21. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • British Plans East of Suez


  • George Brown, UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
  • Paul Hasluck, Australian Minister for External Affairs
  • Keith J. Holyoake, New Zealand Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs
  • John Keith Waller, Australian Ambassador
  • Jack Shepherd, New Zealand Charge dʼAffaires
  • Ian L.G. Stewart, Head of Defense Division, New Zealand Department of External Affairs
  • Frank Cooper, Assistant Under Secretary, UK Ministry of Defense
  • The Secretary
  • William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
  • Samuel D. Berger, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Mr. Hasluck welcomed the group to the Australian Embassy Residence and opened the discussion by saying the Australians had made contributions to British vital interests in two world wars and in the European area during the Berlin airlift, and they were ready to cooperate again in the European area. Australia was therefore surprised to learn that the British are contemplating completely withdrawing from the Singapore-Malaysia area where Australia has a vital interest. Secretary Rusk said he appreciated what the British are doing as members of the [Page 50] International Control Commission to help in Viet-Nam. The American people would do what is necessary in Viet-Nam and, if there is no honorable alternative through negotiations, the US will stay as long as necessary. He wished to point out, however, that for the first time we are facing serious domestic challenges to our overseas commitments. The Senate Democratic leadership is pressing for a reduction of our forces in Europe. We will keep our commitments there, the Secretary said, but we are being asked what others are doing in Europe and elsewhere in fulfillment of their commitments and in support of us. He wished to stress that what others do affects us, and affects the American attitude toward our commitments. The United Kingdom should be very, very careful about pulling back on its commitments in Southeast Asia, because of the reaction which it would set in motion here. He hopes there will be no major move out of the area while we have forces fighting in Viet-Nam.
Mr. Brown said the British government is supporting our position in Viet-Nam, but it is holding that line with great difficulties and under very heavy pressure. The UK is not contributing troops to Viet-Nam but is doing other things, especially in the realm of trying to get peace negotiations going. Ironically, he finds himself under attack here because of what the UK is thinking about doing in Singapore and Malaysia, but when he goes home he finds himself under attack for the support he is giving to our efforts in Viet-Nam. He will be going to Moscow in May to take a reading, and will report to us on what he finds there. As for this meeting, he is under instructions to report what the UK is thinking in respect of Singapore-Malaysia, and he does not want to leave us in any doubt about their position. The UK simply has to reduce its expenditures and the demand on its military forces and resources; that is the essence of the UK problem. There will therefore need to be some changes in the defense field. Indeed, some of his colleagues want him to go very much further and say that the UK is not only thinking about withdrawing from the area, but has virtually taken that decision. That they have not yet done, but they are clearly moving in that direction. Mr. Brown said he recognized the difficulties this will present for the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Secretary asked why is it necessary to take up now what the UK means to do in the mid-1970ʼs; why such a long lead time on this matter?

Mr. Brown said the reasons for making decisions now for the mid-1970ʼs were:

To give the services a firm policy to work to.
The Labor Party and Parliament are pressing for a decision, and the UK government must tell the country very soon what they intend. The plan is to make an announcement in July, before this Parliament rises.
The cut in forces between now and 1971 will not yield great savings; real savings can be made only if the decision is taken now for the mid-1970ʼs
It is essential that Malaysia and Singapore know about their future so orderly arrangements can be made in advance of a British withdrawal.
There will, however, be no dramatic changes in the next fifteen months.

Prime Minister Holyoake said he hopes the British would not say now what they would do in 1975. This move would be interpreted as an indication that there is no place on the mainland for the white man. He did not accept that. The British had a century of experience in handling the problems in this area and they could not just withdraw and leave it to others to deal with the problems.

