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«THE RHODESIAN CRISIS IN BRITISH AND INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, 1964-1965 by CARL PETER WATTS A thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham For the ...»

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Alternatives: The United Nations, and the Use of Force Introduction The Labour Government’s Rhodesia policy – negotiating to prevent a UDI and simultaneously preparing to deal with it when it came – was not the only viable course of action that the Government could have pursued. There were alternatives, which could either have rid Britain of responsibility for Rhodesia, or produced a direct solution that negated the intransigence of the extremist Europeans and African nationalists in Rhodesia. In other words, the Government could either have handed over the problem to the United Nations, or used force to impose a settlement. The fact that these options were dismissed with little discussion requires some explanation. The Government’s reluctance to hand over the problem to the United Nations is worth examining, because it saddled Britain with primary responsibility for Rhodesia until it obtained its legal independence as Zimbabwe in 1980. This chapter will argue that the most significant reason why the British Government sought to maintain control of the Rhodesian problem at the United Nations is that it was desperate to avoid creating a precedent for UN sanctions against South Africa, which would be highly damaging to the British economy. Another key issue at the time, which has remained controversial ever since, is whether the Wilson Government could, or should, have used force against Ian Smith’s regime in order to prevent UDI or, after it had occurred, to compel Rhodesia to walk a legal path to independence. Michael Stewart, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1965-1966) wrote in his memoirs that military intervention would have been too risky: ‘All the evidence before us was to the effect that [Rhodesia’s] forces were well-armed and well-trained; and that they would fight. This would not be a colonial expedition but a medium-sized war of uncertain duration.’ 1 On the other hand, James Callaghan, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1964-1967), recognised in retrospect that a more coercive strategy might have yielded beneficial results: ‘I do not disguise my regret nor my belief that more forceful action by us at the time might have saved Britain from many uncomfortable moments in later years.’ 2 This chapter demonstrates that the British Government rejected the option of using force because it was engaged in a desperate struggle to limit its military liabilities for economic reasons. Further, the Government was profoundly averse to taking any action that might have jeopardised its parliamentary majority or its prospects of winning another general election. These were the chief concerns guiding the Government’s calculations, but publicly it was prudent to argue that the use of force was neither militarily feasible, nor desirable because of popular sympathy for Rhodesian ‘kith and kin’. However, it will be argued below that even though the circumstances were not particularly favourable to military intervention, the ‘more forceful action’ advocated by Callaghan was practicable and likely to have succeeded.

Michael Stewart, Life and Labour (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980), p. 169. Stewart’s emphatic rejection of the possibility that military force might have been used is actually at variance with his actions in October 1965, when on his own initiative he discussed military options with U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Australian representatives at the United Nations. National Archives of Australia [hereafter NAA]: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 5, James Plimsoll, Australian Mission to United Nations [hereafter AMUN], New York, to Department of External Affairs [hereafter DEA], Canberra, Cable No. UN1468, 9 October 1965.

James Callaghan, Time and Chance (London: Collins, 1987), p. 145.

The UN option In November 1964, a British Cabinet sub-committee considered a list of proposals for the solution of the Rhodesian problem, which Arthur Bottomley presented ‘roughly in ascending order of acceptability to Mr Smith’: 3

–  –  –

2. Suspend the Rhodesian Constitution and impose direct rule by force.

3. Amend the current Constitution to enfranchise the Africans.

4. Summon an immediate Constitutional conference in London or

–  –  –

7. [Her Majesty’s Government] to devise a new Constitution with a bicameral legislature, the second chamber of which would contain an

–  –  –

The National Archives [hereafter TNA]: Public Records Office, Kew [hereafter PRO], CAB 130/206, MISC 4/5, ‘Cabinet: Southern Rhodesia. Policy and Tactics’, Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, 20 November 1964. Wilson chaired the meeting, attended by six Cabinet ministers: Bottomley, Castle, Gardiner, Greenwood, Healey, and Soskice.

