On 16 October 1964, Harold Wilson became Britain’s new prime minister, when the Labour Party gained power after thirteen years in opposition and by a slim margin.1 Wilson promptly turned to President Johnson for help in the British economic crisis which occurred soon after Labour assumed power, and he gained American assistance in obtaining a major bail-out for sterling. 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. The MLF was a US-sponsored plan to create a mixed-manned NATO fleet of surface vessels armed with Polaris nuclear missiles under an American veto.2 The basic idea was to give West Germany a greater sense of integration with the Western alliance, lest it seek a more independent and potentially destabilising course; National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy described the need for a ‘civilised way of keeping the Germans from getting more dangerous’.3 However, the project had effectively been on hold until the British general election, and a variety of military and political opposition meant that the MLF had garnered little support in the UK from any quarter, and Wilson expressed the opposition by presenting plans for a diluted version of the project known as the Atlantic Nuclear Force (ANF). By this means the MLF project might be disabled without antagonising President Johnson. Several emissaries came from Washington to London to try to win Wilson over on the MLF, some of whom tried to exploit his commitment to the White House by asserting that the President was resolutely in favour of the project. However, in a critical meeting the day before he was due to see Wilson, Johnson’s growing weariness with the project led him to assert his will over the scheme’s supporters in the State Department. This was a formative period in relations between the Labour government and the United States, characterised above all by Wilson’s determination to secure his ties with the White House, in keeping with his personal inclinations and his view that close cooperation with Washington was fundamental to British foreign policy.
The Labour victory
President 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. Although the news that China had detonated an atomic bomb and that Khrushchev had been ousted from power stole the international headlines in the United States, Johnson affirmed on television that Labour ‘are our friends, as the Conservatives before them are our friends, and as governments of both parties have been our friends for generations’. The response of official Washington to Labour’s success, noted a Foreign Office assessment, was ‘almost routine and without surprise’. Most US officials had long ago ‘conquered their earlier doubts about dealing with socialists on major foreign affairs problems’.4 Johnson telephoned his congratulations to Wilson as soon as the results were out, and suggested that they ‘would have to meet with each other as soon as possible’, to discuss defence issues.5 The President had not felt much enthusiasm for contacting the British leader; he was merely following Bundy’s suggestion to ‘make a phone call suggesting a meeting after the US election, since Harold Wilson couldn’t be kept away from the White House anyway and the President might as well take the initiative’.6 But Wilson responded effusively: ‘my colleagues and I are convinced that close friendship and cooperation between us is just as essential now as it has been in the past’. He looked forward ‘to continuing the close and confidential communication which you have already begun and which has existed between successive Presidents of the United States and Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom’.7
The Labour victory prompted Bruce to assess Wilson’s ‘possible attitude towards Anglo-American negotiations’. Washington would find him, Bruce said, ‘desirous of personally controlling all important aspects of British policy, foreign and domestic … The charge during the campaign that Wilson was a “one-man band” was fully justified’. As he was ‘intrigued by the manner in which the American President is served by a small personal staff, Mr. Wilson is likely to make a small scale adaptation of it for his own use’. Wilson would have, in the figures of Patrick Gordon Walker (Foreign Secretary), James Callaghan (Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Denis Healey (Minister of Defence), ‘appointees on whose judgment in affairs vital to their own departments and to the national security, he will not completely rely’. Washington should prepare itself ‘for a greater degree of high-level negotiation with the British than has been our previous experience’. Callaghan, Healey and Gordon Walker ‘may eventually be replaced by stronger individuals’, said Bruce, ‘but for the present their field of manoeuvre will be restricted’.8
Towards the summit
