Britain and the Cold War: Operation FOOT

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On 24 September 1971, the British government, led by Ted Heath, expelled 105 Soviet diplomats who were believed to form part of KGB espionage efforts in Britain. Although such Soviet espionage was expected and even accepted by Western governments (who themselves engaged in similar behaviour towards the Soviets), a rebuke on the scale of Operation FOOT was unique during the Cold War. To this day it remains the largest expulsion of diplomats ever undertaken by a nation.

The Heath government was determined to take a far harsher line towards Soviet espionage than the previous government, under Wilson. The personal animosity between the two leaders provoked Heath to demonstrate that he was a better leader than his predecessor, and although Wilson’s policy of forcing spies to leave on an individual basis was not unusual, Heath believed that he could prove his mettle by dealing with the KGB far more harshly. It is fair to argue that efforts to combat Soviet espionage in the 1960s under Wilson were largely a failure as the Soviet delegation to Britain continued to grow. Indeed, by 1971 the total number of Soviet officials in the UK was over 1000, the largest in any Western nation. A significant proportion of such officials were believed to have been on the KGB payroll. Despite advice in 1970 from Sir Denis Greenhill, Permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, that something must be done to reduce the Soviet presence, his warnings had been hitherto ignored until the summer of 1971.

Two events in 1971 itself were also significant in persuading Heath to tackle the Soviet problem with such urgency. Although the Foreign Office had begun preparation for the potential expulsion of Soviet diplomats, no action was envisaged until 1972 at the earliest. However, on 30 August, David Bingham, a British Naval Officer, confessed that he had been passing information to the Russians. On the same day Oleg Lyalin, a double agent, attempted to prevent being arrested for drink driving by arguing that the police had no jurisdiction over a “KGB officer”. Following this incident, he defected to the UK rather than return to Moscow, and this raised fears of a reaction or pre-emptive expulsion from the USSR. The Foreign Office thus decided to move their plans forward.

Nonetheless, there was still concern over the possible implications of Operation FOOT. The main obstacle to action, however, had been the delicate state of Berlin. The principal concern of the foreign office and, in particular, Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, was that an aggressive move against the USSR would put at risk the quadripartite negotiations taking place over the status of Berlin. The city, divided between east and west, was the principal European theatre of the Cold War, and had seen flare-ups of the ‘conflict’ in 1948, 1953, and 1961.

After a period of diplomatic stagnation, negotiations between the Soviet Union and the West had begun to proceed at speed in 1971 and thus, with an agreement (which would settle the status of Berlin) on the horizon, Britain was anxious to remain on cordial terms with the USSR. On 3 September 1971, The Four-Power Agreement, signed by Britain, France the USA and the USSR re-established the previously stronger ties between East and West Berlin. Once the fate of Berlin had been settled, the foreign office determined that the potential ramifications of Operation FOOT were outweighed by the need to reduce the presence of so many KGB agents in Britain.

Further internal opposition to the proposed plan came from the Department of Trade and Industry which feared that such a mass expulsion of diplomats would lead to reduced access to Russian markets for British traders. However, the foreign office was largely dismissive of these concerns, since it believed that Anglo-Soviet trade, stagnant at 1.2% of British exports, was not sufficiently large to outweigh the costs of Soviet spying. This was not an unreasonable assessment, particularly given that Russian espionage often threatened British economic interests, such as the early development of supersonic flight in the form of Concorde.

The strength of the Department of Trade and Industry’s opposition to Operation FOOT was likely due to their ignorance of the size of the problem since they were not privy to confidential MI5 briefings and thus largely unaware of the scale of KGB influence. Indeed, in a meeting on 25 May, departmental representatives were sceptical of whether the espionage problem was serious enough to merit such a drastic response. Despite these concerns, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry John Davies nevertheless deferred to Douglas-Home and Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in the decisive cabinet meeting on 21 September, allowing Operation FOOT to proceed.

Even though the British government may have dismissed the possibility of reprisal as a risk worth taking in the face of the KGB threat, they were by no means unprepared for the possible consequences of their actions. Indeed, the foreign office prepared a dossier containing a list of possible Russian reactions and how the British government could respond to them. It was believed that the Russians would likely harass British diplomats and businessmen or even expel them in a reciprocal fashion. The greatest risk envisaged by Britain was the arrest of one or several British nationals in Russia on falsified charges. Having anticipated these risks, the government was prepared to retaliate by publicising the expulsion or releasing the names of the expelled diplomats to embarrass the Soviet Union, or in the most drastic circumstances to break off diplomatic relations for the first time since 1927.

Thankfully, very few of these contingency plans were ever put to use. The main response of the Soviets was to complain verbosely without much in the way of action. Douglas-Home was given a furious dressing down by his counterpart Andrei Gromyko at a UN meeting in New York later that week, but when the British Ambassador was summoned on 8 October the extent of the reprisal was to cancel a few joint projects and expel a few diplomats in return, although on nothing like the scale of Operation FOOT. Trade did take a hit in the short term, and the USSR made a point of warming towards the French, Britain’s traditional rival, but after a brief period both sides returned to a mutually beneficial relationship and continued with the period of détente which characterised this era of the Cold War.

The bold step of Operation FOOT had put an end to the golden age of KGB activity in the UK, and while operations would continue until the end of the Cold War in 1991, the problem would never again reach the scale seen in 1971. Overall, Ted’s Heath gamble paid off and represents one of Britain’s major foreign policy successes during the Cold War.

Bennett, G., 2013. Six Moments of Crisis: Inside British Foreign Policy. Oxford University Press