeling that Johnson might be able to persuade the Prime Minister at least to delay an announcement until victory was in sight in Vietnam. Wilson should ‘keep his options open, and if he has radically altered his policy about previous East of Suez commitments, to say so when he sees the President – meanwhile to leave the matter undecided’.107

Johnson was deeply concerned about British defence plans, with the result that he invited Wilson to visit Washington, rather than Wilson ‘inviting’ himself as was usually the case108 (Wilson’s trip to the White House would be his fifth since assuming power in October 1964). On 11 May, Johnson told Wilson that it was essential ‘that we have an opportunity to talk before the decision is finally made’ on East of Suez.109 On 20 May, Johnson ‘spoke at length’ to Henry Brandon about Britain’s ‘projected plans for military redeployment in Southeast Asia and made no disguise of his disappointment and disapproval’.110 Yet Wilson could not please the Americans even had he so desired. On 1 June, Francis Bator advised Johnson that domestically the Prime Minister faced:

increasingly sharp attack from all sides for:

  • spending money in the Far East at the alleged cost of unemployment and stagnation at home – with Lyndon Johnson the only beneficiary;
  • catering to the bankers, with deflation, tight money, unemployment, wage freeze and zero growth.111

It would be ‘exceedingly difficult for any elected politician to do all the things we would like Harold Wilson to do’. These included ‘to stay in the Far East; back us on Vietnam; avoid balance of payments trouble and any risk of devaluation (whatever the costs in domestic deflation)’ and to ‘maintain a constructive stance vis-à-vis Europe (no further cutbacks in the BAOR, no giving up on entry to Europe, etc.)’. This ‘simply does not add up to a workable platform for Wilson’s 1969–70 elections’, Bator concluded.112

On 1 June, Minister of Technology Anthony Wedgwood Benn wrote in his diary that he expected Washington to receive Wilson ‘with all the trumpets appropriate for a weak foreign head of state who has to be buttered up so he can carry the can for American foreign policy’.113 Yet Wilson had himself requested the fanfare for his visit: on 30 May the State Department told Rostow that the Prime Minister had said that he was ‘prepared to advance by a few minutes the time of his arrival in the event that military honours are planned on his arrival at the White House on June 2’. It was clear that Wilson, ‘knowing that military honours will be given Prime Minister Holt [of Australia] on June 1, would like to receive the same honours on arrival’.114 Wilson was due to spend about an hour and half with Johnson in a private meeting, and that evening there would be a White House dinner for the Prime Minister.115 As Bator briefed the press, the two leaders had ‘no fixed prior agenda; there is no formal list’ of topics to discuss; ‘These two men just get in a room and they start talking to each other about the problems they share’.116 On 2 June, Bruce noted in his diary that ‘The President and the Prime Minister were closeted together for two hours while the rest of us waited in the Cabinet room’.117

The discussions were dominated by tensions in the Middle East, as Egypt had recently announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Wilson wanted an international peacekeeping force to keep the Straits open, an idea with which Johnson was in broad agreement. However, the situation soon overtook this approach when on 5 June the ‘Six Day War’ erupted.118 The East of Suez issue also featured in the talks. Bator had recently informed Michael Palliser that the President would ‘hit Wilson hard’ on East of Suez, as the White House saw the British proposal ‘as a kind of stab in the back as long as they are bogged down in Vietnam’, and the Pentagon could not understand ‘why we need to close the options, political and military, nearly 10 years ahead’. Other figures in Washington ‘profess to regard it as irresponsible politically and likely to be just as expensive in the long run by the time we have given economic aid in lieu and paid for our long-range transport commitments’. American policymakers ‘believe that Britain is pulling out of her world role, and that nothing they do or say will do more than prevent this’. All ‘they really hope from us … is that we shall not announce our intentions now’. They were not ‘very much impressed by the notion of a residual presence’, and they certainly did not ‘see it in any way as compensating for an announcement of our long-term intentions’.119 In his meeting with Johnson, Wilson tried to explain his position. He said that there was a ‘growing mood of isolationism in the United Kingdom – a reversion to a feeling of “Little England” or perhaps “Little Europe”’. Consequently the British government had ‘to reach, by July, their basic decisions of policy’. There was ‘no doubt that they were right at aiming to achieve by 1970, a run-down of the forces in Malaysia to 50 per cent of their pre-confrontation level’. Thereafter, it would be ‘a question of rationalising our commitments in the area and reducing our capability to match the reduction in commitments’. The Cabinet was ‘not prepared to agree that we should maintain indefinitely a major base at Singapore or elsewhere if this meant the retention of large numbers of troops to protect’. Johnson countered by warning Wilson of a possible ‘chain reaction which such an announcement would almost inevitably provoke – a reaction which could extend to the American troops in Germany’. Despite these admonitions, Wilson could not compromise.120 It was ‘clear’, noted a subsequent American analysis, ‘that the British were well along the road to a formal decision’ to withdraw from East of Suez.121

