The Special Relationship
Every American secretary of state in recent history, at an early point, has had to think through the matter of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. That was dramatically the case with Al Haig , my immediate predecessor, who faced at the opening of his tenure Britain's war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, a sudden and unexpected military conflict. Some in the Reagan administration had argued that U.S. interests lay on the side of maintaining good relations within the hemisphere and that Britain's decision to retake the islands in battle was a foolish attempt to prolong a colonial empire otherwise being voluntarily relinquished. Our ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick , argued the case and advocated American neutrality. To Ronald Reagan , however, Britain's response was a gallant resistance to an unjustified act of aggression. How could the United States do anything other than side with Britain, our ally and sister democracy, against the Argentina of military dictators and human rights abusers? And the United States did lean heavily to the side of Great Britain.
When I took office, the Falklands fighting was over, but the war had made its mark on the Anglo-American alliance, now closer than at any time since World War II. Yet a great deal of resentment about the U.S. role in the war remained within some elements of the Reagan administration. Tom Enders , the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, in his early briefings to me, stressed the problems created for us in Latin America by our massive and visible support for the British. It would be hard to say, Enders argued, that the Falklands War had done serious damage to British interests, which were not large in Latin America; it was American interests that were damaged.
My reaction to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision and the British action in the Falklands was one of admiration, despite my misgivings about the apparent impact on our relationships throughout Latin America. The British decision to go to war for these desolate, wind-scoured, scarcely populated rocky islets 8,000 miles from London was the first marker laid down by a democratic power in the post-Vietnam era to state unambiguously that a free world nation was willing to fight for a principle. The world paid attention to this – and not just the Third World either; it was noted by the Soviets too. Attitudes everywhere were significantly affected. The Argentine military was discredited overnight, and the pressure for democracy in that country strengthened.
My first encounter with Prime Minister Thatcher's ambassador in Washington, Sir Oliver Wright , was stormy. I had persuaded President Reagan that we should vote in favor of a balanced UN resolution on the Falklands. Although our consultations had let her know what was coming and our negotiations produced a resolution she could live with, Margaret Thatcher was furious. We voted with Argentina and the rest of the Western Hemisphere for a resolution that she opposed. Her ambassador, on instructions, read me off like a sergeant would a recruit in a Marine Corps boot camp. I felt Mrs Thatcher was wrong to oppose us for taking a reasonable position on a critical issue in our neighborhood. And Wright was wrong to lay it on so thick. I worried that President Reagan would be alarmed at Margaret Thatcher's reaction, but I found that he, too, was getting a little fed up with her imperious attitude on this matter.
I had met with Margaret Thatcher a few months earlier, in May 1982, on a Sunday at Chequers, the country house of the prime minister. I had come on a mission for President Reagan . She knew that our ambassador and others would try to sit in on our discussion. Preferring a private session, she extended an invitation to me to arrive an hour in advance of a larger scheduled luncheon. A car from our embassy came to pick me up; in it was the economic officer from the embassy. We rode together to Chequers. When I got out of the car, the prime minister was standing in the doorway to greet me. I introduced her to the young man with me. “Oh, yes,” she said, “he must be here to take notes, and, of course, I have people who can take notes, too.” Then she turned directly to me and said, “Have you ever looked at the notes people take in meetings like this? They really don't bear much resemblance to what actually took place, at least to the subtleties of meaning.” Then she turned to my man, “Have you ever had a good tour of Chequers?” He shook his head. She then turned to her assistant and said, “Well, why don't you show him around?”
With that, she locked her arm in mine and wheeled me off to a private room where we had an intense hour and a half together on the importance of free and open markets and of alliance strength and resolve to contain the Soviet threat. She was clear and forceful in expressing her ideas and strong in responding to questions that challenged her views. Freedom in political and economic life was her trademark. In that regard, she and Ronald Reagan were soul mates, and I was right with them. She left me with the feeling that right or wrong, there wasn't shadow of doubt in her mind about where she was going and why.
On Thursday afternoon, December 16, 1982 – some seven months after that visit – I landed in London, the last stop on my European swing. When I arrived at Number 10 Downing Street the next day for my first meeting as secretary of state with Margaret Thatcher, I was apprehensive that I would run into an argument about the Falklands.
Again, she met me at the door. We sat and talked in a living room where a fire burned brightly. The Falklands were on her mind, and she spoke of their strategic significance. What if the Panama Canal were to be closed, requiring shipping to go “around the Horn,” as in clipper-ship days? The location of the Falklands in the shipping lanes of the South Atlantic would then be vital. I thought that was farfetched, but there was no point arguing about it. I agreed with our decision to support her, but I felt it was time to repair the damage done to our interests in South America. I stated my views firmly; she listened, but not sympathetically.
Mrs Thatcher welcomed the end of the Siberian pipeline dispute and was vigorous in her support for the controls on trade with the Soviets that had by now been agreed on. Britain would be a genuine and strong ally on the INF negotiations. The British would deploy our nuclear weapons if need be, she said, despite the inevitable protests. She emphasized the importance of a clear and creative effort to negotiate an agreement on INF missiles, as had the other European leaders. But she was not optimistic about the possibility of a negotiated outcome and agreed wholeheartedly with the president on the necessity to demonstrate strength and unity in the Atlantic alliance.
That evening she gave a dinner in my honor at Number 10. The discussion soon turned to economics. As fellow devotees of free enterprise and free markets, Mrs Thatcher and I got along well. In the course of the conversation, Foreign Secretary Francis Pym put forward an economic argument that made no sense to me. Before I could say a word, she verbally demolished what he had said. She was relentless and direct. She was right, too, but brutal. Pym was silenced and humiliated. He would not be a member much longer in her cabinet, I could sense. Some seven months later, he was sent to the back bench.
The special relationship between America and Britain was going to be stronger than ever, I felt, because it was flanked by the Reagan -Thatcher personal relationship, which was as close as any imaginable between two major leaders. As for me, I felt that the best way to get along with this indomitable leader was to know what I was talking about, to talk up, and to talk back. Thatcher's best points were often made in the course of vigorous debate. I enjoyed and admired her and looked forward to productive work together.
I left Europe for Washington eager to talk to President Reagan about my ideas for the year to come.