Henderson (Sir Nicholas) diary

Cold War: Sir Nicholas Henderson diary (MT visit to Washington)

Document type: Declassified documents
Source: Sir Nicholas Henderson Mandarin
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2,600 words
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Conservatism, Foreign policy (USA), Leadership

25–28 FEBRUARY - 1 MARCH 1981

The PM and the President had about half an hour together in the Oval Office on the first morning after the reception ceremony on the lawn of the White House where there was a guard of honour, a multitude of pressmen and where speeches were made by both of them. The tête-à-tête was followed by a meeting of four which included Haig and Carrington. Then at about 11.30 a plenary meeting was held in the Cabinet Room. I noticed that portraits of Lincoln, Coolidge and Eisenhower have taken over from Carter's spiritual fathers who hitherto hung on the walls – Truman and Jefferson, but also Lincoln. On the table stood a [end p1] large jar of jelly-beans. Reagan explained to Mrs Thatcher that there are over thirty varieties including a peanut flavour. 'We haven't yet had time to take them out,' he quipped, referring of course to Carter's background as a producer of peanuts.

The PM spoke of the East-West relationship, the need to discuss fundamentals and tactics in the light of Brezhnev's speech, the Polish crisis and what is happening in Central and South America. The President said: 'The villain in Central and South America is the same as confronts the world at large. ' He went on, his head shaking slightly, his voice quite deep and with a frequent smile, very charming and very unBismarckian: 'The US has tried a variety of programmes that were and look like our plan. But we looked like the Colossus of the north. We will now try a new approach to bring the continents together.' I didn't really know what he meant.

Reagan referred to his meeting before the Inauguration with Lopez Portillo, the President of Mexico. He said he had made clear that he wanted to hear the latter's views not just give his own. The meeting had been most warm. They had broken the barrier. Reagan then mentioned the Arab stallion that Lopez Portillo had given him as a present, no doubt an excellent investment judged by the personal pleasure Reagan had derived from it. The President said that he felt he had established a beach-head in Mexico: 'In the face of the suspicion that every Mexican child had about the United States.'

The PM seized the opportunity to ask whether the President would be going to the global summit in Mexico, fixed at the moment for 11–13 June. Might not his new relationship with Mexico be jeopardised if he did not go? This was followed by a discussion on dates and conditions in which Haig and Carrington also took part.

In general it seemed to me that the official meeting between the President and Prime Minister served the main purpose of such gatherings which is to focus the minds and attention of the leaders on the long-term issues of foreign policy – as distinct from day-to-day domestic business.

On the last morning the Reagans invited the Thatchers to go to the White House for a farewell cup of coffee on their way to the helicopter. This was intended, I am sure, as a gesture of friendship because they had already had plenty of opportunity for chitchat at the successive dinners at the White House and Embassy when they sat next to each other. Before the visit they had both decided, as I know from what they each said to me, that they liked each other: this was on the basis of their two earlier meetings, a few years back, and of their similar political and economic policies (government off the backs of the people; greater incentives to industry; everything for the individual) and of the warm message Mrs T had sent immediately the election results were known. [end p2] The media had been building up the visit as a 'love-in' or a ‘honeymoon’, even if monetarism as a doctrine and Britain's economy as a working model of that doctrine have come in for heavy criticisms in the US press in recent weeks. Brady, the White House Press Secretary, said after the visit was over that it had been 'difficult to prise them apart'. This was fortunate. Reagan said a lot of very generous things as did Mrs T – in after-dinner speeches at the Embassy, for instance. She is very good at rising to an occasion. She has acquired enough of the laudatory humbug necessary to keep international wheels turning, however much she likes to criticise the Foreign Office for wetness, for not standing up for Britain and for being sold-out to foreigners.

Denis plays a protective role at night. Apparently Mrs T does not like going to bed. During a recent visit to Rome she was eager after a long day to go out and visit some of the monuments by moonlight but Denis put his foot down. Not simply, I was assured, because such things did not interest him, but from fear that it would make her too tired. Likewise with us on the Friday night following the dinner for the President. It had been a long day, starting with two live TV programmes at 7 a.m. and 7.30 a.m., visits to two factories in the morning, a speech at Georgetown University at lunchtime, discussions at the Pentagon in the afternoon, followed by a press conference, a reception for the Commonwealth and then the party for the President. Rather to my disappointment the President did not ask Mrs T to dance though we had provided plenty of what we thought was appropriate music, such as 'Dancing Cheek to Cheek' and 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'. We began the after-dinner proceedings with some songs by Jim Symington that seemed to suit the Reagan's tastes. We were sitting around on the verge of the large space that we had cleared in the middle of the drawing room – perhaps it was too large – the round tables at which we had dined having been removed. The Reagans remained chatting, rather than dancing. I am not sure why. It is possible that he may not have known in advance that dancing would be going to take place and did not therefore know whether it would have been in order to have started. Oddly, at the White House party the previous evening, he had accompanied the Thatchers to the door to say goodbye and had then returned to the party to dance with Mrs Reagan.

After the Reagans had left the Embassy party a number of guests departed but Mrs Thatcher stayed chatting and watching the dancing. She had said to me in London beforehand that she hoped people would not rush away, which was why we had arranged to have a band. Nobody [end p3] asked her to dance. So I went up to her and said, ‘Prime Minister, would you like to dance?’ not an opening that would have been available to men in the courts of old, at Versailles or the Hofburg or, to move to more modern times when women Prime Ministers have become known, that would have been inspired by Mrs Golda Meir or Mrs Bandaranaike, or, surely, have been permitted by Mrs Indira Gandhi.

