273. Telegram From Prime Minister Wilson to President Johnson1

Thank you for your message of July 6.2

As you know, the General Assembly has been having a week’s breathing space in which to see whether agreement can be reached on any form of words.3 But all the signs so far bear out your doubts about the likelihood of any significant closing of the gap between the two positions taken in the Assembly on the main issue. I have found it reassuring that a substantial part of the membership—and notably the Latin Americans—insisted on a balanced resolution (providing for an end to the state of belligerency as well as Israel’s withdrawal), or none. The Soviet Union and the less reasonable Arabs have certainly been given good cause for reconsidering, though I also agree with you that it may [Page 576] be a little time before any shift becomes discernible. But at least the atmosphere is now very different from what it was when the slanging match first began. It is also a good sign that the Security Council have now agreed to permit U Thant to arrange with the Israelis and Egyptians for United Nations troops to be stationed along the sides of the canal.4 This agreement should be used as a first step towards establishing a U.N. presence elsewhere in the area. It is a hopeful sign too that U Thant has now appointed a Swede to pursue the refugee problem. A really determined and imaginative effort by the international community is now needed to solve this problem. We ought perhaps to examine what part a comprehensive development plan might play in all this. In general I think we should go on concentrating through the Security Council, on discussion of practical matters, pressing particularly for the appointment of a representative of the Secretary General, on developing the UN presence in the area and tackling the issues affecting freedom of passage through the water-ways.

As regards the Far East we have, as I am sure you know, been giving very earnest and deep consideration to this problem since I saw you last month. We have discussed it here with Harold Holt, Marshall from New Zealand, Harry Lee from Singapore and, most recently, with the Tunku. All have expressed their concern about our longer-term intentions and, while the considerations that you and they have in mind differ in many respects from country to country (as one would expect), we fully understand the fundamental concern that is shared in common by you all. And, as I explained to you we not only understand this but we sympathise with it and wish to do everything we can to mitigate it. We have planned to phase our withdrawal over a period of years so as to reduce the likelihood of any lasting setback to the economies of the countries in the area; and our mitigating aid coupled with their own determination to help themselves will contribute positively to the kind of self-reliant future at which the whole area should aim.

The British Government have had to reach their decisions, after the fullest consultation with their friends and allies and taking due account of their views, on the basis of their own best judgment of what is politically and economically right for this country. The decision we have now taken has been reached in the light of the best assessment we can make of the likely development of political relationships in the area in [Page 577] the second half of the next decade; and of the economic requirements if Britain is to play any continuing part there at that time. We in this country will be unable to play any such part—or indeed any effective part in world affairs as a whole—unless we get our economy straight now; and to do this we have no option but to bring our defence spending into line with our resources, while making full use of these resources to achieve our political objectives. If this is to be achieved, it requires long-term decisions about the overall shape of our forces and about weapon systems which we must take now. I repeat that the views that you and the heads of the Commonwealth governments concerned have expressed to us have been taken into the fullest account and we are grateful for the frankness, and also for the spirit of friendly understanding in which they have been expressed. My colleagues and I have decided that it is politically and economically right for us to reduce our forces in Singapore and Malaysia to about half the current levels by 1970-71 and to plan on leaving the mainland of Southeast Asia entirely by the middle seventies. But because we are equally resolved that Britain shall have a continuing part to play in the area, though one that must be commensurate with our resources, we shall also plan to retain a sophisticated military capability for use if required in the Far East after that time. For it really is nonsense for us to offer to provide independently ground troops to defend Asian countries who have it in their power to train and provide their own. What we can do and intend to do is to maintain a military capability for use in the area which provides the sophisticated sea-air support which they cannot afford to provide as an assurance against external aggression. In the further round of consultations just completed, the Commonwealth Prime Ministers have, I think, been impressed by the likely scale and character of this capability.

Now that we have taken this decision, the question arises—again in the light of what you and our Commonwealth colleagues have said—whether we can avoid announcing it publicly at this time. The fact is that so much has appeared publicly in various parts of the world about our long-term intentions (and this was certainly not something that we either wished or accept responsibility for) that it is simply impossible for us now to avoid giving some public indication of what they are. Otherwise there is a real risk that it may be believed that we are planning a more rapid rundown than is in fact the case. In any event, we must in all fairness give our armed forces some idea of their long term size, shape and equipment when the process is completed in the middle 1970s, particularly as the careers of many are involved. This is difficult unless we indicate the major premise on which our planning is based. In any case, as the process gets under way in the coming months our long term intentions are bound to become known. Even if we ourselves [Page 578] attempted to disguise them, other governments concerned might not be able to avoid some disclosures in order to kill rumours and speculation and to explain the consequential adjustments to their own policy. I believe a continuation of the present uncertainty would be damaging to us all. But we are anxious to do all we can to meet your concern by avoiding anything too specific.

Accordingly, in the Defence White Paper that we shall be presenting to Parliament shortly, we propose to say that, while we plan to withdraw altogether from our bases in Singapore and Malaysia in the middle 1970s, the precise timing of our eventual withdrawal will depend on progress made in achieving a new basis for stability in Southeast Asia and in resolving other problems in the Far East.

I know that this will be unwelcome news to you. But these decisions have been taken for reasons which seem right to us, and after the most prolonged consideration and consultation. I am convinced that, if this country is in the future to be the same kind of effective partner for her friends and allies in the world as she has, I hope, been in the past, the political and economic realities must be faced and not fudged; and, in particular, that our essential objective of building an unshakeable economic base for Britain is the right one not only for this country but for all our allies as well. I believe that, in deciding and announcing now our intention to maintain a military capability for use in the Far East after the mid 1970s, we are demonstrating our continued interest in the area.

The two Asian governments most directly concerned have demonstrated an impressive steadiness in this new situation, they have recognised the inevitability of change: they take the point I have made above about the need for them to make the contribution to their own defence that best accords with their own resources, while we help with a

more sophisticated capability: and they have shown a readiness to co-operate with us in effecting an orderly transition to the new basis for stability in Southeast Asia which is our aim. The fact that it is very much in their interest that they should do so does not detract from the value or significance of the wise way in which they have reacted to our new policy. I am sure that we can count on the same degree of understanding and positive co-operation from our other allies.

I have gone into all this at considerable length and detail because of the frankness and straightforward approach that has always characterised the exchanges between us. But you will realise how essential it is to hold this information very tight until our White Paper is published. I know I can rely on your total discretion here.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL UK-US. Secret; Nodis. An attached note from Benjamin Read, Executive Secretary of the Department of State, to Secretary Rusk reads: “The only distribution authorized of the attached message from Prime Minister Wilson by the President at this time is to yourself and Secretary McNamara.” A message from Foreign Secretary Brown to Secretary Rusk dealing with the same issues was delivered on July 13. (Ibid., DEF 6 UK)
  2. A copy is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Head of State Correspondence, UK, Vol. 6, P.M. Wilson.
  3. Reference is to UN consideration of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
  4. On July 8 the Secretary-General informed the Security Council that he had initiated talks with Israel and Egypt to place observers on their respective sides of the canal cease-fire line. On July 9 the Security Council authorized the Chief of Staff, UN Truce Supervisory Organization, to work out arrangements for placement of peacekeeping troops on both sides of the canal.