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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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The failure of deterrence The following discussion will firstly define deterrence and note the requirements for a successful deterrent strategy, and then explain why the Old Commonwealth’s efforts to support the British Government in this regard failed. Deterrence has been defined as: ‘an effort by one actor to persuade an opponent not to take action of some kind against his interests by convincing the opponent that the costs and risks of doing so will outweigh what he hopes to gain thereby.’ 71 Successful deterrence depends upon a state conveying clearly to an opponent that the course of action it contemplates threatens the fundamental interests of the deterring state and that it is committed to defending its fundamental interests. That commitment must be backed by threats that are both credible and sufficiently potent in the mind of the opponent to convince it that the deterring state has the motivation and the capability to defend its fundamental interests. 72 Yet attempts by Britain and the Old Commonwealth to deter Rhodesia from a UDI between 1964 and 1965 lacked the essential attributes that were required for success. They were also dealing with an opponent that rationalised the situation in its own terms and considered that its own fundamental interests were at stake in its claim for independence. It is clear that without a public commitment to use force (which was entirely unacceptable to the Old Commonwealth) the governments of Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand Gordon A. Craig and Alexander L. George, Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn., 1990), p. 179.


could not have deterred Rhodesia from a UDI even if they had orchestrated their efforts with greater regard for the principles of deterrence.

The first attempt by the Old Commonwealth to deter Rhodesia from a UDI was when Canada, Australia and New Zealand acted in support of the British Government’s warning statement of October 1964. 73 Canadian officials suggested immediately that although the British Government had not approached the Canadian Government it should nevertheless do whatever it could to support British efforts at deterrence and to show solidarity with the African members of the Commonwealth. 74 Canadian officials also urged their Australian and New Zealand counterparts to adopt a similar view and take supportive action. 75 The New Zealand Government was swift to react, irrespective of Canadian pressure. Holyoake released a statement, which observed that the terms of the British statement were in line with the discussions on Rhodesia at the 1964 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting, and confirmed his Government’s opposition to a UDI. 76 Yet privately Holyoake told Wilson that although he supported the terms of the British statement: ‘I cannot hope, however, that publication at this stage will succeed in deterring the Rhodesians from going ahead irrespective of the consequences with all For details of this statement see above, Ch. 1, pp. 37-39.

NAC: RG 25, Vol. 10071, 20-1-2-SR, Part 1.1, ‘Record of Discussion on Southern Rhodesia’ [on 28 October 1964], by L. M. Berry, AMED, DEA, 30 October 1964, para. 6; ‘Southern Rhodesia – Possible UDI – Canadian Interests’, Memorandum by Tom Carter, AMED, DEA, for Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, 28 October 1964.

NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 3a, Sir Kenneth Bailey, Australian High Commissioner, Ottawa, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No. 342, 28 October 1964.

NAA: A1209, 1963/6696, Part 1, Australian High Commission, Wellington, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No. 557, 28 October 1964.

their embarrassments for the Commonwealth especially within the United Nations.’77 Australian officials demonstrated similar concerns; it was suggested that although it might be better for the British Government to be rid of the Rhodesian problem through a UDI, ‘from our point of view it was surely far better that the British should go on dealing with the problem than that Southern Rhodesia should break away when we would be faced with all sorts of awkward initiatives and choices in the United Nations.’ 78 The Australian Prime Minister was similarly anxious that Wilson’s warning statement should not foreclose constructive engagement with the Rhodesian Government. Menzies wrote to Wilson: ‘You may be assured of our full support … for your latest statement … I have no doubt that you will do what you can to preserve some possibility of negotiation.’ 79 It is clear from the evidence that whereas the Canadian Government was concerned to support Britain on the Rhodesian issue order to preserve the integrity of the Commonwealth, the Australian and New Zealand Governments were motivated more by a desire to avoid the awkward issue of reprisals against Rhodesia in the event of a UDI.

Whatever the motives of the Old Commonwealth, the action that they took in support of the British Government in October 1964 was certainly effective. Ian Smith later wrote NAA: A1209, 1963/6696, Part 1, Australian High Commission, Wellington, to DEA, Canberra, Cable No. 559, 28 October 1964.

NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 4, ‘Australian Contingency Plans’, Record of Conversation between Mr J.

R. Rowland, Assistant Secretary, Division IV, DEA, Canberra, and Mr Stansfield, Canadian High Commission, Canberra, 28 October 1964.

NAA: A1209, 1963/6696, Part 1, DEA, Canberra, to Australian High Commission, London, Cable No.

O.27765, 29 October 1964. Other documents on this file indicate that Australian officials also prevailed upon Menzies to issue a press statement in support of the British Government’s position.

that Wilson’s ‘bull-headed tactics’ had no effect. 80 Yet the deterrent action taken by Britain and the Old Commonwealth clearly postponed any illegal action by the Rhodesian Government. Ian Smith admitted in a broadcast two days after the British statement that he had abandoned his hope of independence by Christmas. 81 The state funeral of Winston Churchill in London in January 1965 presented the Prime Ministers of Britain and the Old Commonwealth with an opportunity to impress upon Smith in person their opposition to a UDI. Smith’s behaviour was difficult and in discussions with Wilson he was bullish about Rhodesia’s prospects for independence. 82 His mood was perhaps not unrelated to the frustration caused by the action that Britain and the Old Commonwealth had taken the previous October. In his memoirs Smith recalled that he was invited to the Savoy Hotel

for tea with Menzies and Holyoake on the morning after Churchill’s funeral. He wrote:

‘It was obvious to us that Wilson had asked them to try and twist my arm over the independence issue’, but suggested that their talk was all about sport, not politics. 83 Yet Smith’s account is distorted, for Holyoake told Wilson that he had advised Smith that Rhodesia needed friends and ought to be cautious. 84 Smith also made no mention in his Smith, Bitter Harvest, p. 83.

