Study Guide

Harold Macmillan, 1957-1986

by Alistair Horne

Harold Macmillan, 1957-1986 Analysis

Harold Macmillan, 1957-1986 (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

This is a second volume of Alistair Horne’s two-volume official biography of Harold Macmillan. It begins with Macmillan’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in January, 1957, and appropriately concentrates on this period in his life; eighteen of the twenty chapters are devoted to the years from 1957 to 1963, during which he served as prime minister. The author has made extensive use of Macmillan’s diaries and other unpublished papers, as well as of numerous interviews with his subject, and this material enables him to present a much more comprehensive portrait of Macmillan than has hitherto been available.

Macmillan took office shortly after the 1956 Suez crisis had nearly destroyed the alliance between Britain and the United States. One of the lessons Macmillan learned from the Suez fiasco was that Breton could no longer pursue an independent course of action of this nature without the support of the United States. Although he could not acknowledge this in public for political reasons, in private he believed that the best Britain could hope for would be to have some influence on American policy, much as the ancient Greeks had on Roman policy during the height of the Roman Empire.

Macmillan therefore gave priority to restoring the special relationship with the United States that had existed prior to 1956. This was made easier by the close friendship that he had developed with Dwight Eisenhower during the North African campaign in World War II. The two met in Bermuda in March, 1957, and succeeded in reestablishing close ties between the two countries. Home suggests that this had an important effect on American policy toward the Middle East. Macmillan persuaded the Americans that they would have to consider the implications of the power vacuum being created in the Middle East by the withdrawal of British and French forces if Western oil interests were to be protected and Soviet penetration prevented. Horne implies that the formulation of the Eisenhower Doctrine and the landing of American troops in Lebanon in 1958 resulted from Macmillan’s advice at Bermuda.

The reestablishment of the special relationship between Britain and the United States resulted in an even greater direct benefit to Britain: the restoration of access to American nuclear secrets. During World War II, Britain had shared information with American scientists that accelerated the development of the atom bomb. Recognizing the British contribution to the American nuclear program, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an agreement in 1944 pledging that the United States would continue to share nuclear information with Britain, but this agreement was nullified by the McMahon Act after the war. Although Britain had been able to develop nuclear weapons on its own, the lack of access to American nuclear information slowed British progress and added considerably to the cost of weapons. Following the restoration of close ties between the two countries, Eisenhower agreed to resume nuclear cooperation with Britain: In 1958, the McMahon Act was repealed, and Britain became the only nation able to obtain nuclear weapons and nuclear fuels from the United States.

In concentrating on Macmillan’s success in gaining access to American nuclear technology, however, Horne glosses over the concessions that Macmillan made in return. At Bermuda, Macmillan accepted the stationing of sixty intermediate-range Thor missiles in Britain; their presence ensured that Britain would be a primary target in the event of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This aroused considerable concern within Britain as the perception developed that Britain would have to suffer the consequences of an overly aggressive American policy toward the Soviet Union without having any substantial control over that policy.

After 1957, the independent nuclear deterrent became the cornerstone of British defense policy, and it enabled Britain to continue viewing herself as a world power. Macmillan defended it on the ground that it provided Britain with a deterrent in the event the United States was unwilling to unleash nuclear war in order to defend Europe from attack. The policy, however, was rooted in a dilemma: Britain wanted an independent nuclear weapons system because it did not feel certain that American support would be forthcoming if Europe were threatened with nuclear war, but Britain was dependent on the United States for the delivery systems through which the British sought to maintain their nuclear capability.

The extent to which Britain was dependent on the United States for its supposedly independent nuclear weapons system became increasingly apparent in the following years and became a serious political problem for Macmillan. In 1960, after having spent £65 million on the development of the Blue Streak missile, the British government admitted that it was ineffective and should be abandoned. This left Britain without any means of delivering its nuclear warheads against an enemy. Macmillan was thus tremendously relieved when Eisenhower offered to sell Britain the new Skybolt aircraft-launched missile. In return for this concession, Macmillan agreed to allow American submarines, equipped with Polaris missiles, to use Holly Loch on the Clyde River in Scotland as their main advance base. The missiles were to remain solely under American control, which strengthened public concern that Britain was being transformed into a huge military target for the benefit of American military policy.

The danger of relying upon American promises became evident to Macmillan in December, 1962. Following additional tests, the American government decided that Skybolt would...

(The entire section is 2328 words.)

Harold Macmillan, 1957-1986 Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Economist. CCCXII, July 1, 1989, p.73.

Library Journal. CXIV, September 15, 1989, p.118.

London Review of Books. XI, July 27, 1989, p.3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, November 23, 1989, p.47.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, November 26, 1989, p.11.

Publishers Weekly CCXXX VI, September 22, 1989, p.43.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 23, 1989, p.679.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, January 7, 1990, p.3.