This chapter looks at the background to Britain’s first application to join
the Common Market, and the reasons why Conservative Prime Minister Harold
Macmillan decided not to enter Europe when he would have been welcomed in
1957, but waited until 1961, when the application was rejected. The chapter
also explores the pressure faced by the British government from the American
President and US business for Britain to join the EEC. Macmillan’s
application had huge implications for the Labour Party, which was divided
over the issue at the time. Hugh Gaitskell’s monumental speech to party
conference in 1962 where he warned that entering the EEC would be the end of
a thousand years of history, galvanised and even united his party. Harold
Wilson gave his wholehearted support for Gaitskell’s position on Europe.
This enhanced his own position in the leadership election following the
untimely death of Gaitskell in 1963.
The Washington summit was useful to Lyndon B. Johnson mainly because it allowed him to impress upon the British the need for them to retain their traditional 'great power' role and also to allow him to bring the multilateral force (MLF) to a conclusion. Harold Wilson accepted the American view that Britain should preserve its current position in defence, telling the Cabinet on 11 December that 'the most encouraging fact about the conference was America's emphasis on Britain's world wide role'. Johnson not only wanted Wilson to maintain Britain's defence commitments, but to extend them into South Vietnam. After Wilson's visit to Washington, most observers, including the President, anticipated that he would face a serious challenge in explaining what he had agreed to in Washington to the House of Commons in the foreign affairs debate scheduled for 16-17 December.
From January to April 1965 the character of the Harold Wilson-Lyndon B. Johnson relationship traversed the spectrum from discord to cordiality. Discord erupted over the Vietnam War when Wilson telephoned Washington in the early hours of 11 February to suggest to Johnson an urgent visit to the White House. Wilson agreed to the US initiative, even though the visit might have caused a political storm in Britain had it become public knowledge - it would appear that the United States was dictating British economic measures. Wilson noted that unlike the December summit and the telephone conversation in February, Johnson did not make 'any suggestion of our committing troops to Vietnam nor even any reference to police, medical teams, or teams to handle the flow of refugees'. On 10 April, Patrick Dean advised that to help strengthen the Anglo-American relationship, Britain should provide more support for the United States in Vietnam.