Yet Johnson and his advisers still believed that the British might still be deflected from an early public announcement to this effect. On 6 July, Johnson told Wilson that ‘I continue to be preoccupied with your East of Suez decision’. The countries of the Asian and Pacific Council were ‘meeting in Bangkok with the prospect that they will register a growing sense of solidarity among the free nations of Asia’. Hanoi seemed ‘to be calling home a number of its key ambassadors. Whether this means a policy review, we do not know’. Meanwhile, Burma faced ‘new pressures from a China which continues in turmoil’. In Vietnam, the Americans and their ‘fighting allies’ had to address some ‘difficult and critical manpower decisions’. This was not the time ‘for Britain to make or to announce a decision that it is sharply reducing its presence in Southeast Asia’. Johnson urged Wilson to ‘find some way of putting this matter off for a time and not to take a step which would be contrary to your and our interests and to the interests of the free nations of Asia’.122 On 11 July, the President told Harold Holt that ‘I have weighed in again with Harold Wilson … I believe that we have presented our case as forcefully as possible, and I trust it will have a real effect on the thinking of the British Cabinet’.123

On 10 July, Palliser argued to Wilson that if a ‘close’ Anglo-American relationship was to survive, then London should ‘consult’ Washington on the East of Suez decisions rather than merely presenting belated ‘information’ on the matter. If the Americans were advised in detail of British intentions only ‘a day or two before … the White Paper they (and particularly the President himself) may feel decidedly aggrieved’.124 On 13 July, Wilson did provide a thorough explanation to the President for the East of Suez position, although, as previously, without making any concessions. He said that ‘we have been giving very deep and earnest consideration to this problem before I saw you last month’. The matter had been discussed with the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia. All had bemoaned ‘our longer term intentions and … we fully understand the fundamental concern that is shared in common by you all’. The British would try to ease the concern by phasing the withdrawal ‘over a period of years so as to reduce the likelihood of any lasting setback to the economies of the countries in the area; and our mitigating aid coupled with their own determination to help themselves will contribute positively to the kind of self-reliant future at which the whole area should aim’.125 The tone of Wilson’s letter suggested that the United States was just one of a number of concerned allies. Optimistically, however, Johnson told the press five days later that ‘we have expressed ourselves as very hopeful that the British would maintain their interest in [East of Suez]. We are very hopeful that they will find it is their interest to do so’.126

Johnson’s blandishments to the British had exerted little effect. On 18 July, London’s ‘Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy’ indicated that ‘in the Far East, we have decided to reach a reduction of about half the forces deployed in Singapore and Malaysia during 1970–1971’. Numbers would be reduced from 80,000 to 40,000.127 The President and his colleagues accepted the British decisions with equanimity, as they had little choice but to do so. As Dean advised the Foreign Office on 4 August, ‘the Administration … have accepted defeat, having pulled out all the stops during the period up to the announcement itself, with reasonably good grace’. Dean did not ‘expect them to seek to retaliate or “punish” us in the short term’, but he could not forecast the effects ‘in the middle and longer term’. It would, ‘of course, be very much against the interests of the Administration to play up our decisions by making anything of it publicly’. This would ‘play straight into the hands of the Congress, and in particular of Senator Mansfield, in their present mood of urging upon the Administration all kinds of cutting back overseas’. In fact, it was ‘a matter of some local embarrassment that a great deal of the favourable comment on the decisions we have taken comes precisely from those circles who wish to see the United States cut back abroad’. This comment ‘took the form of urging the Administration to follow our example’.128 East of Suez, as well as British economic troubles and Vietnam, would remerge in the next and final phase of Anglo-American relations under Wilson and Johnson.

