THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Shortly after she was elected Leader of the Opposition by the Conservative Party in February 1975, Margaret Thatcher had a visit from Californian Governor Ronald Reagan. They immediately hit it off. They both believed that Western governments had been insufficiently robust in combating what they perceived as a growing Soviet threat and they saw eye to eye on economic policy. Reagan had expected the meeting to occupy only a few minutes, but it lasted for almost two hours. Noting how closely aligned their thinking was, the future president quickly decided that he and Mrs Thatcher were ‘soulmates’. Reagan was to go on to become a two-term president and Margaret Thatcher became not only Britain’s first female prime minister but also the longest-serving UK premier of the twentieth century.
Less than a year after these two rising political leaders first met, Margaret Thatcher gave vigorous expression to the hard line on Communism they both embraced. Although still more than three years away from becoming Prime Minister, she had just visited British troops in Germany. In a January 1976 speech she accused the Soviet Union of being ‘bent on world domination’. The Politburo, she declared, ‘put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns’. Responding to her bellicosity, the Soviet army newspaper, Krasnaya zvezda (Red Star) described her speech as ‘threatening’ and sarcastically dubbed her ‘the Iron Lady’. Addressing local Conservative Party members in her Finchley (London) constituency a few days later, she said, ‘Yes, I am an iron lady’ and ‘yes, if that’s how they wish to interpret my defence of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life’. The name stuck and it did the future Prime Minister far more good than harm, especially in conservative circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the 1970s neither Reagan nor Thatcher had any faith in summit meetings or much desire to engage with the Soviet Union in an attempt to improve relations. On the contrary, they wished to mount an ideological offensive against Communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. Notwithstanding their professed belief in ‘small government’, both – Reagan, in particular – wished to see substantial increases in Western defence spending as a key component of a policy which some of his supporters saw as a justified offensive aimed at undermining the Soviet Union and others saw in more defensive terms as one of ‘peace through strength’. Reagan’s speeches embraced both rationales of the arms build-up at different times.
A decade later – in the mid-1980s – the peace through strength understanding of the increased military budget predominated and much was beginning to change in US-Soviet relations. Now in his second term, Reagan was more than ready to meet his Soviet counterpart. Among conservative leaders worldwide, none more enthusiastically urged him to do so than Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her support for engagement mattered the more because the Reagan administration was deeply divided on the issue. Caspar Weinberger, Defense Secretary from the outset of the Reagan presidency in 1981 until 1987, believed that change in Moscow, even after Mikhail Gorbachev had succeeded the colourless Konstantin Chernenko in 1985, was purely cosmetic. Nothing was to be gained, in his view, and much could be lost through trying to improve relations with Moscow.
Such sentiments were shared by the leadership of the CIA. Even in the later 1980s, by which time Gorbachev’s commitment to far-reaching change of the Soviet system had become clear to many observers, the highest echelons of the agency – including Deputy Director and Soviet specialist Robert Gates – remained convinced that only superficial reform was underway in Moscow. The State Department under George Shultz was readier to engage with the Soviet Union and, after Gorbachev’s perestroika got underway, much quicker to detect qualitative change for the better in the rival superpower.
The President took Margaret Thatcher seriously when she spoke well of Gorbachev and, even though her advocacy helped Shultz and the State Department much more than they assisted Defense Department and CIA sceptics in the struggle to determine America’s Soviet policy, she managed to retain the esteem of all sides. A deeply divisive and controversial figure in her own country, Thatcher retained broader support in American political circles than she enjoyed at home, especially in the latter years of her premiership when even members of her Cabinet and parliamentary party showed increasing resentment of her overbearing style of rule.
When, however, she began to engage with the Soviet Union, as she did from late 1983, Mrs Thatcher was more in tune with a broad spectrum of opinion in the UK than she was on domestic policy. Within the British government Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine were equally keen to seek constructive dialogue with their Soviet counterparts. Their personal relations and those of the departments they headed in no way mirrored the Shultz-Weinberger uneasy relationship.
What made Thatcher’s influence on Reagan so significant was the excellent relations she established also with Mikhail Gorbachev. An invitation to Gorbachev to pay a week-long visit to Britain was issued in June 1984. He came, accompanied by his wife Raisa (an early break with Soviet tradition) in December of that year. This was three months before he became Soviet leader – and almost a year before Reagan first met Gorbachev, at the Geneva summit in November 1985. The visit was a resounding success and did Gorbachev good both at home and abroad. His meeting with the Prime Minister, which began with a lunch, lasted for five hours. Thatcher did not hold back from saying what she thought was wrong with the Soviet system and Soviet policy, but she was impressed by Gorbachev’s intelligence, charm and dexterity in argument. He also did not go out of his way to defend policies which, once he had the power to do so, he himself set about changing.
The Thatcher-Gorbachev connection began with mutual respect and developed over time into friendship. In September 1988 the Prime Minister invited Rodric Braithwaite, who was about to become British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, for tea at 10 Downing Street. She told him, ‘If Dukakis wins the [presidential] election, Gorbachev will be my only friend left’. A decade or even five year earlier, it would have been unthinkable for such a remark to come from the lips of Margaret Thatcher about a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It reflected, however, how much had changed in the Soviet Union, the extent to which this was due to Gorbachev, the British prime minister’s appreciation of his role, and the increasingly warm rapport they had established.
Of course, the duo (with Reagan, a trio) remained far apart in many of their political views, but Thatcher had more meetings with a Soviet leader than had any prime minister in British history, as well as a greater number of meetings than her predecessors with American presidents. She had become more ‘Go-Between’ than ‘Iron Lady’. Not everyone in her entourage approved. The 10 Downing Street Foreign Policy Adviser (and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee) Sir Percy Cradock considered that she had become ‘dangerously attached to Gorbachev in his domestic role’. Internationally, he wrote, ‘she acted as a conduit from Gorbachev to Reagan, selling him to Washington as a man to do business with, and operating as an agent of influence in both directions’.
In the absence, however, of arms reduction agreements and a vastly improved international atmosphere, Gorbachev would have been prevented by the Soviet military-industrial complex and their strong supporters within the party and government from reforming so fast. Moreover, if Cold War tensions had not been dramatically reduced, they would have ousted him from office in 1989 rather than permit the East European Communist states to become independent and non-Communist. Cradock’s misgivings were, therefore, ill-judged.
I prefer the verdict of Britain’s Foreign Secretary at that time, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who argued that the force with which Mrs Thatcher ‘argued the case for dialogue with Moscow’ was crucial ‘in turning President Reagan away from the “evil empire” rhetoric’ and in encouraging him to develop a relationship with Gorbachev. ‘I sometimes think’, wrote Howe in his memoirs, that ‘this may be seen by historians as her greatest achievement in foreign affairs’.
When Mrs Thatcher was forced out of office by her own parliamentary and Cabinet colleagues in late November 1990, Ronald Reagan published an article in Newsweek, in which, true to form, he observed that he and the Prime Minister had been ‘soulmates’. He noted that the first state dinner he held in the White House was for her and he made sure that the last state dinner of his presidency (an especially grand one) was in her honour. Most pertinently, he added, ‘Before I met with Mikhail Gorbachev ... I talked with Mrs Thatcher. She told me that Gorbachev was different from any of the other Kremlin leaders. She believed that there was a chance for a great opening. Of course, she was proven exactly right’.
The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War by Archie Brown (Oxford University Press, 2020) is available to Buy Now.