Reagan, Mrs T: A special connection

Focus, Normal

The National, Wednesday 10th April, 2013


FROM the moment they met, in April 1975, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan bonded. They agreed on almost everything, and even completed each other’s thoughts. 

When he encouraged Paul Volcker, the Federal Reserve chairman, to deliberately set off a recession in the hope of purging hyperinflation, she encouraged him to resist the warnings of those who thought the resulting high unemployment and business bankruptcies were too high a price. She had been there and done that. 

On the world stage, she was mostly the good cop to Reagan’s bad, though sometimes they switched places. Reagan’s pointless tirades against communism may have remained just that, had Thatcher not explored a way to engage with a new generation of Soviet leaders. Having attended two funerals of the grumpy old men who ran what Reagan dubbed “The Evil Empire,” she invited two young Kremlin rivals to London. When Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in London, she perceived that he was the man on the rise and swiftly called Reagan to say he was “a man who you can do business with.” The resulting Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings hastened the Soviet Union’s demise. 

Reagan and Thatcher did not end the Cold War – proper credit goes to defiant dock workers in Gdansk, Poland; decades of brave resistance by refuseniks in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere; and John Paul II, – but together, with her worldly sense of what was possible alongside his bonhomie and charm, they helped ensure that the transfer was peaceful. 

What the British like to think of as the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain flowered under Thatcher. 

Reagan, for all his jokes and banter, was aloof, even to close members of his family. Thatcher, too, often kept her distance, and with good reason. A woman who stormed the male chauvinist citadel that was the Tory Party, she lived with the constant threat of revolt, as she found out when they took turns stabbing her like Caesar on the steps of the Roman Senate. 

It is not extravagant to suggest that the alliance they forged was a political marriage. 

After he dared to invade Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth, without tipping her off in advance, he called her to say, “If I were there, Margaret, I’d throw my hat in the door before I came in.” 

“There’s no need to do that,” was her chilly reply. It took some minutes of awkward explanation, laced with Reagan charm, before she thawed. 

When Reagan, in his childlike optimism, almost traded away the West’s nuclear arsenal at Reykjavik, Iceland, at a summit meeting in 1986, Thatcher leapt into a plane and took the president aside, telling him the world would not be a safer place if mutually assured destruction were removed. And the alternative – huge standing armies and thousands of tanks facing each other across the East-West border – would break the bank. It was the only genuine disagreement they ever had. – LA Times