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Reagan Library

Inevitably, the Reagan Library in Los Angeles is much the most important US source for the career of Margaret Thatcher.

Unnoticed by the British press, many Thatcher documents were released between 1997 and 2000 following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Reagan Library & Museum itself. The pace of release has slowed significantly in the years since and archive staff estimate that full declassification may be a century away.

Overview

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher exchanged hundreds of letters and messages during their shared time in office, three quarters of which are already open and available on this site. (Each was the other's most prolific correspondent among heads of government.) Most records of their face to face conversations ("memcons") are also open and present here, as well as telephone records ("telcons").

Reagan-Thatcher declassified correspondence, meetings & calls

The Library has also made available a mass of briefing documents and memoranda - all on-line at this site - including many of the President's State Department and NSC briefings for meetings with the Prime Minister and US diplomatic telegrams back and forth on every topic of interest to the two leaders.

The site additonally offers the text of President Reagan's meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, almost all of which are open to the public but which have never previously been published, on or off-line. Their correspondence will be placed on line at a later date.

1975-81: early dealings

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan probably met first in July 1972, when Reagan (then Governor of California) made a visit to Europe as an emissary of Richard Nixon and was entertained to lunch at No.10 by Edward Heath. A copy of the menu survives in the Thatcher Archive, so MT was very likely present.

Their first one-to-one meeting came in April 1975, at the House of Commons. Reagan's letter of thanks appears to be the earliest in their long correspondence, written as news of the fall of Saigon was reaching the US ("a dark day ... somehow the shadows seem to have lengthened"). They met again in November 1978 (again at the House of Commons) by which time Reagan had run unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination against the sitting President, Gerald Ford, and established himself a leading candidate for the 1980 election.

These early meetings - before either of them won office - established warm regard on both sides and a sense of shared purpose, as MT later recalled.

There is little sign of contact in 1979-80 (busy years for both of them), beyond obligatory congratulations on their respective electoral successes. It was only on Reagan's assumption of office in January 1981 that their intense pattern of dealings began. MT was among the first foreign heads of government to visit him after the inauguration and received unusually warm treatment, even for a British Prime Minister. Personal relations were clearly good, but a few days before the trip MT had confessed to the British Ambassador to Washington, Nico Henderson, that she "did not quite see how it would go. She admitted to being nervous about it". In truth, they barely knew each other.

Although Henderson reassured her as to Reagan's regard (and of course the visit proved him correct), MT perhaps had reason to be concerned about the outlook of some of the people around Reagan, among them the key figure of Richard Allen, National Security Adviser 1981-82, and the US Ambassador to London, J.J. Louis. At the end of July 1981 Allen singled out for Reagan's attention a critical analysis of the state of British politics from the Ambassador, headed "Britain Drifts". The report remains classified, but Allen's covering note gives the gist: "Thatcher has lost her grip on the political rudder". The year 1981 was a tough one for Britain. A deep economic recession was ending, but it left a legacy of tax increases, expenditure cuts, unemployment above 3 million and riots in some inner cities; the Thatcher Government had terrible poll ratings. Administration officials were at pains to explain that Reagan's economic approach would not replicate the British. When the Ambassador visited the President in November, the record shows him warning that MT's domestic position was weakening and that "the possibility of Tory defeat, with the present government replaced by a coalition government, cannot be discounted".

The Polish crisis of 1981-82 brought about a significant dispute between the two governments over the Siberian Gas Pipeline.  

1982-83: the Falklands & Grenada

The years 1982-83 saw moments of serious tension between MT and Ronald Reagan - on occasion, outright conflict - and yet their personal and political relationship deepened at the same time, with close cooperation in many areas and a general harmony of political outlook on economic fundamentals and the Cold War. This was the period in which contemporaries began to see an enduring rightward shift in Western politics, led by the US and Britain.

The Falklands War was the most difficult episode in all their dealings. The US mounted a mediation effort under Secretary of State, Al Haig, within days of the Argentine invasion, maintaining a posture of public neutrality between the two sides (though generally condemning the Argentine resort to force and quietly providing military equipment and supplies to Britain). MT was deeply disappointed by the appearance of neutrality and not happy either when the US announced a "tilt" to Britain on 30 April, but continued promoting peace proposals behind the scenes. In later years, she would probably have spoken early and directly to the President to express her feelings, but during the Falklands War she preferred to deal with him by letter. Phone conversations between them during the conflict took place on his initiative and did not go especially well.

