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Reagan and Thatcher

They may have been soulmates, but the special relationship of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher never did run smooth.

By Terry Hartle / March 27, 2012

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship By Richard Aldous W.W. Norton 342 pp.

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The passage of time often simplifies history. Complex, multifaceted stories are easily distilled into a straightforward narrative which suggests that things were easier, neater, or simpler than they actually were. At their best, historians restore the nuance and detail that would otherwise be lost and leave us with a richer and more complete understanding of past events. 

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The relationship between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan is a case in point. The conventional wisdom is that the two leaders were “ideological soul mates” who worked tirelessly to win the Cold War. From the beginning of their working relationship, their public comments about the “special relationship” between Great Britain and the United States were extraordinarily generous, even by the standards of diplomats.    

But Reagan and Thatcher, a wonderful new book by Bard College professor Richard Aldous, makes clear that their alliance was far more challenging and complex than is widely recognized. It was, as the book’s subtitle proclaims, “The Difficult Relationship.” 

The two leaders first met in the mid-1970s before either had assumed power and discovered that their core convictions were nearly identical: a belief in free markets, low taxes and limited government, commitment to a strong national defense, and an assertive, muscular approach to dealing with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Most of all, they wanted to win the war of ideas with the Soviet Union that valued state planning over individual freedom. 

But sharing a world vision does not necessarily make it easier for strong-willed individuals to agree on the day-to-day activities required to govern in a complex world. In Aldous’s telling, they regularly disagreed, often bitterly, during the eight years that their terms in office overlapped. The first dust-up came in December 1981 when President Reagan, angered by the declaration of martial law in Poland, ordered an embargo on high-tech products to the Soviet Union, including the equipment needed to build the Siberian gas pipeline. The action threatened $400 billion in British contracts. A compromise was eventually reached, but it was an early lesson for Thatcher that Reagan was prepared to ignore her interests if they conflicted with US policy. 

A bigger and more lasting disagreement came a few months later when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, creating a huge political crisis for Thatcher. To her dismay, Reagan – with an eye on relationships in the Western hemisphere – initially adopted a position of “neutrality” and sought a diplomatic compromise that might have required Britain to renounce her claim on the islands. Even after the British invaded to reclaim the islands and the Reagan administration declared its support, Reagan continued to pursue a negotiated settlement, much to Thatcher’s anger. 

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