Margaret Thatcher And Ronald Reagan

For Margaret Thatcher, the US-UK relationship was not only ‘natural’ and ‘special’; it was ‘extraordinary’ and ‘very, very special’. At the 1981 Conservative Party conference she declared that ‘had it not been for the magnanimity of the United States, Europe would not be free today’ [1] . Her implication was that, under her leadership, Britain would not endorse the ingratitude of continental Europeans. By 1991 she was calling the US-UK relationship ‘the greatest alliance in the defence of liberty and justice the world has ever known’ [2] . The close personal relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was as intense as it was unprecedented in world affairs. Yet, despite this close relationship, sentiment for Thatcher or the UK was always trumped by US self-interest, sometimes in brutal fashion and almost always with no regard for British sensibilities. Remembered for her distinctive brand of nationalism as much as her anti-European rhetoric, Thatcher believed her ‘special position’ with Reagan and her determination to align Britain closely with America at all times was ultimately in Britain’s interest. Throughout her premiership, Thatcher couched this approach in terms of shared history, cultures, values and sentiment. This chapter argues that despite the strength of the personal friendship and political similarities between Thatcher and Reagan, the United States throughout the Reagan presidency paid little practical attention to history and sentiment. Using three key moments during the Reagan-Thatcher era, The Falklands War, the US invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya, we will see repeated examples where British concerns counted for little.

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Ronald Reagan’s admiration and personal fondness for the British leader was unmistakable and it was no coincidence that Margaret Thatcher was President Reagan’s first official visitor to the White House. Not intimidated by her grasp of policy detail, Reagan was reassured by her reiteration of conservative values. As John Campbell has put it: ‘Out of his depth with most foreign leaders, Reagan knew where he was with Mrs Thatcher, if only because she spoke his language: he understood her, liked her, admired her and therefore trusted her’ [3] . For Ronald Reagan, Thatcher was the leader who set to apply American remedies to a country which had become demoralized and impoverished by an excess of socialism. In his memoirs he described the Anglo-American alliance as the firmest during his presidency [4] . While Thatcher did not rate Reagan’s grasp of issues, once privately conceding that ‘There’s nothing there’ [5] , she did consider him to be ‘the American dream in action’ [6] .

The Falklands War in 1982 along with the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1986 Libyan bombing raised important questions about the limits and nature of US-UK cooperation at a time when the attainment of both American approval and of a new international partnership with the US were key goals for Thatcher. Cabinet Minister Norman Fowler recalled the desire of his colleagues in the Thatcher years to reverse America’s view that Britain had ‘gone downhill to the point that we had become an irrelevance’ [7] .

At times, the British government operated as little more than an enthusiastic anti-communist cheerleader of the US, supporting the American ‘aim to promote peaceful change, democracy, and economic development’ in Central America [8] . Thatcher enthusiastically backed the war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, siding with the US in a program of destabilisation which resulted in 50,000 deaths and a World Court order for the US to pay $17 billion in damages to Nicaragua. Britain’s clandestine role in following the US lead by arming Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1980s is well known [9] . Following Reagan’s election, Britain helped the US effort in Afghanistan by cooperating in training programmes for Islamist guerrillas opposed to the post-Soviet regime in Kabul; support which many see as a direct quid pro quo for US aid during the Falklands War [10] . By 1986 MI6 was supplying the Afghan mujahidin with shoulder launched missiles. British policy on Afghanistan after 1982 certainly seemed to contrast with earlier initiatives offered by London. In 1980 and 1981, Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington had offered various proposals involving Afghan neautralisation. The recent origins of Al Qaeda are now conventionally traced to the 1980s mujahidin campaigns in Afghanistan.

Yet, Thatcher’s pro-Americanism was compromised to some extent by her own interpretation of James Callaghan’s ‘Atlantic intermediary’ role. Whatever Thatcher’s personal feelings, any real revival of the ‘special relationship’ was bound to involve some kind of role for Britain as a credible broker between US and European interests and to bring European perspectives to bear. Britain’s Middle East policy during the 1980s, for example, involved attempts at coordination with European Community (EC) initiatives in the region [11] . It should also not be forgotten that it was Thatcher’s government that secured passage of the 1985 Single European Act.

By the time Reagan became president in 1981, Thatcher had already proved herself to be Washington’s surest ally. She did not join her European colleagues in seeking to resist the renewed anti-sovietism of the Carter administration after 1979. Thatcher’s unrivalled access to the new president presented new opportunities, and permitted some degree of boldness. She protested the cancellation of the Siberian pipeline project in 1981, telling Secretary Al Haig that it ‘affronted the Europeans to be asked to make enormous sacrifices while the United States made none’.

