Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, by Nicholas Wapshott (Sentinel, 352 pp., $25.95)
During the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003, Americans became accustomed to hearing British prime minister Tony Blair referred to as George W. Bush’s “poodle” for his unyielding support of the president’s stance against Saddam Hussein. Many would doubtless have been surprised to learn that for seemingly slavish obedience to an American president, the same moniker had fallen on one of Blair’s predecessors at 10 Downing Street: Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady’s close relationship with Ronald Reagan during the 1980s aroused similar charges in the British media, a testament to the difficult position that British leaders have occupied since World War II, best reflected in Dean Acheson’s famous statement that Britain had “lost an empire” but “not yet found a role.”
In Nicholas Wapshott’s Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, the British prime minister knows well what her role is: to stand firmly with the United States and protect the Atlantic alliance, revive her country through free-market reforms, and oppose the Soviet Union and international communism. But if such goals placed her close to Reagan, they hardly made her his poodle. The picture that Wapshott sketches instead is of two leaders who more than once found themselves powerfully at odds over crucial events. Those disagreements might have proven serious enough to damage their alliance, Wapshott suggests, if it weren’t for their extraordinarily strong political and personal bond. When the chips were down, in the words of one aide, it “took a crowbar” to separate the two.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is essentially two books, one considerably more compelling than the other. The first part covers the leaders’ early lives and political careers and generally suffers the drawbacks of dual biography: its twin subjects do not inhabit the same space, and the author must jump from one story to another, sometimes tying the threads together tenuously. Nonetheless, Wapshott draws fresh insights even from well-known details. He makes much, for example, of the two leaders’ growing up in religious families headed by fathers who worked in retail, which he believes gave their children an early appreciation for the marketplace. While Reagan’s near-mystic sense of detachment is a defining trait that no biographer can ignore, Wapshott seems to be the first to trace this quality to the president’s nearsightedness—which, in the rural Illinois of his modest upbringing, went undetected for years, leading the boy to cultivate a strong inner world and a rich imagination sometimes likened (by both detractors and admirers) to a parallel universe.
The book’s second part covers the years in power, and here Wapshott has a trump card to play: a mountain of recently declassified letters and transcripts of telephone calls between the two leaders. His access to this new information, and his skill in integrating it into the narrative, makes Reagan and Thatcher a valuable and engrossing read. The book’s highlights are Wapshott’s descriptions of the rifts between these staunch allies, particularly over two early episodes: the British war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982, and the American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983.
Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands—“a windblown, rain-swept outcrop of craggy, barely habitable rocks in the South Atlantic,” as Wapshott describes it—was a test of Thatcher’s political mettle. Populated by a mere 2,000 British sheep farmers, the island archipelago nevertheless represented one of the nation’s few remaining imperial holdings. Though sovereignty over the islands remained in dispute—an issue on which the U.S. was neutral—Thatcher expected the Reagan administration to give full-throated support for her use of armed force to resist Argentine aggression. She got something less, as the administration bumbled its way through the crisis with a three-headed diplomatic approach: Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s efforts at mediation, which offered lukewarm backing for Britain; defense secretary Caspar Weinberger’s robust behind-the-scenes support for Britain, which included generous military aid; and the ambiguous actions and statements of UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, an Argentina specialist and the author, only a few years earlier, of “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she had argued for alliances with anticommunist leaders in the Third World, even those authoritarian leaders who abused human rights and spurned democracy. Argentina’s ruler, General Leopold Galtieri, fit that description to a T. Thatcher was infuriated by Reagan’s indecisive response, which stemmed from an understandable political calculus: loyal to Britain, the U.S. also wanted to avoid weakening Galtieri and possibly giving the Soviet Union an opening to destabilize the country and the region.
The Falklands crisis lasted nearly three months, concluding with Britain’s retaking of the islands, adding a crucial chapter to the Thatcher legend. But before then, Reagan telephoned the prime minister and tried to interest her in a proposal that included a cease-fire, Argentina’s withdrawal from the islands, and a third-party peacekeeping force. Thatcher’s response nearly jumps off of the page:
I can’t lose the lives and blood of our soldiers to hand the islands over to a contact. It’s not possible. You are surely not asking me, Ron, after we’ve lost some of our finest young men, you are surely not saying that after the Argentine withdrawal, that our forces, and our administration, become immediately idle? I had to go to immense distances and mobilise half my country.
Reagan is left to stammer repeatedly: “Yes, well . . .”; “Margaret, I . . .”; “I know that I’ve intruded . . .”