1 Harold Wilson, The Labour Government 1964–1970: A Personal Record (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), p. 344.
2 PRO, PREM 13/1917, Wilson–Bruce conversation, 10 January 1967.
3 Ibid.
4 NARA, Country Files 1963–66 (70 D 209), UK 1966 Jan–March, background paper for Rostow, 15 February 1967.
5 LBJL, NSF: Agency File, Box 46, State Dept. Vol. 9 7/1/66 (1/2), Harriman to Johnson and Rusk, 28 November 1966.
6 PRO, PREM 13/1917, Washington Embassy to Foreign Office, 2 January 1967.
7 PRO, PREM 13/1917, Wilson–Cooper conversation, 18 January 1967.
8 Chester L. Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970), p. 324.
9 PRO, PREM 13/1917, Wilson–Bruce conversation, 10 January 1967.
10 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
11 Editorial Note, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964–1968 , vol. IV, Vietnam, 1966 (Washington: USGPO, 1998), p. 658.
12 Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 252.
13 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
14 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967. Italics added.
15 Ibid.
16 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
17 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
18 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 15, Rostow vol. 25 April 1–15 1967, Rostow to Johnson, 8.00 p.m. 7 February 1967.
19 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
20 Ibid.
21 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
22 PRO, PREM 13/1917, Palliser to Wilson, 7 February 1967.
23 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower, 2.6.67, Wilson to Johnson, 11 February 1967.
24 Wilson, The Labour Government, pp. 356–7.
25 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 1967, ‘Sunflower’. Italics added.
26 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
27 Cooper indicates that there was no response at all from Washington, but this contradicts White House and State Department accounts of the matter. Cooper, The Lost Crusade, p. 360.
28 Wilson, The Labour Government, pp. 356–7.
29 Cooper, The Lost Crusade, p. 361.
30 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
31 Wilson, The Labour Government, pp. 357–8.
32 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
33 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.6.67, telephone conversation between Bruce, Cooper and Benjamin Read, 11 February 1967.
34 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
35 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower, 2.11.67, Chester Cooper, ‘Memorandum for the Record’, 12 February 1967.
36 Ibid.
37 PRO, PREM 13/1918, meeting between Wilson, Brown, Bruce, Cooper and others, 11 February 1967.
38 Ibid.
39 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 1967, ‘Sunflower’.
40 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower, 2.11.67, Wilson to Johnson, 12 February 1967.
41 Ibid.
42 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.13.67, Embassy (Cooper) to Rusk and Rostow, 13 February 1967.
43 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
44 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower, 2.11.67, Johnson to Wilson, 12 February 1967.
45 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2/13/67, Embassy (Cooper) to Rusk and Rostow, 13 February 1967.
46 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
47 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
48 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2/13/67, Embassy (Cooper) to Rusk and Rostow, 13 February 1967.
49 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
50 Cooper, The Lost Crusade, p. 365.
51 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
52 Ibid.
53 Transcript of Johnson–McNamara telephone conversation, 10.13 p.m., 12 February 1967, Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. V, Vietnam 1967 (Washington: USGPO, 2002), p. 135.
54 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967. See the transcript of telephone conversation between Johnson and Rostow, 11.17 p.m., 12 February, FRUS, vol. V, p. 156.
55 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 1967, ‘Sunflower’.
