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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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Anglin, Britain and the Use of Force’, p. 73.

opinion on the Rhodesian issue was somewhat equivocal, rather than stacked hopelessly against military intervention. Wilson could have marginalised the ‘kith and kin’ issue by appealing to the national conscience to justify British military intervention in Rhodesia, or alternatively he might have tapped into the potential jingoism of the British public, who ‘would not take kindly to being pushed around by colonials, even white ones, and the illegal seizure of power in a British colony was an affront to British sensibilities on the subject of being a second-rate power.’ 165 It is clear that the Labour Government failed totally in the ‘propaganda war’, which is an essential method of ‘sustaining the determination and morale of the domestic audience while attempting to break the opponent’s will to resist.’ 166 A ‘classic strategic blunder’: the failure of deterrence and the British response to UDI In his biography of Wilson, Ben Pimlott commented that until Ian Smith’s visit to London in October 1965, ‘Wilson and his ministers had handled the Rhodesian adventurers with skill, displaying a mixture of consistency of purpose and patience,’ which is an impression that was shared by Healey. 167 At this juncture, however, Wilson made a gross error that is difficult to understand: he allowed Smith to form the impression that the British Government did not consider the use of force against Rhodesia to be practical.

According to Ken Flower, the Rhodesian Front had until this point been concerned about the likelihood of a British military response to a UDI, but when Smith returned from London the Rhodesian Security Council decided to declare independence at the earliest Windrich, Britain and the Politics of Rhodesian Independence, p. 60.

Dixon, ‘Britain’s “Vietnam Syndrome”?’, p. 100.

Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p. 369; Healey, Time of My Life, p. 331.

opportunity. 168 Wilson encouraged the Rhodesians further in his press conference of 30 October and statement in the House of Commons on 1 November, in which he announced: ‘If there are those in this country who are thinking in terms of a thunderbolt, hurtling through the sky and destroying their enemy, a thunderbolt in the shape of the Royal Air Force, let me say that this thunderbolt will not be coming.’ 169 It was one thing for the British Government privately to rule out the use of force against Rhodesia, but it was quite another for Wilson to make this decision known publicly.

Healey thought that this was a ‘classic strategic blunder’, since it effectively gave the green light for a UDI. 170 Yet Healey was hardly blameless. In August 1965, when the press alleged that the Government was considering a plan for intervention in Rhodesia, Healey had condemned the report as ‘irresponsible speculation’, when he could simply have remained silent. 171 The Government also failed to use its diplomatic channels, military liaison, and intelligence networks to create doubt in the minds of the Rhodesian Front about the likely nature of a British response to a UDI. 172 Flower, Serving Secretly, pp. 47-51.

Quoted in Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p. 371; and Windrich, Britain and the Politics of Rhodesian Independence, p. 49.

Healey, Time of My Life, p. 332.

‘Police Action Plan for Rhodesia Considered’, was written by the military correspondent of The Times, 4 August 1965. Cited in Good, UDI, p. 63.

As noted above, Brigadier Skeen claimed to have been told that military intervention had been ruled out.

Flower, Serving Secretly, p. 57. On the other hand, British intelligence had allegedly warned the Rhodesian Government not to take any action against the Kariba Dam. Leigh, The Wilson Plot, p. 106.

Wilson’s private and public statements concerning the Government’s intentions were clearly at odds with the principles of deterrence. 173 Although the Government made it clear that it would not grant independence to Rhodesia unless the conditions were acceptable to the population as a whole, it did not signal that it would take whatever action was necessary to defend this position, despite some pressure for Wilson to do so before negotiations reached crisis point. 174 The Rhodesian Front therefore perceived that black majority rule in Rhodesia was not vital to British interests. It is difficult to know whether the Rhodesian Government would have acted differently if Wilson had sent different signals, but the fact that he failed to leave the threat of force on the table requires some explanation. A number of reasons can be suggested. First, the Labour Government

was perpetually concerned about the stability of sterling, as Robert Good has argued:

‘When Wilson declared “no force in Rhodesia” he was talking as much to Britain’s financial creditors as to any other audience.’ 175 Second, Wilson was undoubtedly motivated by the desire to preserve cross-party support for his policy on Rhodesia.176 Failure to make an explicit statement that military intervention was not being contemplated to settle the issue may have jeopardised the Government’s parliamentary A deterrent policy is formulated by communicating a clear commitment to defend declared interests. It depends upon demonstration of political will and possession of capabilities that represent a sufficiently credible threat to an opponent. See G. A. Craig and A. L. George, Force and Statecraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 179. The failure of deterrence is also considered below, Ch. 4, pp. 223 ff.