9. Suggest a national meeting similar to the ‘National Convention’ held

–  –  –

10. Suggest a political moratorium on the independence issue, with the UK or Commonwealth intervening to dissuade the African Nationalists

–  –  –

12. Propose that the convention of non-intervention in Rhodesian affairs by the British Parliament be formalised, but with [Her Majesty’s Government] retaining responsibility for external affairs.

13. Grant immediate independence with safeguards against repeal of the

–  –  –





14. Grant unconditional independence.

As the previous chapter demonstrated, the Labour Government discussed many of the ‘middle’ options with the Rhodesian Government during the course of 1965, and even went so far as to explore the possibility of granting independence with safeguards against repeal of the entrenched clauses of the 1961 Constitution. Yet despite these concessions – which represented a reversal of its previous commitment to grant independence only on the basis of majority rule – the Labour Government was unable to agree a formula for Rhodesian independence. When Wilson met Smith in January 1965 and learned that the Rhodesian Front was examining ways to prolong European rule in Rhodesia by up to 70 years, it would not have been unreasonable for Wilson to concede that the British Government had no solution to the problem and was therefore going to hand the matter over to the United Nations. Officials in the Foreign Office West and Central Africa Department later suggested: ‘This is a threat to which precisely the most reactionary and stubborn Rhodesians would be likely to be most susceptible.’ 4 It was argued that handing over the problem to the United Nations would have several advantages: it would accept the facts of the situation (namely that the British Government had no ability to control the situation in Rhodesia); it would obviate the need for a general trade embargo; and it would demonstrate that British policy was not motivated by favouritism towards the white minority in Rhodesia. 5 It also became apparent shortly before UDI that a majority of the British public (some 63 per cent) was in favour of handing responsibility for Rhodesia to the United Nations. 6 Why, then, did Wilson not threaten to turn the matter over to the United Nations, and why did he press on with apparently hopeless negotiations rather than rid the British Government of the problem? Several reasons may be suggested. First, it is questionable whether the Rhodesian Government would have paused, reconsidered its position, and adopted a more reasonable posture in its negotiations with Britain. There is evidence that the Rhodesian Government would probably have justified a UDI on the basis that Britain intended to absolve itself of responsibility, and was no longer capable of defending Rhodesia against external interference in its constitutional affairs. 7 Second, until his TNA: PRO, FO 371/181879, West and Central Africa Department [hereafter WCAD] brief for Secretary of State’s attendance at OPD (65) 40th Meeting, 22 September 1965, para. 8.

Ibid., para 10.

National Opinion Poll Bulletin, Special Supplement 1, Rhodesia (October 1965). Cited by E. Silver, ‘Mr Wilson, the Public and Rhodesia’, Venture, Vol. 18 (February 1966), p. 4.

On 27 October 1964, Smith told the Rhodesian Legislative Assembly that a UDI would become imperative if Britain broke the convention of non-interference in Rhodesia’s domestic affairs, or ceased to support Rhodesia at the United Nations. J. R. T. Wood, ‘So far and no further!’ Rhodesia’s bid for desperate mission to Rhodesia in October 1965, Wilson clearly did not feel that he had fully explored the possibility of a negotiated settlement. A related point is that Wilson recognised that his Government would have been subjected to a great deal of domestic and international criticism if it had handed responsibility for Rhodesia to the United Nations prematurely. Following a meeting with Wilson in October 1965, the editor of the Guardian wrote in his private record: ‘Wilson said he thought Heath was looking for a way in which to hit the British Government – to say that they had mishandled the negotiations with Smith’, but Heath’s options were narrow because he could not condemn the Government for handing the matter over to the United Nations, or accuse it of a lack of clarity in its dealings with Smith.8 Third, in early 1965 British contingency planning was only in its infancy, especially in relation to the potential ramifications of economic warfare between Rhodesia and Zambia. Even if the Labour Government no longer claimed primary responsibility for Rhodesia and managed to avoid a general trade embargo, it would still have wished to support Zambia, and would therefore have been plunged into a situation with which it was ill prepared to cope. The Foreign Office highlighted the necessity of protecting Zambian copper production as a key reason why the British Government should seek to maintain formal responsibility for Rhodesia at the independence during the retreat from empire 1959-1965 (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2005), p. 247. Similarly, Oliver Bennett told the Canadians that if Britain failed to protect Rhodesia at the United Nations it would provoke a UDI. National Archives of Canada, Ottawa [hereafter NAC]: RG 25, Vol. 10071, 20-1-2-SR, Part 1.1, ‘Visit to Ottawa of Mr. O. B. Bennett, Rhodesian Minister in Washington, 18 January 1965’, Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs to Canadian Trade Commission, Salisbury, Cable No. ME1, 26 January 1965.