56 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
57 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 1967, ‘Sunflower’.
58 Transcript of Johnson –McNamara telephone converation, 12.31 p.m., 13 February 1967, FRUS, vol. V, p. 168.
59 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 1967, ‘Sunflower’.
60 PRO, PREM 13/1893, Wilson–Rostow conversation, 24 February 1967.
61 PRO, FCO 15/633, DV 10/37, Murray to Palliser, 6 March 1967.
62 PRO, FCO 15/633, DV 10/37, Brown to Wilson, 14 March 1967.
63 PRO, FCO 15/633, DV 10/37, Wilson to Brown, 15 March 1967.
64 PRO, PREM 13/1919, Palliser to Wilson, 23 March 1967.
65 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 15, Rostow Vol. 25 April 1–15 1967 (1/2), Rostow to Johnson, 7 April 1967.
66 PRO, PREM 13/2458, Dean to Wilson, ‘Vietnam and Kosygin’s Visit’, 10 April 1967.
67 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 1967, ‘Sunflower’.
68 Johnson, The Vantage Point, p. 252.
69 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 Feb. 12–28 1967 (2/2), Rostow to Johnson, ‘For the President’s Diary’, 13 February 1967.
70 Transcript of Johnson–Rostow telephone conversation, 11.03 p.m., 12 February 1967, FRUS, vol. V, p. 154.
71 Wheeler to McNamara, 11 February 1967, ibid., p. 135.
72 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 27–14 Viet/Sunflower 2.21.67, 2.21.67, ‘Sunflower’.
73 Ibid.
74 Cooper, The Lost Crusade, pp. 355–6.
75 George Brown, In My Way (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971), p. 146.
76 John Dumbrell and Sylvia Ellis, ‘British involvement in Vietnam peace initiatives, 1966– 1967: Marigolds, Sunflowers, and “Kosygin Week”’, Diplomatic History, 27: 1 (January, 2003), pp. 115, 149.
77 Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol. II, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1966–68 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976), p. 181, entry for 1 January 1967.
78 LBJL, NSF: Name File, Box 1, Bator memos (1/2), Bator memos (1/2), Bator to Johnson, 26 January 1967.
79 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 13, Rostow Vol. 21 February 18–21 1967 (1/2), Rostow to Johnson, 28 February 1967.
80 NARA, Conference Files (67 D 586), President’s Trip to Germany April 23–26 1967, ‘The President’s Trip to Germany, April 1967’, 1 April 1967.
81 Embassy to State, 4 April 1967, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964–1968 , vol. XII, Western Europe (Washington, USGPO, 2001), p. 565.
82 PRO, PREM 13/1919, Wilson-Humphrey conversation, 4 April 1967.
83 PRO, PREM 13/1919, Palliser to Wilson, 4 April 1967.
84 PRO, PREM 13/2458, Dean to Wilson, ‘Vietnam and Kosygin’s Visit’, 10 April 1967.
85 VHS, Diary of David K. E. Bruce, MSS5:1B8303:60, entry for 14 April 1967.
86 ‘The not-so-special relations of Wilson and LBJ’, Sunday Times, 28 May 1967.
87 Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1964–1970 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984), p. 282, entry for 22 July 1967.
88 PRO, PREM 13/1528, Wilson–Johnson conversation at Adenauer’s funeral, quoted in Rajarshi Roy ‘The Battle of the Pound: The Political Economy of Anglo-American Relations, 1964–68’, PhD dissertation, London School of Economics, 2000, p. 290.
89 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 7 UK, 2.1.68, State Department Research Memorandum, ‘What Now For Britain? Wilson’s Visit and Britain’s Future’, 7 February 1968.
90 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 11 (2/2), Rostow Vol. 15 Nov 1–30 1966 (2/3), Wilson to Johnson, 11 November 1966.
91 Cecil King, The Cecil King Diary 1965–1970 (London: Cape, 1972), p. 123, entry for 13 May 1967.
92 PRO, CAB 128/42/II, Cabinet minutes, 6 June 1967.
93 LBJL, NSF: Country File, Box 211, UK Memos XI 4/67–6/67, Bruce to Rusk, 8 May 1967.
94 LBJL, Francis Bator Papers, Box 19, Trilateral/British Bailout, Johnson to Wilson, 13 November 1966.
95 LBJL, WH Press Office Files, Box 101, Bator: PM Wilson Visit 1 June 1967, ‘Background Briefing: PM Wilson’s Pending Visit’, 1 June 1967.