Wilson and Johnson had met in March 1964, when the then leader of the opposition had visited Washington partly in order to, as Rusk told the President, ‘enhance his public image in Britain’.9 During the meeting Johnson tried to browbeat Wilson for the fact that Britain was selling a fleet of British Leyland buses to communist Cuba.10 The President was never placated on this matter, regarding it almost as a betrayal by the British. As late as February 1968, Michael Palliser, Wilson’s Foreign Office Private Secretary, had cause to say that ‘The President was obsessional about Cuban buses and in any conversation with anybody about Britain they always came up.’11 But a date had to be set for the next meeting with Johnson, and after negotiation it was finally arranged that Wilson would arrive in Washington on the evening of Sunday 6 December, with the Monday and Tuesday to be spent in talks with Johnson. The US Embassy noted on 4 December that the summit was more important to London than to Washington. The discussions were ‘regarded by Labour leaders as of [the] utmost importance to Anglo-American relations and the future of Western strategic planning and cooperation’.12 In particular, Wilson had long looked forward to meeting Johnson in the capacity of Prime Minister. Early in 1964, for example, he told the academic and White House adviser Richard Neustadt that if Labour won the election:
we assume that the first thing we were to make our numbers one another [sic], that we make the first visit to establish broad lines of policy which is always done. It was done very successfully between Macmillan and Eisenhower, for example. And from that stage on, to work out what the other arrangements would be …13
Wilson gave much thought to how he was going to speak to the President. He told Bruce on 19 November that he was interested in discussing the problems of ‘political management … and how the British parliamentary system worked’, as a means of opening up cordial discussions. In addition to the MLF, Wilson wanted to discuss with Johnson ‘the general question of Britain’s role in the world’.14 Defence talks at Chequers on 19–22 November15 had ‘highlighted the fact that Britain was trying … to fulfil three roles – the independent nuclear deterrent role, the conventional role in Europe, and a world role East of Suez – without the necessary economic resources’. Knowing how to please the Americans, Wilson indicated that ‘the most important role for Britain for the future would be in the defence of Western interests East of Suez’. He thought that ‘the President and the Defence Department in Washington would have similar views’.16 His aims for the meeting were grandiose. He sought to make a plea for US–UK unity which would, he hoped, create an impact like that produced by Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. Burke Trend, Secretary to the Cabinet, for example, suggested to the Prime Minister on 2 December that:
the overriding purpose of your visit … is to secure a broad meeting of minds between yourself and the President on what the world is going to look like from 1965 onwards and what the United States and United Kingdom jointly should do about it. Your object, as I see it, should be to sell to the President the basic philosophy of the Chequers weekend, your view of the world scene as a whole, both because it is right and because it is by worldwide collaboration that we shall preserve, unspoken, the ‘special relationship’.17
Wilson was delighted by Trend’s arguments: he jotted on the margin of the memorandum that ‘This is the best sense I have seen on this.’ He would keep the document on the top of his Washington briefs, ‘ready for quick reference’.
British economic difficulties
Britain’s role in the world would depend in large part on the country’s economic health. David Bruce recognised that Wilson would be ‘confronted immediately with [the] over-hanging problem of difficult British balance of payment payments’. According to Bruce, these problems ‘may assume grave proportions, although much of it now seems suppressed, dealt with by short-term borrowing and hidden from public eye and consciousness’.19 Bruce also suggested that the slim Labour majority ‘may impede swift action aimed at eliminating sectors of the free enterprise system’, but, all the same, Labour’s ‘anticipated proposals for taxation are awaited with fear in the City’. If there were ‘radical changes … in fiscal management, as advocated by some of [Wilson’s] advisers, there will be a further diminuition of confidence, already impaired by a Labour victory, amongst Britain’s creditors’.20 On 24 October, Wilson confided his worries on such matters to Johnson, and in doing so he tried to assuage the President’s own concerns for the dollar. Wilson’s ‘first task on assuming office’, he stated, had been ‘to undertake … a thorough review of our present financial and economic situation’. The situation ‘is even worse than we had supposed’, with a ‘probable deficit on external account for this year which may be as high as £800 million’. Wilson was therefore ‘determined to take firm remedial measures’, and had ‘considered and rejected two alternative courses of action’. He would not even refer explicitly to the first alternative, which was to devalue sterling (then set at a parity of $2.80). Devaluation had been ‘rejected … now, and for all time’. He also opposed the second option, an increase in the Bank of England lending rate, ‘in principle both because of its restrictive effect on the economy and because of its impact on your own problems, especially at this time’, he told Johnson. The following Monday, Wilson told the President, ‘the government will be telling the nation what the situation is and announcing an eight point programme to set the economy moving on the right lines’. The plan’s key measures were a surcharge on certain imports and various export rebates, despite the fact that these actions contravened the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Wilson ‘thought it right’ to tell Johnson ‘what we propose in advance of any public statement, first, because I set great store by close and continuing co-operation with the American administration over the whole international field, economic and commercial’. Britain’s measures were ‘essential if we are to have a strong economy as a basis for playing our proper part in international affairs’ and retaining close bonds with the United States.21