Elaine Windrich, Britain and the Politics of Rhodesian Independence (London: Croom Helm, 1978) p.


For Wilson’s account see The Labour Government, pp. 73-75; and for Smith’s version of events, Bitter Harvest, pp. 85-87. The official British record is TNA: PRO, PREM 13/534, ff 86-95, ‘Record of a meeting between Mr Wilson and Mr Smith’, by Derek J. Mitchell, Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, 30 January 1965; in Ashton and Louis (eds.), BDEEP Series A, Vol. 5,Part II, pp. 184-85.

Smith, Bitter Harvest, p. 87.

TNA: PRO, DO 183/676, ‘Record of Conversation between the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr Keith Holyoake, at No. 10 Downing Street at 10 am on Monday February 1.’ memoirs of another meeting that he had with Lester Pearson at the Dorchester Hotel,

where the talk was definitely about politics. The Canadian record of the meeting states:

The general impression that Mr. Smith conveyed was of an almost fanatical determination to make no concession whatever from the position as now established in Rhodesia. He clearly thinks there is no possibility of any negotiation or any adjustment, however, minor. It is equally apparent that he personally, and presumably his government, is quite prepared to contemplate independence on a unilateral basis outside the Commonwealth – counting on the support of their immediate neighbouring countries to the South and the weakness of African states generally. 85 This confirms that Smith adopted the same posture in his meeting with Pearson as he had with Wilson that same day. Oddly, Smith told Pearson, Menzies and Holyoake that he had not had a meeting with Wilson. As Wilson later wrote, it was astounding that Smith thought he could get away with misleading the Commonwealth leaders like this, as they were bound to discuss matters with Wilson. 86 It is perhaps unfortunate that no attempt was made to convene a meeting between all of the Old Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Smith so that they could warn him jointly, face-to-face, that a UDI would meet with Commonwealth reprisals. On the other hand, the records of Smith’s meetings with Wilson and Pearson suggest that he really did not care what they thought or did and was willing to deal with the consequences of illegal action. Thereafter, attempts to deter NAC: RG 25, Vol. 10071, 20-1-2-SR, Part 1.2, ‘Meeting of the Prime Minister with the Prime Minister of Rhodesia’ [on 30 January 1965], Note for the File, 2 February 1965.

Wilson, The Labour Government, pp. 74-75.

Rhodesia from a UDI became even more difficult because the Rhodesian Government had time to consider how it could circumvent some of the consequences that it knew would flow from any illegal action on its part. 87 Smith’s behaviour in London and his casual attitude towards the consequences of a UDI caused grave concern in the Canadian Government. It was suggested at both the official and political levels that the British Government should be more specific about the consequences of a UDI, and should put forward proposals for constitutional reform. Even if this provoked a UDI then Britain’s more positive approach to the Rhodesian problem would at least limit the damage to the Commonwealth. 88 In a letter to Arthur Bottomley,

Paul Martin reiterated the Canadian Government’s position:

–  –  –

Rhodesian problem, although your direct interest and responsibility is, of course, far greater than ours. We are, however, deeply concerned about the situation in Rhodesia because of the strain which it continues to place

–  –  –

because of the damage which a unilateral declaration of independence might cause to the whole position of the West in Africa. 89 On 26 April 1965, the Rhodesian Government published a White Paper entitled ‘Economic Aspects of a Declaration of Independence’, which suggested that the economic consequences of a UDI would not be as serious as the British Government had warned in its statement of October 1964.

TNA: PRO, DO 183/674, E. J. Emery, British High Commission, Ottawa, to K. J. Neale, CRO, Letter reporting the views of Tom Carter, 11 February 1965; Paul Martin to Arthur Bottomley, Letter, 18 February 1965 (also in FO 371/181876).


Martin’s message arrived just before the Commonwealth Secretary was due to visit Rhodesia. On his return Bottomley advised Martin that he had left Smith in no doubt about the likely consequences of a UDI. Bottomley did not think that a more precise statement of British intentions would have any greater effect on Smith ‘because, in spite of the consequences, he is in the last resort prepared to face them if he cannot achieve a negotiated settlement.’ 90 Australian officials reacted in a similar way when they learned of Martin’s message to Bottomley. They questioned Martin’s sense of urgency about the Rhodesian problem and doubted both the efficacy of using economic arguments to reason with Smith and the utility of economic sanctions in the event of a UDI. 91 The Australian Ambassador to South Africa wrote: ‘I find it surprising that the Canadians should still regard Mr Smith as a sort of man who will be impressed by threats. He is not that sort of man. I should also judge that he is already very conscious of the kinds of punitive action which might follow a unilateral declaration.’ 92 The Ambassador dismissed Canadian concerns about the likely impact of a UDI on the Commonwealth, implied that Martin was ignorant of the political situation in Rhodesia, and observed that discussion of the Rhodesian problem at the forthcoming Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Meeting would not find favour with Robert Menzies. 93 Clearly, then, there was no enthusiasm in Britain or Australia for Canadian proposals for a more forceful deterrent statement. 94 TNA: PRO, DO 183/674, Bottomley to Martin, Cable No. 790, 2 April 1965 (also in FO 371/181877).

NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 4, ‘Southern Rhodesia: Call at Mr Read’s Request’, Record of Conversation, 25 February 1965.

NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, Part 4, ‘Southern Rhodesia: Mr Martin’s Message’, Memorandum by J. C. G.

Kevin, Australian Ambassador to South Africa, 25 February 1965, para. 1.

Ibid., paras. 2, 7 and 8.

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