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Moscow & Harold Wilson

In response to:

The Upper Class and the Underworld from the April 13, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In his review “The Upper Class and the Underworld” [NYR, April 13], Noel Annan writes:

When minister for overseas trade in Attlee’s government between 1947 and 1951, Wilson went on trips to Moscow to negotiate a contentious deal, selling British jet aircraft engines to the Soviet Union in return for desperately needed timber. This was not to the liking of the Chiefs of Staff or the Foreign Office, but Stafford Cripps backed Wilson.

A scientist working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough at the time told me that the Chiefs of Staff’s misgivings were borne out by subsequent events. When the US Air Force shot down Russian-made planes in the Korean war, they found that the Russians had copied and improved the British design, and incorporated these engines in the aircraft they gave to the North Koreans. According to my informant, these caused many casualties, and the US Air Force felt very bitter about this deal. If the account I heard is correct, Wilson and Cripps must have been naive in believing whatever assurances the Russians gave them about the uses for which the British engines were intended and the Russians shrewd in refusing to sell their timber on any other terms.

M.F. Perutz
Cambridge, England

Noel Annan replies:

My friend Max Perutz may well be right. But whatever Wilson’s error of judgment it was not prima facie evidence for suspecting that he was a Soviet agent as the obsessive cowboys in the British intelligence services tried to make out. Wilson was later to be much criticized for his subservience to Lyndon Johnson by continuing to maintain a military presence east of Suez and endorsing the Vietnam War.

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