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Margaret Thatcher's files as Prime Minister, 1983

 

MT's Prime Ministerial files from 1983 were released at the UK National Archives in Kew on 1 August 2013

Here are uploads of selected policy files from No.10, along with commentary focussing on one of the year's most memorable episodes, the US invasion of Grenada on 25th October

Of course, one of the biggest political events of 1983 was MT's emphatic re-election as Prime Minister in June. That story is contained in her personal and party papers due for release later in the year from the Churchill Archive Centre, and will be covered very fully on this site

1979-83: Marxism in Grenada, rise and fall

MT's rather battered Grenada file, hurriedly upgraded to "Top Secret"

In a way the unsnappy file name says it all: "Request from People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada seeking assistance in the prevention of aggression by the United States against Grenada". If the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in April 1982 had been an almost unimaginable event, how improbable was this one, eighteen months later, the invasion of a Commonwealth country, under the British monarchy, by the United States? Undoubtedly that is how it struck many British people at the time.

The island of Grenada became independent of Britain in 1974 but after only five years of unstable democracy a coup removed the elected Prime Minister while he was visiting the U.N. in New York, lecturing his peers on UFOs, among other things. The new Marxist government did not fall into the lovably eccentric category. Its leader, Maurice Bishop, looked to Cuba for guidance and material support and surrounded himself with a thuggish crowd of young militants who duly removed him by a second coup, on 14th October 1983. Supporters managed to free him from house arrest but he and his chief associates were swiftly recaptured and machine gunned to death on the 19th.

Unsurprisingly MT had little time for Bishop, whom she had met at Commonwealth gatherings, and even less regard for his successors. (She carefully annotated a sobering document in the file listing what was known of their violent outlook and history.) She was fully briefed about the coup and the strong condemnation it received from Caribbean neighbours, regional leaders like Jamaica's Michael Manley, Barbados's Tom Adams and Dominica's Eugenia Charles deploring its savagery, as well as the likelihood of Cuban involvement. Working through the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), their immediate reaction was to plan for the removal of the new regime by military means. Lacking such means themselves, in practice they looked for action to the US, and to a lesser degree to Britain, although they were willing to contribute troops to a multi-national force.

The files shows that from the first, Britain was very reluctant to contemplate any kind of military intervention. There was no gap here between MT and her new Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, or between politicians, officials and the military generally in London. Tom Adams perhaps hoped to animate the kind of response that had led MT to order the SAS to end the Iranian Embassy siege, or to recover the Falklands, when he urged our High Commissioner in Bridgetown that Britain send troops to free and protect the Governor-General, the Queen's representative on the island. But this was not far short of fantasy. Although Britain ordered its Caribbean guardship, HMS Antrim, to Grenadian waters, the thinking was precautionary, to assist in a possible evacuation of UK nationals. The evidence is that we had no serious military options in Grenada. Scribbles in the file probably dating from 24 October refer to "12 men 1 helo [helicopter]", and there was probably no temptation to use what little strength we had: the year before on South Georgia MT had seen what could go wrong with helicopter operations, some of them flown indeed from that very ship.

1983 Oct 17-24: the U.S. response - was Britain kept in the dark?

The US response was very different, as were their options. Memoirs of American officials like George Shultz and Casper Weinberger give a fairly full account - they show that even before the execution of Bishop the US was discussing a possible intervention with the OECS and the US Government worked with them to create a basis for it. The outcome was that the OECS went public urging the despatch of a multi-national force on Saturday 22nd October and the US responded the same day by diverting to the island a carrier group with amphibious support en route to the Lebanon. Essentially the decision to prepare an invasion was taken in the early hours of Saturday morning, although there were several later points at which the decision had to be confirmed for the thing actually to happen.

