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Response to Review no. 562

Macmillan’s foreign policy reflects three character traits, which are not easy to disentangle. One, taught at a very early age by his mother, is persistence. Macmillan was a man who would never give up. The second, which appeared to become more prominent in his later political life, is wishful thinking. Thirdly, and this already emerges from his time in Algiers (as indeed in his support for Suez), he was a risk-taker. These constitute a difficult combination for historians trying to evaluate the foreign policy of a prime minister of a declining Power, who in trying to punch above, often seems to be punching beyond, his country’s weight. A remarkable persistence in pursuit of ambitious or risky goals, often merges imperceptibly with a less praiseworthy wishful thinking. This was as true of Macmillan’s attempt to get an East-West summit, as of his efforts to get de Gaulle to accept British membership of the EEC. It is arguably also true of his efforts to persuade the Americans to allow Anglo-French nuclear cooperation (over which the US had a veto by virtue of the MacMahon Act), although in this case Kennedy was eventually willing to make concessions.

Helen Parr makes the valid point that the domestic pressures for applying to join the EEC in 1961 were very strong. At the same time, the signals from Paris were both confused—de Gaulle is quoted by Wormser as being schizophrenic in his attitude to British membership (1)—as well as deliberately confusing. My argument, and this is inevitably a matter of judgement, is that in his determination to try, Macmillan deliberately skated over both the magnitude of the problems he knew he was going to have with de Gaulle, and the weakness of his own hand. The famous nuclear deal was always a chimera, because the terms on which it would have been acceptable to de Gaulle—an ‘independent’ European nuclear force (i.e. one independent of the Americans)—was unacceptable both to Washington, and, indeed, to London. Ingenious as Macmillan often seemed, wishful thinking effectively substituted for more hard-headed analysis.

The Macmillan-de Gaulle nexus, as Helen Parr points out, is, of course, only one part of the immensely complex story of the first British EEC application. The Almost Impossible Ally is in the first instance a study of something else—namely the personal dimension of Anglo-French diplomacy over a more extensive period. Either way, one is left with a puzzle. For all the political importance Macmillan attached to the EEC bid, it was never a personal cause for him in the way that the East-West summit and the Test Ban Treaty were. Moreover, by 1961 Macmillan was becoming visibly tired. He was still willing to take risks—according to a diary entry of 22 July 1961, he believed that the chances are ‘against (emphasis in original) an agreement, unless—on political grounds—de Gaulle changes his mind’ (2). But he was not in good condition to navigate the perilously narrow passage between de Gaulle, on the one hand, and Commonwealth and domestic opinion on the other. The point is speculative, but a younger, fresher, Macmillan might have been more alert to his own vulnerability to that brutal streak, which, as he knew from his wartime experience in Algiers, was part of de Gaulle’s make-up.