This work has examined the question of Harold Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson and Anglo-American relations ‘at the summit’, 1964–68. By exploring the mutual dealings of the two leaders, it seeks to examine their respective attitudes to the Anglo-American relationship and to one another; how they approached the matters of mutual interest and the extent to which their personal relationship was in any sense a ‘special’ one, and to evaluate broader developments in the ties between Britain and the United States. The introduction examined the literature and outlined the structures of the Anglo-American relationship, gave brief biographies of Wilson and Johnson and indicated the main content of the study. In the period October–November 1964, Wilson was quick to solicit American help in the economic crisis that befell the new Labour government. At the Washington summit of 7–9 December 1964, Wilson spoke of cementing a ‘close’ Anglo-American relationship, but Johnson regarded the conference as little more than a chore, and a means of dealing with the lingering NATO matter of the MLF. The months January–April 1965 saw Wilson’s over-ambitious and poorly-received telephone call to the White House on 11 February to try to moderate American conduct in Vietnam, and the renewal of his relationship with the President when they met again in Washington on 1 April. The period May– December 1965 saw Wilson and Johnson strike an informal, secret ‘deal’ whereby the United States would support sterling in return for a British commitment to preserve the international role. Between January and July 1966 there was Wilson’s reluctant but, given the feelings of the Labour left and an increasing proportion of the general public, politically necessary ‘dissociation’ from the American bombing of North Vietnam. The dissociation caused the most serious strain yet in the relationship, but the rift was overcome by the efforts of Ambassadors Bruce and Dean and by Wilson’s affirmations of support for the UK’s continued ‘great power’ role when he visited Washington on 29 July. The period August 1966–September 1967 saw Wilson’s abortive ‘phase A–phase B’ Vietnam peace initiative, during which Washington’s sharp reversal of position caused him to doubt the value of close ties with the White House. This phase also saw a more general decline in the Anglo-American relationship precipitated by British defence cuts East of Suez, and by the UK’s increasingly pro-European orientation. The year or so from late 1967 to the end of 1968 also had important implications for the Johnson–Wilson relationship, as it saw the devaluation of sterling and the demise of the remaining British commitment East of Suez. As 1968 ended, the White House was more inclined to regard Britain simply as one ally among many, rather than a state with whom there was some kind of ‘special’ relationship.
The Anglo-American relationship, 1964–68
There has been the suggestion that the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ died or at least went into some form of diplomatic hibernation with the end of the Kennedy–Macmillan era in 1963, reemerging with the close personal bonds between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.1 Certainly, in the years of Wilson and Johnson the ties between Britain and the United States did undergo significant change. In February 1964, a Foreign Office assessment noted that ‘Anglo-American relations are fundamentally good … there is close consultation and cooperation over a wide field’.2 In August 1964, the Foreign Office wrote that the Americans ‘look to us as their major partner and as a world power with world-wide interests for practical cooperation in a wide variety of fields, from the development of joint defence facilities to the conduct of economic policy’.3 Yet the closeness of the Anglo-American relationship was not taken for granted. The February 1964 analysis had suggested that ‘In the last analysis our influence on American policy depends on our practical contribution to the Western Alliance rather any particular feeling of United Kingdom/ United States interdependence’.4 The British Embassy’s Annual Review for 1964 warned that Britain would ‘be increasingly treated on [its] merits and shall be regarded not so much for who we are as for how we perform’. Britain’s ‘influence will depend on our ability to solve our own economic problems and to bring an end to what seems to the Americans to be a position of chronic insolvency’.5 In March 1965, the valedictory despatch of Lord Harlech, the British Ambassador to Washington since 1961, warned that although ‘We have a closer and more intimate relationship with the United States Government than any other country and our views are listened to with greater attention … we … will be judged increasingly by our performance.’ For one thing, ‘the myriad of close personal friendships built up at all levels during the war and immediate postwar years are a diminishing asset and nationals of other countries, if they care to make the effort, can establish almost equally close contacts’.6