The exigencies of the British economic situation were such that in his letter Wilson was not consulting but informing Johnson of the measures – so that ‘public statements’ by the US Government about them were ‘necessarily somewhat optimistic’ since it was ‘faced by [a] fait accompli’.22 Yet the President was pleased that sterling had not been devalued, for the move might cause serious disruption to the world trading system and undermine the United States’s own economic position. He believed that devaluation could ‘easily throw the world economy into the kind of vicious cycle that had been so disastrous between 1929 and 1933’.23 However, in late 1964 Wilson had overrated Johnson’s ability to help with the British economic crisis, as there was no intimation of any unilateral US government bail-out, which, it can plausibly be suggested, the Prime Minister had sought from the President. Lord Cromer, the Governor of the Bank of England, told Wilson on 18 November that ‘a precipitate appeal to the United States for direct help might prejudice next month’s talks in Washington’.24 In his dealings with Congress, whose consent would be needed for a unilateral US Government loan to the British, Johnson gave priority to his ‘Great Society’ programme of social legislation. But the initial British economic measures did seem to strike the right note in the White House. In a telephone conversation with the President on 24 October, Bundy expressed satisfaction that London had made no move to devalue the pound or to increase the Bank rate, and was pleased that the import surcharge was only a temporary measure: all told, the British were ‘playing ball’.25 Johnson sent Wilson a brief but supportive letter (drafted by Bundy) the same day, regretting ‘the recourse to restrictive measures’ but recognising ‘the need for strong action in defence of sterling’. The success of ‘protecting the pound … will reinforce the position of the whole free world’.26 Thus fortified, Wilson responded that his economic plan had ‘been very well received both at home and abroad’. Most commentators, he said, regarded it as a ‘sensible start to a vigorous attack on our problems’. Sterling was ‘already strengthening and the stock market is more than steady’. There had been ‘a few squeals from overseas, but these are mostly for the record’.27
Despite Wilson’s optimism, the British economic measures produced only a short-lived improvement. A British analysis noted that ‘the size of the [balance of payments] deficit and the hostile reception abroad of the import surcharge’ worried financial analysts. Various ministerial statements, including one from Gordon Walker on 27 October, indicated that the Government had no plans to raise the Bank rate. This, said the report, ‘seemed to confirm that the Government did not intend to deal with the payments problem by restraining domestic demand’. Reports spread of imminent devaluation, while the budget of 11 November was not deflationary enough to please the bankers.28 Referring to the renewed outflow of sterling, on 22 November Johnson suggested to Gardner Ackley, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, that the ‘thing that kicked it off’ was ‘a billion dollars worth of expenditure’ in the budget, which ‘just scared everybody’. Ackley responded by saying that the British had ‘handled it pretty ineptly’, including the fact that Wilson had intimated that the Bank rate would be raised but then failed to make an adjustment when expected.29 Two days later, Johnson commented of the Labour government’s indiscretions that it ‘Looks like we ought to get them to quit talking’.30 Wilson told the President on 19 November that sterling had been ‘under strong pressure for several days’, and that Britain intended ‘to draw at the beginning of next month enough of our IMF standby to repay the short-term credit we have received from the Federal Reserve and the other central banks’. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s previous assurance, it was also necessary to raise the Bank rate. He was ‘very reluctant to do this since it would run counter to the long-term policies we are developing for dealing with our basic economic problems’, and knew that ‘an increase in our Bank rate would be as unwelcome to you as it would be to us’.31 It would oblige the United States government to do likewise in order to prevent an outflow of dollars – Johnson noted in a telephone conversation a few days later that ‘When you agree to pay your investor 7 per cent in England he’s not very interested in 4 per cent in America.’32
