The Iron Lady's American obsession: Thatcher and Reagan's desperate political alliance

The two most important conservative figures of the past 30 years had a more complicated relationship than you think

By Guy Arnold
June 22, 2014 9:30PM (UTC)
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Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, outside the White House in 1983. (AP)

Excerpted from “America and Britain: Was There Ever a Special Relationship?”

Complimenting her predecessor in her autobiography "The Path to Power," Margaret Thatcher says: ‘Harold Macmillan’s great and lasting achievement was to repair the relationship with the United States. This was the essential condition for Britain to restore her reputation and standing.’ This contradictory statement is like many others by leading politicians that Britain’s standing depended upon the United States and not Britain itself. It amounts to a fundamentally defeatist view of the country that Thatcher herself wanted to be ‘great.’

Throughout her eleven years in Downing Street Thatcher was obsessed with America and the special relationship, which she put at the top of her international priorities even though she lectured US presidents and was not afraid to advance a tough contrary view. Her first visits to the United States were in 1975 and 1977 as leader of the opposition. ‘Not for the last time, she was a tremendous hit with the Americans. It was the beginning of a relationship, which never broke down: which was, indeed, to be a definitive element of her foreign policy as prime minister.


Having met, among others, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, she said of the visit: “I feel I have been accepted as a leader in the international sphere, the field in which they said I would never be accepted”.’ On a third visit to the United States in 1979 she met President Jimmy Carter. ‘In December at the invitation of President Carter I made a short visit to the United States—the first of many as Prime Minister. In a short speech at my reception on the White House Lawn I went out of my way to reaffirm my support for American leadership of the West.’ In a lengthy interview on the ABC network in February 1981, Thatcher expressed regret for the ‘complete misunderstanding about the European initiative on the Middle East’. She also reassured viewers that the US was the ‘single most important nation and what it does is the single most important thing in the Middle East. And we all understand that in Europe and would like our American friends to know that we understand that.’ (Press Conference for Washington Press Club, 26 February 1981.)

Thus, early in her premiership Thatcher had appointed herself the European cheerleader for the United States. To the Conservative Party Conference later that year, she said: ‘We cannot defend ourselves, either in this island or in Europe, without a close, effective and warm-hearted alliance with the United States. Our friendship with America rests not only on the memory of common dangers jointly faced and of common ancestors. It rests on a respect for the same rule of law and representative democracy. Our purpose must be not just to confirm but to strengthen a friendship which has twice saved us this century. Had it not been for the magnanimity of the United States, Europe would not be free today.’ Andrew Thomson, one of her biographers, goes on to say: ‘She will be the first, of course, to explain and appreciate that all nations are unique and that she does not want the United Kingdom to become a miniature America. But the sheer rushing, gushing spirit of free enterprise in the United States will always reinforce her own vision for Britain.’

Thatcher never approached Europe with anything like the same spirit. ‘Her ear was so attuned to the anti-Europeanism of the 1970s that it overlooked the anti-Americanism of the 1980s. For her, Americans are wartime allies and Cold War partners—attitudes formed, no doubt, before 1960.’ Sir Percy Cradock, Foreign Policy Adviser for the second half of Thatcher’s premiership, said: ‘Solidarity with the US as a cardinal principle of foreign policy acquired a special sanctity under Margaret Thatcher, but as a working rule it had been in place for many British Governments over many years.’ Thatcher believed that the Anglo-American relationship had done more for the defence and future of freedom than any other alliance in the world. Referring to NATO in 1990—her last year of power—Thatcher wrote: ‘However fascinated I was by events in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, I could not forget that the strength and security of the West ultimately depended upon the Anglo-American relationship,’ a view that relegated the rest of Europe to a Thatcherite obscurity. Elsewhere in her autobiography she claims that following the end of the Cold War a deep confusion existed about the future of Europe and Britain’s place in it. She wrote that the special relationship had been allowed to cool to near freezing point. Contemplating future developments in the post-Cold War world—an Orwell-type division into three blocs or a return to a pre-1914 big power scramble—she says:


‘Neither need come to pass if the Atlantic Alliance remains, in essence, America as the dominant power surrounded by allies which, in their own long-term interest, generally follow its lead.—And such collective security can only really be provided if there is a superpower of last resort.’

