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Harold Wilson’s Cold War

The Labour Government and East-West Politics, 1964-1970


Geraint Hughes


Royal Historical Society Studies in History, New Series

Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015

Paperback reissue.* xviii+202 p. ISBN 978-0861933327. £19.99


Reviewed by Alex Spelling

University College London



The central feature of Geraint Hughes’ account is to investigate Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s efforts to promote East-West détente and improve relations with the Soviet Union – a task in which it succeeds admirably. Yet another of the book’s strong points, arguably from a non-UK perspective is in shedding light on some of the origins and efforts of other powers in this direction. Whilst détente is usually seen as a feature of the 1970s the book makes clear that this was preceded (at least in Western Europe) by a number of initiatives, albeit uncoordinated, to reach certain accommodations with Moscow and the Eastern Bloc. Building on work done on this era by the likes of Jonathan Colman, John Young, Saki Dockrill, Sylvia Ellis and John Dumbrell, Hughes successfully assesses the motives and outcomes reached. Fitting with the recent trend of viewing the Cold War through a wider, less dichotomous US-Soviet prism, the thematic and broadly chronological chapters make clear that although these efforts were initially frustrated, they in part laid the foundations for the policies realised in the following decade.

Overall this is a concise account guiding the reader through a number of events, countries and individuals over the years in question. Hughes mixes narrative and analysis well and the argument flows consistently throughout. Whilst not necessarily breaking new interpretative ground, the content is based upon some impressive research, utilising firstly the extensive secondary literature and memoir accounts available for this period – including works on the Soviet Union; and secondly, a large array of primary sources collected from UK and US archives. The latter moreover allow us to see the differences of opinion that existed between the Foreign Office, Defence Committees, Downing Street and the Parliamentary Labour Party over the directions to take – and where Cabinet appointments proved crucial in directing policy in the government’s second term. The findings will primarily appeal to those with an interest in UK Cold War foreign policy – the 1960s in particular – but its style and accessibility would also suit a general reader wishing to become more acquainted with the events and debates.

Beginning with an evolution of UK policy since 1945 and giving attention to areas covered comprehensively in other works, such as the US ‘special relationship’ and global security commitments, the strength of the synthesis adopted here is to view them within the prism of East-West politics and how this affected the direction taken. International issues ostensibly operated in an ad-hoc fashion but were all subtly interconnected by Cold War exigencies. Running through the middle of this we glean much information on UK-Soviet relations. Wilson hoped not just to improve the UK-Soviet connection but also act as a bridge between Moscow and Washington. Moreover, once US intervention in Vietnam escalated in 1965 he attempted to use his Soviet contacts, primarily Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin, to mediate a settlement. In such endeavours Wilson does not escape his image of a ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ who overestimated his own international influence as well as the UK’s world power status. The message here nevertheless is that Wilson, as other studies have shown, was no stooge of the Johnson administration; whatever accommodations he tried to make to defuse US-UK tensions over Vietnam and British security commitments, he would ultimately act in the national interest. The ‘East of Suez’ bases for example brought the UK little in terms of real security and were of declining influence, despite American protestations when the decisions were made (in 1967 and 1968) to withdraw forces.

Here policy was strongly driven by economic reasons yet it is shown that this attitude produced contradictory behaviour. With the Soviet Union rather than China regarded as the primary menace and decisions to retain the nuclear deterrent and make a second EEC application, the UK would concentrate its energies on Europe and NATO. For such a policy maintenance of the US security umbrella was vital. However there followed arguments with West Germany over offset payments (relating to the costs of the British Army on the Rhine), as well as disagreements with Washington over reducing the size of the UK contingent. On the other hand trade opportunities were one of the most attractive features of détente for the UK (and other Western European countries). This led to divisions with the US concerning ‘Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Exports Control’ (COCOM) restrictions on high-technology goods such as computers; Washington was determined to prevent any exploitation of such equipment for military purposes even where the realities were often unquantifiable. Hence adhering to an integrated transatlantic security and economic alliance was acutely difficult.

1960s East-West exchanges ultimately foundered however, Hughes argues, on differing concepts of what détente was supposed to achieve (much like the breakdown in US-Soviet relations in the late 1970s). Geopolitically, the heavy-handed intervention of Warsaw Pact forces during the Prague Spring (carefully mapped out here), set back considerably any tentative détente, already weakened by the on-going Vietnam conflict and 1967 Middle East War. Whilst the Soviet General Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, genuinely wanted to avoid regional conflicts escalating into superpower conflagration – demonstrated by Moscow’s willingness for a settlement in Vietnam – he also wished to maintain the status quo in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time this involved attempting to exploit divisions within NATO. The commitment to supporting a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary agenda overseas, subversion of non-communist neighbours and refusal to countenance internal social and economic reforms, particularly greater openness to the West, brought about long-term stagnation, reinforced by the political nomenklatura. This rigidity led to the marginalisation of the reform-oriented Kosygin, further negating any influence Wilson hoped to wield. UK-Soviet relations also suffered due to the high-level of Soviet KGB activity in London. Indeed the concerns over this make it clear why Wilson’s successor, Edward Heath, expelled over 100 Soviet diplomats in 1971. The irony as presented here is that as the UK’s allies moved closer to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc in the 1970s, the UK’s experiences ensured that it was a more reserved participant.

Whilst the breadth is impressive, other areas might have been worth exploring. Although the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is mentioned, greater commentary on disarmament generally – which arguably was a key area of East-West relations following the establishment in 1960 of a permanent UN disarmament body in Geneva – would have been useful. In 1965 Labour also created the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit (ACDRU); in 1969 the UK introduced the proposal for what became the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Hence, arms control was an area which also promoted East-West dialogue and where the UK retained some leverage. Nevertheless this is a solid, insightful contribution to the literature, which serves as a thorough overview of this era and the Labour government's foreign policy.


* First edition, 2009.  Cf. ‘The Wilson government, the USSR, and British foreign and defence policy in the context of East-West détente, 1964-1968’. PhD thesis, King's College, London (Department of War Studies), 2002.



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