227. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Tour d’Horizon with Harold Wilson, Leader of British Labor Party


  • US
    • The President
    • Mr. Tyler
  • UK
    • Mr. Harold Wilson, M.P.
    • Mrs. Harold Wilson
    • Mr. Giles Wilson (son)
    • Mr. David Ennals (in charge of Research in Labor Party)

The President told Mr. Wilson he was glad to see him again and Mr. Wilson recalled that he had last been in the White House in April 1963,2 though he had come to Washington since then at the time of the funeral ceremony for President Kennedy.

The President said to Mr. Wilson that things seemed to be going a little better in Cyprus, and Mr. Wilson agreed though he commented that it seemed that a vote at the UN on the resolution had been postponed until tomorrow.3 The President said he had prepared a message to send to President Inonu of Turkey that very morning, but had held [Page 459] off from doing so because it seemed that the Turks were coming on board. He feared the postponement implied that there was some difficulty coming from Makarios. The President commented that he had seen Makarios last year,4 and had formed the impression that he was a very hard man. (The President called Mr. McGeorge Bundy on the phone in order to get the latest information on Cyprus.)

The President asked Mr. Wilson why the UK considered it worthwhile to continue to trade with Cuba, which represented only about $5 million, when by so doing the UK was creating so much anti-British feeling over here. The President said that after the Prime Minister’s press conference in Washington on the subject, there had been a great deal of criticism of the UK. Had the Prime Minister merely pointed out that the UK had reduced its trade with Cuba from $55 million to $5 million, the effect would have been favorable instead of unfavorable. Mr. Wilson said that the reason why the Prime Minister had spoken in the way he did was in order to get votes at home by taking the position of a staunch defender of UK policy and interests. The President set forth the reasons that lay behind US policy toward Cuba and said that Castro’s policy was a great threat not only to this hemisphere but to Western security as a whole. He said it was important that this fact should be understood. Mr. Wilson replied with classic British reasoning on not using foreign trade as an instrument of coercion except in exceptional cases. He recalled that when he was President of the Board of Trade he himself had instituted a UK embargo on shipments of arms to the Soviet Union, and that he had at one point cut off all trade with Hungary when the Hungarian government had arrested a British business man. However when it came down to non-strategic commodities, it was British policy to encourage trade across the board. He pointed out that buses could not be considered to be in this category. The President said that the situation must be looked at in terms of Cuba’s needs to keep her economy going. He said that buses represented 80 per cent of Cuban transportation. On the other hand, US wheat sales to the Soviet Union were a one-shot deal and represented less than one per cent of the Soviet Union’s need in wheat.

Mr. Wilson said he realized that this was a difficult issue between the United States and the United Kingdom and that he would do everything he could to keep it from playing a major role in the campaign. He said he thought that the British elections would take place in May or June, because the Tories would not be able to hold out until the last moment. He said he thought there would be a certain amount of anti-American sentiment aroused, in the course of the campaign, by the Conservative party. There were still memories of Suez, and there were back-benchers [Page 460] in the Conservative party who would play up to nationalistic feeling for electoral purposes. He stressed to the President that the Labor party was a strong supporter of NATO and the Atlantic community, and had a broad international outlook which was not the case with the rank and file Conservatives. He said the Labor party wanted to play a positive role in Europe but did not want “to be corralled in a little Europe with the Six.” The Labor party was mindful of the broad interests of the Commonwealth and wanted to play a part which would be in active support of US efforts to maintain worldwide security.

Turning to defense, Mr. Wilson repeated almost verbatim the arguments he had used in his talk with Secretary Rusk.5 He said that a Labor government would want to get rid of the national deterrent which made no sense at all for England today. He said this would save 300 million pounds which could be used to put back the British fleet on the high seas, and would permit an increase in conventional forces so that the UK could play an active and useful role in putting out brush fires when necessary.

The President asked Mr. Wilson for his views on the MLF. Mr. Wilson replied with the standard arguments which he had already expressed at lunch.6 He said that the only circumstances in which the Labor government would support the MLF would be if this were the only way to prevent Germany from acquiring a national nuclear force. He said that he did not think that the German government wanted this, or that there was any support for this in German public opinion. The President asked Mr. Wilson whether he really thought that Germans had abandoned their desire to play a dominant role, and Mr. Wilson said that even if they wanted to do so, the West had the means of preventing this from happening. He felt that the MLF did have the result of putting the German finger on the nuclear trigger. He was apprehensive of a possible development whereby the United States would no longer retain the veto, and Germany might find herself in a position of casting a majority vote by “three to two.” The President said that such a situation would never be permitted to arise.

Mr. Wilson said that in general the British elections would be waged and won on domestic issues, and he himself wanted to wage a campaign against poverty, as President Johnson himself was doing. The President asked Mr. Wilson how he saw the relationship between the UK Labor party and the Democratic party in the United States. Mr. Wilson said he thought that both had much in common. They were both parties of the people, with a strong social sense, and with a desire to develop and change institutions in the interest of the welfare of the majority, [Page 461] whereas the Conservative party was inclined to preserve the vested interests of a minority and to resist change and progress. The President mentioned the London municipal elections coming up in early April and asked Mr. Wilson how he thought they would go. Mr. Wilson said he was reasonably optimistic.

The President mentioned the A-11, the new US interceptor plane. He said it had a speed of 3.2 Mach and a ceiling above 70,000 feet. He said this was a very considerable technical advance which was of great importance to the Free World. He said he had sent a message to the Prime Minister informing him about the announcement before he had made it. Mr. Wilson said that this plane was a very great development and that it pointed up the fact that it was useless for the UK to try to play a role in the same league as the United States in the defense field. He said that the UK just wasn’t “in the same line of country,” and that this was further justification of the Labor party’s policy to get rid of the national deterrent.

In conclusion, Mr. Wilson thanked the President for having received him, and his family, and said he hoped very much to have the chance of seeing him and Mrs. Johnson again in London and in Washington.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL UK-US. Secret. Drafted by Tyler and approved in the White House on June 29. The meeting was held in the White House.
  2. April 2, 1963. Documentation on the Wilson visit is ibid., Conference Files: Lot 66 D 110, CF 2236.
  3. Reference is to Security Council Resolution 186 (1964), adopted unanimously on March 4. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1964, pp. 566-567.
  4. September 1962; see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVI, Document 263.
  5. A memorandum of their conversation is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 12 UK.
  6. No record of this conversation was found.