The cancellation broke existing contracts and raised severe concerns about the extraterritoriality of US law. A compromise, which allowed the pipeline to proceed, was achieved in 1982.

By far the greatest success of Margaret Thatcher in promoting European perspectives related to ‘Star Wars’ the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) for laser based anti-missile defence, announced by President Reagan in 1983. Apart from appearing to breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, ‘Star Wars’ offered the prospect – however remote – of the US being able to shelter under its own defensive umbrella in the continental United States, at arm’s length from Europe and leaving the continent exposed to conventional soviet military threat. Almost 18 months after Reagan’s announcement, Thatcher was able to secure from the president a written commitment to nuclear deterrence doctrines, to treaty obligations, to the achievement of an East-West nuclear balance and to continuing negotiations. In playing on doubts held within the Reagan administration about SDI, Thatcher was able to effectively ‘bounce’ Reagan into affirming US commitment to nuclear deterrence in Europe and was very much considered to be a fait accompli on the British side [12]

However, Thatcher remained very marginal to the personal superpower diplomacy which was winding down the Cold War. In the early days of Gorbachev’s leadership of the USSR, she acted as something of a sponsor of him in Washington. However, her attempts to establish herself as a US-Soviet go-between after 1985 were no more successful than parallel efforts regarding Middle Eastern diplomacy. ‘Star Wars’ and her post-Reykjavik Camp David undertakings represented the apogee of Thatcher’s role as privileged Atlantic intermediary. From the standpoint of European leaders, Thatcher’s access to Reagan was potentially useful but her pro-Americanism damaged her credibility – an image not helped by, among other things, her dismissive reaction to the revival of the Western European Union as ‘some Parisian counter to NATO’ [13] . Also damaging to Thatcher in this respect was her defence of Reagan in the context of the Iran-contra scandal (where the White House sold arms to Iran in return for hostage releases – directly contravening promises made alongside London about the folly of dealing with terrorists – and illegally routed proceeds to rightist rebels in Nicaragua). Jerry Bremer of the State Department joked that since the IRA ‘does not conduct terrorism against Americans, we…are making token arms shipments to them’ [14] .

Economic disputes

Washington’s cancellation of the Siberian pipeline project was taken in direct response to the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1980. The pipeline was designed to bring Soviet gas to Western Europe. Designed to extend almost 3000 miles, it involved several Western European private companies in its construction. The main proponent for cancellation was US Assistant Defence Secretary Richard Perle. The pipeline cancellation was also designed to prevent any new German or French dependence on Soviet energy supplies. From Washington’s point of view, it was assumed that London’s opposition would be muted, owing to British access to North Sea energy supplies.

Thatcher was far from unsympathetic to Perle’s ‘squeeze’ on Moscow as she strongly supported the sanctions imposed by the Carter administration following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These sanctions included contract cancellations, tightening terms for technology transfers and abandonment of Anglo-Soviet credit agreements. However, the pipeline issue raised a range of objections.

Thatcher told Secretary of State Haig ‘that the French and the Germans were never going to abandon their contracts’ for the pipeline. She drew attention to ‘a certain lack of symmetry’ in Washington’s response to the Poland crisis – US grain sales were not affected by the embargo [15] . Thatcher was worried about the impact on British jobs as several UK engineering firms were among those who stood to gain from the pipeline. Thatcher especially resented the extraterritoriality of Washington’s June 1981 announcement that the embargo on gas and oil technology transfers would apply to the foreign subsidiaries of US companies and to foreign companies making components under licence. The announcement was provoked by the failure of the Western allies to agree a sanctions strategy at the Bonn NATO summit of June 1982. Four days later, Thatcher was in Washington denouncing the policy of extraterritoriality to Haig and Vice President George Bush while Lord Cockfield, trade secretary, condemned an ‘unacceptable extension of American extraterritoriality jurisdiction in a way which is repugnant in international law’ [16] . The Thatcher government’s nationalism and respect for free trade was conflicting with its pro-Americanism. Its protests exposed divisions within the Reagan administration, which was also seeking to reconcile anti-communism with US market interests. Despite severe US pressure, the pipeline went ahead and the contracts were honoured.