Analysis of this argument suggests an Orwellian outcome or a prolongation of Cold War tactics that would encourage Russia to reorganise its policies so as to oppose the spread of US hegemony. Constant emphasis upon Western security requires an answer to the question: security against which power or group of powers, and the implication is the continuation of rival bloc policies. Geoffrey Howe, after ten years of loyal service as chancellor and then foreign secretary and finally the non-role of deputy prime minister, at last fell out with Thatcher in spectacular fashion. Subsequently, in his memoir "Conflict of Loyalty," he highlights points of difference between the United States and Britain and Thatcher’s response to them. British policy was to uphold the International Court of Justice while the US either ignored or vetoed its jurisdiction as it did over the Contras laying mines in Nicaraguan waters. Thatcher insisted that rather than vote against the United States Britain should abstain. ‘It was hardly a major issue. But I was nevertheless disconcerted by the strange sequence of events: first, Britain supports US action against Libyan terrorism, second, US supports Britain in action against Irish terrorism; third, Britain condones US-sponsored “terrorism” against Nicaragua.

This was yet another occasion, on which Margaret insisted on carrying the “special relationship” perhaps one bridge too far.’ In all the differences between Thatcher and the Americans—there were several—she first argued that a good ally must disagree when necessary but always in the end came out as the agent—reluctant or otherwise— of the United States. Her strong words obscured her subservience. The change of government in the United States, which replaced Reagan with Bush senior and Baker as secretary of state, altered Washington’s perspective on the special relationship. ‘So neither Bush nor Baker was likely to accept the thesis, which Margaret Thatcher has re-enunciated, that “the ties of blood, language, culture and values which bound Britain and America were the only firm basis for US policy in the West”.’


Thatcher managed to establish a remarkable rapport with President Ronald Reagan not least because they shared the same free-market approach to their respective economies. In 1981 Thatcher had her first meeting as prime minister with President Reagan at which she made plain her intended adherence to the Atlantic Alliance when she said: ‘Your problems will be our problems and when you look for friends we shall be there.’ These two ‘ideological soul mates’ reinvigorated what Thatcher described as the ‘extraordinary alliance’. They shared a commitment to free trade, low taxes, limited government and strong defence. At the same time they rejected the concept of détente with the Soviet Union; they wanted to win the Cold War. The friendship between the two led to a revival of the special relationship, which had suffered a marked decline from the time that Heath took Britain into the EEC. There were to be four particular events that would test the special relationship: the Falklands War (1982); the US invasion of Grenada (1983); the US bombing of Libya (1986); and the ending of the Cold War, which raised acute fears in Britain that the United States would come to terms with the USSR without consulting its ally.

‘The Thatcher-Reagan axis of the eighties will surely be remembered for developing a more robust capitalism and for achieving by strength and unity in the wider North Atlantic Alliance, disarmament treaties with the Soviet Union. Diplomats, businessmen and politicians have all played their part in securing these successes, but the pivot was the personal relationship of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.’ In his biography, "One of Us," Hugo Young claims that during the Reagan period Thatcher had established a significant hold on US opinion: first, her victory in the Falklands; second, an improving economy; third her rapport with the president. In December 1984 Thatcher visited Washington to tell Reagan that his Strategic Defence Initiative (Stars Wars) would not work. On another visit shortly afterwards in February 1985 she addressed a joint session of Congress: ‘To maintain nuclear deterrence’ she told Congress, ‘it was necessary to ensure our research and capacity do not fall behind the work being done by the Soviet Union. That is why I firmly support President Reagan’s decision to pursue research into defence against ballistic nuclear missiles—the Strategic Defence Initiative.’ She thus expunged her stand of the previous December. Also in the same speech to Congress, Thatcher said: ‘No one of my generation can forget that America has been the principal architect of a peace in Europe that has lasted forty years. Given this shield of the United States, we have been granted the opportunities to build a concept of Europe beyond the dreams of our fathers.’ In none of her actions in relation to Europe did Thatcher do anything to advance this concept of Europe. The year 1985 was when the two countries celebrated 200 years of diplomatic relations and the occasion led to a two-way exchange of compliments with Thatcher claiming ‘our relationship a truly remarkable one. It is special. It just is and that’s that.’ Reagan replied: ‘The United States and the United Kingdom are bound together by inseparable ties of ancient history and present friendship.’ The Reagan connection was of huge importance to Thatcher who went out of her way on a number of occasions to extol its merits: ‘But Ronald Reagan’s election was of immediate and fundamental importance because it demonstrated that the United States, the greatest force for liberty that the world has known, was about to reassert a self-confident leadership in world affairs. I never had any doubt of the importance of this change and from the first I regarded it as my duty to do everything I could to reinforce and further President Reagan’s bold strategy to win the Cold War which the West had been slowly but surely losing.’ The message in this statement was simple: everything depended upon the United States.