In the letter of 19 November, Wilson told Johnson that ‘if we are to outmanoeuvre the speculators over the short term and to give our longer term policies the chance to mature, we need substantial reinforcement for sterling as rapidly as possible’. The British government therefore intended to ‘approach the IMF for a further standby of $1,000 million; and we shall greatly value your support’.33 The Bank rate was duly raised from 5 to 7 per cent on 23 November, and the lending rate in the United States also had to be raised. Johnson complained on 25 November that ‘our short-term’s gone up from 3.6 to 3.8. Every time you go up a point it costs us many millions and our interest on our debt’s going to go way up … money’s going to get tighter and our prosperity’s going to dip and our tax money’s going to dip, our expenses going up … we got a real serious thing on our hands’.34 That day Britain took a $3 billion short-term loan from, as Bruce noted in his diary, ‘European central banks, the United States, and others, which should be sufficient to put to rout speculators against the pound’. The United States ‘is providing $1 billion of these credits, a quarter from the Export-Import Bank, the rest from the Federal Reserve’.35 It was the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve that made the running to help Britain obtain the bailout;36 but Wilson bore an exaggerated sense of gratitude to Johnson himself, telling Bruce that ‘the support of President Johnson and the whole of the United States Administration … had been absolutely magnificent’. Britain’s financial crisis had ‘made clear’ just who were Britain’s ‘friends’. Wilson even invoked the analogy of nuclear war: the prospect of devaluation was like ‘look[ing] down into the abyss … much as President Kennedy had done in the nuclear context at the time of Cuba’.37
Some of Wilson’s colleagues disdained his efforts to gain American help for Britain’s economic problems. Housing Minister Richard Crossman noted in his diary in January 1965 that ‘By getting Lyndon Johnson firmly on his side [Wilson] has convinced himself at least that we can get through without the devaluation of the pound because we are now built into the American system’.38 Paymaster General George Wigg recorded in his memoirs Wilson’s argument that to devalue the pound would transfer Britain’s problems ‘without warning, to the Americans’, an approach which would have ‘angered President Johnson and endangered future Anglo-American relations’. Wigg contended that Wilson’s solicitude about Johnson’s reactions to the British economic measures was a ‘misjudgment’, as there was ‘no sign’ that Johnson ‘ever regarded Wilson’s policies with the respect they were supposed to have earned’. Wilson’s continued postponement of the devaluation of sterling until 1967 meant that Britain ‘paid a high price, a very high price in economic terms, for nothing’.39 But Wilson was sometimes less confident about the wisdom of refusing to devalue than he tended to appear. Economist Walter Heller told the President on 19 November 1964 that the Prime Minister had stated ‘somewhat wistfully’ that ‘we couldn’t devalue on the first day but it was then or never’. Wilson ‘sounded as though he wishes he’d done it the first day … that would have put [Britain] in a stronger competitive position’.40 It is clear, though, that Wilson’s desire to avoid devaluation was intimately connected with his interest in close Anglo-American relations and a continued major international role for the UK.41 In August 1965, for example, Wilson ‘reminded’ Richard Neustadt of his ‘concern’ for the United States ‘last October; [sic] Bank rate and devaluation decisions were influenced, he said, by Johnson’s situation politically’.42 Francis Bator of the National Security Council told Johnson in June 1967 that Wilson’s continued opposition to devaluation ‘reflected, in part, ‘our repeated warnings during the rough period in 1964–1966 that we regard devaluation as a mortal sin’.43 But while Wilson was keen to bolster his standing in the eyes of American policymakers there were concerns in Washington about the economic competence of the Labour government – in a conversation with Johnson on 24 November Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon questioned whether Wilson and his colleagues ‘know what they are doing’.44
In the early days of his government, Wilson discussed the MLF, the planned mixed-manned NATO fleet of nuclear-armed surface vessels, with Denis Healey and Patrick Gordon Walker.45 In his role as Foreign Secretary the unexciting Gordon Walker was not likely to upset the Americans nor was he likely to steal the spotlight from Wilson’s own diplomacy. He stressed to Bruce on 19 October that ‘The traditional close relationship between the US and the UK would be the cornerstone of British foreign policy’.46 While in Washington, on 27 October, the Foreign Secretary outlined the tentative British counterproposal to the MLF, the ANF. The ANF was a diluted version of the MLF, a ‘nuclear force consisting of British V-bombers, British Polaris submarines, and in which a mixed manned element … which would play a less conspicuous role than originally planned’. The British would ‘not participate in the mixed-manned MLF element’.47 Later, Richard Neustadt told Johnson of Wilson’s problems with the MLF: ‘The British separate the principle of mixed-manning from the principle of the surface force’. They ‘argue that the force is too vulnerable, expensive, and difficult to man’, since the fleet lacks ‘popular appeal’ among the armed forces. The ‘British want the least number of surface ships and the smallest manpower and financial contribution they can get away with’. But despite the technical arguments, the main British inhibitions related to Wilson’s domestic position, the analysis noted: the Prime Minister ‘has set the highest priority on forging a unified government and