Grenada was something of a Falklands in reverse, for here it was the United States that felt the need to intervene—in this case, to protect Americans in the aftermath of an internecine political conflict among Marxist leaders, who had overthrown and killed the country’s prime minister, Maurice Bishop, after he had begun making overtures to the United States. As Thatcher had done in the Falklands, Reagan authorized military action without informing his closest ally, sending 1,900 Army Rangers and Marines on a successful mission to round up the coup plotters and restore order. The invasion put Thatcher in a tough spot: while independent, Grenada was still part of the British Commonwealth. Standing by and supporting Reagan’s action left her open, again, to the “poodle” charge, and caused friction with other European leaders, who worried in those days about Reagan’s “cowboy” tendencies. Wapshott again uses to great effect the declassified telephone transcripts (a selection of conversations would have been a worthwhile appendix to the book). After Thatcher has learned of the Grenada invasion, Reagan calls her, treading carefully, and offering a pathetic—and for the reader, rather comical—excuse about time differences to explain, in part, why he had not contacted her earlier: “When word came of your concerns—by the time I got it—the zero hour had passed, and our forces were on their way. The time difference made it later in the day when you learned of it.”
Interestingly, Thatcher seems eager to find reconciliation; letting the time excuse go by, she is more interested in Reagan’s explanation that fear of leaks had also played a role in the secrecy. “I know about sensitivity, because of the Falklands,” she sniffs, reminding him of his discomfort in the earlier situation. Relenting after a time, she says, a bit scoldingly, “Well, let’s hope it’s soon over, Ron, and that you manage to get a democracy restored.”
When it came to the Soviet Union and the Cold War, Reagan’s and Thatcher’s principles indeed required a crowbar to separate, but here again, as Wapshott shows, they disagreed frequently on specific policies. Thatcher, for example, joined other European leaders in opposing Reagan’s economic sanctions against the Soviet Union regarding a proposed transnational gas pipeline, which promised cheap natural gas for the continent. But it was as much the two leaders’ different temperaments as political considerations that drove their most profound Soviet-related dispute: Reagan’s idea of a space-based defense system, or Star Wars, which he hoped would render nuclear weapons obsolete, and which he even proposed to share with the Soviets. Nothing more sharply demonstrated that Reagan was truly a figure from outside the Washington beltway, never giving up on ideas that he felt right and worth pursuing. Yet for Thatcher, Reagan’s idea of missile defense—particularly his enthusiasm for abolishing nuclear weapons once the system was operational—was dangerous both practically and philosophically. She had good reason to fear a removal of American missiles from Western Europe, but she also understood that the world would never be free of aggression and that defenses would always be needed. She couldn’t grasp how Reagan, the unshakable Cold Warrior who saw the Soviet Union so clearly, could at the same time take a stance that seemed to overlook this vital first principle of self-defense. History has vindicated her caution.
The two leaders were a devoted political couple, as Wapshott’s subtitle suggests and as the excerpted conversations reveal. Their relationship is not without a humorous, pseudomarital undertone: Reagan is more than once the bad boy gone astray, as in Grenada. Never adept at personal confrontation, he genially navigates through even her angriest moods. Thatcher is aggressive and insistent, not always bothering to observe conversational niceties—she interrupts repeatedly—when she has a point to make. For all of her fire she seems brittle, dependent on Reagan not only as political ally but as a friend, and wounded personally when she feels that he hasn’t done right by her. One senses that Thatcher’s more volatile reactions, while part of her personality, also reflect her awareness of the vast disparity in political power between the two. Yet even at the darkest moments, their correspondence contains repeated, even monotonous, expressions of devotion and friendship. At one point, Reagan fires off three separate notes congratulating Thatcher on her reelection.
Wapshott’s use of the declassified materials does not end with the Cold War. Unearthing note cards at the Reagan Library from the president’s last official meeting with Thatcher in 1988, he concludes that Reagan’s mental acuity had declined to the extent that rudimentary prompts were necessary. Reagan’s staff had included on the cards—for a meeting with a woman he knew better than any leader in the world—even an opening statement: “I am delighted to see you back in Washington.” Wapshott’s willingness to opine on Reagan’s mental decline in office is welcome, as this subject has often been verboten among Reagan loyalists.
Perhaps in the future, we will learn remarkable things from the declassified correspondence between Bush and Blair. Like Reagan and Thatcher, they governed in traumatic times and faced the wrath of angry constituencies. But as Wapshott’s book makes clear, they will have to meet a high standard, in both political courage and personality, to match the alliance between the Gipper and the Iron Lady.