JF Kennedy once asked Harold Macmillan whether he found that, if he abstained from sexual intercourse for over 24 hours, he too began to suffer from a headache. No doubt the President used language which I would not want to reproduce in a newspaper designed for family reading. It was a general topic that he was fond of discussing. Macmillan, by contrast, found it distasteful and changed the subject.
Despite the embarrassment caused to him on this occasion - perhaps on others as well - Macmillan lost no opportunity of drawing attention to his friendship with Jack Kennedy, as he familiarly called him. This had a certain justification, for a Kennedy had married into the family of Macmillan's wife, the Devonshires. For whatever reason, Kennedy had certainly saved Macmillan's political bacon at the Nassau conference of 1962.
What happened there was that the Americans had cancelled production of the air-delivered missile Skybolt. Macmillan had been relying on this weapon to provide the next phase of our supposedly independent nuclear deterrent. Kennedy was puzzled. Why did we need a nuclear deterrent at all when America was prepared to provide us with all the protection we were ever likely to need? The President, therefore, did not accept the argument which was being advanced at the time by British proponents of the bomb: that it was somehow "immoral" for us to "shelter under the American nuclear umbrella". Kennedy would have been perfectly happy for us to do precisely that.
It was not, Macmillan explained, quite as simple as this. The very survival of the government depended on our having a bomb of our own, or the appearance of one. So could we please have a share of Polaris instead? Kennedy remained bemused but, nevertheless, agreed to accede to Macmillan's request or, rather, to his plea. In 1964 Harold Wilson promised to "renegotiate" the Nassau agreement concerning our so-called British, so-called independent, so-called deterrent. But he did nothing of the kind. In the 1970s, indeed, the system was quietly updated under James Callaghan.
Wilson made himself unpopular with his party not so much through his acceptance of the US-supplied deterrent as through his support for the war in Vietnam. In the House of Commons, the Tribune Group played as ignominious a role as Wilson did himself. Its unofficial Whips enabled enough protests to be made to keep the constituencies happy but not enough to imperil the government's large majority. Accordingly, left-wing MPs had to take it in turns to satisfy their consciences.
Throughout these proceedings, Wilson kept referring to his intimacy with "LBJ", as he called President Lyndon Johnson, and hinting that his support for the war put him into a position to exercise a moderating influence in private. At least once, however, he went public, dispatching a good-hearted but ineffective minister, the former Bevanite Harold Davies, to Vietnam to try for a settlement. But ignoble and vain though Wilson may have been, he did manage something: he kept British troops out of the jungles, out of these particular jungles at any rate, despite entreaties from Johnson to send at least a "token presence".
In international law, there was a stronger case for sending troops to Vietnam than there was for Mr Tony Blair to send our lads to Iraq. One country was, after all, invading another. That both countries had originally been united, and the rulers of the invaded country were a nasty lot, did not affect the matter. Much the same had been true of the Korean War of 1950-53, where many of our soldiers were killed, and CR Attlee had flown to Washington to tell Harry Truman not to use the atomic bomb after China had intervened on North Korea's side.
This story is, or was (for many may have forgotten it), firmly cemented in Labour mythology. In fact Truman did not intend to use the bomb at all, though he might have done. No matter. Attlee's flight was taken to demonstrate that, if we supported the Americans, certainly if we supported them to the extent of helping out militarily, we should have our reward, not in the hereafter but now, on this earth.
Quite what form that reward was to take remained imprecise. It clearly did not protect us from the devaluations of 1949 and 1967 or from our subjection to the IMF in 1976. But then, the reward was necessarily intangible, consisting as it did of that fugitive quality, influence. In Macmillan's words, we could be Greece to the United States' Rome.
It is doubtful whether Americans, ignorant as they largely are of the classical ages, would have had the faintest idea of what he was talking about. And, if they had understood, it is certain that they would not have approved of Macmillan's notion that they were powerful but ignorant, in need of instruction about their duties in the wider world.
But every prime minister since 1945 save one has, in a greater or lesser degree, subscribed to this conceited rubbish. As James Callaghan, when he was Foreign Secretary, used to say to Dr Henry Kissinger during the Cyprus crisis (largely fomented, as it happened, by the United States itself): "You supply the muscle, Henry, and we'll supply the brains." There was, however, one exception among prime ministers. That was Edward Heath. Indeed, according to the historian Kenneth Morgan, Dr Kissinger described Sir Edward's attitude towards the United States as "horrible".
Perhaps there is more good in the old Kentish curmudgeon than I had hitherto realised. And yet, he was being not so much good as clear-headed. He, for one, would at least have remembered Charles de Gaulle's stated - and perfectly genuine - reason for keeping us out of the Common Market in 1963: that, in any conflict between the United States and Europe, the Anglo-Saxons would unfailingly support the United States. Ten years later, Sir Edward duly took us into Europe and was realistic about what that entailed.
Wilson, Callaghan and, most of all, Margaret Thatcher did not really want us to be there at all. Mr Blair, like Roy Jenkins before him, vainly believes he can ride two horses: but Mr Blair is wrong. His achievement is to have turned the United Kingdom into the third most hated country in the world: the first being the United States, and the second, Israel. Nor is he dealing with the relatively civilised America of most of the post-war era but, rather, with a new state which, like Hitler's Reich, believes that might is right and that it can do precisely as it chooses without asking Mr Blair or anybody else.Reuse content