a unified party’. So far he had succeeded, but he remained vulnerable: ‘the surface ship problem could undo much of what has been accomplished’. There was ‘no influential support for the surface ships in the United Kingdom’. In fact, there was ‘outright hostility toward the concept from the public (the press), the military, the Tories, and within the Labour Government, with George Brown, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, being the most vehement opponent’.48 The ANF proposal was not badly received in Washington. Bundy told Johnson on 8 November that the UK proposal represented ‘a much more flexible and interested posture’ than the one that Labour had taken in opposition.49 At the defence discussions at Chequers on 21–22 November Wilson soon obtained a mandate for the ANF.50 However, on 19 November, Trend had told him of the continued vigorous support in the State Department for the MLF.51 The main concern was that British failure ‘to participate in the mixed-manned element’ was effectively a form of national chauvinism which ‘could be taken by the Germans as a form of discrimination – [the] MLF was considered good enough for Germany but not good enough for the UK’.52 Wilson knew not to disparage the Germans, because Johnson was especially concerned that West Germany must be treated equitably in Atlantic affairs. He made this point in an address at Georgetown University in Washington on 3 December. Oliver Wright, Wilson’s Foreign Office Private Secretary, told him on 5 December that ‘in this speech the President was probably trying to set the tone for your visit to Washington’.53
In the run-up to the conference the State Department pushed the case for the MLF, not least because Johnson himself had indicated in July that it would be important ‘to move ahead promptly with this major undertaking in the last months of 1964’.54 On 25 November, Richard Neustadt visited London to speak to Wilson about the MLF. The Prime Minister told Neustadt that as he and the President were ‘politicians’, they could deal with one another as such about the project, pragmatically and with due consideration to one another’s needs. But all the same Wilson expected a clash with Johnson over the MLF: they were on a ‘collision course’. At least in the presence of Neustadt, though, he was resolute, saying that he had ‘no intention of tearing up my papers and going home if the President should respond with a “no”’. He anticipated a similar posture from the President, who, owing to the United States’s previous declarations of support for the MLF, could not ‘tear up what the American government had said before in the past two years’.55 Undersecretary of State George Ball, who visited London on 30 November, reinforced Wilson’s perception that Johnson was firmly in favour of the MLF. Wilson lamented to him that he faced ‘political problems – both domestic, and in the field of foreign affairs’, in contrast to Johnson, who had ‘smashed’ the opposition in his election. Wilson told Ball that ‘it was popular to take a Gaullist line in Britain’, so he ‘had to come back from Washington in a very strong position, not perhaps next week but at least at the end of January’.56 The Prime Minister’s version of the encounter with Ball is more dramatic than the official State Department record, indicating that, in effect, Ball presented an ultimatum: he must accept the MLF or face a rift with Johnson. This was an attempt to exploit Wilson’s personal commitment to the President. According to Wilson, Ball made it clear that if Britain was going to reject the MLF ‘it would be better if I cancelled my visit. I said I would begin the negotiations when I reached Washington, not before.’57
Wilson’s account is overdramatised in order to show his resolution and singlemindedness against Ball’s pro-MLF zeal, and to demonstrate his resistance to the implicit threat of damaged relations with Johnson. Yet Wilson’s record that Ball indicated that ‘it would be better if I cancelled my visit’ if Britain was not willing to join the MLF rings true, not least because the Undersecretary was a keen supporter of the mutually reinforcing goals of the MLF and European political unity. Moreover, Wilson was right to doubt that Ball’s ‘line … had been authorised by the White House’.58 In his tough message to Wilson, the Undersecretary did not represent Johnson’s views, who at best saw the discussions of the American emissaries with Wilson as fact-finding missions. George Brown realised that Ball was overstepping the mark. He wrote to Wilson on 30 November to say that Ball had seen him, to ‘talk chiefly about the MLF’. According to Brown, Ball said that ‘on the authority of the President, he … did not foresee the possibility of any scheme going forward that did not involve UK participation in a mixed manned nuclear surface fleet’. Ball elaborated to say that Johnson ‘would not be interested in any development from your forthcoming talks if the UK did not accept such participation, and that no agreement was likely … unless this condition was met’. Prompted by David Bruce, who was present, Ball said that ‘he had not meant to imply that the talks were conditional on our acceptance of this outcome, but he did not really withdraw from the position he had taken’.59 Pressure from Ball and other figures for Wilson to give way on the MLF occasioned some criticism in London. Trend argued to Wilson on 2 December that ‘the recent reconnaissance trips of Neustadt and Ball … have obscured the wood by highlighting particular trees … advice on how to handle the President, the present rate of his pulse etc. etc. is useful’ but ‘too much of the recent toing and froing has smacked of lobbying by one interest or another no less insidious for being less fanatical’. It ‘should be strenuously resisted’.60
