10 Foreign Relations

Perhaps we could have a translation, I could not quite follow.
Harold Macmillan, after Khrushchev banged his shoe on the desk at the United Nations

A Matter of Principle

After Munich politicians deployed the rhetorical device of comparing any adversary with the Nazi dictator for arrogating whatever extreme measures they wished to implement, including military action.

Throughout the Cold War, the US defended its nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union by constant references to the Hitler and Munich analogies.

When the British, French, and Israelis occupied the Suez Canal in 1956, they claimed Egyptian leader Colonel Nasser was a new Hitler.

 While reflecting on these matters of war and peace,I considered the experience of Harold Macmillan whose repugnance to war had been shaped by his baptism of fire in the trenches. His involvement in much of Britain’s decision making would reflect this. As a progressive back bench member of the House of Commons in 1930’s, he criticized Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Settlement in 1938. He was one of the small group of Conservatives prepared to face political suicide for chivvying their government’s foreign policy, in particular the quiescent acceptance of the Francoist forces in Spain and Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia – an issue on which Macmillan resigned from the parliamentary party. When sanctions against Italy were abandoned in 1936 he was one of only two conservatives to vote with the Labour opposition against the Government, supporting the motion ‘that His Majesty’s Government by their lack of a resolute and straight forward foreign policy, have lowered the prestige of the country, weakened the League of Nations, imperilled peace, and thereby forfeited the confidence of this House’.

As Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963 he proved to be an extremely able diplomat gaining respect in Russia. He helped considerably to lower the temperature of the rhetoric at the summit conference with Russia and U-2 incident in 1960 in which an American aircraft was shot down over Russia.

Suez And Beyond.

‘To my mind Britain, is exactly like the hypocritical school-master who says “this is going to hurt me more than it does you” and finds out to his horror that he is telling the truth. ’
Peter Ustinov on the plan to attack Egypt.

Mr Macmillan encouraged the move to independence among the former colonies in Africa in response to the rise of nationalist fervour. Of course it wasn’t out of the imperial powers’ kindness of heart.They had no choice but to let the colonies go. This was in case they fell into the ‘wrong hands’.In case they drove them into the Soviet camp.


I thanked him for his prudence in backing Britain out of the joint military operation with the French to regain control of the Suez Canal which the popular Nasser had nationalized. Under Nasserist rule, there was an expansion of the state sector which provided employment-large armies, expansive bureaucracies and nationalized industries. The decision over the Canal had led to the charge of the right brigade that his was a policy of cutting and running. It was the Americans then, fearful of alienating Arab opinion, who were urging restraint and negotiations with the U. N. Posturing as friends of Arab nationalism, they tried to gain credit by disowning their belligerent junior allies. The crisis allowed them the opportunity to cosy up closer to Saudi Arabia. The British cabinet conceded in private that Nasser’s action was technically legal – especially as he claimed he would reimburse the shareholders and Canal traffic flowed smoothly under Egyptian ownership. I reminded Macmillan that the plan of invasion was contrary to the ideals that Britain said it was fighting for during the War-the rule of law and national self-determination. It was a violation of the U. N. Charter and all that Britain claimed to stand for. Of course, the Arab on the street and the new Commonwealth members understood that employing an Israeli strike force allowed a cover for the British and French ‘good guys’ to intervene as ‘peacemakers’ and force some sort of international control. The attack led to France and Britain being condemned at the United Nations, the Commonwealth cleaving along racial lines, and the Western alliance almost ripped apart. It was realization of all the opposition to this gunboat diplomacy as much as noble considerations that led to the plug being pulled.


‘Grouse’, I said, writing to Macmillan’s anointed successor as Prime Minister, Alec Douglas Home. I meant ‘grouse’ in the Australian sense of ‘excellent’. For this grandee, to the manor born, the grouse he stalked on the moors of his native Scotland were such . Of the game this toothy somewhat mousy, serious outdoorsman hunted in the fields and babbling brooks of the lowlands, this was the one he most admired most: “… the mountain and moorland scenery in which the grouse lives is beautiful, romantic and often spectacular, while the challenge presented to the shooter is incomparable.” I wrote to him about the even more incomparable challenge presented to the shooter. Facing off much bigger game in a contest which we’d all quail at, I complimented him on working towards the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow in 1963. The treaty banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater or in space. Its success was limited by the reluctance of France and China to come on board.

Powerful men in both capitalist-particularly the American- and Communist camps, poised as superpowers unprecedented in world history, believed that nuclear war was inevitable. Stretching and flexing, each had the capability to do massive devastation or even totally annihilate the other, with the power to wield such forces and to do so quickly in the hands of a few leaders. The only question was who would push the button and strike first .

This question was the item of discussion when he and Harold Macmillan met with Kennedy and Rusk in 1962.

Your people, the British people, ’I reminded him, ‘are told they shall receive four minutes’ warning of any impending nuclear attack. That’s not a very long time even though there are some people in that great country of yours who can run a mile in four minutes.’

I encouraged Home not to hesitate to use another button, the one on speed dial, to continue his country’s role as ‘honest broker’-what some cynics called the ‘Brutish Umpire’- between the US and the USSR. He thanked me for this

With nothing to lose he could seek to tone down the rhetoric, to reduce the decibel level on the part of the superpowers, reduce the risks without upsetting the balance of power.

In encouraging him to take an independent stance for Great Britain in his preparation for reprising his role as Foreign Secretary, I made reference to matchsticks. Douglas Home had said in an interview that he liked to use a box of matches to help him in his economic calculations. I put it to him that the matchsticks could be arranged in two piles to represent nuclear warheads of both the Soviet bloc and those of the NATO. I pointed out that unlike in a game when one side needs only more points to win the contest, in a nuclear face-off, one more warhead didn’t ensure victory. Simple calculations would bear out what he obviously knew – that both had the capacity to wipe each other out many times over.

A letter of last resort is one sent to British nuclear naval vessels in case of nuclear attack setting out how to respond. My letter was one of first resort, urging disarmament so that that the others never have to be sent. I encouraged Home to look at the moves and counter moves of the Kremlin in a long perspective and to consider the nature of its ambitions as being very different to those of Nazi Germany. We had to look at its intentions rather just it’s capabilities. I didn’t believe the Soviet Union would take the first step in launching a nuclear shootout. It had too much to lose and nothing to gain. Things were more likely to come to a head with its Chinese Communist rival than with the West.

The Soviet involvement in the Missile Crisis was a reluctant one. This view would be confirmed years later by its agonizing over military intervention in Afghanistan. It’s behaviour was cautious, defensive and fatalistic, whereas Hitler’s push for a military conquest of the world had had its logic in Germany’s need to catch up once and for all in the great race for empire building.

Douglas Home had witnessed first-hand Hitler’s subterfuge during the Munich negotiations when he accompanied Neville Chamberlain as his personal secretary. Made against Home’s advice, Chamberlain’s comment on their return that ‘there will be peace in our times’ was one of the most indelible moments of the century. This failure to stave off World War II would be cited by militarists in their infinite wisdom to provide justification for a pre-emptive strike on any totalitarian state in disfavour, such as the USSR or better still, a weaker one such as Iraq post Gulf War.

As Iraq went up like the fourth of July, the long, slow slide from The Asian Butcher’s yard into barbarism would quicken.


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