1981-91: the Soviets abroad - from guerrillas to Gorbymania
Gorbymania in Germany - "A profoundly depressing account"
A long-running file on Soviet and Cuban intervention traces a poignant arc through the Cold War - a good one, finally, though bizarre and disorienting all the same. It opens with military moves and ends in a charm offensive. Life isn't always like that.
The file begins in February 1981, when the newly-elected Reagan Administration took office determined to roll back Soviet advances across the globe, most particularly in America's backyard. MT was due shortly in Washington and the briefing for her first meeting with Reagan as President was already being assembled. Picking up the state of play in Washington, the FCO began sending No.10 extra material on El Salvador. Even then, MT - never knowingly underbriefed - was taken aback by the urgency and detail of the new President's emphasis on Central America.
There follows a whole series of documents on Administration policy in the region, seeking British and European support. From the first the Reaganites were hitting heavy weather there, domestic US opposition growing, Vietnam increasingly referenced, Soviet propaganda successfully using the issue to deflect attention from the crisis in Poland. Even before the Falklands the Thatcher Government was wary. Aside from Belize, a former Crown Colony which the UK sought to bring to independence at the earliest date when its borders were judged secure against territorial claims from neighbouring Guatemala, Central America was one geographical area where we saw no vital British interests. The special relationship already had a number of vulnerable flanks. We did not welcome another.
Several documents in the file have been held back from release for extended periods, regarding detail of Soviet and Cuban military moves. Do they reveal what the Carter Administration had discovered in September 1978 - that there was a force of around 125-150 Cubans actually positioned in Belize, present with the connivance of the Belize government of George Price, somehow co-existing with the British garrison? To accompany this incomplete British file, we publish US papers on the topic from the Carter and Reagan Libraries as well as the CIA. Assuming the Cubans were still there when MT became PM (and the US sources strongly suggest they were), this was an extraordinary state of affairs that would have caused the British Government great difficulty had it become public. Nor were the Cubans inactive: by September 1980 the CIA was warning the White House of Havana's plans to step up the arming of Guatemalan guerrillas, with Belize an available route for supply of the requisite arms and finance.
In the event of premature withdrawal of British troops, the Cuban connection offered insurance to Belize - of a sort - against a possible Guatemalan invasion. It also made British withdrawal rather less likely of course, and attended to Price's fear that Britain would buy off Guatemalan claims by ceding them a chunk of his country on our departure (a trade we were certainly inclined to make). The Carter Administration was relatively understanding of this Belizean gambit, but the Reaganites were far from happy when they came to power in January 1981. The topic was discussed the following month in MT's first White House meeting with Reagan as President, at a surprising, one might almost say alarming, level of detail. It is no surprise that the file shows the US constantly pressing Britain to retain its garrison in Belize, even after the country finally achieved independence in late 1981 - very much on Price's terms, incidentally, the Guatemalans given nothing and spitting blood about it. And we did retain our garrison, for what Shultz in conversation with MT in July 1983 delicately referred to as "wider regional reasons", successfully drawing the US into talks on a long-term Western military presence in the country and, less successfully, apparently looking to trade a continued British garrison in Belize for the maintenance of the US arms embargo on Argentina. Declassified CIA documents show that the narcotics business also figured in US intelligence on Belize, increasingly, during the 1980s. A British force remained throughout MT's term, finally departing in 1994.
Then, abruptly, between 1983 and 1988 there is a gap of five years and the file shifts focus, resuming in July 1988 when MT required briefing for a visit to Thailand. We are through the looking glass now, into the improbable world of glasnost and perestroika, a new era well under way. The pressing issue was to figure out what glasnost really meant, how it would impact Soviet policy on a vast array of issues? As ever, MT diligently did her homework, reading herself into "new-style Soviet diplomacy" as Powell called it, such as a long letter from our Ambassador to the UN detailing a ninety minute conversation with a Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister on a visit to New York, touching on almost every possible subject, often with the Russian in "liberal-er than thou" mode, without flavour of irony.
Unsurprisingly it is Gorbachev who comes to dominate in this file, in a very personal sense, telegrams pouring into the Foreign Office tracking his triumphant progress around the globe - triumphant most of all in the Soviet press of course, but pretty impressive by any reckoning in the media of the free world as well. This was the hour of 'Gorbymania'.
Nowhere was the phenomenon more powerful than in West Germany, which he visited 12-15 June 1989. The file leaves one in no doubt as to No.10's perspective on this: the man to do business with was still a threat, and some allies (Kohl especially) were becoming dangerously careless as to the terms on which they would do business, encouraging exaggerated public expectations in the process. Powell's annotation on our Ambassador's telegram recounting the visit surely voiced her feelings too: "A profoundly depressing account". In a separate note he described a much vaunted German-Soviet Declaration issued during the visit as 'flatulent'. When Kohl politely rang MT to give an account of the visit immediately after, she pointedly endorsed his claim that "Germany would look at the reality and be under no illusions" ("she very much agreed that one must look at reality not just hopes") and rubbed it in by asking whether he had taxed Gorbachev for not condemning the Chinese Government's violent suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square only days before?
It is hard to believe Kohl was much moved by the implied reproach. As the telegrams noted, the FRG was now claiming the role of "partner in leadership" with the Soviets and the US, positioning itself with some success well before the fall of the Berlin Wall four months later made unification an immediate prospect.
April 1986: Chernobyl
On 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl reactor complex in the Ukraine was the site of the world's worst ever nuclear accident, a botched safety test causing an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. An explosion and subsequent fire spread radioactive fallout across much of Europe and the Western USSR, but no official announcement came from the Soviet Government until 28 April, by which time elevated radiation levels had been detected outside the USSR, and widely reported.