Johnson and the MLF
On 13 November Nicholas Henderson, Foreign Office Private Secretary to Gordon Walker, told Oliver Wright of developments in the White House’s handling of the MLF. Chester Cooper, ‘a member of the CIA, who now works with Mac Bundy in the White House’, had indicated that ‘from now on the White House staff would be taking a much closer interest than hitherto in the multilateral force, and the responsibility for this subject which [Walt] Rostow and his co-fanatics in the State Department would be correspondingly diminished’. Johnson’s ‘interests, experience and preoccupations had inevitably lain in the domestic field since he became President, but now that he had secured an overwhelming public mandate it was likely that he would turn his attention to the foreign field’. The President was ‘thought to want to make an important move about the Atlantic alliance’. The ‘next few weeks would be crucial ones for him in shaping a policy’, and Wilson’s visit was ‘therefore most timely’.61 In a meeting at the White House on 10 April 1964, Johnson had warned against trying to ‘shove’ the MLF ‘down the throats of the potential participants’62 – a warning that seemed to have little impact upon Ball and other State Department advocates of the scheme. In a memorandum of 17 December, Johnson noted the MLF’s theoretical benefits:
- … it will lead the UK out of the field of strategic deterrence and thus reduce by one the number of powers aiming at this kind of nuclear strength.
- … it will greatly reduce the danger of any separate nuclear adventure by the Germans.
- … it will advance the principle and practice of collective strategic defence, as against the proliferation of separate nuclear deterrents.63
Although he accepted that the MLF might benefit the Western alliance, the pragmatic Johnson grew less and less convinced that it was worth pursuing. His ambivalence precipitated a power struggle among his advisers to win him over on the best approach. Among those advisers Bundy was the most active in disseminating his views. On 25 November, he wrote to Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, expressing some pragmatic and well-considered views. In an influential paper, Bundy argued that Johnson should be persuaded to let the MLF ‘sink out of sight … we should now ask the President for authority to work toward a future in which the MLF does not come into existence’. It seemed ‘increasingly clear’, said Bundy, ‘that the costs of success would be prohibitive’. Bundy surmised correctly that Johnson ‘does not feel the kind of personal Presidential engagement in the MLF itself which would make it difficult for him to strike out on a new course if we can find one which he finds better’.64
Later, Johnson asked Bundy why Kennedy had been ‘tentative about the MLF’. Bundy responded that ‘there were different reasons at different times, but in the last half of 1963 the reasons were, I think, dominated by his feeling that if he could only get the MLF by major and intense US pressure, it was not worth it’. Bundy told Johnson that he felt ‘we have not given you a full, fair statement of the case against pressing hard now for the MLF’, and then went on to outline some objections to the MLF similar to those he had presented to Rusk, including the argument that the MLF would ‘make very heavy demands on Presidential leadership, and there are better things for the President to do’. It was ‘all very well’ for people such as Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence, to talk of ‘converting the Senate, but the man who will really have to do it is the President’. Even if Wilson said ‘yes’ to British membership of the MLF ‘there will be further problems of timing and tactics’ and ‘there will still be quite a political charade to be played out’. Bundy confronted the President with two options: on the one hand, ‘If you go full steam ahead, you face a long, hard political fight, a major confrontation with de Gaulle, and the possibility of defeat or delay which would gravely damage the prestige of the President’. On the other hand, ‘if you go half speed ahead, there will probably be no MLF, but it will not be your fault alone’. Johnson would have ‘kept to the letter and spirit of the Kennedy readiness to move if the Europeans wanted it’, rather than simply abandoning the initiative in the face of British intransigence. There will be ‘plenty of opportunities for debate, discussion and delay, and for a gradual and ceremonial burial’, said Bundy, suggesting this course. The President’s ‘wisdom, caution and good judgement will have the praise of liberals, of military men, of the British, of the French, and of many Germans – and you will have freedom to make a different choice later if you wish’.65