Throughout 1964–68, Britain suffered from chronic economic difficulties, generated by an overvalued pound, uncompetitive industrial practices and leading to an inability to pay its way in the world. Economic troubles, alongside Labour Party opposition, prompted a retrenchment from the traditional role as a global power to one with strategic interests focused primarily on Europe. In the light of Vietnam, this process of retrenchment distressed the Americans. In May 1967, US Ambassador David Bruce, ruing Britain’s planned relinquishment of its East of Suez commitments, wrote bitterly that the ‘so-called Anglo-American special relationship is now little more than sentimental terminology’.7 The British Embassy reflected in its Annual Review for 1967 that ‘the withdrawal of a major part of our forces East of Suez and our announced intentions for Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s’ meant that the White House ‘will be liable to consult with us less and take us less into their confidence about areas of the world from which we are consciously opting out’. The United States would ‘behave increasingly in a manner which reflects the fundamental inequality’ of its ties with the UK.8 In February 1968, the British Ambassador, Patrick Dean, noted that the defence cuts had ‘without question been a watershed in Anglo-American relations’, and that ‘the Americans will with some justice be disposed to make their own dispositions without consulting or considering us’.9 In June 1968, a State Department analysis reflected that Britain’s future was ‘at best, a middle-sized European power, albeit one with a nuclear capability, a residual sense of extra-European responsibility and a continuing, if diminished, status as a favoured partner of the US’.10 Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted that ‘Operationally, the US and UK are working on fewer real problems. The concept of Atlantic cooperation could replace the special relationship.’11
The devaluation of the pound and the retreat from East of Suez did not, however, mean that Britain suddenly disappeared below Washington’s horizon; Patrick Dean noted in October 1967 that ‘the Americans have no intention of dispensing with us nor have any wish to do so’. That was not to say that ‘they are always satisfied with our performance (e.g. our defence policy East of Suez) nor we with theirs (the present anti-British mood of the Congress)’, but it was ‘extremely dangerous to conclude that the relationship is coming to an end’. There had been ‘such developments in the past which at the time have seemed no less serious and perhaps even more so, and yet the relationship has persisted and survived’. Examples included ‘Suez in 1956 and Skybolt in 1962’.12 Dean noted that there was in Washington a degree of:
discontent or displeasure with certain aspects of our policies where we differ with the United States Government. Defence policy East of Suez has been the main cause of such expressions of view recently. But such things are a measure of the distress it causes the Americans when we, of whom this is expected so much less than of other countries, find ourselves out of line with them and leave out of account the very large and important positive factor of the many important areas in which we can and do still work with them on the basis of a very close identity of view.13
Apart from ‘the working links between Ministers in these fields, which are necessarily less frequent and continuing’, these ‘important factors’ were ‘perhaps most manifest in the day-to-day work of this Embassy with its American opposite numbers at all levels from my own down to desk officers’.14 Rajarishi Roy has noted that during the international financial crisis of October 1967–March 1968 the two countries worked closely with one another to bolster the international monetary system.15 In February 1968, soon after London’s announcement of the hastened withdrawal from East of Suez, the State Department noted that Britain still had much to offer – Britain was ‘still the third largest nuclear power in the world’, with ‘a small but high quality naval and air nuclear capability’, plus a ‘not inconsiderable 55,000 man British Army of the Rhine … the third largest national force that is unquestionably committed to NATO’.16 In sum:
the UK will still have the capacity to be highly useful to the US. Britain still has a greater variety of responsibilities than will any other US ally. Its interests will still converge with ours more than will those of any other ally. At least for the next few years, it will continue to spend about £2 billion a year on its armed forces and to be the world’s no. 3 nuclear power. It will still have unparalleled experience, expertise, and entree and will therefore be able to carry out undertakings of benefit to the US in diplomacy, intelligence and technology.17
Yet the British withdrawal from East of Suez did represent the end of an era in the post-war Anglo-American relationship, as the global system of military bases that had helped to make Britain such an attractive ally in the Cold War would soon be no more. The State Department analysis quoted above also noted that ‘the defence cutbacks announced by Prime Minister Wilson on January 16 signalled the eventual end of Britain as a world power’.18 In June 1968, US Secretary of Defence Clark Clifford asserted that ‘the British do not have the resources, the back-up, or the hardware to deal with any big world problem … they are no longer a powerful ally of ours because they cannot afford the cost of an adequate defence effort’.19 It is evident that by 1968 Washington felt less regard for Britain’s capabilities than it did four years earlier, and in that sense the ‘special relationship’ suffered a major blow. In July that year, the Foreign Office noted ‘a recent tendency in the United States regretfully to write Britain off because we seem to them to be failing to fulfil our part in maintaining world stability in the defence and monetary fields’.20 There was little evidence of such a tendency in 1964. Notably, this development substantiates the argument of C. J. Bartlett, who has suggested that ‘British standing in Washington plummeted in the winter of 1967–1968’21 mainly as a result of the East of Suez decisions – although it must be added that previously there were doubts in Washington about the British capacity to maintain the world role. Saki Dockrill’s observation that ‘a close relationship with the USA did not necessarily mean that the other country had to have equal power and strength to the USA’22 is a plausible generalisation, but the fact remains that in the years 1964–68 American regard for Britain fell as British decline became all the more apparent.
