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The Odd Couple

by John O'Sullivan

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous (Norton, 342 pp., $27.95)

Both the subtitle of Richard Aldous’s book — “The Difficult Relationship” — and its foreword proclaim it to be an exercise in historical revisionism. Justifying this, he quotes Sir Nicholas Henderson, former British ambassador to the U.S., telling left-wing firebrand–cum–elder statesman Tony Benn: “If I reported to you what Mrs. Thatcher really thought about President Reagan, it would damage Anglo-American relations.”

We are only at the bottom of page 2, and I am already irritated. But this is the low-water mark of Aldous’s theme. It gets much better from page 3 onwards. And there is less revisionism in those later pages than meets the eye.

That’s mainly because earlier historians of the relationship have never disguised that it was marked by occasional but serious disagreements that provoked both the principals and their aides into harsh expressions of anger and distrust. Geoffrey Smith’s path-breaking 1991 study Reagan and Thatcher (also published by Norton) went into those disagreements in depth. He interviewed some of the leading players in the Reagan and Thatcher administrations at a time when their memories of these episodes were still fresh. His accounts have stood up very well to later publication of original documents from the archives. Which is fortunate because intervening historians and writers, including this reviewer, have relied heavily on them.

Twenty-one years later, Aldous is able to examine the same disagreements, drawing on an avalanche of documents, freshly unclassified and helpfully ordered by archivists such as Christopher Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (for whom, as Aldous gracefully acknowledges, no praise is too high). That gives to his account many fascinating details denied to earlier writers and the basis for proposing one or two major revisions to the historical record. In the main, however, his revelation that Reagan and Thatcher had major disputes repeats what Smith and others have already established. In some of those cases — or so it seems to me — he exaggerates either the dispute or the discord it produced in Anglo-American relations. His history, as well as highly readable, is broadly accurate — just not as ground-breaking as his title claims.

What were the main disputes that divided Reagan and Thatcher one way or another? They included the Falklands War, the Grenada crisis, the U.S. deficit, the Soviet gas-pipeline dispute, the bombing of Libya, “Star Wars,” and Reagan’s willingness to trade away the West’s nuclear deterrent at the Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. It is on the Falklands War that Aldous can make his strongest claim of revisionism. Declassified documents show clearly that the Reagan administration was pressuring Britain to make concessions to the Argentinian government that would have amounted in practice to the surrender of sovereignty over the Falklands to Buenos Aires. Everybody realized this except, apparently, the Argentinian junta. Mrs. Thatcher coolly calculated that a bunch of macho fascists would never accept this victory if it required the intervening step of withdrawing their troops from the islands, and she won the diplomatic hand.

But Washington’s pressure on London continued until British troops landed on the islands and took over from the diplomats. Even then, at the very last moment, Reagan himself asked Thatcher to offer a compromise to Buenos Aires rather than insist on outright victory. She refused — “We have lost a lot of blood. And it’s the best blood.” All this shilly-shallying infuriated the British (and some U.S. officials, such as the CIA’s Admiral Bobby Inman), and it produced harsh exchanges between the two capitals. Aldous is right to argue that Thatcher was angry with Secretary of State Al Haig and with the diplomatic posture of the Reagan administration.

But even as the diplomatic shilly-shallying was in full progress, the Pentagon and the CIA were shoveling out military and intelligence help to the British from the back door. Without that help — which began on Day One and continued up to the Argentinian surrender — the British could not have won the Falklands War. It was crucial, recognized as such by the British, and subsequently rewarded when the Queen made Caspar Weinberger “Knight Cap.” Aldous discounts its importance on the somewhat faint grounds that Reagan didn’t know about this help. His trump card for this claim is that Reagan says so in the privacy of his diary. Would the president really have lied to his diary?

Well, I’m afraid that he might well have. Presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and ambassadors have known for a century that historians will one day mine their diaries for information. So they write there, in part, to justify their actions. Reagan once said that the problem with his administration was that its right hand didn’t know what its far-right hand was doing. On this occasion, such ignorance wasn’t a problem but a solution.