The Siberian pipeline dispute saw Britain, however reluctantly, representing a ‘Europeanist’ perspective to Washington. The UK seemed to be at a crossroads, often mired in contradiction and uncertainty over future paths. Even for Margaret Thatcher, in her Bruges address of 1988, Britain’s future was ‘in Europe as part of the Community’. Thatcher’s nationalism clashed both with her pro-Americanism and with her intellectual realisation that Britain must have some kind of European future. As with other Britons at the time, she exhibited, in Sir Anthony Parsons’ words, ‘an inclination to turn with relief from the high-flown notions of Euro-idealists to the cosy pragmatism and cultural familiarity of Anglo-American relations’ [17] .

The Falklands War

The notion of the ‘Special Relationship’ set against a wartime setting evokes images of the UK and US – ‘our foremost ally’ [18] – standing shoulder to shoulder when the chips are down. Military and intelligence cooperation along with perceived notions of sentiment would point in that same direction. However, as we see with the Falklands War, Britain could not count on automatic support from its supposedly close ally. Indeed, the Vietnam War is an excellent, and rare, example of when one point blank refused to support or provide troops for a war it did not accept as ‘necessary’. Not only did Britain refuse to commit troops to serve along US, New Zealand, Australian, South Korean, Philippine, Thai or South Vietnamese forces in Vietnam, it also regularly criticised American tactics and continued its small – though controversial – commercial relationship with North Vietnam. It is no surprise to read that this sits amidst an era where Anglo-American relations were at an all-time low.

The importance of the Vietnam War to the US was matched by the importance of the Falklands conflict to Britain. To many in Britain, the Vietnam War represented an insensitive and unnecessary application of anti-communist global containment theory. To many in America, the Falklands War represented an insensitive and unnecessary expression of Britain’s imperial past. Britain refused to support or provide troops to the US effort in Vietnam and actually went as far as to regularly criticise American tactics during the war (as well as continuing its controversial trading relationship with North Vietnam throughout the war). Now that the tables were turned, it’s perhaps no surprise that US support for Britain in the Falklands was far from assured.

The War

Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 created immediate and complex problems for the US which were neatly summarised as:

‘Important American interests were on a collision course with one another. On one hand, the Anglo-American special partnership and the principle of non-aggression, on the other, our Latin American relationships and our ability to maintain peace and tranquillity in this hemisphere’ [19] .

In the months before the invasion, the breakdown of Anglo-Argentinean diplomacy over the sovereignty of the Islands led Britain to request American assistance amidst a tense standoff. Al Haig promised Lord Carrington that the US would take a constructive line [20] , however, British concern mounted about perceived American equidistance between British and Argentinean positions, and especially about the reportedly ‘Latin Americanist’ orientation of Assistant Secretary Thomas Enders. The landing of an Argentine party on South Georgia on 19 March provoked new efforts to swing Washington against Argentina. On 31 March, intelligence reports warned that a full invasion was imminent. According to Robert Renwick, then political counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington, Haig insisted that the US ‘would have a greater chance of influencing Argentine influence if they appeared not to favour one side or the other’ [21] .

The invasion triggered the dispatch of a British task force and with it, Lord Carrington’s resignation. Washington was torn in different directions with some, notably Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger, urging support for Britain and the rule of law; others, including US representative to the UN Leanne Kirkpatrick, argued that Argentina had legitimate claims to Falklands sovereignty, and that US anti-communist interest lay in conciliating Latin American opinion. British Ambassador Nicholas Henderson recalled a conversation with Haig’s deputy, Walter Stoessel: ‘He seemed immensely detached. I suppose that’s the impression British diplomats gave a century ago when we were a great power and some lesser country sought our support’ [22] .

For his part, Weinberger offered immediate military assistance to the UK. The defence secretary established a Pentagon committee on 5 April to remove bureaucratic obstacles in the way of aiding Britain. Assistance flowed freely, with the UK receiving everything requested. Admiral Henry Leach, First Sea Lord, later wrote that the American military ‘went further than politicians would have permitted had they known in time’ [23] . Military aid to Argentina had already been largely suspended due to congressional concerns about the ruling Junta’s appalling human rights record, quickly disappeared. Unsurprisingly, Buenos Aires moved quickly to question American ‘neutrality’. At a National Security Council meeting on 7 April, Haig and Weinberger argued that mediation was worth attempting, but that, if it failed, the US should back Britain. Reagan approved Haig’s mediation plans, declaring that their credibility depended on the appearance of American neutrality.

