270. Letter From the Ambassador to the United Kingdom (Bruce) to Secretary of State Rusk1

Dear Dean:

Last week George Brown telephoned me to say he wished urgently to talk to me privately and unofficially—I was to be alone and he would have Paul Gore-Booth with him.

We met on Friday night2 at the Embassy residence, and no notes were taken. He prefaced his conversation by saying his call was unofficial, and for the exchange of private views. Then he added that what he would discuss was British plans for reducing their military commitments East of Suez and eliminating them entirely in Singapore and Malaysia by 1975.

I told him I was particularly glad he would do so, since before he had phoned me, I had already decided, even in the absence of instructions from home, to ask him to see me as a friend, and allow me to state my strong misgivings over what was proposed, the manner in which the matter was being treated by HMG, and the intention to make a public announcement about it in July, 1967.

I said I had read various memcons on the subject, and wondered whether his people appreciated how dangerous and inflammatory this situation could become.

He answered that he realized this, and was deeply troubled over it. His own judgment differed somewhat from that of certain of his colleagues, and also, in a few particulars, from that of the Foreign Office; Gore-Booth would tell me about the latter.

George then made a lucid and comprehensive survey of the situation, stressing particularly (1) the financial considerations, and (2) the domestic political pressures for an early announcement by his Government of its intention to quit the Singapore region by 1975.

Everything he adduced has already been so amply argued by him in Washington that it is needless for me to repeat it here.

In fact, I am writing you solely because of his insistence that I do so, and that I ask you to communicate his reflections only to the President, and to no one on your and the White House staff!

[Page 570]

Frankly, Dean, I am at a loss to know exactly what he thinks I might convey of which you are not already apprised. I can only guess that after his return from Washington he appreciated (especially in the light of your message to him of April 21,3 and of the adverse comments of the Australians, New Zealanders, Prime Minister Lee, etc.)4 the inherent explosiveness of this material.

The only areas in which he indicated any possible changes were: (1) Although all ground troops should be removed from Singapore and Malaysia by 1975, he might advocate in Cabinet the retention of a considerable Naval and Air Force capability in the area. (2) He thought he might advise the PM not to get frozen on a July announcement date before the Washington meeting on June 2.

Paul Gore-Booth then, at George Brown’s instigation, exposed the Foreign Office case. The most important points were that the FO thought there should be further interchanges between the UK, US and other Governments most concerned before any final decision by HMG; and, secondly, that although the FO officials were without competence to assess the exigencies of British party politics, must a July announcement be made, and also could not any determination on ultimate and complete withdrawal be “fuzzed” in public statements?

In my reply, I hope I did not depart far, if at all, from what you and the President would have wished, and would have authorized me to say.

I was careful again to point out that my remarks were reflective of entirely private opinions.

I thought:

The Cabinet should take no binding decision until the PM had seen the President in Washington on June 2.
This affair (involving the way in which HMG seemed intent on making a unilateral determination, and, announcing it in July, eight years in advance of its being carried into effect) struck me as more likely to cause bitter controversy between the US and UK Governments than any other issue between us during the last few years.
I was unimpressed by the alleged necessity of announcement in July, before the Parliament rose, and equally so by the supposed necessity of having this time table known before the Labour Party Conference in September. Even assuming, from the standpoint of domestic politics, such an action was deemed highly desirable, should not [Page 571] the vastly more important considerations of international relations have paramount place?
I ventured to say that if the PM were to present his decision as a fait accompli to our President on June 2, and to try to justify it, and a July announcement, on the ground of his domestic political pressures, he would be inviting, and in my opinion recklessly, a possible rebuke of really titanic proportions.

We had our own domestic political difficulties in much more acute degree than those afflicting the Labour party. Moreover, the appearance of our being, by inference, deserted (for that is how the project would be analyzed) in the midst of our Vietnamese involvement, by a Government assumed to be our most reliable ally, headed by a Prime Minister who had repeatedly declared himself an “East of Suez Man”, would seem to me unwise, provocative, and absolutely unacceptable to us, to our public opinion, or to our fighting allies, to say nothing of Singapore, Malaysia, and most of the rest of Asia.

I appreciated the fact we were conversing in secrecy, and on a basis of personal friendship. On that same basis, I would ask George to regard my reflex as one I felt sure would be generally shared at home. This was not merely a question of handling a British budget, or planning their future defense dispositions; it involved the whole structure of the Anglo-American relationship, and of stability in Asia.

If I were he, I would advise the PM not to get into a fixed position, to keep his options open, and if he has radically altered his policy about previous East of Suez commitments, to say so when he sees the President—meanwhile to leave the matter undecided.

I apologize for sending you this long and wearisome letter, but having told George I would make, at his insistence, some sort of report, here it is, though it consists so much of “I saids” and does nothing to illuminate this dark problem.

I believe Brown is seriously disturbed over the prospect of trouble on this issue. Fortunately, he has acquired respect for the opinion of Gore-Booth, who shares, within the limits of bureaucratic loyalty, my convinced opposition to the way in which the matter is currently being approached. Brown stated that the affair has no connection in his mind with Britain’s attempt to get into the European complex. Also, he is, more than any other Cabinet member, except possibly the PM, anxious to preserve close comity with USG, and even more than the PM, is sensitive to the fragility of our current connexion.

I would suggest if you feel so inclined, you consider sending a message to him in some such terms as these:

David Bruce has told me of his recent conversation with you, and I have spoken about it to the President. I hope you will arrive at no irretrievable [Page 572] decisions on this dangerous subject before it can be fully discussed when the Prime Minister comes to Washington.”5

Sincerely yours,

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL UK-US. Secret; Nodis.
  2. May 5.
  3. Document 269.
  4. Reference is to meetings held between Defense Minister Healey and representatives of the Malaysian, Singapore, Australian, and New Zealand Governments for the purpose of explaining the new British defense policy.
  5. The Secretary included this wording in a May 12 message to Brown. (Department of State, Bruce Diaries: Lot 64 D 327) During a May 12 meeting, Foreign Secretary Brown informed Bruce that no definitive Cabinet decision on the withdrawal plan would be taken prior to July. (Ibid.)