Johnson supported these pragmatic ideas about the MLF more than he did the views of ideologues such as Ball and Rostow. He had never been keen on the MLF; he had told Bundy that ‘I don’t want to bring any more hands on the [nuclear] button than we already got if we can avoid it’.66 The President’s political savvy and experience gave him other reasons to question the wisdom of the scheme. On Sunday 6 December, when Wilson was already settled at the British Embassy in Washington, there was a rambling meeting about Wilson and the MLF attended by the President, Ball, McNamara, Rusk, Bundy and Bruce. Ball argued that if the President failed to ‘push Wilson hard, this would be a great surprise … after what the President’s emissaries had said in London’ (Ball was clearly thinking of his own representations to Wilson). Failure to push Wilson would ‘confirm’ for the Prime Minister ‘a treasured suspicion that Washington was not really intent on a success for [the] MLF’. But Johnson was not persuaded. He had been ‘reading and thinking hard’ about the MLF, noting that William Fulbright, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had argued that there was ‘no need for it’. The MLF ‘would command only a minority of votes in the Senate’, especially if Britain was ‘dragged’ into the project. Invoking the analogy of the Senate’s rejection of the League of Nations in 1920, Johnson feared that he might end up ‘in the position of Woodrow Wilson, and discover that a treaty he had advocated was repudiated by the Congress’. Johnson’s election victory over Barry Goldwater was ‘a defeat for screw-ballism and an endorsement of sanity’ in foreign relations, but it was not enough to justify pursuing the MLF. He urged his advisers to be more ‘prudent about what you press me to go for’.67
Johnson certainly had no desire to antagonise Congress over the MLF, as the support of the legislature was essential for his vision of a ‘Great Society’. Some leading senators had warned Johnson that:
we are much concerned that instead of cementing the Alliance, the MLF might create further rifts and tensions within it … the proposal could at best be an Anglo-German-American force. But with the Labour Party in staunch opposition … British participation is at least uncertain. To coerce Great Britain into participation out of fear of a German–American pact is hardly consistent with an Alliance of sovereign and friendly states sensitive to mutual interests and viewpoints. Alternatively, without British participation, the MLF would become a German–American force whose potential implications would decidedly be drastic.68
In the 6 December meeting, Johnson upbraided his advisers, saying that nobody outside the administration ‘from right to left’ of the political spectrum at home or abroad wanted the MLF: the ‘French weren’t for it; the Italian position was obscure; and the British weren’t for it … one cannot push a thing if everyone’s against it’, he said. Johnson did not intend to have ‘a showdown’ with Wilson because if the Prime Minister and his European counterparts did not support the MLF, ‘then to hell with it’. However, the President would at first try to get Wilson to accept: ‘He’ll say no and then we’ll shove him a bit and agree that both have to talk with the Germans’, who would not support the British ANF proposals.69 Johnson had turned away from the MLF irrevocably, and the meetings with Wilson would surely reflect this.
American reservations towards Wilson
There was little enthusiasm in Washington for Wilson’s visit. Richard Neustadt wrote that he expected the Prime Minister to ‘arrive … with recollections of the Anglo-American relationship and hopes for his own personal relationship which are quite different from perceptions of reality held by many American officials’,70 who regarded the ties between Britain and the United States in purely functional rather than sentimental terms. On 29 November, Neustadt told Derek Mitchell, Wilson’s principal private secretary, that ‘the Prime Minister should not bank on everything going his way when he got face to face with the President’. Although there was much goodwill in Washington ‘towards the UK and its representatives’, Johnson was ‘not looking forward to the talks with anything approaching the same eagerness as the Prime Minister’. The President had ‘many other problems on his mind, for example Southeast Asia and a number of personnel matters. Thus preoccupied he looked forward to next weekend as more of a chore than a major act of policy’.71 The White House understood, said Neustadt:
that the Prime Minister had received a strong impression from his personal meeting with the President which he had when he was leader of the Opposition; and that he had been moved by the warmth of the message which was sent to him when he took up office. But the President himself had not the same recollection of the earlier meeting and the warm message of greeting was no more than the result of an instruction to officials to draft a warm message of greeting.72
No one in Washington was ‘quite sure what kind of treatment the President would offer’. It might be the ‘overwhelming friendliness treatment’, either ‘genuine or simulated’. It could also be the ‘arm around the shoulder, talking eyeball-toeyeball treatment’. In this approach ‘the President’s gaze usually went through the other persons head’. Alternatively, Johnson could dispense the ‘Gary Cooper Treatment’, rocking back and forth in his chair and listening ‘with such gruelling patience that his opponent was usually driven into the sands of silence’. Regardless of Johnson’s personal approach, the White House feared that Wilson would “do a Macmillan” on the President; that is to say, that he would lead the President up the garden path in the way that his predecessor had been led up the garden path over Skybolt’ in 1962 – the view was that in the run-up to the Nassau conference Macmillan played up the crisis caused by the American cancellation of Skybolt in order to put pressure on the Administration, and there were fears that Wilson might in some comparable way try to exploit the vulnerability of the White House on the matter of the MLF. Mitchell responded to Neustadt by explaining that Wilson ‘assumed he had a personal affinity with the President and that if he were disabused of this in too rude or unfeeling a way he might take it very hard’. This could result in ‘a disillusionment about Anglo-American relations which would be damaging to both parties’.73