96 NARA, President and Secretary of State Official Correspondence 1961–66 (66 D 294), Pres. Correspondence UK/Wilson to President, Wilson to Johnson, 11 August 1966.
97 LBJL, NSF: Memos to the President, Box 15, Rostow Vol. 25 April 1–15 1967 (1/2), State Department to Johnson, 10 April 1967.
98 Bruce to Rusk, 6 May 1967, FRUS 1964–1968 , vol. XII, p. 570.
99 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1964–66, POL UK–US, 9.7.66, Leddy to Rusk, ‘Wilson’s Desire that We Brainwash Brown’, 13 October 1966.
100 LBJL, NSF: Country File, Box 216, UK: W. W. R. Talks 2/67, ‘Background Paper for Mr. Rostow – UK Overseas Military Economies’, author unknown.
101 PRO, PREM 13/1384, Palliser to Wilson, ‘Defence Expenditure Studies’, 21 March 1967.
102 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL UK–US, 1.1.67, Bruce to Rusk, 6 May 1967.
103 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL UK–US, 1.1.67, ‘UK East of Suez – Forthcoming Wilson Visit’, 17 May 1967.
104 PRO, PREM 13/1454, Wilson–Dean conversation, 30 March 1967.
105 PRO, PREM 13/1384, Dean to Brown, Telegram No. 1111, 8 April 1967.
106 NARA, Conference Files (67 D 586), President’s Trip to Germany April 23–26 1967, ‘The President’s Trip to Germany, April 1967’, 1 April 1967.
107 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL UK–US, 1.1.67, Bruce to Rusk, 6 May 1967.
108 LBJL, NSF: Country File, Box 216, UK: Visit of Wilson 6/2/67 (2/2), Read to Rostow, 2 May 1967.
109 NARA, Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State 1961– 1967 (71 D 30), UK 2/2, Johnson to Wilson, 11 May 1967.
110 PRO, PREM 13/1456, Embassy to Foreign Office, Telegram 1704, 20 May 1967.
111 LBJL, NSF: Country File, Box 216, UK: Visit of Wilson 6/2/67 (2/2), Bator to Johnson, 1 June 1967.
112 Ibid.
113 Tony Benn, Out of the Wilderness: Diaries 1963–1967 (London: Hutchinson, 1987), p. 501, entry for 1 June 1967.
114 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, POL 7 UK, 5.1.67, Read to Rostow, 30 May 1967.
115 LBJL, NSF: Country File, Box 216, UK: Visit of Wilson 6/2/67 (2/2), Bator to Johnson, 1 June 1967.
116 LBJL, WH Press Office Files, Box 101, Bator: PM Wilson Visit 1 June 1967, ‘Background Briefing: PM Wilson’s Pending Visit’, 1 June 1967.
117 VHS, Diary of K. E. David Bruce, MSS5:1B8303:60, entry for 2 June 1967.
118 Wilson, The Labour Government, p. 399; Johnson, The Vantage Point, pp. 287–304; PRO, PREM 13/1906, ‘Visit of the Prime Minister to Canada and the United States’, 1–3 June 1967. On 8 July the United Nations (UN) began talks with Israel and Egypt about placing observers on their respective sides of the Suez Canal cease-fire line, a move which, as Wilson told Johnson, ‘would be a good first step towards establishing a UN presence in the area’. Wilson to Johnson, 13 July 1967, FRUS 1964–1968 , vol. XII, pp. 575–6. International diplomacy culminated in UN resolution 242 on 22 November 1967, which provided for Israeli withdrawal from the newly-conquered territories.
119 PRO, PREM 13/1906, Palliser to Wilson, ‘My Washington Reconnaissance’, 1 June 1967.
120 PRO, PREM 13/1906, ‘Visit of the Prime Minister to Canada and the United States’, 1–3 June 1967.
121 LBJL, State Department Administrative Histories, Box 1, Chapter 3 (Europe) Section D, ‘Bilateral Relations with Western Europe: Great Britain’.
122 PRO, PREM 13/1457, Johnson to Wilson, 6 July 1967.
123 Johnson to Holt, Foreign Relations of the United States 1964–1968 Vol. XXVII Mainland Southeast Asia; Regional Affairs (Washington: USGPO, 1999), p. 64.
124 PRO, PREM 13/1457, Palliser to Wilson, ‘The Messages to LBJ, Holt, etc.’, 10 July 1967.
125 Wilson to Johnson, 13 July 1967, FRUS 1964–1968 , vol. XII, pp. 576–8.
126 NARA, Subject-Numeric 1967–69, DEF 1 UK, ‘East of Suez’, excerpt from Presidential News Conference, 18 July 1967.
127 Cmnd. 3357, Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy 1967 (London: HMSO, 1967), p. 5.
128 PRO, FCO 7/741, Dean to Paul Gore-Booth, 4 August 1967.

A ‘special relationship’?

Harold Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson and Anglo-American relations ‘at the summit’, 1964–68

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