The Extra Special Relationship: Thatcher, Reagan, and the 1980s
The “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom has served to unite the two nations over the past century. Thanks in part to a shared language, historically common enemies and similar political structures, leaders of the two countries have found it easier than most to achieve common objectives around the world. Perhaps no relationship between American and British leaders has been stronger than that of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Heads of their respective conservative political parties, Reagan and Thatcher shared similar views on economics and anti-Communism. In spite of their different approaches to politics, they formed a close bond that allowed them to strengthen the Anglo-American alliance at a time when the international order was undergoing profound change with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.
Keith Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Richard Ogden, and Lynne Lambert each worked with the British during the Thatcher’s reign and share their perceptions of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. Ronald Neitzke also served in London during this time and gives his view of the relationship between the United States and Britain. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Smith in February 2004, Taylor in April 1998, Ogden in June 1999, Lambert in January 2002 and Neitzke in December 2006.
“Reagan’s reaction was, ‘Well, that’s Maggie.’”
Keith Smith, Desk Officer for United Kingdom and Ireland, Washington, D.C., 1981-1982
SMITH: I believe that their good relationship (that of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher) played a positive role in our bilateral dealings. It also contributed to the ability of both sides to prevent disagreements from getting out of hand – and we did have serious arguments. Later on, I saw how that actually worked after the Falklands War.
I was head of the task force in the State Department in the Operations Center during the whole war. While the public blamed us for being “neutral” on the side of the Argentines, Mrs. Thatcher recognized that we had to appear to be neutral in order to maintain some influence with the Argentine military junta.
After the war, however, we had some serious conflicts with the Brits over military issues, particularly U.S. weapons sales to Argentina. Of course, the British were opposed to any sale of spare parts for Argentine aircraft. We went ahead and made the sale, and Margaret Thatcher sent a tough note to President Reagan, one strong enough to have broken diplomatic relations with any other two countries.
Reagan’s reaction was, “Well, that’s Maggie.” I remember being furious at the British ambassador, who had put her up to writing the letter, but it didn’t have any effect on our bilateral relations because of the close ties between Thatcher and Reagan.
“President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher were political and philosophical soul mates.”
Lawrence P. Taylor, Economic Counselor, London, 1985-1989
Taylor: We were very much so cheering Thatcherism on. We were very closely associated with it. President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher, I think, were political and philosophical soul mates. The United States Embassy was very close to the (British) government of the day, not just on the economic side, because that mainly was cheerleading (we didn’t have a big government economic relationship with Britain; we had a big private sector economic relationship with Britain), but on the international issues of the day: how to deal with the Soviet Union, how to deal with terrorism, how to deal with Libya in particular.
Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan were co-leaders in the Western Alliance and in the process of taking the Alliance in a certain direction in policy and strategic terms. So yes, we were very close to that government.
What I found in Britain – and it’s the only other country that I know of in which it is true – was a natural desire and ability to think in global terms, much as U.S. foreign policy leadership does, and not to just see things through the prism or a bilateral relationship or a regional relationship. But to think in global interests and global objectives and to approach issues through those.
Now that gave us an affinity and, again, a common language – those things gave us an ability to have a relationship with the British that I thought was quite unusual, and in the Reagan-Thatcher period it was very much a partnership. For better or worse, that’s what it was.
“I don’t think Thatcher was anybody’s poodle. Maybe more like a Rottweiler”
Richard Ogden, Economic Counselor, London, 1985-1989
OGDEN: I think the philosophy of Reaganism and Thatcherism was about the same. The implementation of the programs differed because the two countries faced rather different circumstances.
The caricature of Reagan in the British press and in cartoons was of a trigger-happy cowboy, bombing Libya or setting off rockets or wiping armies off the map. The political comedies usually showed Reagan that way, with Mrs. Thatcher as his obedient poodle. They’d always have her on a leash with Reagan leading her around. This was the superficial and critical view.
For those involved in politics, the view was very positive. I think even the Labor Party recognized that Reagan was a strong and well-liked president. And of course, Reagan had a lot of support among the British masses.
I’m not sure sometimes who was the poodle, but that’s the way it was always depicted in the British press. I don’t think Thatcher was anybody’s poodle. Maybe more like a Rottweiler.
“Thatcher was on camera lecturing Mitterrand on the reign of terror under Robespierre”
Lynne Lambert, Trade Policy Officer, London, 1987-1990
LAMBERT: In the first place, Thatcher had huge electoral majorities. She was the longest serving prime minister of the century. Her dominance was just indisputable.
We did work well with her government. When I first went to London, Reagan was President, and then Bush. Particularly under Reagan, she was that awesome character. Our political appointee ambassador, Charles Price, had a good one-on-one relationship with her. She delivered. When the going was rough, she was there. She asked for favors in return. She was just a very dominant political personality.
We did have a special relationship. She looked very solid. There were many of us in the embassy who felt she was missing the boat on Europe, and that her stridency about it all was a liability. When we had these philosophical debates within the embassy, a lot of us felt the train was leaving the station and she was still shouting from the platform.
You had to take notice or laugh or admirer her, whatever. One of the European Union summits was in France. It was on the bicentennial of Bastille Day. There was this wonderful celebration with all the fireworks. I don’t think anybody does fireworks like in France. Thatcher was on camera lecturing Mitterrand on the reign of terror under Robespierre. She was just a formidable lady and nothing daunted her.