Quite apart from the catastrophe itself, Chernobyl had the potential to become a major Cold War incident. The secretive Soviet response breached international agreements on nuclear safety and naturally fed Western suspicions of the regime and its nuclear programmes. But glasnost and the easing of East/West tension helped to prevent the aggravation of the crisis by some political standoff or other. MT played her part in this, seeing the Soviet Ambassador for 75 minutes on the evening of 29 April, expressing "great sympathy" and commenting: "Accidents tended to draw nations together". She asked for more details and only then 'regretted' the Soviets' near blackout of information, the softest impeachment possible in the circumstances.
Interestingly, the Soviets themselves were not so forbearing. The Soviet media's domestic coverage of the disaster slowly built up, eventually reaching unprecedented levels of detail, but was accompanied by a strident counter-propaganda offensive claiming that the West had covered up thousands of nuclear catastrophes worse than Chernobyl and was taking malicious pleasure in Soviet misfortune, a fact carefully noted in a long despatch on the crisis from our Ambassador in Moscow later in the year, a sobering account of the limits and contradictions of glasnost. Watching the thing from close up he concluded: "All in all, I suspect that if the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction on the weekend of 26-28 April, the official Soviet silence would have lasted for weeks, or even for ever; and that we would only have rumours and satellite photographs to tell us that a serious accident had happened at Chernobyl".
There is no sign we were tempted at any point to respond in kind. And the desire for easing of East/West tension is only part of the story. Britain had what one might call a glasshouse problem in relation to Chernobyl, indeed several. For one thing, the British government's initial response to the crisis had been unimpressive: the file shows that we had no contingency plans for the handling of a nuclear incident outside our own borders and reactions in the early days were poorly coordinated and delivered. The Department of the Environment was the natural lead department, but strongly resisted being handed the role; unsurprisingly, Ingham warned MT that the press perceived ministers to be 'buck-passing'. There were farcical errors - a minister gave out the wrong phone number in a broadcast interview, for example - and comments from different arms of government on the health implications were so variously worded as to seem at odds, even though in fact they were based on the same analysis. Much of the file consists of a reckoning with this defect in our own systems, which took place over many months, so many in fact that No.10 issued something not far off a direct reprimand to the Cabinet Office planners. There proved to be an inherent mismatch between contingency planning and politics: the former was bureaucratic in its very nature, too cautious to function as reassurance. Ingham rolled his eyes at the planners' efforts while No.10 officials adopted a distinctly apologetic air in presenting it all to MT, recommending that she duck publication before the general election. Their advice did not fall on deaf ears: a written answer giving an outline of the plan was only issued at the end of June 1987.
The glasshouse had a second aspect. We did not want to undermine public confidence in Britain's own nuclear power industry, which obviously Chernobyl had the potential to do - much as the 2011 Fukushima disaster was to do in Germany. This was one reason why MT vetoed a suggestion by her Energy Secretary, Peter Walker, that he should visit Moscow for briefing by his Soviet counterparts. She doubted, plausibly enough, whether the Soviets themselves yet knew exactly what had happened and pointed out also that the government risked creating public alarm if it made the argument that Britain had a particular interest in discovering what had gone wrong because of the nature of our magnox reactors. The file shows that there was, indeed, a problem here. From the first British ministers had reassured the public that we had no reactors of the Chernobyl type in Britain, which was true but not the whole truth. MT had received private briefing from the head of the Central Electricity Generating Board, her old friend Walter Marshall, that there was an embarrassing "technical implication which I advise you about, in confidence, to make sure you do not say anything unwise in public". The re-fueling method employed at Chernobyl - "on-load without containment" - was the same as in Britain's AGR and magnox reactors. "From a safety point of view it is the most difficult part of AGR technology to justify and the nuclear inspector gives us some difficulty about it". Marshall wanted any new AGRs to be designed differently, and worried what might result if the Chernobyl disaster was discovered to have arisen from a refueling incident. In fact, of course, it was not, but one sees the difficulty.
The government's softly-softly response made good sense in all manner of ways then. And it was followed through in a moving incident, truly symbolic of the winding down of Cold War tension. Drafting her speech for the official banquet given in her honour at the Kremlin in March the following year MT recalled a visit she had received at No.10 from one of the Chernobyl firefighters, many of whom fought the blaze at the price of certain death. She had given him an award for bravery and the firefighter had made her a gift in return. He told her that 24 special honour badges had been struck for presentation to his unit, then gave her one of the six that were not needed, their intended recipients having died of burns or radiation. She was sufficiently touched to consider wearing the badge at the banquet, but in the end, addressing the Soviet elite in its citadel, she simply described him as a true hero.
August 1991: the coup against Gorbachev
On 19 August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev was briefly ousted from the Soviet leadership in a coup by hardline Communists. A file of more than 500 pages records the fast-moving story, in which necessarily MT had only a walk-on role, undoubtedly to her enormous frustration. She spoke at length to the press when the news broke, the Prime Minister taking up later in the day her characterisation of the event as an old-fashioned coup. Her call to stop planned reductions in defence spending is noted in the file, and at another point she is recorded as having rang Ronald Reagan - also a bystander.
Another person featured in the file is the Soviet Ambassador to London, Leonid Zamyatin, the very man MT had handled so gently over Chernobyl. He made clear his support for the coup and was swiftly removed when Gorbachev returned. Stephen Wall at No.10 noted his earlier career as a Brezhnev-era bureaucrat and described him as "a frightful old reactionary".