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

5336. Subj: Healey views on UK defense policy.

Denis Healey this morning asked Embassy PolMil Counselor to come to his office for private chat on current status British defense cut decisions. Discussion, which lasted an hour, was extremely frank and far ranging. Healey’s comments made it quite clear that he was bitter about role PriMin had played but that he, Brown, Thomson—at times assisted by Callaghan—had nevertheless prevailed in assuring relatively rational approach to defense cuts.
Prime reason for Healey’s invitation to discussion became immediately apparent however. He said it was important for Secretary and Wash officials with whom George Brown would be talking this week to know that there was “absolutely no question of a choice between chopping the F-111 and our staying East of Suez.” It will do no good for Sec to suggest that UK pull out of F-111 deal and change decision on Singapore/Malaysia withdrawal.
While he did not say so explicitly, way he put matter indicated that he has some indication that this is possible proposal from Sec and that this will jeopardize his so far successful fight to save F-111, without changing East of Suez decision. EmbOff assumed from tenor Healey’s remarks also that he had discussed with Brown his making this pitch to Embassy.
Healey then went on to say that he felt much more encouraged about present situation than he could have thought possible a month ago. In early Dec things looked “pretty grim” and he was sure that he would have to resign before long since he would be forced to accept “lunatic” Cabinet judgments on series of irrational defense cuts which would leave Britain with no real capability even in Europe. By making common cause with Brown and Thomson and Callaghan, however, he had succeeded in getting firm Cabinet agreement that if more cuts were to be made they had to be preceded by and related to cuts in commitments, and that this was matter for decision by entire Cabinet including [Page 600] particularly “political departments.” At some risk he had given Sunday Times interview (A-2146)2 which nailed down this point for record.
In response to EmbOff questioning Healey gave series of frank comments on status of various issues. Following are highlights:


Cut decision emerging from last Thursday’s Cabinet discussion, where “big majority” was in favor of almost immediate Singapore/Malaysia and Gulf pull-out, had been to leave Singapore/Malaysia finally on 31 March 1971 and to be out of Gulf “before” that date. (From another source, Embassy learned this could be any time during FY 70-71.) He and George Brown had argued strongly for an additional year in Singapore/Malaysia and it was agreed that “the two Georges” would have a right to raise the issue this coming Friday or Saturday in the light of their consultations in Far East and Wash. It is certain, Healey said, that they would do so. Lee Kuan Yew had performed brilliantly yesterday and had strengthened Thomson’s hand in seeking another look. He hoped Australians would do as well, but was less hopeful. He thought Lee had slightly overdone, however, in his threats about “Japanese takeover.” What Healey was indirectly urging was that Sec also concentrate on timing issue (since the only thing open was timing) in his talks with Brown. He thought that decision to extend by another year withdrawal date was still a possibility.

Healey said he was somewhat surprised by Secretary’s message to Brown on Gulf since he would have assumed that as between two places US interests were much more involved in prolongation UK presence in Far East. Healey said UK would warn SEATO that its force declarations would be reduced to “derisory level” in terms of numbers and forces but that UK would not pull out of SEATO or raise membership as issue in view of SEATO’s importance to US as cover for justifying US presence in Vietnam.

