Henderson (Sir Nicholas) diary

US: 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, Executive, Commonwealth (Rhodesia-Zimbabwe), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA)

23 DECEMBER 1979


Mrs Thatcher has just paid her first visit to Washington as Prime Minister. Since the idea was first mooted in the summer the wind has blown hot and cold from both sides over the timing. When eventually it came about last week it took place just after British ministers had been heavily engaged in negotiations about Rhodesia and when the US President and government were still intensely absorbed, as was American opinion, by the seizure and retention in Iran of US Embassy hostages. Each side was highly interested, even if not directly involved, in the preoccupation of the other.

The visit gave me surprises on the personal plane. Gloomy had been the foreboding in London and Washington on how the two heads of government would get along together. Mrs Thatcher was seen as having to get over an inherent difficulty arising from the close relations her predecessor, Callaghan, had had with the President, based partly on a common political outlook that she certainly could not share. So the rest of us watched eagerly as the two came out of their corners. It soon became apparent that they were hitting it off well together; and so it continued throughout the visit.

I surmised that the Prime Minister respected the President's matter-of-fact mastery of the very varied subjects under discussion as well as his quiet unpolemical manner of exposition. Carter himself, hailing from a southern state and thus harbouring no atavistic anti-British feelings, was ready to meet the new Prime Minister more than halfway and in a spirit [end p1] of allied solidarity that was much needed on his side at that juncture owing to the crisis over the Iran hostages.

Also intriguing in the empyrean of personalities to which we were suddenly exposed was the rapport between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. For various reasons, above all because of the crucial nature of foreign policy decisions and the way the conduct of such policy is bound to attract the limelight, with inevitable domestic consequences, some degree of friction is inherent in the relationship between the holders of the two offices – as indeed in that between the President and the Secretary of State in the US government. The first relationship between a Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary that I was able to observe directly for any length of time was that between Attlee and Bevin in the first post Second World War Labour government; and it was evident to me, as it was to every witness, that the avoidance of strife then depended not upon any clear-cut constitutional division of authority, but upon the forbearance and unobtrusiveness of the Prime Minister. Coming now to the present day, it did not require any profound perception of character to realise that, self-effacement not being Mrs Thatcher's long suit, any more than disregard of his proper responsibilities was Carrington's, tension must be expected. Politicians rarely like listening to each other's speeches which often sound to them over-simplifications. Carrington had to listen to a good many of the Prime Minister's in Washington and New York. His stance in politics is that of a patrician; Mrs T's is certainly not. It was not surprising then that there was irritation. What to me was unexpected was the manner in which Mrs T went out of her way to attribute to Carrington much of the credit for the outcome of the Zimbabwe negotiations. She was also sympathetic towards him personally – understanding in a very human fashion – when, tired towards the end of a long day, he began to worry whether the Zimbabwe agreement would stick. In talks with me, or rather in frequent asides, Carrington paid tribute to her courage. He told me that he liked her very much as a person. He had not always done so; and it had not been easy to begin with because after all he was a Heath-man. But he thought that she was very nice as a human being.

A key moment occurred the first evening at the Embassy. We were discussing the attitude the Prime Minister should adopt on the question of the USA's intention to go to the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter over the seizure of US hostages in Tehran. The official briefs had recommended caution, emphasising the possible difficulties that might result from too resolute a stance. Mrs Thatcher herself expressed doubts whether she should come out categorically in support of the Americans. Leaning forward on the sofa, Peter Carrington said, ‘Margaret, you have got to say, yes. You have got to do so.’ He was very [end p2] decided about this. He swept away all the reservations in the official briefs. I know that he was influenced by the great and consistent help we have had from the US government throughout the Rhodesian negotiations.

However, it was still not clear to me, when our Sunday evening briefing finished, how Mrs Thatcher would play the hand the following day either with the President or the press. I did not have long to wait. In the first few minutes of the first meeting at the White House she announced unequivocally HMG's whole-hearted support for the USA, should they go to the UN under Chapter VII; and she stated this to the press on the White House lawn. The effect of this was like a trumpet-blast of cheer to a government and people badly in need of reassurance from their allies. It got the visit off to a perfect start. Peter's lead on Sunday night had been an important contribution.