As far as Europe was concerned and especially a united Europe, Thatcher was always a ‘little Englander’. In 1989 she tried but without success to delay German reunification, thereby antagonising both the United States and Germany, though not France under President Mitterrand. As Sir Percy Cradock observes, Thatcher ‘did not like the Europeans; she did not speak their languages; and she had little time for their traditions’. George Bush senior and his secretary of state James Baker and the State Department wanted to put the relationship with Germany rather than the special relationship with Britain at the centre of their European policy, which meant a downgrading of Thatcher’s influence in Washington. If Thatcher was obsessive about the special relationship she was paranoid about Europe. When in December 1990, for example, the foreign secretary Douglas Hurd ‘publicly advocated a distinctive European defence role through the Western European Union (WEU), which I had always distrusted, aware that others, particularly the French, would like to use it as an alternative to NATO inevitably dominated by America’. Hurd’s advocacy of a European defence role was entirely reasonable yet drew Thatcher’s immediate opposition as did any suggestion about Europe acting outside the American orbit. Writing of regular meetings of EU heads of government, Thatcher says: ‘By contrast, there was not enough contact and understanding between the European countries and our transatlantic allies in NATO—the United States and Canada. I hoped that my visit to Canada and the United States at the end of September [1983] would do something to put this right.’ There is a naivety about some of Thatcher’s pronouncements in defence of the Atlantic Alliance that leads one to wonder whether she actually believed what she was saying. Thus, in "The Downing Street Years" she writes: ‘Democracies are naturally peace-loving. There is so much which our people wish to do with their lives, so many uses for our resources other than military equipment. The use of force and the threat of force to advance our beliefs are no part of our philosophy.’ Given the sheer size of the US military budget in relation to those of all other countries, the worldwide spread of its bases and the emphasis it puts upon spreading democracy such a statement hardly bears examination. Yet in 1999 she emphasised the divide in her own mind when she said: ‘In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations of the world.’

When the Falklands War loomed Thatcher worried about the American stand and the fact that Reagan did not back her at once. However, the US defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, was an Anglophile and gave support with the supply of up-to-date weaponry while also providing communications intercepts. After a reproof for their tardiness, Thatcher reports: ‘The Americans too, however irritating and unpredictable their public pronouncements on occasion, were providing invaluable help. I have already mentioned the Sidewinder missiles. They also provided us with 150,000 square yards of matting to create a makeshift airstrip. On 3 May Casper Weinberger even proposed sending down the carrier USS Eisenhower to act as a mobile runway for us in the South Atlantic—an offer we found more encouraging than practical.’ As Denis Healey claims, US assistance to Britain during the Falklands War was of—possibly—decisive importance. ‘President Reagan, however, received his recompense in Mrs. Thatcher’s unwavering support through every twist and turn of his policies over eight years.’

In 1982 Thatcher obtained American agreement that the British Polaris fleet should be replaced with US-supplied Trident missiles. When the United States switched to the more powerful D-5 Trident missile Thatcher was desperate to secure it to maintain the credibility of the UK nuclear deterrent and Reagan offered it to her at cost price. As with previous governments, Thatcher saw Trident as the best option for Britain’s nuclear deterrent. But, of course, it was not an independent deterrent but depended upon the Americans. While accepting that Trident II was better than the alternatives the choice raised the more fundamental question of whether the UK could continue to maintain an independent strategic nuclear deterrent at all. However, ‘In Britain, distrust of the United States surfaced on the question of whether there should be a ‘dual key’—that is whether there should be a technical arrangement to ensure that the US could not fire these weapons without the consent of the British government.’


