Reagan and Thatcher

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

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

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. 

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. 

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.   

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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