Despite the evident and widening asymmetry of power there was a high degree of interdependence between Britain and the United States in 1964–68 – Thomas Schwartz refers aptly to ‘an extraordinary degree of interaction, involvement, and influence between the US and British governments’.23 This interdependence is confirmed, for example, by the frequent expressions of concern on the part of the President and his advisers about the shaky British economy; Johnson told Chancellor James Callaghan in 1965 that economically ‘when you have headaches, we have headaches, too’.24 To Washington, the devaluation of the pound threatened a major dislocation of the trading relations between the Western powers, while Britain had an interest in securing American support for sterling in order to counter speculative attacks. American policymakers also needed British support over Vietnam, preferably to include a contingent of troops, and they sought a continued British presence East of Suez. Both aims were very useful as a way of legitimising and underpinning American policy in Southeast Asia. In some ways, therefore, it seems that Washington was more dependent on London than vice-versa.
It is worth adding in this context that British economic troubles were probably the most fundamental of the key issues between Britain and the United States, as they placed Britain in the position of a petitioner for American largesse and undermined the likelihood of remaining a ‘world power’. For the United States, Vietnam was the most prominent foreign policy issue of the period, while for British policymakers it was an issue only so far as it generated domestic discord and led to strains in the Anglo-American relationship. East of Suez was of key importance to the British, as it was a question of their long-term orientation in world affairs. For Washington, the issue of British commitments in Asia was important so far as withdrawal from the region would lead to further attacks on the United States’s stance in Vietnam.
Wilson and Johnson: approaches to the Anglo-American relationship
As Philip Ziegler has commented, Wilson was keenly interested in world affairs and intended from the outset of his time in office to play ‘a large part in all the most important international problems’.25 Commenting on prime ministerial dominance of foreign affairs, David H. Dunn has noted that the common tendency for ‘prime ministers to try to be their own foreign secretaries has … resulted in less able ministers being appointed to these posts’.26 While Wilson’s foreign secretaries – Patrick Gordon Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown – were not necessarily lacking in ability, they were generally overshadowed by the Prime Minister. Gordon Walker, Stewart and Brown all supported the idea of close ties between Britain and the United States, but Wilson’s input was such that, as Richard Crossman commented, British foreign policy was characterised above all by the ‘peculiarly Wilsonian touch’ of a ‘personal reliance on LBJ’.27 The Foreign Office backed up Wilson’s support for the continued close relationship with Washington and for the British ‘great power’ role, but independent of these factors the Prime Minister had his own, deep-seated commitment to the United States. David Bruce noted in mid-1966 that Wilson accepted the principle of continuity in post-war British foreign policy, central to which was ‘the long established friendly relationship with the US’.28 Around the time of Bruce’s analysis, London was canvassing its prospects of joining the EEC, but Europe held less attraction for Wilson than did the established close relationship with Washington. On a practical level, a close Anglo-American association would further his standing as a global statesman, enhance British prestige, and offer a source of economic help for Britain to maintain its status as a world power. Wilson’s commitment to the American connection was also entwined with his reluctance to devalue sterling. There were other reasons for his intransigence in this regard – not least of which was the idea that within Britain Labour would be tagged the party of devaluation – but American opposition to the measure certainly influenced him.
His approach to the United States also had a distinctly personal element. He felt, as White House adviser Richard Neustadt pointed out in 1965, an ‘emotional commitment to the US’, which he ‘personified … in LBJ’.29 At times Wilson seemed to take a naive pleasure in his dealings with the Johnson Administration, shown, for example, by his delight at the President’s message of congratulation soon after Labour gained power and his excited anticipation of the summit meeting a few weeks later. For Wilson, the latter represented the consummate affirmation that Britain under Labour still had a seat at the ‘top table’ of international affairs. Clive Ponting’s verdict that Wilson’s enjoyment of political power was captured especially in ‘the protocol of receptions in Washington’ and ‘meetings with President Johnson’ certainly rings true.30
Wilson was constrained by a notable degree of pressure with regard to the conduct of British foreign policy, including pressure from within the Labour Party. The Labour left was deeply unimpressed by Wilson’s dedication to the White House and by the official government policy of support for the American position in Vietnam, and even if he had so wanted it would have been practically impossible to have committed troops without bringing down his government. Agitation within the Labour Party contributed to the ‘dissociation’ of 1966, and also helps to explain the Prime Minister’s zeal for high-profile peacemaking initiatives. There was also pressure from Labour politicians to bring an end to Britain’s position as a global power, not least because the overseas spending that this entailed might instead be deployed at home to bring the country more into line with socialist ideals.
