REAGAN AND THATCHER: THE DIFFICULT RELATIONSHIP
By Richard Aldous
W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95, 352 pages
This is a well-researched, highly readable book that effectively analyzes the relationship of the two leaders. But its subtitle, “The Difficult Relationship,” is off the mark. A more accurate one would have been “A Warm Relationship in Difficult Times.”
Having been with the two during their first two meetings, both in London (one in 1975, the other in 1978), this writer can testify to the fact that from the first moment, it seemed as if they had been good friends for years. Both had heard and read a good deal about the other. They had similar views on the role of government. Their economic thinking had been influenced by the writings of Friedrich Hayek. Both came from humble backgrounds, Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer; Ronald Reagan, the son of poor but proud parents. Each came from families that prized self-reliance and personal responsibility.
Those meetings triggered a frequent exchange of letters as well as materials from their staffs. It was logical that shortly after his inauguration, President Reagan invited Prime Minister Thatcher to be his first official state visitor. The visit was a virtual love-in between the two partner countries in their “special relationship.”
The warmth of their friendship was soon tested and would be almost every year they held their respective offices. It began with sharp disagreement over a pipeline the Soviet Union was building from Siberia to western Europe. By then, Reagan’s Cold War strategy was in place. Its main element was to force the Soviets to the brink of economic chaos so they would come to the bargaining table to negotiate an end to the Cold War.
He had the U.S. government impose sanctions on U.S. companies and their subsidiaries from doing business with those supplying the pipeline project. Several British companies had important contracts with the projects. Mrs. Thatcher was furious with the U.S. decision, and other NATO members were unhappy. Reagan, however, was determined to impede the USSR’s ability to get hard currency.
While the two papered over their differences, a more ominous split was in the offing. In early 1982, Argentina, after much bluster about sovereignty, invaded the Falkland Islands. Reagan had called them “a little ice-cold bunch of land.” Mrs. Thatcher expected the United States to immediately support the United Kingdom’s position that this was British sovereign territory, and its inhabitants had made it clear they wanted it kept that way. The Reagan administration was ambivalent. It was determined to improve relations in Latin America and, to Mrs. Thatcher’s dismay, initially took a neutral position. Secretary of State Alexander Haig entered in a round of fruitless shuttle diplomacy. The British government organized a task force to retake the islands. When the Argentines flatly rejected Haig’s final offer, the U.S. fully backed the U.K., which took back the islands.
In 1983, the United States invaded Grenada in order to rescue American medical students. American troops also sought to throw out Cubans - who seemed to be building a Soviet-inspired base - and Communist revolutionaries who had killed the island nation’s prime minister. Secrecy was essential, so Reagan did not give Mrs. Thatcher notice until four hours before the invasion. Grenada was (and is) a member of the Commonwealth, so she was understandably upset by the news. Her sharp comments surprised Reagan, who was dismayed that she had not backed his actions. Apparently, he did not tell her beforehand because he was afraid she would say, “no.”
There were several other points of friction. Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative surprised not only Mrs. Thatcher, but several of his own Cabinet members. Its purpose was to force the Soviets to try to match an effort they could not afford without bankrupting their economy or come to the peace table. Mrs. Thatcher, for whom Mutually Assured Destruction was an article of faith, thought Reagan’s initiative was potentially destabilizing and dangerous. This might have changed had he entered into a long discussion of it with her beforehand, but he did not.
The Reykjavik Summit discussion of the “zero option” - that is, ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons - frightened Mrs. Thatcher, who saw it as highly dangerous. It did not occur, of course, but had it, Reagan saw it as a long-term plan, not an immediate one.
To show that she was never a “lap dog” to the U.S. leader, as critics asserted, she made a point of visiting Mikhail Gorbachev when he became the Kremlin’s leader in 1985. She concluded he was a man “we could do business with.” She shared her insights about him with Reagan, which helped him get his own first summit off to a positive start.
Through all the 10 or so years of their working together, both leaders often went out of their way to shower the other with gratitude and praise. These were not gestures to get headlines, but genuine expressions of admiration. In many ways, their personalities were different. She was outspoken, loved a good debate and was iron-willed (often called the “Iron Lady”). She often harped on details. He preferred to cover his determination in a characteristically conversational manner. He often articulated large ideas and developed a grand strategy that led to the successful conclusion of the Cold War.
As the author tells us, each had triumphs and setbacks. Sometimes they fought each other. Yet each came to the defense of the other when it seemed most needed. They were an extraordinary pair.
Peter Hannaford’s latest book is “Reagan’s Roots: The People and Places That Shaped His Character” (Images From the Past, 2011).