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Release of MT's private files for 1985 - (7) foreign policy, US

One of the saddest features of 1985 for MT were the unexpected struggles of the Reagan Administration following the President's triumphant reelection in Nov 1984. She did what she could to help

1985 feb: MT's visit

Passage from MT's notes for her speech to the Joint Houses of Congress, Feb 1985

We have many records of MT’s Feb 1985 visit to the US for the accidental reason that she asked for copies later in order to talk it all over with Lord Carrington, the new NATO Secretary-General. This was a visit rather different from other US trips – she went with a large team, including Howe and Heseltine, and generally met the Administration in big groups too, for seminars, plenaries and business lunches. This was not a style of business MT enjoyed – she much preferred dealing with the President one on one – and she took care not to repeat it. By contrast, the pageantry went well. She made her only speech to a Joint Session of Congress – then a rarer honour than it has since become – and US TV interviews were judged very successful by No.10, registering her sheer star power in the US. She was now the West’s longest serving leader, with a measure of iconic status. Our Ambassador’s summary of the visit (telegram 25 Feb) after the event reveals one reason for the unwieldy meetings – “the difficulty the Administration has in getting its act together. The lunch and seminar at the White House were originally billed as six-a-side. The British stayed at six. The Americans gradually swelled to 12 at lunch and 15 at the seminar”. And this proved much more than a teething problem at the beginning of the second Reagan term. It quickly became apparent that the new Administration was deeply dysfunctional, a problem rooted in personnel. Shultz and Weinberger hated each other; the new Chief of Staff, Don Regan, was hopelessly miscast in the role, with no friend in Nancy Reagan, and the National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane was not far off a mental breakdown and got on very badly with Regan, to add to the joy. The story of US policy during 1985 was dismal from MT’s point of view, events in the US pulling her down rather than buoying her up as had generally been the case in the past.

Her speech to Congress is interesting in another way. In a private document titled “Prime Minister’s ideas: speech to Congress” she gave her thinking as to the Cold War at this point, a position she had evolved from late 1983 onwards. This was a long way from what you might call the Evil Empire approach. MT really was not very Reaganite on this central point. She stayed close to him and her standing with him was greater than almost any other leader, but her thinking is a lot closer to other Europeans than might be thought from that fact [5/1/4/302 f101]. The key passage in her notes is at the head of this page.

Differences over the US deficit remained intractable. Probably the best of the February meetings took place, oddly enough, between US cabinet ministers and the British side at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington. There was a degree of plain talking about economic policy which perhaps a US Government venue would not have encouraged (21 Feb).

1985: Bitburg, cancer, the beginning of Iran-Contra

An early embarrassment for the new Administration was Reagan’s Bitburg speech in Apr 1985 when it was found that a war cemetery where he scheduled to give a commemorative address contained SS graves, among others, and the Adminstration struggled to find a coherent reply to critics. MT wrote the President a letter of personal encouragement on 27 Apr:

My thoughts have been very much with you this last week or two. I know it is not in your nature ever to be down-hearted but always to persevere with what you believe to be right. I am sure that your own indomitable spirit will soon triumph. We rely very much on your leadership and shall do so particularly at the forthcoming economic summit in Bonn.

Terrorism was a major theme during the year and in some ways produced the usual tight cooperation. But US policy now deviated from a common approach in a way that MT found very shocking when she discovered it. On 14 June 1985 a TWA flight from Cairo to San Diego was hijacked by Hezbollah terrorists and ultimately diverted to Beirut, the majority of the passengers American with British nationals the second largest group. Many were taken off the plane and distributed across the city in makeshift prisons. After a fortnight their release was achieved. Iran had facilitated the release, under heavy pressure from US sanctions imposed after the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the idea took root in the Administration that this might be the moment to make a wider deal, an “opening to Iran” that had long been favoured, for geopolitical reasons, by Casey at the CIA, and McFarlane also, consciously echoing Nixon’s “opening to China”. Weinberger and Shultz were strongly opposed, but their rooted antagonism meant they did not combine. The President leaned towards the Iran approach, motivated most by the hope that long-held hostages might be sprung from the Lebanon with Iranian help. Thus began the IranContra affair.

It happened that MT was shortly to visit Washington, to attend the conference of the International Democrat Union, an association of right leaning political parties. Reagan himself could not attend because he had suddenly been hospitalized for a second bout of cancer surgery – disaster again, potentially. MT wrote him another letter of encouragement as soon as she heard the news on 13 July. She phoned also. It was while recovering from the surgery, still in hospital on 17 July, that Reagan took the fateful step of giving McFarlane approval to sell a small consignment of missiles to Iran. Later he and Nancy wrote thanking her for her letters during his illness, Nancy with particular warmth, and expressing regret that they hadn’t been able to meet (26 July, 28 July).

Two days before Reagan’s Iranian decision, MT had made her most famous pronouncement on the need to resist terrorism, speaking to the American Bar Association in London on 15 July. Borrowing a phrase given her in a letter from the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobivits, she warned of the need to deny terrorists “the oxygen of publicity”. (Ronnie Millar approved the phrase: he ticked it twice on the copy in his files.) We have many files on the drafting of that speech, which she had originally intended would discuss the legitimacy of intervention in foreign affairs – a look back to Grenada which would likely have put distance between herself and the Reagan Administration. It seems that the TWA hijacking changed her mind.

She saw more of George Bush in 1985 than in previous years, partly because Reagan was ill, also because of events connected with the 200th anniversary of UK/US diplomatic relations, for which the US gift was a replica set of candlesticks from the table on which the Treaty of Paris had been signed (3 July). MT had them put on the cabinet table at No.10. In this period the US Ambassador Charlie Price was ubiquitous – and thank you letters from Price so numerous she could have papered the walls of her study with them. After one lunch at Chequers he contrived to send four, if one includes family members. Privately he was not always so nice about MT, sending Reagan a letter in 1984 warning that she was “out of control”, an unwise step which earned him a presidential put-down.

To be fair, Price did an important part of his job extremely well – the wining and dining. And he made good use of US star power: in one event at Winfield House (2 July) MT dined with Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston and Cary Grant, as well as George Bush.

1985 Sept-Dec: the Geneva summit & after

Reagan quickly bounced back physically and began preparing for his first summit with Gorbachev, to be held in Geneva. It was not simply important for East/West relations, it was a key moment in demonstrating that his second term still had life in it – in fact that he did. MT was evidently deeply anxious as to the outcome and wrote him a very lengthy account of her thinking, accompanied by an odd document entitled “Points which the President might make to Mr Gorbachev”, a sort of script for the summit (12 Spt) which confirmed her commitment to coexistence and even strengthened the formula she had used in her Feb 1985 speech. “We recognise you as equals”, she suggested he say to the Soviet leader. It is a complex document, with conflicting purposes. Part of her was aware that she might be seen to be lecturing: “perish the thought!” And some of her purpose was to warn against Gorbachev – “a deft operator ... playing western opinion skilfully and for all it is worth”.

The summit achieved all that had been hoped for, and more, with Reagan impressively energetic for good measure. McFarlane came to Chequers to brief her on the summit two months later, accompanied by Price who of course wrote his thanks (27 Nov) – but for once his letter had some interesting content, because it clearly indicated the stress McFarlane was now showing:

Bud’s readout on the summit was superb. He is a great credit to our country and the President. How much longer he can stand the pace is open to question

McFarlane resigned on 4 December. MT wrote him a kind letter to which he replied on the 18th, praising her leadership.


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