Ronnie and Maggie
Margaret Thatcher had all the authority in her relationship with Ronald Reagan—and none of the power.
These disagreements echoed the blowup over the Falklands a year earlier.* When the murderous Argentine junta invaded what Argentina calls the Malvinas Islands in 1982, Thatcher responded with force. The resulting war led to almost 1,000 deaths, a British victory, a boost in popularity for the prime minster, and the downfall of the Argentinean dictatorship. It also caused a huge strain with Washington. Aldous is at his best here, going step-by-step through the crisis, and making clear the annoyance felt in White House over British “interference” in the hemisphere. (He might have made more of the Reagan administration’s disgraceful alliance with what was arguably that same hemisphere’s worst government, but one which nonetheless was helpful in aiding the Reaganites’ beloved contras.)
One of the frustrations that Thatcher may have felt—during this interlude and others—was Reagan’s cluelessness about the actions of his own government. Although Aldous is generally complimentary of the president’s political intelligence, he leaves us in little doubt that during the Falklands war, Reagan “had only the haziest notion of what was going on.” (Reagan fans should remind themselves that this occurred in his first term.) Other tiffs, mostly focusing on the Soviet Union, generally fit a pattern, with Thatcher making her displeasure felt before eventually coming around to the American position.
Photograph by Peter Mauney.
“Irony was never part of Margaret Thatcher’s makeup, and she was certainly not prepared to entrust British defense policy to it,” Aldous writes. But the Reagan-Thatcher relationship did have its ironic component, specifically in their personal interactions: Thatcher was undoubtedly the alpha dog, frequently badgering Reagan and making her opinions known. Aldous provides the wonderful transcript of a phone call during the Falklands crisis. It is worth quoting at length:
“This is democracy and our island,” she warned him, “and the very worst thing for democracy would be if we failed now.”
“Yes …” began Reagan.
Thatcher cut across him again.
“Ron, I’m not handing over … I’m not handing over the island now. I can’t lose the lives and blood of our soldiers …”
“Margaret, but I thought that part of the proposal …”
“You surely are not asking me, Ron, after we’ve lost some of our finest young men, you are surely not saying, that after the Argentine withdrawal, that our forces, and our administration, become immediately idle? ...”
“Margaret, I …”
“I wonder if anyone over there realizes, I’d like to ask them. Just supposing Alaska was invaded? ...”
“No, no, although Margaret, I have to say I don’t quite think Alaska is a similar situation.”
“More or less so,” she snapped back.
“Yeah, well, uh … uh …Well Margaret, I know I’m intruding on you …”
Nor was this a one-off occurrence. When Reagan called to apologize to Thatcher over American unilateralism vis-à-vis Grenada, he sounded less like a president and more like a suitor trying too hard to please:
“I must return to this debate in the house,” she told the President. “It is a bit tricky.”
“All right,” Reagan replied, with a joviality that seemed inappropriate to the situation. “Go get ‘em! Eat ‘em alive!”
“Goodbye,” said Thatcher. And she was gone.
The pop-psychological explanation, and one hinted at by Aldous, is that Thatcher resented being the junior partner; but it is probably just as true to say that she was simply made of firmer stuff. Unfortunately for British patriots, these Love Actually moments occurred only in private.
Aldous, high-mindedly, doesn’t really keep score, or tell us who was “right” more often, so I will. Reagan’s defense of the Argentinean generals now seems even worse than it did at the time, but Thatcher’s initial warmth toward Gorbachev cooled significantly, and it was Reagan who adopted the Soviet leader as an ally, to excellent returns. Yet there isn’t really enough to tally: The disagreements were minimal, considering they stretched over eight years, and the special relationship was further strengthened—at least in the imagination of most voters.
But perhaps that is too cynical. Of all the lies citizens tell themselves, or all told by their leaders, the rhetorical stress on a bond between two countries is relatively innocuous. And while it’s easy enough to romanticize British-American fellow-feeling, it’s also proved valuable time and again, and may well once more. Polling, unsurprisingly, shows high regard for the United Kingdom in this country; the Brits, meanwhile, register warmer feelings toward us than do other European allies. Rhetoric begins to equal reality. If both sides want and need to believe a special relationship exists, then, well, it does. Love may be an illusion, but it beats the alternative.
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Correction, April 2, 2012: This article inaccurately stated the order of the conflicts in the Falklands and Grenada. The Falklands War occurred in 1982; the Grenada conflict in 1983. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at the New Republic.