The Foreign Office was also a notable influence. As well as favouring Wilson’s personal commitment to Washington, it supported the official policy of support for the American position in Vietnam; the United States was, after all, Britain’s most important ally. There was, however, no desire to commit troops, as Britain had few direct interests in the region and the outcome of the war was, to say the least, always very uncertain. There was among the representatives of the Foreign Office a reluctance to see the end of Britain’s global role, as this undermined the country’s international standing especially in relation to the United States. Thus, Wilson’s policies had to take into account the various influences – some subtle, some less so – emanating from the United States and the Foreign Office on one hand, and the Labour left on the other hand. Nor could he easily escape the pressure of a declining economy when framing his policies.
Given the anti-Americanism of the Labour left and Conservative jibes that Wilson was making Britain the ‘51st state’, it would surely have been expedient for him to have adopted a more independent position towards the White House. Roy argues that Wilson’s ‘willingness to consider the attitude of the United States in framing his policies … earned him little tangible reward from the President’.31 There is much truth in this comment, but it must be remembered that Wilson was not entirely supine towards the Americans – opposition to the MLF, ‘dissociation’, the planned withdrawal from East of Suez, and the devaluation of sterling contravened American wishes. The Prime Minister was capable of a hard-headed, even cynical approach to the United States, as demonstrated by his attempt in November 1967 to threaten the White House with immediate, large-scale defence cuts both in Europe and in Asia in return for economic assistance to avoid devaluing sterling. Consciously or otherwise, this stance represented an attempt to redirect the mid-1965 American efforts to emphasise that American help for sterling would be less forthcoming if the British were to reduce their defence commitments.
For his part, Johnson was no novice in foreign affairs. As Senate Majority Leader in the 1950s, he oversaw the passage of major legislation in this field, and, as Kennedy’s vice-president (1961–63), he made numerous trips abroad. However, with his vision of creating a ‘Great Society’ – helping to heal the racial divide and to eradicate poverty – the President was more interested in domestic politics than international affairs, and certainly had little commitment to close ties with London. As a Foreign Office analysis noted in May 1965, Johnson did not have ‘any instinctive feel for Britain. As a Texan there is nothing in his background that suggests he should’.32 Although the Second World War engaged in Johnson a lasting respect for Winston Churchill, no other British prime minister seemed to win his admiration. So far as American policy was concerned, the President generally concurred with advisers such as McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow, who believed that American interests required the parity of the pound to remain at $2.80 and that Britain must retain its international role. There were exceptions to this outlook, though, including the views of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Fowler who advised Johnson in 1966 that if Washington continued to pressure Britain to remain a world power, then British economic weakness would simply be exacerbated and prolonged: a ‘weak ally is of no use to us East of Suez or anywhere else … we must leave it to the UK government to decide what it must do, short of devaluation, to save its national position’.33
Similarly, Undersecretary of State 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 world role, refusing any further short-term financial assistance, and encouraging British membership of the EEC.34 Johnson offered token support for the idea of British membership of the Common Market when in 1966 Wilson announced the intention to seek membership, but in truth he felt little real engagement in the matter. He was more concerned about the situation in South-east Asia, disregarding the advice of Fowler and Ball and continuing to press upon Wilson the idea that Britain should maintain the parity of the pound and above all that it should uphold its foreign policy commitments. After the 1965 commitment of US combat troops to Vietnam, the region was necessarily the centre of American diplomacy, and Johnson wanted a ‘special’ relationship with Britain only to the extent to which British policy suited American strategic and economic interests. By contrast, it seems that the linguistic and historical links between Britain and the United States led Wilson to anticipate something more intimate; as Anthony Wedgwood Benn put it in May 1964, he hoped to be able to ‘telephone and fly over’ to Washington ‘as and when necessary’.35 But Johnson disdained the idea of a relationship of this nature, dismissing the Prime Minister’s telephone call over Vietnam in February 1965 and frequently expressing hostility to Wilson’s visits, which were of scant practical value to the United States. The President’s unsentimental attitude to Britain was shown by his concurrence with the view of advisers such as Bundy in the summer of 1965 that American support for sterling would be less forthcoming if the British were retreating from their global commitments, and his statement in 1968 in the light of the accelerated withdrawal from East of Suez that ‘when our common interests shrink, the flow of communications and common business shrinks, too’36 indicates his basic disinterest towards the British. If there was no clear and practical reason for doing so then the White House would have little inclination to remain in close contact with London.
