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The Wilson-Johnson Correspondence, 1964-69


Edited by Simon C. Smith


Farnham: Ashgate, 2015

Hardcover. xii+323 p. ISBN 978-1409448082. £75


Reviewed by Peter Catterall

University of Westminster



There were some notable Anglo-American double-acts in the twentieth century, such as Churchill and FDR, Thatcher and Reagan, or Mac and Jack. The relationship of the other Harold (Wilson) with his US opposite number, Lyndon Johnson, has not generally been seen as in the same category, usually because of the differences of approach between the two towards the Vietnam War. As this comprehensive collection of their correspondence makes clear, this was not the only difficulty. As Richard Neustadt pointed out before Wilson became prime minister, the Labour leader initially had illusions about the friendliness of his relationship with the Democrat president. The lack of chemistry is palpable here in the early exchanges. These are often superficial and reflect the passing of information, rather than any consultation. It is telling, however, that the rapport steadily increases, as does the depth and significance of their communications. The imbalance of the early correspondence, with Wilson’s sometimes having a somewhat needy air, is gradually replaced by a more detailed exchange of issues and ideas. Perhaps this was partly secured by a shared sense of humour, marked by quips about an incident at a Wilson election rally in 1966 [132-133]. The impression conveyed is of a drawing together, despite some continuing differences of opinion, because of mutual difficulties facing international economic and geopolitical challenges. For instance, Johnson’s New Year message for 1968 to Wilson [251-253] is notably warmer in its talk of co-operation between the two countries in face of the financial travails that had recently led to the devaluation crisis in Britain than the curt missives found at the start of this volume.

The economic problems of the late 1960s, from the negotiation of the Kennedy Round to the gold crises of these years, are not the only issues than enliven this correspondence. The early part of the book is probably most useful as illustrative of the confidences Wilson tried to pass to LBJ about his difficulties with Rhodesia and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, while Johnson’s are largely full of Vietnam. The impression given is of two men talking at cross-purposes. It is the darkening economic climate, and concomitant domestic political difficulties for both that seems from 1966 to broaden their dialogue and draw them together. They also begin to find common cause in their responses to these crises. One example is the challenge both faced in managing stationing costs in West Germany. The Kennedy Round, meanwhile, opened out opportunity for Britain to again explore entry to the EEC. Wilson’s aspiration for ‘an outward looking European community, designed to play the constructive role in world affairs that each of us individually is now finding too difficult’ struck a chord with Johnson. From this point onwards, the correspondence between the two leaders begins to acquire the quality of a discussion of a complex range of mutual and interlocking problems reflective of, for instance, that earlier between Macmillan and Kennedy. Wilson also succeeded in inserting himself as an interlocutor in the Vietnam imbroglio. He was less successful in tackling this problem. However, contrary to some past sketches of the relationship between the two men, this episode appears here to strengthen rather than weaken their respect for each other.

Editing a volume of this kind is always a challenge. Simon Smith has adopted a light touch approach. At times it is possibly a little too light. Non-specialist readers might need more background on some of the issues covered than is conveyed by these terse footnotes. Smith’s introduction also concentrates on Anglo-American relations, when it might have usefully commented as well more fully on the personal relationship that this correspondence illuminates. He does nonetheless note the changing character of that relationship. This is best reflected in the genuinely affectionate remarks in Johnson’s final communications at the end of his Presidency in 1969. As he rightly noted: ‘there has been no single joint enterprise for us to conduct as Roosevelt and Churchill had to conduct during the Second World War’ [296]. Nor were the difficulties minimised: ‘There are places in the world where the policies of your country and mine threatened to diverge – as in Vietnam’. Yet, as Johnson’s masterly summary concludes, the points of agreement and cooperation were more important:

We have had to deal – both of us – with a Western Europe frustrated by others [notably de Gaulle] from moving down the path of unity which both of us know is right. We have both been hampered by balance of payments problems in a world which has not yet created a kind of cooperative international monetary system which it needs. But through all this – and crises from the Middle East to Dominican Republic, from Czechoslovakia to Rhodesia – we have managed to understand one another, to help one another whenever it was possible, to make it as easy as possible for one another when circumstances did not permit complete accord.



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