Documenting Britain's Foreign Policy

By Young, John W. | Contemporary Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Documenting Britain's Foreign Policy

Young, John W., Contemporary Review

BY publishing an impressive collection of documents the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Historians have stolen a march on their main overseas competitors. (*) The State Department's long-running series, Foreign Relations of the United States is still securely lodged in the early to mid-1960s, whilst the French Documents Diplomatiques have not advanced that far. Even with more than a hundred documents in each, these first volumes of the FCO's post-1960 series only represent a small selection of government material on Anglo-Soviet relations in the period which became known as the `era of detente'. And it will be several years before other historians, benefiting from releases under the thirty-year rule, will be able to judge just how good the selection is. But both collections provide a wide range of material. Records of international conferences abroad and of ministerial meetings at home, letters from the Moscow Embassy and interviews with the Soviet Ambassador in London, FCO memoranda on individual issues and, perhaps most interestingly, reports by the Joint Intelligence Committee (usually kept secret for far longer than this) are here.

Furthermore the documents cover a wide range of subjects, from the imprisonment of Gerald Brooke (condemned to a labour camp in 1965, for circulating anti-Communist propaganda), through commercial and technological co-operation, to such important international questions as the Vietnam War, Middle East tension and the growing divide between Moscow and Beijing. Volume I, which concentrates on bilateral relations between Britain and the USSR, also includes a number of items on cultural diplomacy, including for example, a report on the `Days of British Music' Festival in Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere in April 1971, when Benjamin Britten conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and drew enthusiastic crowds.

The change in the atmosphere of East-West relations, as reflected in these documents is remarkable. The first volume opens with a visit by Harold Wilson to Moscow which was friendly enough but achieved no breakthroughs on any problem. The two countries sympathised with different sides in the Vietnam War, which was about to reach a new intensity in the `Tel' offensive; Wilson had just been forced to devalue the Pound and was hardly in a strong negotiating position; and the British were suspicious of Soviet attempts to call a European Security Conference, fearing that this was a ploy to divide the Atlantic Alliance. The second volume closes, however, with the European Security Conference having been held and the `Helsinki Agreements' signed. Britain's Ambassador to Moscow, reviewing the situation in September 1075, believed that so long as the Western powers proceeded carefully, `detente may foster developments in Soviet policies which ultimately make the USSR a less intractable, even a more reliable, partner.' Meanwhile the Vietnam War had ended, Anglo-Soviet trade had continued to expand and Gerald Brooke had long since been released -- effectively exchanged in July 1969 for two Soviet spies, Peter and Helen Kroger.

But the improvement in relations was far from a gradual, even one. Two problems in particular stand out in Volume I. First, in August 1968, the USSR

and some of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia, to end any danger that it would abandon Soviet-style Communism. The crisis, which had been building up for months, was the subject of a long Cabinet discussion on 22 August. It was evident that, while eager to condemn the Warsaw Pact's action, ministers could do little to help Czechoslovakia and wished to minimise the long-term damage to Anglo-Soviet relations. The FCO believed that a `healthy realism is essential' and was determined to maintain `business as usual' wherever possible. However, as a telegram from Ambassador Sir Duncan Wilson in early November made clear, such moderation was not intended to benefit the Soviets. Instead it was hoped that trade, cultural links and individual contacts would help `to wean' the younger generation `from Marxist dogmatism': the `most effective way in which we could help the Czechs. …

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