During the second half of the 1980s Thatcher became increasingly anxious that the US Strategic Defence Initiative and Reagan’s proposal at the Reykjavik Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all ballistic missiles would make the British deterrent irrelevant. Thatcher supported the principle of the Strategic Defence Initiative anti-missile defence project (though initially she had been opposed to it) despite deep misgivings in the Foreign Office and in contrast to French opposition, but she used her personal influence with Reagan to obtain a written commitment to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Tam Dalyell, a constant backbench critic of the prime minister, said of Thatcher’s support for the proposed American project, ‘This was British participation in the American Strategic Defence Initiative programme, popularly but misleadingly dubbed ‘Star Wars’. Certainly the substantive decision about, and possibly even the Prime Minister’s first public announcement of, British participation in SDI was made without proper consultation with the responsible Cabinet Minister, the Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine.’ Dalyell was taking the prime minister to task for bypassing parliamentary practices. In October 1986, when President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Iceland for the Reykjavik Summit, which did not include Britain, the special relationship appeared to be wearing thin so that in November Thatcher flew to Washington to find out what the two super powers had agreed. This US-USSR meeting and the subsequent treaty between the two super powers signalled the possible emergence of two-power arrangements that would be made over the heads of other allies and so would mean the end of forty years of Atlantic Alliance. Even so, at crucial moments in the late 1980s, her influence was considerable in shifting perceptions in President Reagan’s Washington about the credibility of Gorbachev when he repeatedly asserted his intention to end the Cold War.

Thatcher was a Cold War warrior but one whose ‘warriorship’ depended upon American support. In 1990, her last year as prime minister, Thatcher had to respond to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In terms of relative power it is interesting to speculate as to what Thatcher would have done had the United States refused to intervene. Her famous call to President Bush—‘This is no time to go wobbly’—showed her at her most belligerent, the lieutenant urging on the leader and insisting that war was the only way to deal with a dictator who otherwise would end up in Saudi Arabia controlling far too much oil for the West’s good. ‘Suddenly a Britain with armed forces which had the skills, and a government which had the resolve, to fight alongside America, seemed to be the real European “partner in leadership”.’ Even though Britain made a substantial contribution to the anti-Hussein coalition, President Bush was turning his back on the Reagan era and that included the special relationship with Britain. Wistfully, Thatcher records in her autobiography, ‘By then I had learned that I had to defer to him in conversation and not to stint the praise. If that was what was necessary to secure Britain’s interests and influence I had no hesitation in eating a little humble pie.’

Michael Heseltine, who was Thatcher’s minister of defence during the first half of the 1980s, did not believe in the special relationship though in defence terms he wanted and welcomed a strong US military presence in Europe. He said that since 1945: ‘The wisest Europeans have understood that their continent’s security depends on the continuing commitment of the United States, the power which twice within a generation has spent its citizens’ lives and treasure in helping to end wars which were not of their making ... The Atlantic Alliance endures, and our peace still depends on America’s commitment. That in turn will depend on where America in future believes her interests to lie.’ Heseltine makes plain that defence arrangements are of mutual importance to both sides and should be viewed unromantically.


‘Europe [in which he includes Britain] is entitled to nothing from America. The long years of dependency after 1945, and the continuing and necessary reliance upon American protection within the mutuality of NATO, have sometimes engendered, especially I think among the British, an assumption that we are entitled to America’s general support and goodwill ... The truth is that Europe can rely on American support, staunch though it has been, only so long as we continue to earn it.’

The British people, he argues, have no more right than other Europeans to presume on American support and friendship, which we are prone to do. He makes a clear, if debatable case, for an American military presence in Europe and as minister of defence justified the introduction of Trident missiles into Britain. Ignoring arguments about a special relationship that were so often advanced by Thatcher, he says: ‘The basis of the Anglo-American relationship since 1940 has been the community of military interest between our two countries—but military necessity, and a common view of how world peace must be kept, has preserved and strengthened that bond.’ More controversial was Heseltine’s insistence upon the need for a US nuclear presence in Britain. Thus he says: ‘No American government could continue to base substantial ground and air forces in Europe unbacked by a credible nuclear component.’ In contrast to Thatcher, Heseltine argues unsentimentally for a military tie-up with the United States and argued elsewhere that the only special relationship America had was with Israel.

Excerpted from “America and Britain: Was There Ever a Special Relationship?” by Guy Arnold. Copyright © 2014 by Guy Arnold. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

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