John Kennedy and Harold Macmillan were the odd couple of the Special Relationship. Conjuring a picture of them from the cuttings files and obituaries, they seem almost comically mismatched. For much of the three years that they overlapped in their respective offices, the grouse-shooting British premier appeared ludicrously archaic next to a President who confidently promised to put men on the moon. Macmillan acted the part of the stereotypical English toff, brought up in the old tradition of great houses, tweed, and noblesse oblige, and Kennedy that of the thrusting New Frontiersman. When it came to sex, one of them quickly discovered and exploited a lifelong talent for charming women, and the other sustained a 46-year marriage characterized more by mutual affection and shared experience than by any grand passion.
In other ways, they were surprisingly similar. When the President and the PM came to visit each other, the meetings were a pilgrimage back to the scene of some of their most character-forming family history. For Kennedy, there was the seminal year he spent studying at the London School of Economics, shortly after which his father served as U.S. ambassador to Britain. Macmillan’s mother, the former Helen Belles, grew up in Spencer, Indiana, which she rather boldly left as a young woman in order to study music in Europe. In later years, the famously “unflappable” PM remarked that “I found it difficult to not break down” while on a sentimental journey to his mother’s birthplace. “I really felt that she was there watching us, and enjoying the satisfaction of so many of her hopes and ambitions for me . . . ”
Kennedy and Macmillan shared certain fundamental assumptions about the way the world works. But where one took the Soviet threat as it came, the other sought some intellectual cover for his actions. As Kennedy swiftly increased the U.S. defense budget, Macmillan labored on a scholarly tour d’horizon he called his “Grand Design.” Its central thesis was that the “great powers of the Free World—U.S.A., Britain, and Europe—should combine in a coherent effort to withstand the Communist tide all over the globe.” Quite apart from the need for a mutual-defense policy, the PM held out the hope of a more flexible Western monetary system, “including the expansion of credit by whatever means, orthodox or not.” It was a commendable effort to set out what amounted to a capitalist manifesto for the incoming administration, but Kennedy was characteristically wary in his response to it. John Kenneth Galbraith recalled that he had been summoned to the White House to discuss the Grand Design, and that a flustered President, after ransacking his office, was forced to admit that the document had been “misfiled.” It was eventually found stuffed under a crib in three-year-old Caroline Kennedy’s nursery.
With their vastly different economic and military resources, and the 3,000 miles separating their capitals, there was inevitably a touch of a headquarters-subsidiary relationship between the Atlantic allies. But what emerges time and again from a study of the archives is how often Macmillan was able to guide—and sometimes to dominate—Kennedy on a series of key foreign-policy issues. It may be true that the British generally put more effort than the Americans into preserving the “special” nature of the alliance. But it’s also true that London was to enjoy an unrivaled influence on the decisionmaking process in Washington, and that this privileged status became more pronounced in the years immediately following the abortive Anglo-French operation at Suez—and the furious presidential response to it—of October 1956. “The government and people of the United States [have] been greatly impressed by recent Soviet successes,” Macmillan told his cabinet just 12 months later.
They now recognize that no single country, however powerful, could alone withstand the Soviet threat . . . The prevailing mood in Washington was therefore favourable to proposals for closer Anglo-American co-operation, and [this] has been achieved.
An example of the British gently applying the brake on American overseas adventuring came with the Laotian saga—a precursor of so much that followed in Vietnam—in early 1961. This long-simmering crisis had finally boiled over when a communist insurrection had effectively left Laos with two governments. “The situation there is bad,” Macmillan confessed to his diary, if not, perhaps, entirely without its comic-opera aspects. “The Americans are anxious to intervene overtly as well as covertly,” he wrote. “They back a certain Phoumi—we, I do not know why, prefer Phouma. Outside this foolish internecine war, the Communists are waiting hopefully for their chance . . . ”
After several weeks of transatlantic cables on the subject, Kennedy met Macmillan on March 26, 1961, in Key West, to try to resolve what the latter called “all the difficulties and objections” of armed intervention in Laos. On arrival at the Naval Administration Headquarters where the talks were to be held, there was another poignant reminder of the relative strength of the two leaders as measured by each one’s entourage. “On the one side,” wrote Macmillan,
there was the President of the United States and Commander in Chief of all American forces surrounded by officers of every rank and degree in a great naval fortress and receiving all the honour due to a Head of State; on the other, [Macmillan’s secretary] Tim Bligh and I, with [British ambassador] Harold Caccia in support.
