291. Telegram From Prime Minister Wilson to President Johnson 1

I laid both your messages before my Cabinet colleagues today and they were carefully read before our final deliberations and decisions on the range and extent of the swingeing cuts in public expenditure, at home and overseas, that I shall be announcing to Parliament tomorrow. I should like to say at the outset how grateful I am to you for setting out with such restraint and understanding what I know to be your powerfully-held views on the measures we are having to take.

I need hardly tell you how profoundly my colleagues and I regret the necessity for our decisions. As you will see when you receive a copy of my statement—and I will do my best to get this to you as early as possible—some of the decisions we have taken on the home front strike at the very root of principles to which many of us have been dedicated [Page 612] since we first went into politics. They are bitter decisions for us to have to make; and only our conviction that they are vital in the long-term interests of Britain, and that the British people will accept them as such, has made it possible for us to stomach them.

The heavy sacrifices at home would have been pointless without drastic retrenchment abroad. I ask you to believe that this is not, as some journalists and even some Commonwealth statesmen have been saying, simply a matter of party politics—of keeping some kind of “balance” to force the unpleasant home medicine down the throats of our party supporters. Of course politics is involved here—what is politics all about anyway? But this is much wider than party politics—the politics of the nation and the sense of purpose of the British people as a whole are deeply involved.

At the time of devaluation, I told you that the British people were sick and tired of being thought willing to eke out a comfortable existence on borrowed money. As your people may have told you, there has been over the past weeks an astonishing assertion of this kind of spirit throughout the nation and irrespective of party. At the root of this is a still rather confused groping for the real role that Britain ought to be playing in the world; and it has been striking to observe, in polls and other tests of public opinion, not only the extent to which people are prepared to accept drastic sacrifice at home but also their demand that we must no longer continue to overstrain our real resources and capabilities in the military field abroad.

This does not mean, as you suggest, a British withdrawal from world affairs. Of course there are always, in any country, those who in moments of storm prefer to bury their heads in the sand. But the spirit that has been running through this nation in recent weeks is not that of “Little England.” I believe it to be a blend of exasperation at our inability to weather the successive economic storms of the past twenty years and determination, once and for all, to hew out a new role for Britain in the world at once commensurate with her real resources yet worthy of her past. There is at last a nation-wide realisation that this can not be done on borrowed time and borrowed money.

I shall not attempt to list here all the measures which will be set out in my statement tomorrow. But just as you were able to give me brief forewarning of the dramatic steps you felt it necessary to take on New Year’s Day to protect even the vast economic strength of the United States, so I wish you to know now the two decisions that are most directly relevant to this country’s international posture and thus to our own working relationship; and those to which your two messages were addressed.

First, the Far East and the Gulf. As I shall be explaining tomorrow, it is absolutely clear to us that our present political commitments are [Page 613] too great for the military capability of the forces that we can reasonably afford, if the economy is to be restored quickly and decisively; but without economic strength, we can have no real military credibility. If there is any lesson to be learned from the [illegible] way we have found ourselves obliged to lurch from one defence review to another in recent years, it is that we must now take certain major foreign policy decisions as the prerequisite of economies in our defence expenditure. Put simply, this only amounts to saying that we have to come to terms with our role in the world. And we are confident that if we fully assert our economic strength, we can, by realistic priorities, strengthen this country’s real influence and power for peace in the world.

This was what underlay the intention, conveyed to Dean Rusk by George Brown, to withdraw our forces from the Far East and the Middle East by the end of the financial year 1970/71. But, as George explained, we fixed this deadline subject to reconsideration in the light of the account he brought back of your government’s views and what George Thomson returned to tell us of the views of the Commonwealth governments in the area. We also, as you may have seen, sent the Minister of State in the Foreign Office to discuss our intentions with the heads of government and others concerned in the Middle East. In the light of your message to me, of the reports from our other colleagues and of our deep and searching discussion with Harry Lee, who flew to London this weekend, we have decided to defer our withdrawal for a further nine months, i.e. to the end of 1971. I know that this will still seem too soon to yourself and to many others. But, in the face of the appallingly difficult decisions we are having to take over home expenditure, I believe that it is a significant contribution to the time needed to help those in the areas concerned prepare for the day when we shall no longer have a military presence there—for, believe me, it is only of our military presence that we are speaking. We know that its withdrawal involves risks. We believe that there is no option but to run them. But we intended to continue our aid programmes to the best of our ability, and of course to maintain our political, trading and economic interests there.

Secondly, the F111. Again, I ask you to believe that my colleagues and I have spent many hours of discussion and heart-searching on this problem at three separate meetings and gave the fullest weight to the considerations advanced in your message. But we have come to the reluctant conclusion that the only way we can achieve the really decisive economies that are essential in the hardware budget of the Royal Air Force, while still keeping effective and sophisticated capabilities in all three services, is to cancel the order for the 50 F111 aircraft. I hope you are wrong in assessing that this decision will be interpreted abroad as a disengagement from any commitments to the security of areas outside Europe or indeed largely in Europe as well. And you are certainly [Page 614] wrong if you take the view you mentioned that it is “a strong indication of British isolation.” In fact, I believe both these views to be wrong. As I shall be explaining tomorrow, we intend to make to the alliances of which we are members, a contribution related to our economic capability; we shall not be withdrawing from our three major alliances; and the general capability that we shall retain in this country and on the continent can also be deployed overseas and will still thus enable us to continue to give assistance to our international partners and other allies concerned, if the circumstances so demand.

Against this background and having regard to what you yourself said in the second of your two messages, I nevertheless hope that Denis Healey and Bob McNamara, for whose helpful efforts in these matters we are all most grateful, can reach an early agreement in broad terms about continued credit facilities for the unchanged Phantom and Hercules programmes and for appropriate adaptation of the offset arrangements.

Believe me, Lyndon, the decisions we are having to take now have been the most difficult and the heaviest of any that I, and I think all my colleagues, can remember in our public life. We are not taking them in a narrow or partisan spirit. We are taking them because we are convinced that, in the longer term, only thus can Britain find the new place on the world stage that I firmly believe the British people ardently desire. And when I say “the world stage” I mean just that.

Warm regards,

Harold Wilson 2
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL UK-US. Top Secret; Eyes Only.
  2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.