In April 1965 George Cunningham drafted a telegram making it clear to the Rhodesian Government that the British Government would use force if necessary to restore a legal government in Rhodesia following a UDI. Harold Wilson replied through his political secretary: ‘Tell him to burn it.’ Cunningham in ‘Rhodesian UDI’, ICBH Witness Seminar, 6 September 2000, Session One Transcript, p. 19.

http://www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/witness/rhodesia Good, UDI, p. 61.

Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p. 375.

majority in the same way as the actual use of force. Third, as Sir Oliver Wright has observed, ‘it helped to keep domestic opinion steady.’ 177 Wilson may have calculated that unless British military intervention was ruled out explicitly it could have caused

public dissent. On this theme Stephen Howe has commented:

To governments eager to preempt possible crisis and confrontation at home as in the colonies themselves, there could never be any guarantee that the relative lack of popular protest over Malaya, Kenya, or Cyprus would continue to be replicated. Suez was the great warning signal … 178 Fourth, Wilson was signalling to the African nationalists in Rhodesia that they should face up to the reality that the British Government was not going to intervene militarily and they must therefore modify their demands for immediate majority rule in Rhodesia.179 Finally, Wilson believed in the utility of economic sanctions as a deterrent and, after the failure of deterrence, as an instrument of coercive diplomacy. 180 This was a distinctly non-rational assumption, because it was quickly established in the Defence and Oversea Sir Oliver Wright in ‘Rhodesian UDI’, ICBH Witness Seminar, 6 September 2000, Session One Transcript, p. 31. http://www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/witness/rhodesia Stephen Howe, Anti-Colonialism in British Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 325.

Quoted in Dixon, ‘Britain’s Vietnam Syndrome?’ p. 106. Cecil King noted in December 1965 that ‘Wilson

had had constantly in mind Suez, Cuba and the Bay of Pigs.’ The Cecil King Diary, 1965-1970 (London:

Jonathan Cape, 1972), p. 45, entry for Wednesday 8 December 1965.

Philip Murphy, British Documents on the End of Empire, Series B, Volume 9, Part I: Closer Association, 1945-1958 (London: The Stationery Office, 2005), p. cvi; and Windrich, Britain and the Politics of Rhodesian Independence, p. 49.

Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p. 375.

Policy Committee that South Africa would be likely to break an oil embargo, which therefore meant that no serious damage could be done to the Rhodesian economy for over a year. 181 Yet despite all his misgivings about the use of force or even the threat of force, it appears that by the end of 1965 Wilson had become more receptive to the idea of military intervention, which may have been related to his private scepticism about the ability of economic sanctions to bring the rebellion to a swift end. Wilson requested Healey to


[A] choice of plans to fit quite a wide range of possible circumstances, extending from one extreme (at which no more than a token military intervention in Rhodesia would be required) to the other extreme (at which we might have to contemplate a virtual invasion of the country against both political and military opposition, followed by a period of what could be, in effect, military occupation and administration). 182 Wilson’s change of mind was also known in Washington, which tends to suggest that Wilson was indeed serious about military intervention. 183 However, subsequent TNA: PRO, CAB 148/18, Minutes of OPD (65) 51st Meeting, Item 1, ‘Rhodesia: oil sanctions’, 17 November 1965. British officials had questioned the efficacy of sanctions throughout 1965. See above, Ch. 1, p. 86, n. 211.

TNA: PRO, DEFE 32/17, Wilson to Healey, Minute No. T2/66, 8 January 1966.

The Central Intelligence Agency Office of National Estimates reported that Wilson was ‘actively considering’ the use of force and in the event of military intervention ‘the Rhodesian forces would probably not put up serious armed resistance.’ LBJL: National Security File, Box 97, Rhodesia Country File, correspondence between officials in the Ministry of Defence indicates that plans were designed to highlight the difficulties of intervention, so that the Prime Minister could argue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Lagos why force should not be used to end the Rhodesian rebellion. 184 This may have reflected a bureaucratic reluctance to overturn an established line of policy. Officials had advised Healey in November 1964 that military intervention, which would be undertaken only at the request of the Governor and subject to the condition of unopposed entry, ‘would essentially be something that could only be undertaken in the very first days after a Unilateral Declaration while the Governor was still trying to form an alternative government.’ Clearly, these circumstances did not exist in early 1966, so the possibility of military intervention in the official mind had long since passed, if it ever existed. 185 Conclusion Sir Anthony Parsons, a former British Ambassador to the United Nations, has commented: ‘By the late 1970s the problem of Southern Rhodesia was hanging like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross round the necks of British foreign policymakers, its weight increasing with the years.’ 186 This chapter has suggested that this burden might have been avoided if the British Government had either handed responsibility for Rhodesia to ‘Volume 1, 12/63-1/66’, Central Intelligence Agency Special Memorandum No. 30-65, 21 December 1965.

This document was declassified in November 2004 pursuant to a Mandatory Review request.

TNA: PRO, DEFE 24/72, ‘Implication of British military intervention in Rhodesia’, passim.

TNA: PRO, AIR 20/11189, MISC 4/7 ‘British Action in Event of UDI by Southern Rhodesia’, 24 November 1964.

Anthony Parsons, ‘The Unnoticed Watershed’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, Vol. 4, No. 2 (July 1993), p.


the United Nations, or used force to impose a settlement in Rhodesia. In the Foreign Office, which had to defend Britain’s policy to the international community, there was a feeling that the European minority in Rhodesia should not be allowed ‘to hold our whole international policy to ransom’. 187 Handing the matter over to the United Nations would have rid Britain of this problem. However, Foreign Office officials were concerned that if Britain conceded UN competence to deal with Rhodesia it would lead to an international campaign against South Africa, which would gravely prejudice British economic interests. Foreign Office officials also acknowledged that ‘Logically the obvious course would be to use troops’, but noted that ministers had explicitly ruled this out. 188 The Wilson Government was highly resistant to military intervention in Rhodesia for several reasons. First, and perhaps most significant, Britain’s economic weakness generated a rolling defence review that was progressively undermining the capability of the British armed forces to execute their various roles, which constituted a powerful constraint on any deployment in southern Africa. Second, parliamentary and electoral concerns made Wilson and the Cabinet reluctant to take what it perceived as unnecessary risks. Against this background the Government received pessimistic advice from the Chiefs of Staff and officials in the Ministry of Defence, which was based on erroneous assessment of the respective attitudes and capabilities of the Rhodesian and British armed forces. This advice, combined with the ‘kith and kin’ factor, became a convenient pretext to avoid the use of force. All of this tends to support Sir Oliver Wright’s belief in the ‘supremacy of the domestic over foreign’. 189 Yet none of these factors taken in isolation TNA: PRO, FO 371/181877, Minute by Derrick March, 24 May 1965.

TNA: PRO, FO 371/181877, Minute by R. J. M. Wilson, 9 June 1965.

Sir Oliver Wright in ‘Rhodesian UDI’, ICBH Witness Seminar, 6 September 2000, Session One Transcript, p. 30. http://www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/witness/rhodesia or, indeed, in combination, precluded the use of force as a viable option, particularly if military intervention had been politically well-orchestrated. The failure to implement a successful deterrent was perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the Wilson Government’s policy on Rhodesia. This profound error of judgement contributed to the ‘many uncomfortable moments’ with which successive British Governments were burdened unnecessarily for the next fifteen years. 190 Callaghan, Time and Chance, p. 145.

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