Harold Wilson, the British Leader of the Opposition, was in town. Wilson had been involved in British politics a long time–he was first elected in 1945 and immediately elevated into Clement Attlee’s government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. Since then, he
The new British Ambassador to the United States, Sir David Ormsby-Gore (Lord Harlech), presents his diplomatic credentials to John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office on 26 October 1961. Photo by Bob Schutz / Associated Press.
had long been a rising star of the party, including having been the youngest member of a British cabinet in the 20th century (at just 30 years of age), a repeat contender for the party’s top positions, and most recently Shadow Foreign Secretary. When Leader of the Opposition Hugh Gaitskell died on 18 January 1963, Wilson rode his party’s left wing to become the new Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition.1
Wilson had good reason to believe that he might become Britain’s next Prime Minister. He was in Washington for a 4-day visit to meet with Kennedy, senior administration officials, and leaders on the Hill. “There are a lot of things I want to ask the President and his colleagues about,” he told reporters soon after landing. “I want to listen as much as talk.” He was bringing with him, he said, a 14-point program outlining British government policy in the event that Labour won the coming election. And in emphasizing the similarities of his proposed program with American policy, Wilson hoped to return to London having created the impression that he had Kennedy’s endorsement.2 Wilson also planned to visit Moscow in May.
Harold Wilson “is a first-rate parliamentary debater and speaker, witty, sharp, ruthless, with a phenomenal memory. He is not likable and has no desire to be so.”
He had been in the job only six weeks, but he had been getting rave reviews. It was becoming increasingly clear that Britons were tired of 12 years of Conservative leadership. Scandals and the worst unemployment in 30 years didn’t help. In response, Wilson sought to appeal to Kennedy-esque youthful dynamism. Wilson called for getting the country “moving ahead again,” restorying “new spirit of hope and adventure,” of a “new sense of purpose.” It all sounded very much indeed like Kennedy’s 1960 campaign.3
But the commonalities went beyond the rhetoric. As the Wall Street Journal put it, Wilson “is eager to tackle Britain’s problems, with the stress on science, new technology, fresh ideas, youth, batteries of task forces and heavy government stimulants.”4 In comparing Wilson with Kennedy, the Times wrote:
They live–though so differently–in the same world. Their psychological approach is similar. They will understand each other and feel alike on basic issues, even when disagreeing on details or minor problems. Both men are superb politicians in the professional sense of that word.5
The analogies also extended to one of the leading topics of trans-Atlantic discussions: nuclear policy. In 1960, Kennedy had championed a move away from the Eisenhower administration’s reliance on nuclear weapons and toward a more balanced posture in which conventional forces were more prominent. It became known as flexible response. Wilson was taking a similar line, pushing for “a major change” in British defense policy away from emphasis on Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent and placing more emphasis on conventional forces. A key part of that–boosting the conventional forces contributions to NATO–was music to Robert McNamara’s ears.6
“I thought he had a good speech yesterday, because I thought it was–as a political speech it was good because it didn’t have too much hot air in it.”
At the forefront of Wilson’s message in Washington was an alternative approach to British nuclear policy. The Kennedy and Macmillan governments had recently been absorbed with working through one of the key issues in the so-called Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom: how to move forward from the cancellation of joint development of the Skybolt missile program. When they had met at Nassau in the Bahamas in December, Kennedy had informed British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that the United States was cancelling its involvement in Skybolt and proposed making Polaris missiles available to the British instead (a proposal that Ormsby-Gore himself had first passed along to Robert McNamara back in November 1962). A big part of that involved the efforts toward a so-called Multilateral Force with nuclear-armed surface ships or submarines under international NATO control. It was an idea that had been around since the previous decade, but it had recently started getting more traction. The proposal had evolved into one for a force under NATO composed of British, French, and American naval forces armed with nuclear weapons. Two hundred or so Polaris missiles would be on about 25 merchant ships with international crews. But creating such a force was complicated on all sorts of levels, not the least of which was trying to agree on who was involved in the decision to fire nuclear weapons. While pushing for great allied consultations on Western nuclear weapons, Wilson wanted to strengthen the so-called safety-catch to prevent any rash firing and was adamantly opposed to giving West Germany any finger on a nuclear trigger that might enable Bonn to fire nuclear weapons without an American veto.7
“The national deterrent will . . . he may find himself in trouble on that one.”