Persian Gulf. Healey said he had himself been against last year’s Brit decision to build up at Sharjah and Bahrein on grounds it made neither military nor political sense. Now all money which had been poured in would be wasted. While he continued to believe that UK forces in area were a contribution to stability (in terms of possible Iraq-Kuwait conflict or trouble between Shah and Faisal over Bahrein, or among Trucial States) he thought these conflicts could be contained diplomatically. It was clear that Britain would have had to get out of Gulf by 1975 at any rate. In light of this it was better to go sooner rather than later, by which time [garble] situations as in Aden might have [Page 601] been created. Brown and he both thought that situation in Gulf certain to be eroded in due course, that UK interests served by maintaining status quo as long as possible but that UK presence could be an irritant as well as inhibitor of trouble and it was a nice judgment in which direction they would operate most strongly. He thought that leaving in less than two years would be risky but his comments seemed to indicate he would prefer to use whatever influence he had in prolonging UK presence in Singapore/Malaysia rather than in Gulf and that ordinarily he would have assumed US would see it same way. If UK was going to leave, and this decision was irreversible, it was likely to be harmful rather than helpful to prolong Brit Gulf presence beyond 1970-1971. He said at least one UK rep on spot he had recently talked with seemed to feel same way he did about this.
F-111. He said he “nearly won” this battle last week, but that PM had surprisingly “led the pack” against it; PM seemed to consider it a good sacrificial goat. Nevertheless Healey now felt relatively optimistic about his ability to keep whole order of 50 aircraft but said that he would be willing to sacrifice 10 if this was necessary to get an overall rational package of defense cuts. EmbOff raised question of UK CENTO commitment and Canberras on Cyprus. Healey said that as Canberras phase out F-111’s would be helpful in maintaining this commitment, which there was no present intention to cut. On balance he felt reduction of order to 40 (if any reduction necessary) would be “least damaging,” that he expected this matter would be resolved within another 36 hours and that he was not at all unconfident about keeping all 50, at the moment at least. He said Wash talks which indicated UK could keep Jetstream order, present offset arrangements, (including the extra $100 million if cut was no more than 15), were helpful. EmbOff noted he had understood that extra $100 million could not be kept if order were cut to this extent. Healey said he was gratified at US emphasis that offset was related to total UK aircraft buy and not just to F-111 program.
BAOR. Healey said both he and the Foreign Office were determined to avoid any further drawdown of the BAOR either this year or next. However, the offset talks, when they came about, would have a heavy influence on whether they could prevail. He said Jenkins would be more help than Callaghan had been in this area. Also, what the US and the Germans themselves did would also bear on British ability to hold the line, and he feared that the US would be pressed to announce sometime next fall a further “redevelopment” of its own forces. (He said he felt 1970 would be too soon for another reduction.) Also the Dutch Defense Minister told him he could not hold the line on Dutch forces. Therefore this was still likely to be a troublesome area.
Miscellaneous. Healey said that Navy Phantoms were too far along to cancel and were “so bloody expensive” that no one else would [Page 602] buy them. They would probably have to be repainted and turned over to the RAF. He thought there would be some reduction in total Phantom buy but evaluations had not yet been completed. He said present situation made any UK only or UK/FRG project to replace AFVG “out of the question.” Some kind of cooperative program with us, however, could not be ruled out. He would probably procrastinate by keeping present VG design team going for another year. He also said he was meeting with Messmer this afternoon and would try to have it out re French intentions on building their own VG. He did not think French would do more than build a prototype in view defense budget problems arising from de Gaulle’s trying to do a little bit of everything in the nuclear field.
Comment: EmbOff said he had no indications from Wash about any proposal for a tradeoff such as Healey feared between F-111 and East of Suez. EmbOff however promised to bring his comments as reported above to Wash’s immediate attention. Healey obviously has strong personal stake in continuation of F-111, feels he has matter under relatively good control and was worried that some proposal along these lines from Sec to Brown would upset the applecart. He was also clearly urging us to weigh in with Brown in favor of lengthening by one year present withdrawal deadline from Singapore/Malaysia. His judgment appears to be that with US pressure along side of that which is already coming from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur there is better than even chance of Healey, Brown and company prevailing on this in renewed Cabinet discussion Friday or Saturday.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, DEF 1 UK. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. In telegram 5337 from London, Ambassador Bruce told Secretary Rusk: “I think it important you read in full, before your conversation with George Brown, London’s 5336, reporting rather extraordinary conversation between Healey and Spiers. In spite of Healey’s optimism about maintaining his position in Cabinet, I think it impossible at present to predict what compromise may finally be reached.” (Ibid.)
  2. Dated January 9. (Ibid.)