British Library of Political and Economic Science [hereafter BLPES]: Papers of Alastair Hetherington [hereafter Hetherington Papers], Hetherington/10/3, ‘Note of a Meeting with the Prime Minister’, 11 October 1965, Item 2, ‘Rhodesia – Heath’.

United Nations in the event of a UDI. 9 Two further reasons must also be considered:

Wilson’s personal fear that the United Nations might authorise the use of force, which could create a general conflagration in southern Africa that the Communists would exploit to their advantage; and the British Government’s concern that an admission of UN competence to deal with the situation in Rhodesia would embolden the Afro-Asian bloc to press for UN action against South Africa, which would gravely prejudice Britain’s economic interests (South Africa was Britain’s fourth largest export market, worth £300 million annually). 10 Of all these reasons, the last was by far the most significant.

In his memoirs Wilson wrote that at the United Nations the Soviet bloc was ‘busy in seeking to win clients among African countries’, and recalled that after UDI he was troubled ‘when two Zambian ministers were despatched to Moscow to discuss copper sales.’ 11 One month before UDI Wilson also privately expressed to the editor of the Guardian his fears about Soviet intentions in central Africa. 12 During his negotiations with Smith, Wilson warned that regardless of Rhodesian feelings about the United Nations they ought to recognise that Britain might lose control of the issue there, and in such circumstances the use of force by the United Nations could not be ruled out.13 TNA: PRO, CAB 148/22, OPD (65) 132, Annex II, ‘Immediate Action in the UN: Note by the Foreign Office’, 21 September 1965, para. 3 (iii).

See John W. Young, ‘The Wilson government and the debate over arms to South Africa’, Contemporary British History, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1998), pp. 62-86.

Harold Wilson, The Labour Government 1964-1970 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and Michael Joseph), pp. 181 and 183.

BLPES: Hetherington Papers, Hetherington/10/3, ‘Note of a Meeting with the Prime Minister’, 11 October 1965, Item 4, ‘Rhodesia – Military Action’.

‘Record of a Meeting held at 10 Downing Street’, 8 October 1965, Cmnd. 2807, p. 83.

Referring to the Congo, Wilson said that ‘at least the United Nations had been able to prevent the country from becoming a cockpit for the major Powers’, but wondered whether this would be true in Rhodesia in the event of a UDI. Wilson observed that ‘a great struggle was in progress between the Soviet Union and China for influence in Africa. Both these countries would be under strong temptation to intervene in Rhodesia with incalculable consequences.’ Wilson therefore saw a danger, if not the probability, of ‘terrible conflict and bloodshed.’ 14 Yet this cannot be taken at face value because Wilson was attempting to persuade Smith to adopt a more reasonable position in order to reach some sort of compromise agreement. On the same day that he warned Smith of the dire consequences of Communist involvement in the Rhodesian Crisis, Wilson advised his Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, that it was not thought the Soviet Union would wish to attempt to intervene in Rhodesia except possibly in support of a UN initiative. Even in those circumstances it was doubtful that the Soviet Union would wish to become involved militarily, as the logistical difficulties would be too great. For this reason, Wilson advised, the Soviet Union and China preferred to restrict their assistance to the training of subversive forces. 15 It is therefore clear that Wilson deliberately exaggerated the danger Ibid.

TNA: PRO, FO 371/181893, Wilson to Stewart (in Washington), Cable No. 7870, 8 October 1965.

Whilst Stewart was at the UN he sought an assessment of what might happen if, in the worst analysis, there was a UDI followed by a UN General Assembly or Security Council Resolution providing for direct action against the Rhodesian Government. TNA: PRO, FO 371/181893, Stewart to Wilson, New York Cable No.



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