While those issues had been tangling NATO discussions for some time, Wilson proposed a direction that would make such discussions unnecessary. An independent British nuclear deterrent no longer made sense, he argued, and said that if he became Prime Minister the Nassau agreement would have to be renegotiated. Since arriving in Washington, Wilson had pushed this line in interviews and speeches.8
Kennedy had agreed to meet Wilson at the White House at noon. David Ormsby-Gore (also known as Lord Harlech), the British Ambassador to the United States, called the President to give him some background on Wilson. Ormsby-Gore had become a close friend of Kennedy’s. And, as a representative of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government–and a Conservative himself–Ormsby-Gore had some skepticism about Wilson. But Wilson was a provocative figure at the best of times. “A very unusual man,” was how the New York Times editorial board put it. Previewing his visit, the New York Time wrote that “Mr. Wilson is a cold, aloof man who has many associates but, according to them, no close friends” and that “he is a first-rate parliamentary debater and speaker, witty, sharp, ruthless, with a phenomenal memory. He is not likable and has no desire to be so.” Philip Geyelin of the Wall Street Journal described him as “short, round-shouldered, and paunchy–definitely not the touch football type.”9
Kennedy and Ormsby-Gore touched on a range of current issues in the relatively brief conversation, including Nelson Rockefeller10, Senator George Smathers11, and the Kennedy Round.12
After their meeting, Wilson told reporters that their discussion was “tremendously interesting and wide-ranging” and that in talking with Kennedy he had the feeling that he was “talking to a man who knows every subject intimately.”13
And it turned out that Wilson’s confidence was well-founded. The Labour Party swept to victory on October 15, 1964.
Dictabelt 17A.2, Presidential Recordings Collection, President’s Office Files, John F. Kennedy Library. Transcript by David Coleman.
1. Wilson did indeed become Prime Minister for what became the first of two separate stints as Prime Minister when when Labour won the election on 15 October 1964.
2. “Labor’s Wilson Here for Talks,” Washington Post, 30 March 1963; David Lawrence, “A Danger in Meeting of Wilson and Kennedy,” Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1963.
3. Sydney Gruson, “Harold Wilson: Lucky and Skillful,” New York Times, 30 March 1963.
4. Philip Geyelin, “Britain’s Wilson,” Wall Street Journal, 2 April 1963.
5. Editorial, “Leader of the Opposition,” New York Times, 2 April 1963.
6. E.W. Kenworthy, “Wilson Backs U.S. on NATO, But Favors Changes in Policy,” New York Times, 1 April 1963.
7. E.W. Kenworthy, “Wilson Backs U.S. on NATO, But Favors Changes in Policy,” New York Times, 1 April 1963; Murrey Marder, “Labor Party’s Wilson Opens Talks Here,” Washington Post, 31 March 1963.
8. E.W. Kenworthy, “Wilson Backs U.S. on NATO, But Favors Changes in Policy,” New York Times, 1 April 1963; Murrey Marder, “Labor Party’s Wilson Opens Talks Here,” Washington Post, 31 March 1963.
9. Philip Geyelin, “Britain’s Wilson,” Wall Street Journal, 2 April 1963; Sydney Gruson, “Harold Wilson: Lucky and Skillful,” New York Times, 30 March 1963; Editorial, “Leader of the Opposition,” New York Times, 2 April 1963.
10. Nelson Rockefeller was the Governor of New York and been considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination for the 1964 presidential contest until, a year after his own divorce, he married another divocee. He had generally staked moderate positions on many issues that did not contrast strongly with Kennedy’s own.
11. Smathers was a close friend of Kennedy’s. Ormsby-Gore probably came to know Smathers well from his visits to Palm Beach with Kennedy.
12. The Kennedy Round was the name given to the sixth session of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) trade negotiations. The Kennedy Round negotiations didn’t officialy begin until May 1964 in Geneva, but advance negotiations on mutual tariff reductions had begun in Paris after the passage of the U.S. Trade Expansion Act in 1962. Edwin L. Dale, Jr, “Paris-Bonn Pact to Ask U.S. Cuts in Major Tariffs,” New York Times, 29 March 1963.
13. Quoted in “Wilson, Kennedy Hold Economic Defense Talk,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1963.