In the Grenada crisis, it was Mrs. Thatcher who was kept in ignorance. She knew nothing of the impending U.S. invasion of a former British colony, whose sovereign was still Queen Elizabeth II, until it was too late for her to halt it. Thatcher was wounded, personally and politically, by this public humiliation. It led to another set of angry exchanges between London and Washington. And, on the face of it, it seems to have been a needlessly harmful oversight. Why would Reagan not seek the support of a close and interested ally such as Thatcher for the defeat of a violent Marxist coup that she might be reasonably expected to find equally objectionable? Aldous never explains this persuasively. But the answer is that the U.S. had earlier found British diplomats in the Caribbean to be strongly hostile to any intervention in Grenada by anyone. Washington therefore decided to keep Britain out of the loop to avoid either diplomatic opposition or intelligence leaks. Mrs. Thatcher was legitimately angry at this deception. But she herself had been woefully under-briefed by a Foreign Office anxious to keep Britain out of any American adventure (and perhaps worried, as Reagan was hopeful, that she might support an intervention once she learned of it). Besides, Britain had abrogated any responsibility for Grenada four years before, when an earlier Marxist gang had seized power illegally.

In short, the dispute was much less fundamental than it appeared at the time; and, though serious, it was therefore smoothed away quite quickly. Reagan telephoned Thatcher and apologized in a long dialogue that ended, when she left to return to a parliamentary debate, with his urging her to “go get ’em. Eat ’em alive.” This is one matter on which Aldous exaggerates the divide between the two leaders. To ensure that we draw the right lessons, he adorns the transcript of their conversation with helpful stage directions such as (of Thatcher) “almost as if talking to an eager but misinformed child” and (of Reagan) “missing Thatcher’s ironic tone.” Yet that conversation began the speedy repair of the relationship. The intervention was welcomed by the Grenadians. And three years later, Thatcher gave permission for U.S. Air Force planes to fly from bases in Britain to launch an air attack on Qaddafi’s Libya — undermining her earlier complaints about the illegality of Grenada and suggesting at least a partial change of mind and some convergence of views.

A more fundamental dispute arose from Thatcher’s disquiet over the president’s offer to trade away the West’s nuclear deterrent at Reykjavik. Reagan was an anti-nuclear disarmer; Thatcher supported traditional deterrence. But she may well have also doubted that he understood the full consequences of his policy. This is perhaps one example of Nico Henderson’s wider insinuation that she doubted Reagan’s intellectual capacity. She sought a meeting with him and obtained the assurances of continuing deterrence that she wanted. At that meeting, however, she asked directly if Reagan understood that abandoning nuclear missiles would leave the Soviets with the huge advantage of conventional-force superiority in Europe. Reagan replied — I am tempted to add “stonily” — that he did indeed understand this. Thatcher accepted his reply.

In doing so she revealed her own realization that Reagan was a more formidable mind and personality than she had initially believed. She had always shared his broad free-market and anti-Communist ideas. She liked him personally. And she admired his more obvious political and election-winning skills. But with her diligent work habits and mastery of detail, she had never quite understood how someone with such an apparently easygoing leadership style managed to achieve so much. Like his own aides, she now understood that there was some tough and deep substance under the charm that explained his mysterious success. And as she made clear in her memoirs, her respect for him grew and grew.

Was their relationship difficult? Well, yes, because all serious relationships are difficult. Reagan and Thatcher had the disagreements described above because their national interests differed on occasion. They debated these disagreements frankly in private and in the main discreetly in public. Each conceded to the other on occasion. After initial rows, Reagan yielded to Thatcher on the Falklands, Thatcher to Reagan on Grenada. But they supported each other without “fractious” dispute on a wider range of policies, often against substantial international opposition, and they succeeded against the odds in winning the Cold War. If that relationship counts as a difficult one, what relationship doesn’t? And what relationship did either have with another national leader that was warmer or more cooperative or crowned with greater success?

Maybe the most striking and persuasive aspect of Aldous’s revisionism, therefore, is that it amounts to a thorough refutation of the British Left’s view of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. That view was expressed most sourly by Denis Healey, who said: “When President Reagan says, ‘Jump,’ Mrs. Thatcher asks, ‘How high?’” Healey was so fond of this one-liner that he was still producing it a few years ago in Cold War retrospectives. It was never true; indeed, it is close to a reverse of the truth. But Aldous’s account of Thatcher’s record of blowing into Washington, blowing up, and blowing out again surely destroys it once and for all.

And that’s my kind of revisionism.

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