230. Telegram From the Embassy in the United Kingdom to the Department of State1

1776. From Bruce. Now that Harold Wilson will shortly be Prime Minister, it might be appropriate to speculate about his possible attitude toward Anglo-American negotiations.

I believe we will find him, at least for a considerable time to come, desirous of personally controlling all important aspects of British policy, foreign and domestic. The charge during the campaign that he was a “one man band” was fully justified. In fact, the contribution to victory made by other leaders of the party including those likely to be Cabinet ministers, was relatively minor, except in their own constituencies. Indeed, those who commanded a national audience were often sources of acute embarrassment, since their utterances sometimes required rectification by him.

As a politician, Mr. Wilson clearly demonstrated his superiority in intellectual ability, adroitness, and persuasiveness, over his associates. [Page 465] The disparate elements in Labour ranks became cohesive under his leadership, united by a desire to win. It is to be expected that once the rewards are apportioned, there will be a resumption of internal feuds, exposing the doctrinal factionalism that has long plagued a party representing so many conflicting philosophies.

Intrigued by the manner in which the American President is served by a personal staff, Mr. Wilson is likely to make a small scale adaptation of it for his own use, especially in the early days of office. Since Cabinet officials must sit in Parliament, the decisions usually reached with their advice and concurrence may be made more often than has been customary by the Prime Minister alone, perhaps after consultation with a sort of “kitchen Cabinet” of non-Parliamentarians.

He will have in the key positions of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Minister of Defense, appointees on whose judgment in affairs vital to their own departments and to the national security, he will not completely rely. The same will apply, in lesser degree, to heads of the great domestic areas of government. Consequently, while the PM will preserve the appearance of operating under normal Cabinet conditions (it being remembered that its members have traditionally been accustomed to exercise more independent authority than do ours), he can be expected himself to outline, and support in negotiations, those essential policies requiring agreement between our two countries.

We must therefore prepare ourselves for a greater degree of high level negotiation with the British than has been our previous experience. Callaghan, Healey, and whoever becomes Foreign Minister may eventually be replaced by stronger individuals, but for the present their field of maneuver will be restricted.

The PM will, within a short time, wish to have a date set for conversations with President Johnson, whose re-election is taken for granted in the UK.

It is tempting to try to analyze Mr. Wilson’s character, but to do so would require a magazine length report. No telegraphic summary could do justice to his complicated, often inconsistent, personality; only his future actions will disclose whether his numerous detractors or admirers have properly assessed his intentions and capacities. I would, however, recommend to those in our govt, who must shortly deal with him, an article in the Sunday Telegraph of October 11, by Peregrine Worsthorne entitled “A Man With Fire in His Belly, But.”

I do not entirely subscribe to those views expressed by the author summarized in the statement: “The Labour Govt, should it be elected, will find itself opposing the United States on a major issue of policy (MLF), outraging the West Germans and delighting the Russians all in the first few weeks of office.”

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I consider that Mr. Wilson is too clever by half to commit such an egregious blunder. While he is unlikely to accommodate his foreign policies to those of the United States to the same extent as have a succession of Conservative governments, if our negotiations are skillfully managed from the beginning (but only so) I believe we can, with patience, enter into transactions with him to our mutual benefit. In the particular case of the MLF, though he and most of his party have no liking whatever for it, if he thinks he can gain large national advantages by participating in it, his reluctant assent to doing so will depend on a comprehensive bargain with us.

There is no chance, in my opinion, of his signing the treaty until there have been discussions between him and ourselves on the whole issue of NATO defense, about which he entertains strong convictions and prejudices. Nevertheless he is keenly aware of the paramount necessity of reaching, after extensive argumentation, an accord with us on NATO defense and on the general terms of foreign policy, excepting such questions as trade with Cuba, long term credits to the Soviet Bloc, recognition of Communist China, and other matters which we have been unable to settle to our satisfaction with preceding British governments.

The greatest single danger, provided he is satisfied otherwise, to an agreement with Mr. Wilson on the principle of British adhesion to the MLF (he will certainly under any conditions propose some alterations in the current plans) will, in my estimation, spring from his over sanguine views of what concessions might be obtained from the Soviet Govt in the security field. I do not think that in his frequent trips to Russia he has been hornswoggled, but he has certainly cajoled himself into believing he can negotiate more successfully with the Soviet Govt than any other allied statesman. Until he has had his beard singed, he may attempt to persuade us to use the MLF as a bargaining counter with the Soviets, and to be prepared to abandon it in return for a spectacular Soviet offer on disarmament.

A lesser danger is that in proposing to renounce Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, he will cherish expectations of receiving from us a greater quid pro quo than our own interests should permit. If, by what he calls “renegotiation of the Nassau Pact,” he could arrive at an understanding with the US that he could represent to his own people as establishing a special relationship with us on the control and use of nuclear military weapons, only short of an equal right to a finger on the trigger, he might well consider MLF accession a low price to pay. I think it would be both unwise and unnecessary for us to consider such an arrangement.

Regarding Britain’s entry into the Common Market, or participation in European integration in any form, Mr. Wilson and his party can be expected to be far less likely to move in that direction than have been the Conservatives. He has so forcefully and optimistically pledged himself [Page 467] to the development of trade with the Commonwealth, and imposed such conditions on possible membership in the Common Market, that it would seem probable he will experiment with the Commonwealth idea for at least a year before seriously considering an alternative.

We will find Mr. Wilson a resourceful, tough, realistic, opinionated bargainer, but solely our own lack of equal resourcefulness and determination would enable him to profit at the expense of our more powerful position.

Perhaps these observations are sufficient for the moment. What we should expect from Mr. Wilson on British Guiana, countries East of Suez, the Kennedy Round, balance of payments and other fiscal questions,2 and additional topics of joint concern, cannot be usefully developed at this time.

His domestic programs will have tangential consequences for us. It remains to be ascertained whether he is dedicated to developing class warfare. The small size of his majority may impede swift action aimed at eliminating important sectors of the free enterprise system. His anticipated proposals for taxation are awaited with fear in the City. From a national standpoint, if radical changes occur in fiscal management, as advocated by some of his advisers, there will be a further diminution of confidence, already impaired by a Labor victory, amongst Britain’s creditors. This may prove his most serious problem.

The important thing is for us to be alert, when the time comes, to advocate our own policies, and to persuade him to conform his to them where we have made a reasonable case. We will not find him impervious to reason, but will discover he is sceptical of some of our cherished political, economic and military beliefs. He will be a tough nut to crack.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 15-1 UK. Secret; Priority. Repeated to the Department of Defense, Rome, Paris for Finletter, The Hague, Bonn, Brussels, Moscow, and Luxembourg.
  2. In telegram 1805 from London, October 16, the Embassy commented further: “Wilson will be confronted immediately with over-hanging problem of difficult British balance of payments. In Embassy opinion, 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.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, UK, Vol. 2)