This is an extract from my 2013 book The Prime Minister’s Ironing Board and Other State Secrets, a trawl through the weird and wonderful files that have spilled out of government under the Thirty Years (now Twenty Years) Rule. You can buy a copy here.
Ahead of his attendance at President Pompidou’s funeral in April 1974, Harold Wilson was given extensive briefing notes of topics to bring up with the various world leaders he was bound to bump into over the sherry and sausage rolls afterwards. Never mind the mourning, there was important diplomatic work to be done. Except with the Canadians. “There are no specific points to raise with Mr Trudeau,” the Foreign Office advised.
They did, however, have some advice about what to expect from Richard Nixon. “The President is bound to be in an edgy and worried state.”
He certainly was. By that point the Senate Watergate Committee had been sitting for nearly a year. Nixon was fighting a desperate legal battle to avoid handing over tape recordings that exposed just how heavy his personal involvement was with the criminal conspiracy – tape recordings that only existed because he had, in the grip of paranoia, secretly bugged his own office. It was looking increasingly likely that he would be impeached and booted out of the White House.
Still, Wilson found him on quite good form. “He spoke at some length over a very wide range,” the Prime Minister reported back in a dictated account of his trip to Paris. Despite this being his second stint in Downing Street, and a long-standing habit of sucking up to celebrities in the hope that their glamour would rub off at the ballot box, Wilson doesn’t seem to have got over being star-struck. He proudly points out that “Throughout the conversation, from the moment he first shook my hand to the time he left me outside the British Embassy, it was Christian names throughout.”
And what of the… unpleasantness back home? “There was no reference by either of us to Watergate, though he made a tangential and identifiable reference to the subject when he said something about his internal difficulties which he described as a ‘load of crap’ (sic).”
Well really! “The Prime Minister’s account is a document which clearly needs to be given a very restricted circulation,” warns a shocked official in a covering note.
But the President’s language was not the most awkward aspect of the meeting. Nixon was scheduled to visit Moscow for security talks that summer; he suggested that it would provide an ideal opportunity to pop into London for an official visit on his way home. “Mr Wilson told me that he had deliberately steered the conversation away from this possibility,” reads a Top Secret Note for the Record dated 19 April. “Nevertheless, the Prime Minister was concerned by the possibility. He did not relish the idea of a visit by President Nixon for what were evidently domestic electoral purposes.” Not least because being pictured alongside the man pretty much everyone was coming to recognise as the commander-in-thief would be a disaster for Wilsons’ own domestic electoral purposes (with a hung parliament, he knew he would be heading for the polls again before the end of the year). Nixon had already tried the same trick in Paris: the British Ambassador reported back that he gave the French “the impression of trying too obviously to step from shifting domestic sands onto the firmer ground of international reputation… He made rather too much of a beanfeast of it. He stayed two nights and showed too exuberantly his gratitude for public applause in the streets. And the French were of course only too ready to find this vulgar.”
Wilson was not about to let himself be used the same way. His instructions were clear: “The Prime Minister therefore told me that he wanted the FCO to take any measures open to us to ensure that Mr Nixon did not come to London.”
This might be more difficult than it sounded, reported top diplomat Sir John Killick. “Any country, and particularly the first, which visibly allowed Watergate to affect its dealings with the Administration, would inevitably be the target of the President’s bitterness and perhaps retribution,” he warned. “His ill-will could cause us serious difficulties. This all points to the general conclusion that we would probably have to pay a high price if we appeared deliberately to rebuff the President by avoiding a visit… He is a vengeful man.”
Killick had an idea though. “We should work hard to arrange a multilateral European occasion – e.g. just before a possible CSCE Summit Meeting or a meeting in Brussels at which the President might brief NATO leaders on his return from Moscow – as a substitute for bilateral visits.” That would at least disperse the poison – and it would be worth it just to see the desperate scramble as every leader tried not to be the one standing next to Nixon in the official photographs. But it was not good enough for Downing Street. Someone scribbled despairingly in the margin: “but he is still likely to want to come here.”
So then Killick offered his most cunning plan: if Nixon insisted on paying a visit, they would just have to make sure the Prime Minister wasn’t in. “Once the date of the President’s visit to Moscow is firmly announced, we should examine whether the Prime Minister could not himself undertake some visit abroad, shortly before and after the Moscow visit.” Failing that, maybe he could just switch all the lights off in Number 10 and hide when the doorbell rang.
If he did, the Queen would probably end up behind the sofa with him. When the Moscow trip passed and the American Ambassador started sounding out Jim Callaghan about the possibility of Her Majesty hosting a state banquet if Nixon did happen to drop by in November instead, the Foreign Secretary bit the bullet and told him that “If the question of impeachment still hung over the President a visit could cause some embarrassment to the Royal Family and no doubt Mr Annenberg would want to avoid this.” His report back to Downing Street has an intriguing annotation in Wilson’s favourite green pen: “JC could not have put it better. You know this view is not limited to our house.”
Fortunately for everyone, Nixon resigned in disgrace that August. Wilson was saved the embarrassment of being linked with him, and got to spend more time with his own upstanding and respectable friends like Joseph Kagan and Eric Miller instead.