Reagan and Thatcher Then — and Now

President Ronald Reagan with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a working luncheon at Camp David, December 22, 1984 (Wikimedia)
His strategic vision and her bracing intellect complemented each other but sometimes clashed. Richard Aldous in his newly relevant book explains.

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous (Norton, 352 pp., $27.95)

Richard Aldous of Bard College has a newly relevant book sure to be of interest to readers of National Review. A history of the personal diplomacy between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, published in 2012, argues against the idea of constant affection between these ideological brethren. Indeed, the two statesmen disagreed beginning in Reagan’s first year as president, and clashed regularly until his final year in office. What’s striking to a reader of this elegantly written history is the importance of their debates.

President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher argued about national sovereignty. When the Argentine junta invaded the Falkland Islands in the spring of 1982, the Reagan administration did not want Thatcher’s government to retaliate militarily. The Argentines were a useful ally in America’s fight against Latin American Communism. Reaganites such as U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick did not want to lose an anti-Communist partner over a few islands in the South Atlantic. Thatcher, however, saw Argentina’s aggression for what it was: a direct challenge to British sovereignty that could not be appeased. Britain recaptured the islands. Thatcher’s popularity spiked.

A year later, when a Communist putsch overthrew the government of Grenada, sovereignty was the issue once more. The Reagan administration prepared an invasion and regime change to stop Cuba and the USSR from establishing a beachhead on the small Caribbean island. Thatcher was incensed, not least because Grenada is a realm of the British Commonwealth whose sovereign is Queen Elizabeth II. Reagan went ahead anyway — solidifying his own political position and leading Thatcher to question just how much she could count on the United States.

The two leaders had different conceptions of deterrence. When Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the spring of 1983, Thatcher, who held a degree in chemistry from Oxford, was skeptical. She demanded technical briefings in the science of ballistic-missile defense. She also worried that SDI would overthrow the principle of mutual assured destruction, which had deterred the Soviet Union from using its conventional forces to cross Fulda Gap into Western Europe.

Of course, ending the possibility of nuclear war was precisely why Reagan embraced SDI and the goal of nuclear zero. Later, when Reagan was tempted by Mikhail Gorbachev’s offer at Reykjavik to stop the arms race, Thatcher was horrified. It would have handed the Soviets the advantage. In an irony of history, Reagan’s refusal to give up SDI led him to depart Iceland without an agreement. A policy Thatcher disliked saved the world from another policy she disliked even more.

Reagan and Thatcher had different responses to terrorism. In early 1986 the Reagan administration sanctioned Libya in response to a terrorist attack against U.S. military personnel in Germany the previous Christmas. Thatcher was worried the sanctions were merely the prelude to military intervention. She opposed such action on the grounds that it violated international law and the Westphalian principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of nation-states. “Once you start to go across borders, then I do not see an end to it and I uphold international law very firmly,” she told the press at the time.

Secretary of State George Shultz responded in a speech delivered at the National Defense University: “There is substantial legal authority for the view that a state which supports terrorist or subversive attacks against another state, or which supports or encourages terrorist planning and other activities within its territory, is responsible for such attacks.” No one had any question that Schultz was speaking to Thatcher.

The prime minister was confronted with a decision the following month. Libyan terrorists had killed three Americans in a Berlin nightclub bombing. Would the U.K. assist the now inevitable U.S. response? After much back and forth, Thatcher reluctantly agreed to takeoff and over-flight rights for the U.S. bombers that struck Tripoli on April 14, 1986. The French, in a revealing contrast, denied America permission to use their airspace. British public opinion rebuked Thatcher — temporarily — for her stand with the Americans. Reagan rewarded her by pushing successfully for an updated U.S.–U.K. extradition treaty.

“In the end,” writes Aldous, “the prime minister calculated that the potential damage to Anglo-American relations of withholding support for the attack on Libya was too great to risk. But it was no coincidence that immediately after the raid she used the Tokyo G7 summit in May to win acceptance of a ‘firm’ British draft on terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism that brought the issue back into the fold of international cooperation rather than unilateral action.”

Sovereignty, deterrence, terrorism — the contemporary world is no stranger to these concepts. Yet they have assumed a different character in the generation since Reagan and Thatcher departed elected office. Sovereignty is thought to be outdated, deterrence made obsolete by the irrational behavior of rogue states, terrorism a scourge to be combated wherever it emerges.

Reading this book, I felt myself torn between Reagan’s strategic vision and Thatcher’s bracing intellect. Her logic was airtight; his grasp of the big picture was profound. I couldn’t help wondering what each of them would make of the world they did so much to build. Then again, their actions changed historical conditions so profoundly that such a question is almost pointless. Maybe the best we can say is that the nature and framework of their arguments should inform our own. As we too pursue tirelessly the cause of human freedom.