Mrs Thatcher was tired the first evening in Washington, one of the few times I have seen her in something less than dynamic form. She explained to me later that she had been taking antibiotics for five days to counter an infected tooth and this had pulled her down. I had noticed at the private dinner in the Embassy on Sunday evening how she had yawned a good deal, which is very unlike her.

In addition to talking to the PM that first evening about Iran we discussed the speeches prepared for her for the following day. The one for the White House dinner was inadequate, so I and others thought, as it did not allow for the seriousness with which the Americans are regarding the hostage problem. Peter said that I had better write an alternative which I did later that night. When Mrs Thatcher came to read it in the car the next day she seemed pleased and said that if I ever needed a job she would take me on as a speech-writer. She folded it up and put it in her bag as she does any document she values and wants to keep handy.

Apropos her handbaggery, I have been told a story from Lusaka. One day when the less affluent members of the Commonwealth were complaining about their economic plight and their need for help from the UK, Mrs T turned to the official beside her and asked, in a stage whisper which everyone could hear, for the sheet of paper setting out the details of aid HMG was providing. Only with difficulty was she prevailed upon not to read this out. However, she put it in her purse and brought it out threateningly whenever any delegates started lecturing her on the need for more British economic assistance.

Mrs Thatcher began her official programme with an interview early on Monday morning with Barbara Walters. Then at 10 a.m. she was standing on the dais in front of the White House whilst honours were done to her by the US armed forces. I was rather moved as she stepped [end p3] out of the car to be greeted by the President and Mrs Carter, the first woman from the Western world to be received in that fashion. She told me afterwards that she had not somehow expected such a solitary, yet splendid, reception as she had experienced when she drove up alone in front of the White House, the TV cameras whirring and the drums poised to beat.

The two hours of talks went well. The President was quiet, but clear and well briefed. There was only one subject about which he obviously did not wish to speak – arms for the RUC. He admitted to Mrs T that he agreed with her: the licence for the export of the arms should be granted by the USA, but the trouble was that the Congress would not allow it. He advised Mrs T to ‘speak to Tip O'Neill about it’.

I told Mrs T beforehand that Carter reacted best to dispassionate argument. Whether because of this, or because she sensed the atmosphere herself, she certainly adopted an unpolemical tone with him. She takes in everything that one says which means that one has to be very precise in the advice and information one gives her.

We had lunch at the Embassy where the Prime Minister was hostess to sixty prominent people. The house and Christmas decorations looked very pretty. Mrs T took a glass of whisky. She had another during lunch as well as half a glass of red wine. I have noticed that whisky seems to be her favourite tipple and, as Peter said to me later in New York, ‘Thank God she likes the stuff.’ She is disciplined without being puritanical, at least so far as the small pleasures of life are concerned.

Just as we were going in to lunch Mrs T received news that the Rhodesia settlement had been initialled. With her sense of occasion she decided to announce this to the assembled company before they started eating.

We served smoked salmon and game pie. Alas, there was inadequate time for the lunch but many guests, including Peter and Walter Annenberg, said afterwards how much they had enjoyed it. George Walden commented on what a good chef we had, to which Peter retorted, ‘It's all Mary.’

The meeting on Capitol Hill was a great success. Mrs T harangued them for ten minutes and then answered questions. They liked what she said and her forthright way of expressing it. Her retinue was somewhat worried by the detailed way she described our budgetary problem with the European Community. Americans like the black and white style in which Mrs T paints everything as well as her candour and lack of reserve. One Congressman rose and asked if she would accept the Republican nomination for President.