Following a detailed presentation on Anglo-American options in Laos, the two principals adjourned to a private room for lunch, which consisted of what Macmillan fastidiously called “meat sandwiches”—hamburgers, a dish with which he was not familiar.
Despite the inequality of their staffs, it was to be Macmillan whose will largely prevailed over that of Kennedy. At the end of their talks, the leaders exchanged notes that used such terms as “monitoring” and “vigilance,” and conspicuously retreated from the threat of an imminent U.S. invasion. Macmillan thought Kennedy “did not want to ‘go it alone’ in any action.” As part of their deal, he agreed to urge ex-President Eisenhower, whose public opinion of them obsessed the new administration, to press home the point that Southeast Asia was not the ideal place to commit U.S. troops. The former supreme allied commander was happy to comply, if in more soldierly language than Kennedy might have wished. “That boy doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing,” Ike announced. “He doesn’t even know where Laos is. You mean have Americans fight in that goddamned place?”
Barely had the ink dried on the Allied communiqué on Laos than Kennedy was signing off on a CIA-backed proposal for an amphibious invasion of Cuba that went under the fitting code name “Bumpy Road.” Although the President had casually referred to “the problem of the Cuban exiles who were down in Miami” when meeting Macmillan, the first the PM knew of the fine detail of the operation was when his foreign secretary rang to tell him, in a voice quivering with alarm, that some 1,400 paramilitaries were apparently engaged in fighting the revolutionary militia on a beach named Playa Giron, located on Cuba’s Bay of Pigs; that American B-26 bombers had previously softened up the area; and that God only knew what the outcome might be. While the subsequent military rout was widely judged a “fiasco,” Macmillan was the only foreign ally to use that word to the President’s face.
Barely four months later, in the dead of night, the East German authorities sealed the border between East and West Berlin. Contrary to academic opinion, the Allies were not caught completely unawares by this development, even if no one seems to have anticipated that the communists might react to the record number of refugees fleeing the Workers’ Paradise of the East by erecting a concrete wall to prevent them from doing so. Macmillan had warned Kennedy at Key West that “The latest Soviet proposals suggest that they are ready to take unilateral action on Berlin,” and “The problem there must irritate Mr. Khrushchev in several ways.”
When the crisis duly came, the PM was not in London, but hundreds of miles away at his wife’s ancestral home in Yorkshire, enjoying the opening of grouse-shooting season. Macmillan saw no reason why the appearance of what was initially a barbed-wire entanglement separating Berlin should interrupt his holiday, and at the end of the week he got on a train to go not south, to his office, but further north, to a golf resort in Scotland. “The Americans wanted to issue a great and rather bombastic ‘declaration,’” Macmillan told his diary, “but this has now been shot down, partly by our insistence on combining a willingness to negotiate with any declaratory reaffirmation of Allied rights . . . ” He later noted, “The President sent me a message about sending more troops into Berlin. Militarily, this is nonsense. But I have agreed to send in a few armoured cars, etc, as a gesture.”
You can take the view that this was a farsighted act of statesmanship on the part of a man whose skill in sugaring the pill of British military and economic decline is never likely to be bettered; or that it was a disgraceful accommodation of a totalitarian bully worthy of Chamberlain’s performance at Munich. In either case, it was largely Macmillan’s will that prevailed in preventing an armed intervention in Berlin, and that thus tacitly condoned the structure that would come to symbolize the insanity of the Cold War for the next 28 years.
In broad outline, it would be the same story when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted 14 months later. All in all, Macmillan had taken the Bay of Pigs fiasco with commendable sangfroid, apparently seeing it as the kind of thing a favored but headstrong young nephew was bound to get up to from time to time. But it is clear from the record of October 1962 that he saw the new standoff as an “altogether more disquieting” affair, in his own measured words, and that it was his role to introduce a note of calm into the fevered atmosphere of the White House. The President and the prime minister spoke on the newly installed transatlantic hotline every evening (in the middle of the night in London), October 23-28. Macmillan began the first exchange on a characteristic note. “What’s worrying me,” he said, “is how do you see the way out of this? What are you going to do with the blockade? Are you going to occupy Cuba and have done with it or is it going to just drag on?”