A key element in the angry political fallout from the invasion in Britain turned on how far the UK government was kept in the dark by the US at this point. British ministers, MT and Howe to the fore, later felt strongly that they had been misled by the Americans into thinking that no decisions would be made without further discussion with London (and a fortiori that they had not already been made). MT held phone discussions with relevant ministers from Chequers on Saturday 22nd October on this premise, as the record shows. The files show also that when we were told that about the US military moves they were put in a precautionary framework and we did indeed receive assurances that there would be further discussion if action was decided on. On that basis Sir Geoffrey Howe told the Commons on the afternoon of Monday 24th October that "I have no reason to think that American military intervention is likely", repeatedly glossing the US moves using the word 'precautionary'.

Such statements greatly increased the UK Government's political troubles when the US invaded the following day, but the files now released show that Howe was to some degree the author of his own - and the government's - embarrassment. Indeed, he clearly went further than was wise, and not just with hindsight. In fact it turns out that Howe was far from certain that the US moves were purely precautionary, and very likely MT will have shared his view, although the file offers no direct evidence on the latter point. Only hours before speaking in the Commons, he was telegraphing our Washington Ambassador: "Although the Americans have undertaken to consult us I am concerned at the possibility that they might be moving towards early direct intervention in Grenada. … I feel it is important to get our word in quickly".

Our Embassy in Washington also had more than an inkling of what was going on, as the Head of Chancery, Robin Renwick, explains in his excellent study of MT's foreign policy, A Journey with Margaret Thatcher (2013, p145). "By the morning [of Monday 24th October] we were convinced that the Americans were close to intervening". The FCO was told by lunchtime, but he supposes somehow the information did not reach Howe before he went to the Commons. Finally, we had intelligence sources in the Caribbean well able to judge the nature of US preparations, and a fairly detailed account of the US military plan reached us from the Jamaican military several hours before Reagan's letter to MT late in the evening of Monday 24th October confirming that the invasion was going ahead. Galling as it was not to be told directly what was contemplated, indeed to be kept deliberately in the dark, it is not quite the same as being taken by surprise.

1983 Oct 24 onwards: invasion & aftermath

The exchanges between President Reagan and MT have long been in the public domain, released from the US side and available on this site. He sent a long letter received at 1915 warning that he was thinking of responding positively to the OECS request for intervention: this must surely have confirmed suspicions on our side rather than created them. A draft reply was requested from the FCO, to await MT's return from a banquet bidding farewell to the outgoing U.S. Ambassador, of all people. (Characteristically he knew nothing of what was going on.) But by the time a meeting convened at No.10 to decide on a reply, around 2330, a second letter was received from Reagan stating that he had made up his mind and that the U.S. was going ahead. This was consultation, but only of a sort. A new reply was drafted, as negative as the first, and MT followed up with a brief secure phone call asking that her objections be carefully weighted. Weinberger overheard it at the White House and recalled "a very vigorous conversation", following which the President returned to the meeting with "a rather rueful look on his face" (Fighting for Peace p82). It made no difference, of course.

Later MT connected these events closely with the destruction of the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, which killed 242 US troops the day before. She felt that the President invaded Grenada to wipe away some of the sting of this terrible attack. The chronology does not really bear this interpretation out, but it is significant that she was so attached to it. She invested heavily in the idea that US policy had changed suddenly at a late hour, and thus that her government had not in any way intentionally deceived the Commons. She was a sharp critic of the Lebanese engagement too, so one error led to another, as she saw it. All told there is no question that she was deeply wounded by the whole episode. Not far away will have been memories of the Falklands, of being made to jump through hoops by the US Government, of agonising drafting sessions to craft agreements to the satisfaction of General Haig and a posse of lawyers. Here was the US laying all that aside when acting in its own cause, and pushing Britain around in the process, as she saw it. And despite great attempts by friends and advisers in later years to make her see the logic of the U.S position, and its positive long-term result for Grenada, her view never shifted.

Key documents on Grenada crisis, Oct 1983

PREM19/1048 Grenada (US invasion) Part 1 [1983 Mar 29 - Oct 27] 70MB
PREM19/1049 Grenada (US invasion) Part 2 [1983 Oct 28 - Dec 16] 78MB

1983: other file releases

Here is a selection of other 1983 files released by TNA on 1 August.

Document releases 1 Aug 2013