Washington — Winston Churchill last did it in 1952. Margaret Thatcher yesterday became the first British head of government since then to address a joint session of the United States Congress.
Prime Minister Thatcher's appearance in the House chamber was a moment of heartfelt history. Recalling America's dominant role in shaping a peace in Europe that has lasted 40 years, she said: ``The debt the free peoples of Europe owe to a nation generous with its bounty, willing to share its strength, seeking to protect the weak, is uncalculable,'' she told the lawmakers. ``We thank and salute you.''
Then, as had Sir Winston in his speech on Jan. 17, 1952, Mrs. Thatcher dealt largely with two concerns -- nuclear weapons and the economy. These were also subjects of discussion with President Reagan, Cabinet officials, and congressional leaders later in the day.
Among other things, the prime minister:
Pledged support for research on the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), stating the US must not fall behind Soviet research in defense against ballistic nuclear missiles. It is only the West's strength that has brought the Russians back to the negotiating table, she said.
Made clear that, if research on SDI leads to possible deployment of new defensive systems, this will have to be negotiated under the ABM (antiballistic missile) Treaty.
Warned that the current strength of the dollar is causing pressures for new trade barriers and hurting countries in the third world as well as the general world economy. US efforts to reduce the budget deficit are therefore strongly supported, the prime minister said.
Appealed for a halt to American aid to the provisional Irish Republican Army through fund-raising groups based in the US. Such aid feeds terrorism in Northern Ireland, she said, and is used to ``buy the deaths of Irishmen.''
Stressed that Europe today is making a substantial contribution to allied defense and moving toward the goal of being able ``to share the load'' alongside the US.
The last statement was pointedly addressed to lawmakers and others who have raised doubts about the extent of Europe's commitment to its own defense and about a continued US troop presence in Europe. ``The frontier of freedom cuts across our continent,'' Prime Minister Thatcher said. ``Members of Congress, the defense of that frontier is as vital to you as it is to us.''
Publicly, Britain is giving strong support to Mr. Reagan's long-term SDI research program, aimed at a space-based ``superdome'' defense against offensive nuclear missiles. Mrs. Thatcher in fact put in a bid on behalf of British companies to get in on any commercial business that might flow from the program, now budgeted at $26 billion. ``I hope that our own scientists will share in this research,'' she told Congress.
At the same time, Britain shares the concern of West Europeans about potential US deployment of new defensive systems in the short term and an escalation of the arms race. Hence, the emphasis placed by Mrs. Thatcher on negotiating any deployment under the ABM pact and on the US-Soviet arms negotiations scheduled to resume in Geneva on March 12.
On ABC's ``Good Morning America,'' the prime minister said she was ``cautiously hopeful' that the arms talks will result in ``something very important for the world.'' But she warned in her address to Congress that Moscow will seek to sow differences among the allies and to impair the West's resolve.
``We shall have to resist the muddled arguments of those who have been induced to believe that Russia's intentions are benign and that ours are suspect, or who would have us simply give up our defenses in the hope that where we led others would follow,'' she declared.
The US budget deficit and overvalued dollar were also high on the prime minister's agenda as she met with the President, Cabinet officials, and congressional leaders later in the day.
Her visit comes at a time when the British pound is floundering at record lows. The large US budget deficit is blamed for the drop.
The American deficit, Mrs. Thatcher indicated, affects interest rates, the amount of capital available for investment worldwide, the stability of the international financial framework, and the ability of developing countries to service their loans. ``No other country in the world can be immune from its effects,'' she said.
For the US to give in to protectionist pressures because of the difficulties caused by the high dollar, she said, ``would betray the millions in the developing world, to say nothing of the strains on your other trading partners. The developing countries need our markets, as we need theirs. We cannot preach economic adjustment to them and refuse to practice it at home.''
Of special concern to Mrs. Thatcher, who is seeking a peaceful settlement of the Northern Ireland problem, are the financial contributions Americans make to such groups as Noraid (the Irish Northern Aid Committee). She applauded the efforts of the administration and members of Congress ``to bring home this message to American citizens who may be misled into making contributions to seemingly innocuous groups.
``Be under no illusions about the provisional IRA,'' she told the legislators. ``They are the enemies of democracy, and of freedom, too.''
Even as the prime minister spoke, hundreds of Irish-Americans and other IRA supporters held a peaceful demonstration against her visit near the Capitol. IRA sympathizers organized the protest after the State Department refused a visa for Gerry Adams, president of the political arm of the IRA and a member of the British Parliament.
Interrupted many times during her speech by applause and cheers, Mrs. Thatcher recalled that the US and Britain have stood together in two world wars and other conflicts and that the two countries have a common heritage.
``Members of Congress,'' she concluded, ``may our two kindred nations go forward together, firm of purpose, clear of vision, and warm of heart, as we approach the third millennium of the Christian era.''
She received a standing ovation.