The Wilson–Johnson relationship, 1964–68
Ambassadors Bruce and Dean both shaped Anglo-American relations ‘at the summit’, 1964–68. As the Foreign Office noted in July 1965, Bruce was ‘a man of very considerable stature, and, of course, has the advantage of at least part of one ear of the President’.37 Wilson described him as ‘a giant among diplomats, with more experience and wise judgment than possibly anyone else in the diplomatic profession of any country’.38 He also noted that Washington’s ‘confidence’ in Bruce, ‘both White House and Foggy Bottom level’, was ‘total’, and doubted ‘if in modern times any Prime Minister and American Ambassador have been closer’.39 The Prime Minister frequently used Bruce as a medium of communication with the White House, and Bruce’s eloquent and perspicacious telegrams helped to foster an understanding in Washington of Britain and its Labour government. The Ambassador was especially effective, for example, in helping Washington to appreciate the reluctance with which in June 1966 Wilson had ‘dissociated’ Britain from American actions in Vietnam, by conveying the delicacy of the Prime Minister’s position between an increasingly fractious and anti-American Labour left on the one hand and the White House on the other. However, Bruce’s analyses were not always flattering; despite his affections for Britain he was always frank. In particular, there was almost a sense of betrayal at East of Suez measures,40 deriving from the view that in the context of American troubles in Vietnam the move was ill-timed and irresponsible. Lord Harlech retired as British Ambassador to the United States in April 1965, and so figured less prominently in the Wilson–Johnson relationship than did his successor, Patrick Dean, who Wilson believed had ‘earned the same degree of confidence in the United States’ as Bruce had in Britain, thereby contributing to the ‘flourishing and warm relationship, not only between governments but between peoples’.41 However, Roy has argued that Dean had very little ‘cachet’ at the White House.42 While it is true that Johnson showed no disposition to cement the kind of close relationship with Dean that Wilson cultivated with Bruce, Dean’s role did prove significant in mid-1966 when, like Bruce, he helped communicate the depth of Washington’s distress over ‘dissociation’, and helped convey the fact of Wilson’s essential reluctance to upset the White House. Much to Wilson’s relief, Dean also helped mollify American reactions to the devaluation of sterling in November 1967 (although the devaluation was relatively modest in scale and was not entirely unexpected to the White House). In 1967–68, many of the Ambassador’s reports to London predicted that the Anglo-American relationship would suffer greatly as a result of the withdrawal from East of Suez, although in his hand-wringing he seemed more sympathetic to American concerns than with the problems of a struggling Britain.
Contacts between Wilson and Johnson included few telephone conversations. This was partly because Johnson showed little interest in telephoning Downing Street and because he discouraged Wilson from telephoning the White House. Johnson would use the telephone as an offensive tool in dealing with fellow politicians in the United States, and he therefore resented being ‘put on the spot’ when people turned the tables and called him. This attitude was shown by his response to Wilson’s telephone call about Vietnam on 11 February 1965, when, as Wilson puts it, the President ‘shouted and ranted at me at the top of his voice’.43 Wilson and Johnson corresponded often, on issues that included Vietnam, East of Suez, economic matters, plus numerous miscellaneous topics. While Wilson’s letters were candid and sometimes suggested that he needed a confidant, Johnson’s were less personal and more frequently drafted by his staff. The two men met regularly. As well as his visit to Johnson’s White House in March 1964 as leader of the Labour opposition, Wilson saw Johnson at six more bilateral summits in Washington: in December 1964, April 1965, December 1965, July 1966, June 1967 and February 1968, as well as (briefly) at the funeral of Konrad Adenauer in Bonn in January 1967 and at the memorial service for Harold Holt in Melbourne in December 1967. The Washington meetings would usually include an hour or two during which the two leaders would speak privately – often about domestic politics – with further discussions held in the company of advisers.
