Thatcher memoirs

Cold War: Thatcher-Reagan meeting in Washington (record of conversation) [memoirs extract]

Document type: Press
Source: Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (1993), pp332-35
Editorial comments: MT's account drew closely on British official records of the day.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1,620 words
Themes: Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Defence (Falklands), Economic policy - theory and process, Public spending & borrowing, Taxation, Foreign policy (Americas excluding USA), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Labour Party & socialism, MT contacts with Ronald Reagan

[Meeting with President Reagan in Washington, Thursday 29 September 1983]

[extract from The Downing Street Years (1993), pp322-25]

From Canada I flew to Washington for a meeting with President Reagan. Overall, the President's domestic political position was strong. In spite of the difficulties which the US budget deficit was causing, the American economy was in remarkably good shape. It was growing faster with markedly less inflation than when he came into office and there was widespread appreciation of this. As he himself used to say: "now that it is working, how come they don't call it Reaganomics any more?" The President had also set his imprint on East/West relations. The Soviets were now definitely on the defensive in international relations. They were the ones who would have to decide how to react to the forthcoming deployment by NATO of intermediate range nuclear weapons. And they were in the dock as a result of the shooting down of the Korean Airliner. In Central America the Government of El Salvador which the United States had been backing against communist insurgency was looking stronger. Perhaps only in the Middle East had the Administration's policy not proved even a qualified success. Arab Israeli peace talks were unlikely to be resumed and there was a growing danger of the US and its allies becoming irrevocably sucked into the turbulent politics of the Lebanon. The President had yet to announce whether he would stand for a second term, but I thought and hoped that he would and it looked as if he would win.

Our discussion that morning and over the lunch which followed covered a wide canvas. The President was optimistic about events in Central America. As he put it, El Salvador had not been in the news for a long time because the Government there was winning and so the American media were deprived of their nightly stories told from the viewpoint of the guerillas. I raised the question of the US resuming the supply of arms to Argentina, telling him that a decision to do this would simply not be understood in Britain. The President said that he was aware of that, but there would be great pressure for the resumption of arms supplies if a civilian regime were established in Buenos Aires.

I also took the opportunity to explain our opposition, which hitherto the Americans had always supported, to the inclusion of the British and French independent nuclear deterrents in the arms talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet insistence on the inclusion of our deterrents was simply a device to divert attention from the American proposal for deep reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. From the point of view of Britain, our deterrent constituted an irreduceable minimum, but it was only 2.5% of the Soviet strategic arsenal. I repeated what I had told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that morning: the inclusion of the British deterrent would logically mean that the United States could not have parity with the Soviet Union. Would that really be acceptable to the United States? Or if, say, the French decided to increase their nuclear weapons, would the United States really be prepared to cut its by an equivalent amount? The President seemed to take my point, which I found reassuring. I for my part was able to reassure him as regards the timetable for deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. He had been concerned to learn that the crucial debate on this matter in the Bundestag had been delayed. He had no doubt about the firmness of Chancellor Kohl but he was not so sure about some of those around him. He was convinced that the whole Soviet strategy was still aimed at preventing deployment. I said that he should be in no doubt that Britain would deploy the intermediate range nuclear missiles as planned, and I believed that West Germany would do the same.

However, our discussion turned on the strategy we should pursue towards the Soviet Union generally over the years ahead. I had been giving a good deal of thought to this matter and had discussed it with the experts at a Chequers seminar. I began by saying that we had to make the most accurate assessment of the Soviet system and the Soviet leadership there was plenty of evidence available about both subjects so as to establish a realistic relationship: whatever we thought of them, we all had to live on the same planet. I congratulated the President on his speech to the UN General Assembly after the shooting down of the Korean Airliner and said how right he was to insist that despite this outrage the arms control negotiations in Geneva should continue. The President agreed that now was not the time to isolate ourselves from the Soviet Union. When the USSR failed to prevent NATO's INF deployment they might start to negotiate seriously. Like me, he had clearly been considering the way in which we should deal with the Soviets once that happened.

The President argued that there were two points on which we had to form a judgment. First, the Russians seemed paranoid about their own security: did they really feel threatened by the West or were they merely trying to keep the offensive edge? The second question related to the control of Soviet power itself. He had always assumed that in the Soviet Union the Politburo controlled the military. But did the fact that the first public comments on the Korean Airliner incident had come from the military indicate that the Politburo was now dominated by the generals? As regards negotiation with the Soviets, we should never forget that the main reason why they were at the negotiating table in Geneva at all was the build up of American defences. They would never be influenced by sweet reason. However, if they saw that the United States had the will and the determination to build up its defences as far as necessary, the Soviet attitude might change because they knew they could not keep up the pace. He believed that the Russians were now close to the limit in their expenditure on defence: their internal economic difficulties were such that they could not substantially increase the proportion of their resources devoted to the military. The United States, on the other hand, had the capacity to double its military output. The task was to convince Moscow that the only way it could remain equal was by negotiations because they could not afford to compete in weaponry for very much longer. The President recalled a cartoon which had Mr Brezhnev saying to a Russian general, "I liked the arms race better when we were the only ones in it".

Now that the Soviet system has crumbled along the lines he envisaged, his words seem prophetic. It may be that one reason why President Reagan and I made such a good team was that, although we shared the same analysis of the way the world worked, we were very different people. He had an accurate grasp of the strategic picture but left the tactical detail to others. I was conscious that we must manage our relations with the communists on a day to day basis in such a way that events never got out of control. This was why throughout my discussion with the President I kept on coming back to the need to consider precisely how we should deal with the Soviets when they faced up to reality and returned to the negotiating table in a more reasonable frame of mind.

That evening I made a speech at a dinner held by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States in which I set out my views on these questions:

We have to deal with the Soviet Union. But we must deal with it not as we would like it to be, but as it is. We live on the same planet and we have to go on sharing it. We stand ready therefore, if and when the circumstances are right, to talk to the Soviet leadership. But we must not fall into the trap of projecting our own morality on to the Soviet leaders. They do not share our aspirations; they are not constrained by our ethics; they have always considered themselves exempt from the rules that bind other states.

I also had a slightly different message which I wanted those who did not share all of President Reagan's and my analysis to heed.

Does it need saying that the Soviet Union has nothing to fear from us? For several years after the War the United States had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, but it was a threat to no one. Democracies are naturally peace loving. There is so much which our people wish to do with their lives, so many uses for our resources other than military equipment. The use of force and the threat of force to advance our beliefs are no part of our philosophy.

The speech was widely reported and generally well received in the United States. But I was soon to feel, in the light of America's response to a political crisis in a small island in the Caribbean, that at least part of the message had not been understood.