On 5 December, Bundy underlined to Johnson the importance of the visit in the eyes of the Prime Minister. Wilson had ‘staked a great deal on having a “successful” visit’. As it had been the ‘habit of American Presidents for the last ten years … to portray all visits of Prime Ministers as “successful” … if Wilson does not have a success with you, it will be extremely damaging for him’ at home, especially with his small majority in the Commons. Personal factors exacerbated the delicacy of the situation: ‘both he and his Cabinet are great admirers of your Administration, as exemplified at the Cabinet level by McNamara, and at the political level by your own massive achievement and victory’ in the presidential election. Yet despite the Prime Minister’s vulnerability, Bundy advised the President that Wilson was not to be disparaged, for he had a number of weapons at his disposal. Remembering the Prime Minister’s previous associations with the Labour left, but overrating the extent to which these were authentic convictions, Bundy argued that Wilson was ‘a man whose background has made him genuinely hostile to conservatives and to many of the values which Socialists normally attach to our own great industrial society’. When ‘you joke about Ivy League types’, Bundy told the President, ‘at least nowadays – you are playing a game’. But when Wilson ‘gets angry at Tories and bankers, he is not. You are strong and he is weak, and you have a much longer experience of real power’. If Wilson came to ‘feel that there was no way for him to get a success, he might choose to exploit failure and to move in an emotionally anti-American way’. Wilson’s commitment to Johnson led Bundy to regard this ‘as a low probability and one which can be prevented entirely by your own personal dealings with him, but you may want to have it in mind’.74
Prior to the visit, Bruce warned Washington that the Prime Minister was ‘too steeped in the early fifties, too devoted to outmoded dogmas, too suspicious of the motives of others. It may well be that he believes in the necessity for class warfare to extirpate residual privileges’. ‘Certainly,’ argued Bruce, ‘he detests the Conservative Establishment, and regards bankers, financiers, industrialists and large landowners as leagued in the desire to oppress the commonality’.75 Equally misplaced was a bizarre report to Bundy from Richard Helms of the CIA, ‘concerning the rumours current in London of the impending divorce of Harold Wilson’s personal secretary [Marcia Williams] and its possible political implications’.76 One writer indicates that Johnson revelled in this hearsay about Wilson.77 Bruce, however, noted that when discussing the Prime Minister’s impending visit on 30 November, the President ‘made no allusion to what I had been confidentially told was his prejudice against the Prime Minister, largely founded on gossip that he had conducted an irregular connection with his secretary’.78 But the salaciousness of the CIA report could only have exacerbated Johnson’s reservations towards Wilson.
An aide in the administration, Douglas Cater, was concerned that Johnson should assert himself vigorously over the MLF, otherwise Wilson would exploit the opportunity to claim himself as a victor in the talks. Cater recognised that Wilson was keen to present himself as a statesman as well as a politician, and used as a parallel the alleged opportunism of Harold Macmillan, who:
tried to create an image of himself as mediator and world statesman. He was not particularly successful – as when he tried to claim credit for getting talks going on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But he had to compete with President Kennedy, who effectively asserted the natural dominance of the United States in Western affairs. The longer the President delays demonstrating his grasp of the problems of the Alliance … the greater the chance that Wilson will gain an advantage in the mass media – possibly even making the President look like a ‘me-tooer’ before he has a chance to get his own initiative going.79
On 6 December, Bundy advised Johnson to warn Wilson ‘about the destructive effects of painting [it] his way’, as did Conservative Prime Minster Alec Dou-glas-Home on the Cuban buses issue earlier that year. The key principle ‘on every issue should be that it is a matter of exploration and discussion without decisions’. Thus Wilson could not say that he had torpedoed the MLF, nor would the United States’s other European allies gain the impression of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to achieve the same end. There was little affection for Wilson in Washington, but how this attitude would influence the summit meeting would soon be revealed.