Thatcher memoirs

Cold War: Thatcher-Reagan meeting at Camp David (account of conversation) [memoirs extract]

Document type: Press
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1990), pp466-68.
Editorial comments: MT's account drew closely on British official records of the occasion.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 887 words
Themes: Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), MT contacts with Ronald Reagan

Discussion of SDI at Camp David

[extract from Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (1993), pp466-38]

It was the subject of SDI which dominated my talks with President Reagan and members of his Administration when I came to Camp David on Saturday 22nd December 1984 to brief the Americans on my earlier talks with Mr Gorbachev. This was the first occasion on which I had heard President Reagan speaking about SDI. He did so with passion. He was at his most idealistic. He stressed that SDI would be a defensive system and that it was not his intention to obtain for the United States a unilateral advantage. Indeed, he said that if SDI succeeded he would be ready to internationalise it so that it was at the service of all countries, and he had told Mr Gromyko as much. He reaffirmed his long term goal of getting rid of nuclear weapons entirely.

These remarks made me nervous. I was horrified to think that the United States would be prepared to throw away a hard won lead in technology by making it internationally available. (Fortunately the Soviets never believed that he would.) But I did not raise this directly. Instead, I concentrated on my areas of agreement with the President. I said that it was essential to pursue the research, but that if this reached the point where a decision had to be made to produce and deploy weapons in space a very different situation would arise. Deployment would not be consistent either with the 1972 ABM Treaty or the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Both of these would have to be re negotiated. I also explained my concern about the possible intermediate effect of SDI on the doctrine of deterrence. I was worried that deployment of a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system would be de stabilising and that while it was being constructed a premptive first strike against it would become an attractive option. But I acknowledged that I might well not be fully informed of all the technical aspects and wanted to hear more. In all this I was keen to probe the Americans, not just in order to learn more of their intentions but to ensure that they had clearly thought through the implications of the steps they were now taking.

What I heard, now that we got down to discussion of the likely reality rather than the grand vision, was reassuring. President Reagan did not pretend that they yet knew where the research could finally lead. But he emphasised that - in addition to his earlier arguments in favour of SDI - keeping up with the United States would impose an economic strain on the Soviet Union. He argued that there had to be a practical limit as to how far the Soviet Government could push their people down the road of austerity. As so often, he had instinctively grasped the key to the whole question. What would the effects be of SDI on the Soviet Union? In fact, as he foresaw, the Soviets did recoil in face of the challenge of SDI, finally renouncing the goal of military superiority which alone had given them the confidence to resist the demands for reform in their own system. But of course this still lay in the future.

What I wanted now was an agreed position on SDI to which both the President and I could lend our support, even though our long term view of its potential was different. I had been thinking about this over the last few days and particularly on the long flight from Peking where I had been for the signing of the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong. I now jotted down, while talking to National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane, the four points which seemed to me to be crucial.

My officials then filled in the details. The President and I agreed a text which set out the policy.

The main section of my statement reads:

I told the President of my firm conviction that the SDI research programme should go ahead. Research is, of course, permitted under existing US/Soviet Treaties; and we, of course, know that the Russians already have their research programme and, in the US view, have already gone beyond research. We agreed on four points: (1) the US, and Western, aim was not to achieve superiority, but to maintain balance, taking account of Soviet developments; (2) SDI related deployment would, in view of Treaty obligations, have to be a matter for negotiation; (3) the overall aim is to enhance, not undercut, deterrence; (4) East/West negotiation should aim to achieve security with reduced levels of offensive systems on both sides. This will be the purpose of the resumed US Soviet negotiations on arms control, which I warmly welcome.
I subsequently learnt that George Shultz thought that I had secured too great a concession on the Americans' part in the wording; but in fact it gave them and us a clear and defensible line and helped reassure the European members of NATO. A good day's work.