On October 25, with the U.S. Second Fleet stationed in an arc around Cuba, Macmillan told his cabinet that he had again spoken to Kennedy, and recommended “the most creative possible solution” to the crisis. One possibility was that Cuba might be made “like Belgium was before the First War—an international guarantee—an inviolable country which all of us would affirm.” Summarizing his position in cabinet, the premier said,
It is necessary to avoid at all costs the temptation of reaching a settlement by lowering the resistance of the free world to aggression. It is equally necessary to avoid driving those who feel that they have been the victims of aggression to desperation. It must be the object of all those who have any influence on the present pattern of events to find a middle course.
What that meant in practice was not only concentrating on the matter of removing Soviet offensive missiles from Cuba, but offering a modest restructuring of Allied nuclear resources in “such a way as will allow [Khrushchev] to sell this arrangement to his people.”
The British national archives include the tape and the transcript of the critical Kennedy-Macmillan conversation of October 26, 1962.
Macmillan: “There is just a third point that occurred to us. If we want to help the Russians save face, would it be worthwhile our undertaking to immobilize our THOR missiles which are here in England during the same period—during [an international] conference?”
Kennedy: “Well, let me put that into the machinery and then I’ll be in touch with you on that.”
Macmillan: “I think it is just an idea that it might help the Russians to accept.”
(Curiously, the State Department and Avalon Project records offer a different wording of the exchange.)
There was to be an ever-increasing volume of transatlantic letters and cables in the year that remained of the Kennedy-Macmillan partnership. The President did not greatly care for the prospect of a Castro-type government in British Guiana, which was moving toward independence, and frequently said as much to the prime minister. No other single foreign-policy issue occupied as much executive time in mid-1963 as the fate of this impoverished one-time sugar colony on the northern tip of Latin America. “Dear friend,” Macmillan wrote Kennedy on June 15,
The misunderstanding you are under [on British Guiana] is that you appear to think that, after resuming direct government we could proceed quickly to a referendum on political representation and new elections . . .
In another “Dear friend” cable on July 18, clutching hard at the remnants of his bonhomie, Macmillan wrote, “We have come to the unalterable conclusion that the right thing to do is to impose a system of proportional representation without a referendum, and then to hold elections.” These returned one Cheddi Jagan, whose anticommunist credentials did not impress Kennedy or his advisors. Ruminating on the need for “security” on the South American mainland, the President told Macmillan and his Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod that he hoped Britain would not withdraw too swiftly from her obligations in the area. “Do I understand,” Macmillan replied, “that you wish us to decolonize as fast as possible all over the world except on your doorstep?”
In the case of Indonesia, there was a reversal of the normal Allied roles. Macmillan confided that he wanted the rabble-rousing President Achmed Sukarno “out of the picture,” while Kennedy thought “a meeting . . . or territorial summit of some kind” would suffice. A January 1963 visit to London by Sukarno to plead his case was not judged a success. “He was regarded here as a bombastic joke, a jungle Hitler, whose greed for political power is as insatiable as his private appetites,” the U.S. ambassador cabled back. “The impression he created generally was that he was a strutting, arrogant brothel crawler . . . ” For once, British anxieties perhaps better suited the needs of the situation than American restraint. Sukarno went on to take an increasingly strident anti-Western line, while welcoming in Soviet military “advisors.” He was eventually overthrown by a coup in 1967, and died shortly afterward, either of kidney failure or, as Macmillan speculated, “some form of black arts” on the part of the CIA.
In July 1963, the Allies concluded a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. “One can only live once,” Macmillan had reminded Kennedy during the negotiations. Neither of the principals in the Special Relationship was able to take the next step in the process, which Macmillan saw as a comprehensive nonaggression pact with the Soviets. The PM resigned on grounds of ill health in October 1963, the victim of a misdiagnosed problem that the doctors had told him might be fatal. Just five weeks later, the crack of an assassin’s rifle echoed round the world.