Due to his personal commitment to Washington and to fears of the political impact in Britain if it ever seemed that he had lost the President’s confidence, Wilson sometimes appeared preoccupied by a desire to see Johnson. This was especially the case when the Prime Minister wanted to repair the personal relationship after ‘dissociation’ in 1966. The White House initiated only two of Wilson’s six prime ministerial visits: the summit of December 1964 and that of June 1967. In 1964, the Americans had wanted to bring the MLF to a conclusion, and two and a half years later they sought to bolster the moribund British commitment to the world role.
According to Wilson, meetings between prime ministers and presidents ‘are essential and should be frequent. There is a great deal to be said for the growing informality which has been developed, so that they tend to be regarded as routine and not symbolising any great crisis or turn of events.’44 David H. Dunn has pointed out that summit conferences often possess a ‘symbolic importance’.45 It was symbolic of the relationship between Wilson and Johnson that Wilson always had to go to Washington while Johnson never stirred himself to visit London. As well as enjoying the publicity of the summits and the relief they afforded from problems at home, Wilson used the meetings to try to educate Johnson on the rationale behind British policies such as those concerning Vietnam; this situation supports Dunn’s assertion that leaders can use summits to perform an ‘educative’ role.46 Wilson managed to deploy his political skills so that the President was usually inclined to voice a positive verdict of him after the meetings. Even after the summit of July 1966 – soon after ‘dissociation’ – Johnson expressed a more favourable opinion of the British leader. This was a notable triumph, given his reservations towards summit diplomacy and towards Wilson (so far as the British were concerned, there is not much evidence to support Elmer Plischke’s view that Johnson ‘apparently enjoyed his role as diplomat-in-chief’).47 Henry Brandon of the Sunday Times noted that Johnson felt that little was ‘to be learned, even from informal personal contact’ with foreign leaders ‘that cannot be learned from reading diplomatic cables or the newspapers’.48 While Johnson did not enjoy summit meetings, it is clear that he liked dealing with some foreign leaders more than others. There was, for example, a genuine and consistent affinity for German chancellors. Chancellor Erhard of West Germany was his favourite among the European leaders with whom he dealt.49 In summer 1965, very soon after a visit from Wilson, Johnson told him that Germany was the most ‘trustworthy’ of the United States’s allies.50 As Johnson said himself in 1967, he was ‘descended from German stock and lived in a German community in Texas. If he did not have the deep respect and love for the German people that he possessed, he would have moved long ago’.51
Johnson’s reservations towards Wilson derived considerably from the idea that British leaders were especially inclined to visit the White House mainly to ‘play to the gallery’ at home; the public comments in Washington of Alec Dou-glas-Home early in 1964 over the British bus trade with communist Cuba were seared into his mind. In April 1965 Johnson’s sheer antipathy towards the prospect of seeing Wilson – exacerbated on this occasion by the memory of Wilson’s telephone call on 11 February – was such that he even threatened in private to feign illness so that he could avoid seeing the Prime Minister. However, in the meetings Wilson did provide an especially sympathetic ear for Johnson. Although seemingly unappreciated, this aspect of the relationship surely provided some respite for a President increasingly assailed by domestic and international controversy over Vietnam. But in terms of substance, the Wilson–Johnson summits achieved little, apart from the negative result of ‘sinking’ the lingering and troublesome matter of the MLF in December 1964.
Johnson’s Undersecretary of State, George Ball, argued that there is ‘nothing more dangerous than to rest the relations between states too heavily on the capricious interaction of diverse personalities’.52 The President’s regard for Wilson ranged from lauding him as a latter-day Winston Churchill to dispensing what might be described as contemptuous ‘rough treatment’. This included efforts in March 1964 to browbeat him over British trade with Cuba; at the Washington summit in December 1964 over Wilson’s handling of the British economy; the hostile response when Wilson telephoned the White House on 11 February 1965; and the general disdain for the Prime Minister during the period of ‘dissociation’ in mid-1966 and over the abortive ‘phase A–phase B’ initiative in February 1967. Wilson claimed that his dealings with Johnson were ‘very friendly and productive’.53 By contrast, George Ball has argued that ‘Anglo-American relations were seriously impeded by the fact that President Johnson and Prime Minister Wilson were temperamentally poles apart and did not basically like each other’.54 Unsurprisingly, historians have tended to focus on the strains of the relationship.55 Jeremy Fielding, for example, has commented that Johnson ‘did not hold a particularly positive view of his British counterpart. John Dumbrell refers to Johnson’s apocryphal description of Wilson as “a little creep camping on my doorstep”, which Dumbrell claims had a “ring of authenticity”.’56 Fielding agrees that Johnson had ‘an antipathy’ towards Wilson, but comments like this beg the question of whether the ambivalence of the personal relationship shaped the way the two leaders handled the issues of mutual concern, and the extent to which this personal ambivalence generated the decline in closeness between Britain and America, 1964–68.
