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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.

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The next major controversy occurred in October 1983 and, once again, involved a small island in the Western hemisphere. In this case, the United States invaded Grenada in response to a military coup and evidence that Cuba was building military installations there. Britain did not see these developments as a threat to Caribbean stability and had significant interests: Grenada was a member of the Commonwealth and Queen Elizabeth was the island’s head of state. The Reagan administration made desultory efforts to keep Thatcher informed of its plans but neglected to tell her that an American invasion was in the offing until after it started. She later described herself as “dismayed and let down.” According to Aldous, that description is a considerable understatement.   

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Tensions between the two leaders arose on other fronts, particularly around nuclear weapons. Thatcher opposed Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) because she believed it would undermine the importance of nuclear deterrence. Later she was “horrified” by Reagan’s discussions with Mikhail Gorbachev about abolishing nuclear weapons at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit. She objected to the American imposition of sanctions on Libya in 1986. 

Their personal styles were very different: She was ferocious in debate and devoured data to buttress her arguments. Reagan was affable, low-key, and relied heavily on anecdotes. She thought he was too blunt with the Russians. He was annoyed by her hectoring. But despite the policy and personal differences, they depended heavily on each other.   

Aldous’s thoughtful and insightful volume is based on a careful review of recently released documents and extensive interviews with individuals who were close to the decision makers on both sides of the Atlantic. It provides detailed and even-handed descriptions of the disagreements and offers penetrating insights into the thinking of the principal actors. He clearly admires both leaders: The book is thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and does not suggest an ideological agenda.

Most importantly, Aldous has taken the streamlined, conventional wisdom about the era (“Thatcher and Reagan worked closely together and won the Cold War”) and demonstrated that the true picture was far more complex and nuanced. The result is a first-class bit of historical research that will be of interest both to scholars and the general public.    

“Reagan and Thatcher” naturally encourages readers to reflect on other relationships between other American presidents and British prime ministers: most notably, of course, that of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. As with Reagan-Thatcher, we remember the Roosevelt-Churchill partnership because of its world-altering success: the defeat of Nazi Germany. Historians, of course, have long since documented that behind the basic narrative were a huge number of major disagreements about every aspect of the war. 

The similarities are fairly obvious. In both cases, the leaders shared a clear and unambiguous agreement on the primary goal even as they squabbled about the strategies and tactics to achieve it. In addition, the principal actors all shared a deep and abiding respect for their counterpart that trumped the tensions. We have a name for people who successfully pursue a common agenda in careful consultation with allies: They are called statesmen. Given the widespread and understandable unhappiness with government across the globe, Aldous gives us a welcome reminder of what such leaders can accomplish.    

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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