Your browser currently has javascript disabled. Enabling it will give you access to the advanced features of this site, such as synchronized transcripts, videos, and photo galleries. Here's how to do it.

Harold Wilson Comes to Washington

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

JFK and David Ormsby-Gore

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

JFK Hello?
Ormsby-Gore Yeah. Hello?
JFK David?
Ormsby-Gore Yeah.
JFK Good.
Ormsby-Gore I just thought I would have a word with you before you see [Harold] Wilson.
JFK Sure. Right.
Ormsby-Gore One of the impressions he's got talking to Senators, and indeed some people in the administration, is that there's no enthusiasm for the Multilateral Force.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore I don't know whether you want to correct that impression or leave him with it, but I thought you ought to know.
JFK Yeah. Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore The other thing--that the impression he strongly got from talking to Senators is that any question of doing away with United States veto of the use of weapons in a Multilateral Force is really not a political possibility.
JFK Yeah. Well, I think that's correct.
Ormsby-Gore Yeah.
JFK I don't think we ought to use the word "veto," but there should be unanimity on the firing. Or at least, the firing ought to include the United States, the decision to fire.
Ormsby-Gore Well, I mean, that absolutely suits us, but as you know, the [West] Germans look as though they may insist that there's some sharing between--
JFK Well, then, I think we just have to--we just--it's just not a start. I mean, you can't have some Europeans who have got about three [nuclear] weapons deciding where we're going to fire everybody's. And I would think that they wouldn't want to be firing any weapons if the United States isn't going to fire its.
Ormsby-Gore No, no. Right.
JFK But anyway, I--we couldn't possibly go for that, and we're making it very clear. And I'll say that. But I think that we ought to give the MLF a little help until it--
Ormsby-Gore I think [unclear]--
JFK --so that the Euro--if we ever get the Germans in on it on the basis we're now talking about, surface ships and with an American acquiescence, and if they think that's going--it seems to me it's got some merit.
Ormsby-Gore Exactly. Chiefly political merit. I--
JFK That's correct. I think they see it as that. But I think it really sticks it to the General [Charles de Gaulle]. If it fails, it's just going to play into the General's hands.
Ormsby-Gore [Unclear.]
JFK So, I'm going to give him a little ginger. 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. It had a lot of hot air in it, but it didn't look like hot air.
Ormsby-Gore No. No, I--[both laugh]--No, I quite agree. I thought it was very sensible.
JFK How is he with you?
Ormsby-Gore Oh, well, fine.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore Well, it's going all right.
JFK Is he enjoying his visit?
Ormsby-Gore I think so.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore You know, he looks pleased as punch because everybody photographs him the whole time.
JFK The liquidity was--[laughs]--he and [Harold] Macmillan are just about as close--actually, he and MacMillan are--
Ormsby-Gore Are extraordinarily close together on most things.
JFK Aren't they. Well, it's like [Hugh] Gaitskell, just personal. It's like all these--
Ormsby-Gore Yeah.
JFK Huh? Sort of like Nelson Rockefeller, isn't it?
Ormsby-Gore [laughs] On nuclear test ban, I think the Prime Minister will be coming back with another message in the next 24 hours or so.
JFK Right. OK.
Ormsby-Gore He sent me a draft, and I have made some comments on it. So what he would hope is to get some agreement by the end of this week on what a joint message to [Nikita] K[hrushchev] would look like.
JFK Right. Right.
Ormsby-Gore And then how we play the hand with that will take a little bit of time more.
JFK Right. Right. I saw a British plane was fired on in the [Berlin] corridor, or right out of the corridor, a Cessna.
Ormsby-Gore Oh, really? I haven't seen that.
JFK In the--Berlin, but I guess it's moved out of the corridor a bit.
Ormsby-Gore It was probably doing something silly.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore [[unclear]]--
JFK I saw [Senator George] Smathers [Democrat, Florida] this morning. He was with his wife and son. I said, "Well, it just shows how lucky some guys are." [both laugh]. OK. But what are the--what other impression has he [Wilson] got that's--anything else that he ought to be--about Nassau? He hasn't got any impression that we are not for Nassau, has he?
Ormsby-Gore No. But, of course, I mean, you saw from his speech--
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore His view is that we don't--
JFK Need it.
Ormsby-Gore --need nuclear weapons now--
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore --and he would do his best to see that some arrangement was made so that whatever the Polaris submarines being built were handed over for some other use, full stop.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore Whether he will think like that when he sees all the facts and figures remains--
JFK Well, he may decide politically he doesn't want to quite go that hard, in my judgment, before he's finished.
Ormsby-Gore Yeah. Yeah.
JFK Do you--
Ormsby-Gore I think that's very likely.
JFK The national deterrent will . . . he may find himself in trouble on that one.
Ormsby-Gore Yeah. On other things, I mean, I think he--you will find he agrees on most of these things: trade, the Kennedy Round, all that.
JFK Yeah. Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore Of course, I think he's very optimistic about what might come out of the Kennedy Round. I mean, our reports from Paris are pretty gloomy.
JFK I know. Well, de Gaulle is just--
Ormsby-Gore Yeah. See, he could easily wreck that round if he wants to.
JFK Yeah. Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore And then by mid-summer next year, I don't know what it will look like, the sort of forward policy. I mean, you can't get any reduction in trade barriers. The agriculture services is all building up, and everyone's getting really angry with each other.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore We might be in quite a mess.
JFK Yeah. Well--
Ormsby-Gore He--Harold Wilson happily goes on and thinks, you see, there will be a great conference at which all these trade barriers will come down and you will all allow in lots of raw materials and temporary foodstuffs from the Commonwealth and the under-developed countries.
JFK Yeah.
Ormsby-Gore It's a nice picture, but I don't see it happening with the Six.
JFK Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. OK.
Ormsby-Gore Right.
JFK Good. Thanks, David.

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.

Also published on Medium.


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.