Margaret Thatcher: Reagan's Most Resolute Ally

Margaret Thatcher: Reagan's Most Resolute Ally

By Lou Cannon - April 9, 2013

Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at 87, ranks with Winston Churchill as the only British prime ministers who had a powerful impact on U.S. presidents and American public opinion.

Indeed, in some respects Thatcher had an even greater influence on Ronald Reagan than Churchill did on Franklin D. Roosevelt during their celebrated World War II alliance.

Time and again during his presidency, Reagan valued “having Maggie on my side,” as he put it to a White House aide in July 1981 after his first encounter with world leaders at an economic summit in Canada. When Hedrick Smith and I interviewed an exhausted and over-scheduled Reagan on Air Force One while returning to Washington afterward, the president acknowledged that Thatcher had saved the day for him in Ottawa.

In that meeting, a learning experience for a president making his initial foray into world diplomacy, Thatcher at times completed Reagan’s sentences. She also gave him a crash course on French President Francois Mitterand, who Reagan was surprised to learn was an ardent anti-Communist (though this was well-known).

In subsequent economic summits, Reagan was rarely in need of such assistance. Indeed, he had a rock-star quality that Thatcher lacked: She observed that the leaders always rushed to have their pictures taken with Reagan. The two of them formed a symbiotic relationship, with Reagan supplying the charm and Thatcher the expository solutions on the many issues on which they agreed. Thatcher’s gift, said Reagan, was that she always could get to the nub of a problem.

Related Video: Thatcher's Eulogy For Ronald Reagan

Reagan met Thatcher in 1975 when she was leader of the Conservative Party. He predicted enthusiastically that she would make a “magnificent prime minister.” Thatcher was also supportive in somewhat more muted language when Reagan was elected president in 1980 -- a time when many Britons viewed him as uninformed and feckless.

The Thatcher-Reagan friendship was grounded in similar views of the world. Both were advocates of free markets at a time when other democracies were moving left of center. Each seemed less lonely in international affairs because of the other’s presence.

Reagan believed firmly in the so-called special relationship between the United States and Britain, and he turned to Thatcher for support as he applied pressure on the Soviet Union by installing U.S. mid-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Not only did Thatcher permit these weapons, she also allowed U.S. planes to fly from bases in Britain in 1986 when Reagan ordered air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi following a Libyan-sponsored bombing of a West Berlin disco.

In the latter years of his presidency, when Reagan reached out to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he was assisted -- actually preceded -- by Thatcher, who famously had described Gorbachev as someone with whom the West could do business.

James Baker, who served as White House chief of staff for Reagan, said Monday that the unity of Thatcher and Reagan in dealing with Gorbachev made it easier for Reagan to defend this policy to his hawkish conservative base, which distrusted any overtures to the Soviets.

On most issues Reagan reciprocated Thatcher’s support. When Thatcher sought U.S. backing for the British war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands, the Reagan administration was divided, with Secretary of State Al Haig favoring the British and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick sympathetic to the Argentine view. Reagan sided with Haig and backed Thatcher.

It was not a perfect political marriage. The two differed on a Soviet natural gas pipeline to Europe, which Reagan opposed and Thatcher favored. She was skeptical of the feasibility of Reagan’s missile-defense proposal, the Strategic Defense Initiative. Thatcher took particular umbrage when Reagan decided in 1984 to invade the island of Grenada, a former British colony where a leftist coup had deposed the government. Reagan did not tell her of his decision until shortly before the invasion, leading to a frosty telephone exchange that was the low point of their relationship.

But relations between the two leaders soon warmed again, especially after Thatcher became a vital link in the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations that were a feature of Reagan’s second term. Reagan suggested on more than one occasion that these negotiations, which led to a crucial nuclear arms control treaty and the eventual end of the Cold War, might not have come about without Thatcher’s support.

Both Thatcher and Reagan recognized that their agreement on fundamental issues was more important than their occasional differences. This was true on domestic policies as well as foreign ones. The increased interest rates that Thatcher initiated to reduce inflation in Britain anticipated similar policies by Reagan. Thatcher’s staring down of the National Union of Mineworkers during a bitter 1984 strike (in which she closed government-owned coal mines) in some respects echoed Reagan’s actions in firing striking air traffic controllers in 1981, although the coal strike left deeper scars.

Reagan left office more popular in his country than Thatcher was in hers, a condition that prevails to this day. But each knew that they had been able to accomplish more through their alliance than they would have been able to do individually.

Writing in the conservative magazine National Review in the final month of Reagan’s second term, Thatcher said that Reagan had “achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over when freedom was in retreat -- and he succeeded.”

This could be said with equal force about Margaret Thatcher. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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