Mr. Brown said the British role today had to be different from what it was in the past. The governments of Malaysia and Singapore were under heavy criticism because of an outside presence, and it complicates their problems of governing. If the UK withdraws it will cut the ground out from under the critics. Moreover, such a withdrawal will induce the people of Singapore and Malaysia to take a stronger lead in developing their own defenses, and in this the UK will continue to help support them.
Mr. Hasluck said the British were making the assumption that by the mid-1970ʼs Malaysia and Singapore would not be under threat from hostile forces. He questioned the validity of this view.
The Secretary said that he thought the free Asian nations would much prefer a friendly white presence to a hostile Chinese. He asked how Malaysia and Singapore will look after their defense if the British withdraw. If they come to the United States and ask us to take over their commitments, the answer is, we canʼt. The Senate will not ratify any additional commitments. Mr. Hasluck said Australia and New Zealand cannot assume these commitments if the British abrogate their treaties with Malaysia and Singapore: this would involve an extension of commitments under ANZUS which the United States is not prepared to accept.
Mr. Brown said that Healey was off to talk to Malaysian and Singapore leaders in order to reassure them so they wonʼt get panicky when the announcement is made. The British do not mean to abrogate their defense treaties with Malaysia and Singapore, but there will have to be adjustments and modifications. He said that Prime Minister Lee of Singapore expects this to happen and it will ease Leeʼs problems in that he can no longer be called a British “stooge.”
Mr. Hasluck made the point that he was most concerned about what the effect would be on Lee if Healey told him the British were pulling out in the mid-1970ʼs. There was also the effect this would have in [Page 52] Australia, and in Burma. The Secretary said that we have just learned that Burma is on the point of asking the United States and the United Kingdom for overt assistance. Mr. Holyoake said he has drafted a telegram to Wilson expressing his dismay over the contemplated withdrawal, and asking that Healey not give any indication that this is the UK intention when he visits Singapore. Mr. Brown said that when he returns to London the following day he will see his colleagues and Healey before the latter departs from Singapore and Malaysia. He promised faithfully to convey the strong views which had been expressed. He does not know what the decision will be about disclosing British intentions, but at some stage he feels there must be a disclosure.
The Secretary asked if the proposal to disengage in Asia was related to Britainʼs effort to get into the Common Market. Brown said there was no connection. The decision to withdraw arises from Britainʼs desperate financial situation. The British simply have to reduce the burden of taxation on their people, partly because of the effect of high taxes on economic incentives, partly in order to enable the UK to pay off its debts. The Secretary said that when Michael Stewart was asked what the UK would do if Thailand was attacked, he had said the UK would come to its support under its SEATO obligations. He realized the difficulties the British are in and the need for a reduction in defense expenditures, but he was troubled by the decision to go all the way in this area. Would the British consider in the course of planning for their new policy in the area a contribution of, say, two battalions to a SEATO reserve? What counted was visibility. He felt it was important that there should be a visible UK presence. Mr. Brown said he could not answer that question. The new UK policy would involve a renegotiation of UK commitments in the area and he could not say now what these would be. Mr. Hasluck asked if they contemplated renegotiating the Malaysia-Singapore Treaty of Defense, the present arrangements for the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve, and their commitments under the various SEATO contingency plans. Mr. Brown said he did not think a renegotiation was necessary, but there would have to be changes.
The Secretary said he wanted Mr. Brown to take home and have his colleagues consider the chain reactions in the US of this UK move. Mr. Hasluck said he could not understand why the British had to take this decision now. The end of hostilities in Viet-Nam is not yet in sight and no one can say what further outbreaks there may be elsewhere. The Secretary said that Hanoi might very well step up its effort in Laos.
Mr. Brown said the problem is that the UK simply cannot afford to maintain its presence and manpower on the same scale as in the past. The UK is thinking of providing assistance to the area in other forms and other ways which will help serve as a deterrent to those who are hostile, but he could not say what these were. Brown said that they mean to say [Page 53] very soon that they intend to cut their forces in the area by half by 1971. The Secretary asked why doesnʼt the UK qualify this by saying “if the situation permits.” Mr. Brown said that he would talk to the Prime Minister along these lines, but thinks it will be difficult in terms of planning. The Secretary said he would supply Mr. Brown with a memo on the chain reactions in the US for his talks next day with his Cabinet colleagues. Mr. Brown said the Cabinet will not make a final decision or announcement on the complete withdrawing of forces before July, but, he repeated, a decision and an announcement must be made before Parliament rises in July. The Secretary asked Mr. Brown and the Cabinet to consider what the effect would be on Hanoi if they made the announcement now that they intend to withdraw from Singapore and Malaysia in the 1970ʼs. He said the UK simply must consider that they are dealing with 1967, not the 1970ʼs, and what they do in July is very important. He hoped the UK would not make any decision now to withdraw in the mid-1970ʼs; he hoped Healey would not give any indication of such an intention when he goes to Singapore; and he hoped that if any such decision is taken that there be no announcement of it. Mr. Holyoake and Mr. Hasluck associated themselves with this, urging that there be no decision and no announcement.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL FAR E–UK. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Berger. This discussion was the quadripartite talks that took place after the SEATO Council Meeting, April 18–20, and before the ANZUS meeting, April 21–22, both held in Washington.