Reagan-Thatcher phone conversation, 31 May 1982

The Falklands War, however, also marks an improvement in MT's relations with the Administration, victory on the battlefield ensuring her reelection in 1983 and transforming her political standing domestically and internationally (not least in the US).Within the Administration changes of personnel smoothed her path, Richard Allen, Al Haig and J.J. Louis all departing in 1982-83. There were some notable disputes between President and Prime Minister after the Falklands, but they were managed better and did no long-term damage to relations on either side. This was notably true of the US invasion of Grenada in October 1983, when Reagan proved remarkable in hs ability to absorb criticism without affront, while not being deflected from the course he had chosen.

Grenada exchanges, 24-26 October 1983

1984-86: Superpower diplomacy & regional disputes

Although no one thought it at the time, the beginning of the end of the Cold War arrived with the appointment of Gorbachev as Soviet leader in March 1985. As her memoirs recall, MT met him first in December 1984 when he was still the coming man; she formed a good impression, commenting afterwards: "We can do business together".

A week later she visited Reagan at Camp David where, among many other topics, she briefed him on Gorbachev. The record of the Camp David meeting is one of the fullest and most revealing of their relationship currently available, showing the range and depth of their discussions across the whole field of international politics, and also the importance the Washington machine placed on it (because here was a woman Reagan would do business with). It shows MT to have been forceful and determined in raising concerns about the implications of the President's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) for the NATO doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which were met by the publication of a four point declaration after the meeting.

The US briefing documents on the meeting are also available, including the President's prompt cards and a top secret NSC memo urging Reagan to win MT's support for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

Reagan and Gorbachev held their first summit in Geneva in November 1985. The full records are published here. Arms control was the chief mode in which the US and the Soviets conducted their negotiation, although many issues were involved in the winding down of the Cold War. MT took the closest possible interest in every aspect of the US-Soviet contacts, receiving on occasion private briefings from Reagan's National Security Adviser. She was deeply alarmed during the Reykjavik Summit of October 1986 when President Reagan seemed close to agreeing with Gorbachev the abolition of strategic nuclear weapons, holding back only because Gorbachev demanded limitation of SDI. A second Camp David visit took place in November 1986, issuing in another declaration affirming the doctrine of deterrence. (Some background documents for this meeting are available.)

Close cooperation between Britain and America in regional disputes was also a feature of the Thatcher-Reagan relationship in its mature form. Over South Africa and Libya the two leaders kept in close public step, in defiance of much domestic and international opinion.

1986-2004: old allies

By the time Reagan was entering his last years in office, his relationship with MT had become a firm feature of the political scene. By now trust between them appears to have been near complete. MT no longer had great reason to worry what the President's advisers thought or said about her: when the US Ambassador to London, Charles Price, sent the President a note warning that her "management style, i.e. her disregard of the views of others, is becoming progressively worse", the the President replied with a cheerful reproach that her critics reminded him of his own.

It is no surprise that MT was among the President's strongest and most effective defenders in the midst of the Iran-Contra affair which overshadowed his final term. She wrote her friend a touching letter of encouragement in December 1986 - a very low point for him - which is revealing of their relationship in another way, since its opening line ("I was glad that we were able to talk on the telephone the other day") upset the White House Staff, who had not received their customary invitation to monitor the conversation. The President had bypassed them by taking the call in his private quarters. Compounding the fault perhaps, he annotated the letter: "No reply. I phoned. RR".

In November 1988 MT was Reagan's last foreign visitor to the White House, as she had been among the first. As ever, there were talks and briefing papers but the lavish formal ceremonies for once mattered just as much. On the White House lawn MT watched a parade of troops, some wearing the uniform of Washington's Continental Army, powdered wigs and all, while the speeches of thanks had a sincerity and depth of feeling not always present on such occasions. Their parting letters as the President left office have a similar quality.

They remained on the best terms in the years that followed, meeting occasionally, and when the President died in June 2004, MT - herself no longer in perfect health - delivered a memorable taped eulogy at Washington's National Cathedral before flying with the Reagan family to attend the funeral at the Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

 

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