Mrs T accepted my offer without complication or inhibition, and, once we were well launched on the floor, confessed to me that that was what she had been wanting to do all the evening. She loved dancing, something, so I found out, that she did extremely well. Long afterwards I read that one of the few frivolous things she did as an undergraduate at Oxford was to learn ballroom dancing. The band showed great brio and I think Mrs T was happy. After the dance was over and we returned to the end of the room I hoped that someone else would ask her to dance, but alas, this did not happen. Were they all too shy, too much in awe? In retrospect, I realised that I should have encouraged Jim Symington to dance with her; or at any rate I should have arranged something rather than simply leaving it to chance. Meanwhile many others had moved to the dance floor and the party got into a swing. Denis approached and told Mrs T that she must go home to Blair House to bed. I asked her if she would like one more dance and she said she would like to waltz. ‘Yes, come on,’ she said, and we took the floor eagerly. It was with some difficulty that Denis eventually managed to extract her. She had expressed a wish to see some of the floodlit Washington monuments, but Denis put his foot down crying, 'bed'.

After her OSS speech in New York the following evening (at the end of which Denis was in tears of emotion) we repaired for a farewell drink to her suite in the Waldorf before having to leave to go to the airport for her take-off back to London. Mrs T was still in a state of euphoria from the applause she had received which was indeed very loud and genuine and she burst out: 'You know we all ought to go dancing again.' I think that even Michael Alexander groaned at this; and Denis's foot came down heavily. The VC10 was after all waiting as if on tiptoe to take off at Kennedy airport.

Our dinner for the President and Prime Minister took a good deal of organisation. We could not seat more than a hundred and twenty people which meant that many were disappointed. The TV had to be there for the speeches. We arranged for a band of three to play background thirties [end p4] music during dinner and to be ready for dancing afterwards if any of the guests were so moved. Mary and John Lightfoot spent literally twelve hours a day for two days preparing the flowers for the evening. Long before the party, security men scoured the house, often accompanied by alsatian dogs. Not unnaturally when they saw all the undergrowth we had brought into the house from the garden for decoration they reacted predictably – which meant that several pots of daffodils had to be replaced. There were, it seemed, three quite distinct groups of security people: one for Mrs Thatcher; another for the Vice-President; and a third, the largest, for the President. I suppose they knew who each other were but we were certainly confused, struck particularly by the one feature they all had in common, namely listening-pieces in their ears. The impression given was that the house was teeming with strange people who indeed had taken it over. It seemed not only less private than usual, which isn't saying much, but even less secure. However, I was assured that despite Irish threats the security people could nowadays provide 100 per cent guarantee against assassination.

We had spent much time in the weeks before the visit tasting Californian wine. Mary had fined her choice of food down to the ideal menu for the President. About a dozen members of Chancery had been mobilised to help with the distribution of guests after their arrival. When the evening came we in the receiving line stood at the top of the stairs of the Embassy and a small covey of social journalists stood next to us, but roped off, their ears extended and pencils poised for recordable and preferably exaggerated expressions of greeting. Mrs T looked predictably fresh, despite her exhausting day. Denis was beside her. Beside him stood the Carringtons. Mary and I were slightly apart to field the guests as they left the line and to point them towards the drawing-room along the corridor past the battery of plants.

At exactly 8.20 p.m. the Thatchers descended to the front door to receive the Reagans. They accompanied them upstairs to introduce them to the Carringtons and us. We then proceeded along the corridor to join the other guests. The President was announced by a young member of the Defence Staff in uniform as he entered the Turner Drawing-Room. He shook hands and had a friendly remark for everyone. How excellent he is at that. I noticed that the press of people around him was diminishing so I introduced him to one or two of those who didn't seem to know him and then it suddenly became apparent that the room was empty, as we had asked everyone to be in their seats at the dinner tables by 8.40 p.m.; and I found myself standing alone with the President. Drinking a glass of the Californian wine that we were to have at dinner – Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 – I decided to fill the gap by raising with the President the subject of Californian wine. It was apparent that [end p5] he was both interested and informed. As Governor he had tried to encourage the producers to keep their wine longer before marketing it. He did not think that he had succeeded but he remained sure that the wine could benefit from longer laying down than was customary.

Mary and I then led the Reagans and Bushes into the dining-room to their seats and the dinner was under way. At my table the rather unusual food, which included quail pie, was much appreciated, at any rate by my neighbours, Mrs Weinberger and Mrs Casey. When it came to the speeches Mrs T used most of the text I had prepared for her, including the jokes, but interjected a long passage about the courage needed at two o'clock in the morning when you woke up aware of all the problems confronting you.

This, apparently, is a theme imparted by Airey Neave that she has used several times to describe the loneliness of politicians in the early hours of the morning worrying about the responsibility falling upon them. Later, Michael Deaver, who works in the White House and is close to the Reagans, vouchsafed to me, without any prompting, that the President had been moved by Mrs T's Embassy speech, especially the passage about two o'clock courage.

I was relieved when the VC10 finally took off late on Saturday evening from New York. It had not been easy to establish the visit in the President's programme long before he was inaugurated, and at the ideal time. Meese reminded me that it had all flowed from our initial conversation when we had met at Kay Graham's in early December. It had been quite delicate to secure all the items we wanted in the programme, including the dinner at the British Embassy. It had never been certain that with so tight a programme involving so many top people there would not be a last-minute hitch.

Although my reactions when it was over have been those of tiredness and anticlimax I realise that the visit has gone as was intended. Despite the UK's economic difficulties, the visit resulted in great exposure for Mrs T, even more than planned, and in more favourable media coverage for her and the UK than the circumstances really warranted. She returned to a very different type of reception in the UK where unemployment and bankruptcies accumulate, and there are widespread doubts within her Cabinet and party about her policies. I think that her acclaim in the USA may have helped to restore her.

Peter sent us a generous bread-and-butter letter.