Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th May 1960.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Woolwich East 12:00 am, 30th May 1960

The hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Colonel Beamish) set out several reasons for viewing the international scene optimistically. He thought along these lines, I think, that whereas the conflict between the Communist and the non-Communist world continued and the aims of the Soviet Union remained unchanged, there were weaknesses in the Russian position which we had not appreciated well enough hitherto. I, too, am an optimist, but I have a different approach and different reasons for feeling optimistic.

In my view, it is not so much that one side in the cold war has weakened compared with the other as that the amount of conflict and tension between the two sides has diminished during the last five or ten years. In my view, that is a much healthier development and a much greater cause for rejoicing than several of the reasons for optimism offered by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. Nevertheless, the fact that he was optimistic earns forgiveness for a multitude of sins.

In foreign affairs, optimism is not merely something which springs from a set of circumstances; it is something which itself helps to change circumstances in a desired direction. It is certainly true that suspicion and fear often tend to creat the very things which are feared and suspected; so any error, if there has to be one, should be on the side of confidence. Indeed, it can be set as a fair criticism against some movements, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, that they constantly highlight the frightening and negative aspects of the world situation and do not sufficiently point out the encouraging and positive trends which are present at the same time.

It is a fact, after all, that the American and Russian leaders passionately want to avoid nuclear war, even though they may sometimes give the very opposite impression. I think it might be better if the Aldermaston marchers spent a little time pointing out to the Russians the true fact that the American leaders do, basically, want peace and to the American leaders the true fact that the Russian leaders do genuinely want peace, instead of stirring up the rather frenzied and hysterical atmosphere of nuclear crisis. Although it is true that the horror of nuclear war cannot be exaggerated, the likelihood of its taking place can be exaggerated, and it is very harmful to do so.

When I look back over the past five or ten years, I feel a sense of relief. I remember discussing with a senior Soviet Minister quite recently in a private conversation what was the worst point in East-West relations at the height of the cold war. He agreed without any argument that the very lowest point, the most dangerous point in the cold war, was the precise moment in 1948 during the Berlin blockade when a British airliner crashed as a result of being buzzed by a Soviet fighter. I recall the very great anxiety in the Foreign Office at that time about the immediacy of war and the great difficulty of calculating what the Russians intended at that time. Today, war seems even more horrible to contemplate than it was then, but it seems a great deal less likely.

We have new problems like the spread of nuclear weapons, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition referred, but there are many problems which seemed insoluble and critical then of which we do not hear any more now. I think of the problem of Austria, the problem of Greece, the problem of Trieste, the problem of the Straits, the problem of Yugoslavia and the treaties with Eastern Europe—things which worried the Foreign Office in the late 1940s. Where are they now? On an occasion like this, at a critical moment after the collapse of the Summit Conference, we do well sometimes to count our blessings and see where the favourable trends are.