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A ‘special relationship’?

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

Jonathan Colman

This book is based mainly on government sources, namely material from the White House, State Department, Foreign Office (FO), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Prime Minister's Office (PREM) and Cabinet (CAB). Private papers consulted include those of Harold Wilson, Foreign Secretary George Brown and Undersecretary of State George Ball. The book explores a period of the Wilson-Johnson relationship. It considers the seven weeks from Wilson's election until he went to see Lyndon B. Johnson on 7-9 December, a formative period in which Britain cultivated American financial support and which saw pre-summit diplomacy over the NATO Multilateral Force (MLF). The book covers the summit in detail, examining the diplomatic exchanges over the Vietnam War, the British commitment East of Suez and the MLF, as well as the interplay of personality between Wilson and Johnson. By exploring the relationship of the two leaders in the years 1964-1968, it seeks to examine their respective attitudes to the Anglo-American relationship. The book then assesses the significance of an alleged Anglo-American strategic-economic 'deal', Wilson's 'Commonwealth Peace Mission' to Vietnam, and another Wilson visit to Washington. It also considers why the personal relationship between Johnson and Wilson suffered such strain when the Labour government 'dissociated' the UK from the latest American measures in Vietnam. Next, the book addresses the period from August 1966-September 1967, during which Wilson launched an intense but abortive effort to initiate peace negotiations over Vietnam, and London announced plans to withdraw from military bases East of Suez.

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Jonathan Colman

The Washington summit was useful to Lyndon B. Johnson mainly because it allowed him to impress upon the British the need for them to retain their traditional 'great power' role and also to allow him to bring the multilateral force (MLF) to a conclusion. Harold Wilson accepted the American view that Britain should preserve its current position in defence, telling the Cabinet on 11 December that 'the most encouraging fact about the conference was America's emphasis on Britain's world wide role'. Johnson not only wanted Wilson to maintain Britain's defence commitments, but to extend them into South Vietnam. After Wilson's visit to Washington, most observers, including the President, anticipated that he would face a serious challenge in explaining what he had agreed to in Washington to the House of Commons in the foreign affairs debate scheduled for 16-17 December.

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Jonathan Colman

From January to April 1965 the character of the Harold Wilson-Lyndon B. Johnson relationship traversed the spectrum from discord to cordiality. Discord erupted over the Vietnam War when Wilson telephoned Washington in the early hours of 11 February to suggest to Johnson an urgent visit to the White House. Wilson agreed to the US initiative, even though the visit might have caused a political storm in Britain had it become public knowledge - it would appear that the United States was dictating British economic measures. Wilson noted that unlike the December summit and the telephone conversation in February, Johnson did not make 'any suggestion of our committing troops to Vietnam nor even any reference to police, medical teams, or teams to handle the flow of refugees'. On 10 April, Patrick Dean advised that to help strengthen the Anglo-American relationship, Britain should provide more support for the United States in Vietnam.

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Jonathan Colman

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.

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Jonathan Colman

In the months January-July 1966 there was particular strain in the relationship between Harold Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. The Labour government won the general election of 31 March with a comfortable majority of ninety-four, but this margin of victory gave rise to a vigorous 'New Left' within the Labour Party which would bedevil Wilson's commitment to Washington. Wilson's concerns in 1966 about the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong had little impact on the thinking of the White House. Wilson repeated the statement of dissociation in the House of Commons. There had been forewarnings that British dissociation from US actions in Vietnam would strain the Anglo-American relationship. British problems led Washington to see Britain more and more, as Henry Brandon put it, 'with humiliating sadness - her prestige and her power position have not been so low for a long-long time'.

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Conclusion

Harold Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson: a ‘special relationship’?

Jonathan Colman

The year or so from late 1967 to the end of 1968 had important implications for the Lyndon B. Johnson-Harold Wilson relationship, as it saw the devaluation of sterling and the demise of the remaining British commitment East of Suez. 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 John F. Kennedy-Harold Macmillan era in 1963, reemerging with the close personal bonds between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. 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. 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.

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Jonathan Colman

New, documentary based interpretations of the Anglo-American relationship underlining the unifying impact of culture and sentiment are less common than those emphasising shared political interests, periodic crises and frequent compromise - what Alex Danchev calls the 'functionalist' model. He points out that the British have been inclined to 'sentimentalise' and 'mytholigise' Anglo-American bonds for reasons of self-interest. A 1968 State Department analysis reflected that Britain and the United States were linked 'in an unparalleled of spheres - nuclear strategy, disarmament, multilateral alliance, weapons technology, intelligence, and arms sales and purchases'. The release in recent years of British and American government documents has enabled primary research on the Anglo-American relationship under Harold Wilson and Lyndon B. Johnson. Finally, this chapter presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book.

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Jonathan Colman

Labour's handling of the British economic crisis occasioned a great deal of concern on the part of the President, given the possibility that sterling might have to be devalued or that any rise in the Bank of England lending rate could precipitate a run on the dollar. There was also concern about the multilateral force (MLF), a matter due to be discussed at the planned summit meeting in Washington early in December. President Lyndon B. Johnson had never feared a Labour victory in Britain, but he felt it necessary to ease any concern in the world at large (especially in financial markets) about the British 'socialists' entering office. Britain's role in the world would depend in large part on the country's economic health. Some of Harold Wilson's colleagues disdained his efforts to gain American help for Britain's economic problems.

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Jonathan Colman

The months May-December 1965 saw several developments in the Harold Wilson-Lyndon B. Johnson relationship. The White House feared, in the light of London's ongoing Defence Review, that economic troubles might compel the Wilson government to reduce its military commitments East of Suez, leaving the United States as the only world policeman. Wilson wanted to reduce the cost of Britain's defence commitments, but he still supported the idea that Britain should continue to play a global role. The documentary record contains few of President Johnson's direct comments about a bargain with Wilson. The measures of the United States to try to ease its own, substantial balance of payments deficit compounded British economic difficulties. A Foreign Office analysis from June 1965 examined the Vietnam War in the context of the Anglo-American relationship. On 25 and 28 June respectively, China and North Vietnam dismissed the Commonwealth Peace Mission.

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Jonathan Colman

The period from October 1967 to December 1968 began with the devaluation of sterling and ended with President Lyndon B. Johnson retiring from office, and therefore constituted the last phase of the Harold Wilson-Johnson relationship. Devaluation did not put a great strain on the Anglo-American relationship, though Wilson had worried about its impact on his standing in the eyes of the President. British plans to withdraw from East of Suez by the mid-1970s, announced on 18 July 1967, had distressed Johnson and his colleagues to the degree that they were less inclined even to keep Wilson informed of developments in Vietnam. On 31 March 1968, Johnson, buffeted by domestic dissent and a mounting death toll in Vietnam, announced that he would not seek another term in office, and the Republican contender, Richard Nixon, won the presidential election on 5 November that year.