The President gave a wonderful party at the White House. We were received by him and Mrs Carter in the Yellow Room on the second floor. [end p4] The only others present were the Vances and the Kingman Brewsters. Ushered downstairs, we shook hands with the President again at the head of the line of all the guests – over a hundred I would say – invited for the dinner. Each had been given a little envelope enclosing a card showing the seating place at table – except for those, and they were numerous, for whom there was no room, with the result that they were expected to sit in some ante-room. They opened their envelopes to find nothing inside.

It was an elaborate evening. There were many events and a lot of trouble had been taken with them. The President himself acted as master of ceremonies. He started off with a set speech before the dinner. He was generous about the bilateral relations and about Mrs T, more so, it occurred to me, than mere courtesy required. There was the usual slightly embarrassing joke about the burning of the White House by the British at the beginning of the last century. Mrs T followed, reading out the speech I had prepared for her. It went down well enough and there was sufficient titter, I thought, at the jokes. Both speeches were filmed by a battery of TV cameramen.

As dinner ended we were serenaded at our tables by a troupe of gypsylike violinists. They played sentimental central European music but neither this nor their costume, which smacked more of the Police than of the Blue Danube, nor the geometrical pattern in which they moved succeeded in creating a romantic atmosphere. The bright lighting was not helpful either. Afterwards we returned to the ballroom in which other guests who had not been invited to the dinner were assembling. The President introduced the playing of some Berlioz and the singing of carols.

The placing at table was odd and not such as to flatter Carrington. Mrs Carter sat on the President's left (no other couples were placed together) Mrs T was on his other side. Somebody quite insignificant sat on Mrs Carter's left. Peter was seated at a distant table. So there was no chance of them all talking together about public affairs. When I described the places à table later to some American he was at first surprised then said that Mrs Carter would not have wanted a political discussion at dinner. She wasn't really interested in politics. It was Jimmy she was interested in.

Tuesday morning began for Mrs T at 7 a.m. with a live appearance on TV. At 8.15 a.m. she received the British press correspondents at Blair House. Then to New York where she addressed over two thousand people at a lunch given by the Foreign Policy Association. She then answered questions in a most confident way. The Americans loved it when, as if inviting interrogation, she thrust her head back and exclaimed, ‘I like questions,’ not to mention her confession that she was [end p5] an Iron Lady. ‘I have to be,’ she said. After she had been at it some time she received the usual request from a member of the audience that she should offer herself for the Presidency of the USA.

That evening, after a further round of functions, she spoke at a dinner organised by David Rockefeller. It was for about one hundred and fifty of the leading bankers and businessmen from all over the United States. Mrs T looked her best in a black velvet dress which showed off her blonde hair, still remarkably soigné despite the rigours of the day. When she came to speak she thrust aside her notes and said that she would tell them in as direct a way as possible what she was trying to do and where the difficulties lay. She proceeded to do so in a manner which appealed enormously to her audience who, it must be admitted, were longing to hear her free-enterprise message and were doubly delighted to have it expressed in such ringing tones.

Again there were questions which she answered fluently. Her speech was very ordered with plenty of signposts, and a clear sense of overall direction.

I waved goodbye to them at Kennedy airport with a considerable sense of relief that it had all gone so well; and with the conviction that Mrs T had made a remarkable impact. Before saying goodbye to Peter I said that I would be sending a telegram on the visit.

‘Bet you it's pretty oily,’ he said.

The telegram I sent rounding up the visit was certainly oleaginous but then I think the visit deserved all the praise I could impart. I reported that there had been great interest in the Prime Minister before the visit and plenty of goodwill had piled up in advance. The results had disappointed no one. One senior Senator who had been present for the meeting on the Hill said at a social gathering I attended, and he said it three times, ‘I do not recall any visitor to the USA who has made such an impact.’ I asked whether he was referring to visitors to Congress. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I mean any visitor anywhere to the United States.’ He went on to explain to the company that he was not speaking only for himself because he had discussed the Prime Minister with many other Senators and that what had struck them all was ‘the candour, the direct simplicity of the language and the process of thought imparted with the orderliness of soldiers in the line’.