The Forgotten Rhodesians

Amid conservative hopes for a settlement and liberal fears of a sell-out, Harold Wilson arrived dramatically at Gibraltar at midnight on October 8, 1968, prepared to meet Ian Smith aboard HMS Fearless to discuss the three- year-old Rhodesian crisis. Thus one more move was made in the contest that has been stalemated ever since it began on November 11, 1965, when the white minority government in Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of the territory's independence (UDI). Despite the hopes and fears surrounding the Wilson-Smith meeting, the Fearless talks left the situation virtually unchanged. What turned out to be more significant than the talks themselves were the national and international pressures which lay behind the decision of the two sides to meet.

British efforts to force a "return to legality" in Rhodesia have been rendered largely ineffective from the outset by the British announcement well before independence had been declared that force would not be used to bring down the Smith régime and maintain Rhodesia as a British territory. Given the domestic political climate in Britain at the time, the decision against the use of force was probably the only realistic course open to Wilson; yet the public announcement of this policy before the threat of force had been used to full strategic advantage was a serious blunder.

Once force had been ruled out, the only recourse left to the Labor Government at the time of UDI was the imposition of economic sanctions. These included the prohibition of arms exports to Rhodesia, a ban on exports of British capital, a denial of access to the London capital market, a denial of all Commonwealth trade preferences and export credits, and a ban on the importation of Rhodesian tobacco and sugar, which together represented more than one-third of Rhodesia's exports. Although these selective measures hardly lived up to Wilson's promise to "throw the book" at Mr. Smith, they were as far as Wilson was prepared to go.

A Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in September 1966 set November 30 of that year as the final date for a Rhodesian solution, and gained British assurances that if no settlement was reached by then an appeal would be made to the United Nations for selective mandatory economic sanctions. Moreover, all offers for a settlement would be withdrawn and replaced by insistence that there would be no independence before majority rule (NIBMAR).

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis