Reagan-Thatcher relationship was not as cozy as it appeared

More than two decades have passed since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher left office, and their personal friendship and Cold War alliance remain firmly entrenched in the popular mythology.

The narrative goes something like this: Working together as closely as any two world leaders since Roosevelt and Churchill, the ideological soul-mates brought down the Evil Empire and won the Cold War.

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It’s a story that was etched more deeply into the public consciousness during the days and weeks after Reagan’s death in 2004, and it has received another round of attention stateside with Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Thatcher in last year’s “The Iron Lady” (although the film gave her partnership with Reagan short shrift).

Common sense would dictate that the relationship between Reagan and Thatcher was more complicated, and a new book by the historian Richard Aldous ably fleshes out a historic pairing that was not always as cozy as it appeared. 

Aldous’s Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship deconstructs the myth that the conservative American president and the conservative British prime minister marched in lockstep for the eight years they served together. The notion of Reagan and Thatcher as a strong “political marriage,” he writes, “masked the reality of a complex, even fractious alliance.”

Aldous makes strong use of recently declassified documents and oral history projects on both sides of the Atlantic to argue that while Reagan and Thatcher shared a sincere personal bond, they clashed frequently on issues, and their diplomatic relationship was often beset by headaches.

“During eight years together in power, these two leaders had fought and disagreed over almost ever major international decision that they confronted,” Aldous concludes.
His 352-page book is a tour of those quarrels, which ranged from relatively benign diplomatic disputes to much more significant differences in the leaders’ approach to nuclear disarmament.

The sharpest tension of Reagan’s early years came in 1982, when his administration gave lukewarm support to Thatcher’s decision to launch a military effort to retain British control of the Falkland Islands. The United States did not want to damage its relations with Argentina and urged a negotiated settlement, while Thatcher was determined to wrest back the territory after an Argentine invasion. The crisis threatened her standing as prime minister, but “when she needed Reagan,” Aldous writes, “he wasn’t there.”

The situation was reversed the next year when Reagan ordered a U.S. invasion of Grenada to quell a leftist coup. The president sent Thatcher a letter seeking her advice before the invasion, only to send a follow-up dispatch hours later informing her that he had already made his decision. The move left Thatcher humiliated. “I cannot conceal that I am deeply disturbed by your latest communication,” she wrote to Reagan in a strongly worded missive, which was followed by an angry phone call.

The episode, Aldous writes, “had exposed an ideological divide between them” when it came to Cold War strategy.

It also illustrated an important aspect of the “special relationship” between both Reagan and Thatcher and the allied nations they led. By the time Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, Thatcher had already been in power for nearly two years and was considered Reagan’s intellectual superior. But the relationship was hardly balanced, and the geopolitical scales tipped heavily toward the United States.

“Certainly Reagan was always pleased to have Thatcher on the team if her position fitted into his overall strategy for the Cold War. At other times when they disagreed, he simply brushed her aside,” Aldous writes. “In the end she always remained a junior partner, a fact that she more than most rarely forgot.”

That dynamic was nowhere more evident than in the two nations’ dealings with the Soviet Union during Reagan’s second term. Thatcher might have famously introduced Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom the West could “do business,” but it was Reagan who pursued a nuclear disarmament deal with Gorbachev over the reservations of Thatcher, who did not fully share Reagan’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. She was cool to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (sometimes derided as “Star Wars”), and she was anxious about the president’s offer to Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit, which would have abandoned the Cold War nuclear deterrence strategy in which she still believed.

Ultimately, the flashpoints between Reagan and Thatcher faded under the broader narrative of a close friendship and alliance that took hold of both during their time in office and the years after.

It was not an accident. The view of a tight-knit relationship served the interests of both Reagan and Thatcher, and it was one, Aldous writes, that “they had consciously attempted to foster during their shared time in office.”

Aldous makes a thorough and compelling case that the Reagan-Thatcher relationship was as difficult as it was “special,” and his book is revealing, if not surprising. The letters and telephone transcripts that he quotes at length illuminate both the genuine warmth between the two leaders and the very real tensions that the popular narrative has overlooked.

Reagan and Thatcher shared a close bond, and they had plenty of squabbles over the years. In that respect, perhaps their partnership was not so different from a marriage after all.