We had similar situations when we’d have groups of senators or congressional delegations that would get to meet her. It was the same thing. She lectured them on whatever she chose. She often told them what they’d think when they visited Brussels, but it would be wrong. She was a character that was larger than life.
“A quintessentially British haughtiness would sometimes surface”
Ronald J. Neitzke, Political Officer, London, 1986-1990
NEITZKE: The Cold War was still very much alive, the Brits were our closest ally, there was an unusually strong personal bond between Reagan and Thatcher, and we had important military bases in Britain and intimate military-to-military ties, as well as a vast intelligence relationship, dwarfing what we had with anyone else. And there was an almost inexhaustible supply of experts in London on every corner of the former empire. So a lot of people put a stop in London on their itinerary.
There were occasionally other reminders as well that all was not exactly as it appeared on the surface, that although we might speak roughly the same language and have many common interests, we and the Brits were in some ways very different from one another.
For example, I remember once at a formal dinner being well into a conversation on Anglo vs. American sensibilities with my British tablemate when she leaned over and, nodding toward a large group of Brits schmoozing together across the room, said, “You know, I shouldn’t tell you this, but in private they often laugh at you Americans.” Although I responded, “That’s okay, in private, we sometimes laugh at them, too,” her comment touched a nerve.
However reined in it was most of the time, especially around us, a quintessentially British haughtiness would sometimes surface, often either amid a disagreement over policy or when you had inadvertently butchered some arcane British nicety.
Also, despite Thatcher’s preeminence and focus on the “special relationship” with Washington, this was a period when many in the political and chattering classes saw Britain’s destiny increasingly in Europe and viewed the special relationship with us as an anachronistic hindrance to that movement.
And leftwing British papers’ were always caricaturing Thatcher as Reagan’s poodle, an over-the-top sentiment that nonetheless resonated at least a bit with our British friends and colleagues. But overall, this was about as warm and intimate and mature a bilateral relationship as you were likely to encounter.
Britain was our closest and most reliable ally. And on a personal level, between Thatcher and Reagan, I doubt there’d been a relationship between a British prime minister and a president remotely as warm since Churchill and Roosevelt, and perhaps not even they were as close.
They were different people with different styles, of course, with Reagan as the charmer and Thatcher more openly feisty. But on the major ideological points, foreign and domestic, they appeared to me to be soul mates. And they obviously enjoyed being around one another.
I had the sense that Thatcher felt close to Nancy Reagan as well. I had several assignments in connection with a Reagan visit to London that brought me close enough to get some sense of this. I don’t think any of them were acting. You could see that there was personal warmth.
That doesn’t sum up the entire relationship, of course. There were ups and downs, and issues, such as the Falklands, on which our respective interests occasionally diverged. But I think both leaders had a great deal of respect for what the other was attempting to do to reshape their own society, and they largely saw eye to eye on meeting the challenge of the Soviet Union.
The tabloid press would often refer to Thatcher as Reagan’s poodle. Well, some poodle. I don’t think that was the nature of the relationship at all; Thatcher was quite adept at using her closeness to Reagan to advance Britain’s interests as well. And let me add, this didn’t all happen just by chance, or some quirk of personal chemistry. The relationship required constant tending at all levels.
You’ve probably heard of the Powell-Powell channel. That was the active communications link between Charles Powell, Thatcher’s Private Secretary, and Colin Powell, then Reagan’s National Security Advisor. That was certainly a measure of the intimacy of the Thatcher-Reagan relationship and of our two governments at that time.
“She didn’t view Bush as fighting in the same weight class as her friend Ronnie”
However, [George H. W.] Bush’s inauguration in January 1989 brought about a change in the atmosphere of the bilateral relationship. Thatcher and Reagan had been, in a sense, equal partners, in terms of how they regarded one another, in an extraordinarily close, long-term relationship. They had been through a lot together.
Although Thatcher obviously preferred Bush over [Democratic Candidate George] Dukakis in the 1988 election, and was anxious to be on good terms with him, it’s fair to say that privately, at least initially, she didn’t view Bush as, well, fighting in the same weight class as her friend Ronnie.
She was more experienced on the world stage than Bush, had been Prime Minister for nearly ten years at that point, and appeared to regard herself, although not in a gratuitously arrogant way, as the senior partner in this new relationship, notwithstanding the gross disparity in power and influence between our two countries.
This was all a very muted thing, though. I don’t recall a specific statement or incident or slight. It may have been more her tone than anything. She often sounded school marmish, even imperious.
Whatever it was, and it’s possible this originated more on our side of the Atlantic than in London, the Bush team signaled early on, although again in a muted way, not only that they didn’t see Thatcher as the senior partner of anything, but that Thatcher’s counsel might carry somewhat less weight under Bush than it had under Reagan.
This was not an open falling out or anything, but there was a distinct early change in the bilateral atmosphere. And one issue on which this faint discord manifested itself in 1989 and 1990 was precipitated by the falling of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the sudden possibility of a reunited Germany.
Support for reunification became one of the hallmarks and signal successes of Bush’s approach to Europe, but it came essentially against the backdrop of Thatcher’s kicking and screaming. That didn’t prevent Thatcher and Bush, who essentially liked one another, from getting on together.
As Bush placed his stamp on the Presidency, the push to German reunification became unstoppable, and our two governments cooperated very closely in the showdown with Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990. The relationship did settle into a groove, based on genuine mutual respect, but it was never quite the same as it had been with Reagan.