Thomas Schwartz has suggested that Johnson and Wilson managed to ‘compartmentalise’ their relationship, learning to live with their differences over Vietnam in particular and cooperating on issues in which their views coincided.57 Given Johnson’s tendency to measure the value of allies in terms of their overall contribution to American interests, this thesis is less persuasive than at first it might seem. In the eyes of the President, the British were failing to pull their weight in the world, with the result that he was inclined to treat Wilson in a less than respectful manner whatever the issue. However, most of the ‘rough treatment’ thus meted out seemed to have little impact on the Prime Minister. The White House’s brusqueness with regard to phase A–phase B did anger him, but his disquiet was focused more on Johnson’s advisers – especially the ‘hawkish’ Walt Rostow – than on the President himself. Wilson was consistently favourable in his attitude towards Johnson, although he was less willing to deal with him when bad news had to be dispensed – for example, he sent George Brown to Washington early in January 1968 to confirm the accelerated withdrawal from East of Suez.
So far as Vietnam was concerned, Wilson noted that ‘From time to time, almost half-jokingly, hoping I would say yes, [Johnson] would ask me if I could not just put in a platoon of Highlanders in their kilts with bagpipes, despite their relatively limited military value.’58 Wilson resisted these blandishments for a British troop commitment, however symbolic and small-scale, alongside the forces of the United States and allies such as Australia and New Zealand. The idea of committing troops had little support in Britain, and would jeopardise the country’s ‘neutrality’ stemming from the Geneva Conference of 1954. Moreover, the political controversy in Britain that would no doubt have erupted had Wilson attempted to send British soldiers could well have damaged the Anglo-American relationship more than did his rejection of the American request. Wilson’s peacemaking efforts such as the Commonwealth Peace Mission and the phase A–phase B initiative would help him overcome the anti-Americanism of the Labour left, obviate American pressures for British troops, and would boost his status as a diplomat. Johnson often doubted the likelihood of success of Wilson’s peace moves, but he concurred because the United States’s apparent willingness to participate in talks would help ease allegations of US-led ‘aggression’ in Vietnam. Notwithstanding the President’s reservations towards negotiations ‘by proxy’, the British initiatives failed because neither adversary made any concessions that might have suggested a real likelihood of fruitful talks and because Britain’s close links with the United States – and in particular Wilson’s association with Johnson – meant that British neutrality was at best merely nominal.
Wilson and Johnson both supported the idea that Britain should remain a world power, but the country’s economic troubles were so intractable that prolonging the role was simply not feasible. Partly to uphold the British global position, in November 1964, September 1965 and July 1966 the United States helped to bail-out sterling. Yet Johnson – and most of his advisers – seemed unwilling to accept that Britain’s strategic over-extension exacerbated its economic troubles, and the President was unconcerned about the severity of the economic measures that Britain would have to adopt at home in order to preserve the foreign commitments. Furthermore, Johnson’s pressures on Britain to retain the global role no doubt strengthened Wilson’s already considerable commitment in this respect.
From the beginning of his time in office, Wilson realised the economic strain imposed by high defence spending abroad, but only reluctantly and belatedly did he come to accept the necessity of a more modest strategic role centred on Europe if Britain was ever to attain lasting economic health. Even during the severe crisis of sterling in July 1966, he told Johnson that Britain had every intention of retaining its world power position. Additionally, when sterling was devalued in November 1967, Wilson stressed to the White House that there would be no acceleration of the timetable for withdrawal East of Suez. Both Wilson and Johnson helped to prolong what was in essence a played-out as well as expensive role for Britain. The ultimately less traumatic course would have been to accept sooner that the British world role was no longer viable, thereby reducing the need for the Labour government to resort to ever-harsher budgetary measures at home. The personal relationship between Wilson and Johnson cannot be described as ‘special’, although their mutual dealings were unlikely to prosper when British weakness was felt so painfully in Washington.