In essence, the US mediation position involved the assertion of neutrality over the issue of Falklands sovereignty, although not over the clearly illegal invasion. Haig’s early mediation position involved the introduction of a multinational peacekeeping force, Argentine withdrawal and negotiations on the island’s sovereignty. Renwick later identified his fundamental difficulty; ‘the British were prepared to talk only without preconditions and when Argentina’s forces had left the islands. Argentina was not prepared to withdraw its forces…until it was assured that the question of sovereignty would be settled – in its favour’ [24] . In intense and complex diplomacy, Haig developed various positions on an interim administration for the Falklands, with Argentina’s flag flying alongside the Union Jack. The London negotiations with Haig were difficult. Some senior UK officials like Defence Secretary John Nott resented the very notion of American ‘mediation’. On 12 April, Nott and Thatcher succeeded in persuading Haig to drop the idea of UK forces withdrawing 4,000 miles to Ascension Island and Argentinean troops merely withdrawing to their mainland [25] . Thatcher opposed terms which did not embody a return to the conditions of the pre-invasion British administration. The buck was passed to Argentina, who rejected proposals which did not guarantee its position on sovereignty.

On 28 April, the US Senate passed a resolution stating that the US ‘cannot stand neutral’ and must help Britain ‘achieve full withdrawal of Argentine forces’. On 30 April, President Regan announced a formal end to American ‘neutrality’, blaming Buenos Aires for the failure of mediation and declaring the US would give the UK material support while Argentina would be subject to economic sanctions.

With sea and air bombardment of Argentine forces commencing on 1 April, Haig encouraged the Peruvian government to present proposals which moved slightly more towards Argentina’s position. The sinking of the Argentine ship, Belgrano, on 2 May, provoked calls for a ceasefire and suggestions that it was part of London’s campaign to undermine the Haig peace initiatives. Following the loss of the British destroyer, Sheffield (3 May), London reluctantly agreed to yet more proposals, based on the concept of an interim administration. American pressure on London to accept mediation on terms – to quote Nott – ‘which would have been seen as a surrender by political, press and public opinion in the United Kingdom’ [26] was intense. Again, these proposals were rejected by the Argentines. On 17 May, Margaret Thatcher, acknowledging that ‘we cannot afford to alienate the United States’, accepted the idea of a United Nations administrator for the Falklands. Against the direct advice of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Buenos Aires effectively rebuffed UN mediation. Following the 21 May task force landing, Haig’s efforts were geared toward avoiding an Argentinean humiliation and toward pressing London on the virtues of magnanimity. During a late night telephone conversation on 31 May, Thatcher convinced Reagan that she could not be expected ‘to snatch diplomatic defeat from the jaws of military victory’, asking Reagan how he would feel if Alaska were invaded [27] . On 4 June, The US joined Britain in vetoing a UN Security Council call for an immediate ceasefire. After casting the vote, Kirkpatrick revealed that the US really intended to abstain. This extraordinary announcement represented a change of heart by Haig whose desire to communicate this to London caused a delay in sending instructions to New York.

The Argentine surrender on 14 June was a cause of great relief for the US and as British troops headed home, it became difficult to evaluate the impact of American assistance to Britain. US sensitivity to Latin American opinion encouraged coyness on Washington’s part with some later downplaying the significance of American help. For John Nott, the US was almost indecently keen to save General Galtieri’s face, with only France giving unqualified assistance [28] . Indeed, it is worth noting that EEC publically declared its support for Britain three weeks before the US announced its support. British bitterness about Washington’s concern to lessen Galtieri’s plight is detailed in Lawrence Freedman’s official history of the conflict [29] .

As in the case of Vietnam, the Falklands conflict raised fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of the transatlantic alliance. Was the US bound to come to Britain’s side? John Campbell argues that neither the ‘special relationship’ nor Reagan’s regard for Britain determined the outcome. Rather, it was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the ‘old fashioned diplomacy’ of Anthony Parsons and Nicholas Henderson that swung US opinion towards Britain [30] . Additionally, of much greater significance than Britain’s status as an old ally was: the need for help in Europe (particularly with Pershing II and cruise missile deployments); America’s commitment to international law; the impudence , as perceived by London of the USSR especially when it refused Argentina’s request to veto UN Resolution 502.

