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Walter Rodgers

Maggie vs. Gorby: the scene that ‘The Iron Lady’ forgot

The scripted and unscripted confrontations between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev were of such epic consequence they could not be condensed into film. Yet we do Britain’s first female prime minister a great disservice in omitting them.

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What was perhaps Thatcher’s greatest performance was never seen publicly nor captured by TV cameras or later moviemakers. I remember well sitting in the ABC News Moscow bureau, late in the afternoon of March 30, 1987. The British embassy had just delivered a copy of the speech Thatcher was going to give at an official Kremlin dinner. I could not believe what I read. Was she really going to say this? 

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She was off to beard the Kremlin lions in their den. To their faces she told Soviet leaders that their claptrap about struggling for the triumph of socialism all over the world was an impediment to peace with the West. 

Eyeball to eyeball, she challenged Soviet sincerity on arms control, citing Moscow’s 9-to-1 advantage in short-range nuclear missiles and lecturing then-Soviet leader Gorbachev about his hypocrisy in preaching disarmament while the Soviets amassed massive superiority in chemical weapons stocks.

But what probably most infuriated the Russians was Thatcher’s pointed reminder that when Britain was alone fighting Hitler from 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union cozied up to Hitler, selling him raw materials and signing a nonaggression pact. Her truth-telling shattered the Soviet Union’s greatest myth, its claim that it held the moral high ground in the fight against Nazi Germany

That night in Moscow she said things to the Soviets that it is unlikely any man could have gotten away with, diplomatically. Reagan infuriated the Russians long-distance with taunts about their “evil empire.” But it was Thatcher who roasted them at dinner. Thereafter, the Soviets were publicly on the defensive until the candles went out on their stage. 

Reflecting on Thatcher now, it is not hard to imagine a better world if we had more smart, tough women leaders; more fearless Thatchers, not so polite she wouldn’t tell you what she thought. 

In the post-Thatcher world, a German woman, Angela Merkel, is Europe’s dominant political figure. Across the Atlantic, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who pushed the United States toward a Libyan no-fly zone.

Imagine the possibilities if a tough woman prime minister or president again engaged in public truth-telling with adversaries like Iran or Pakistan or with friends like Israel. Today’s risks are not nearly what they were when Thatcher went head-to-head with the Soviets, and ultimately, her blunt truth-telling helped create a much less dangerous world. 

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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