While Nott saw Reagan as severely compromised by his commitment to Latin American anti-communism, there was, at least according to Weinberger, never any doubt that the President’s heart was with Britain [31] . When Al Haig arrived in London on 8 April, he ‘assured the prime minister, in so many words, that there would be no repetition of Suez’ [32]

To some degree, memories of Suez were evident throughout the entire Falklands episode. For Thatcher, ‘British Foreign Policy had been one long retreat’ since 1956, and 1982 was the year to turn around.

Nicholas Henderson drew less comforting lessons:

‘The Falklands crisis touched on certain American nerves that had proved sensitive at Suez: a recessive feeling about colonialism: concern that the British were expecting the Americans to eventually pick up the cheque: worry about the Russians: and the fear that what Britain was doing would rally other countries against Western interests’ [33] .

In any such analysis, the crucial element in 1982 was indeed the British campaign, led by Henderson, to cast the crisis in terms of international law, to emphasise the differences, especially in terms of international law and UN Resolution 502, with Suez and to woo US public, congressional and executive branch opinion.

Henderson himself was anxious to keep London from assuming that US support was inevitable. Given the events of 1956, it is perhaps surprising that such assumptions were ever made. However, Thatcher relied on Reagan’s friendship, believing ‘that the US has a duty to support us’ [34] . In fact, the US risked quite a lot in becoming ‘entrapped’ by Britain. Haig never accepted that the Soviet Union was unconcerned about the Falklands issue and felt that ‘whatever the outcome, or particularly if there was a prolonged conflict… Soviet influence [would increase]’ [35] . Argentina was a useful ally, especially in relation to covert US operations in Central and Latin America. The fall of the junta could well produce conditions conducive to the progress of a leftist anti-Americanism; the short-term damage done to US-Latin American relations by Haig’s 30 April announcement of support for Britain, also swiftly became evident. Within the Organisation of American States (OAS), only the Anglophile Caribbean islands supported the US line. Thomas Enders and Jeane Kirkpatrick both held that America’s Falklands decision set hemispheric relations back many years [36] .

From Britain’s standpoint, the US was doing no more than its international and alliance duty. Indeed, Washington was severely criticised for its early neutrality and for actually encouraging the invasion in the first place. Sir Michael Palliser, advisor to the War Cabinet, later said ‘Haig would have been happy with any settlement, including one which gave Argentina everything’ [37] There is also the argument, taken up by Labour MP Tom Dalyell, that US General Vernon Walters encouraged the invasion by floating the idea of a joint US-Argentine missile base in the South Atlantic. Perhaps more vigorous US reaction to the South Georgia landings would have fended off the invasion. Against these arguments, Haig points out that the Argentineans were warned not to invade and that the Argentineans were cognizant of the close Anglo-American intelligence and defence cooperation [38] .

Haig’s mediation split opinion in London. The British, however, did have the Secretary’s assurance that there would be no repeat of 1956, as well as the concrete evidence of Pentagon and Reagan’s support. As Henderson recalled, the idea that there was no scope for mediation was absurd: ‘nobody involved in the decision [to send the task force] thought at the time that it would be bound to lead to war’ [39] . Henderson and UN Ambassador Anthony Parsons, aided by foreign secretary Pym, consistently urged London to keep its options open, and above all, to ensure the retention of American goodwill. The ‘war party’ – led by Thatcher – gambled on Argentinean intransigence, rather than risk snubbing Haig. The Argentineans obliged on three occasions before Haig’s 30 April announcement. A more flexible attitude on the part of the junta would have put London in an extraordinarily difficult position. Admiral Terence Lewin later testified that ‘the war cabinet had with great reluctance agreed’ that Haig put his proposals to Galtieri. The proposals ‘would indeed…have been very difficult for the War Cabinet or the British government of all parties to accept’ [40] . For Henderson, Haig’s mediation was valuable to the British cause. As the task force sailed south, ‘there was a need for something to fill the diplomatic vacuum’. Without Haig, ‘Argentine intransigence would not have been exposed, and without this exposure the American decision to give support to Britain would probably not have come when it did or have been so categorical’ [41] . In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher adopted a tellingly different tone. America’s pre-30 April stance was ‘fundamentally misguided’. Yet, ‘in practice, the Haig negotiations worked in our favour, by precluding for a time even less helpful diplomatic intervention from other directions, including the UN’ [42] .

At the State Department, Europeanists clashed with Latin Americanists. UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick interpreted the crisis in line with her own version of neo-conservative anti-communist realism. At one stage she expressed her wish to a British journalist that ‘you people would look more at the map’ [43] . The Pentagon not only followed Weinberger’s pro-London stance, but also respected the logic of its close