Sometimes, it seems, we are just a step behind our British cousins. Jason Bourne is several decades younger than James Bond; the best of American rock ‘n’ roll lagged behind the Beatles and the Stones; even Downton Abbey doesn’t arrive until U.K. viewers have seen it. The same can hold true in politics. When Margaret Thatcher defeated a stale Labour regime in 1979 and assumed the office of prime minister, her victory registered beyond Britain’s shores. In the United States, a newly invigorated Republican Party noticed Thatcher’s rhetoric, full of opposition to Communism abroad and the welfare state at home. It was no surprise, then, that Ronald Reagan, upon assuming office in 1981, was anxious to extend a hand to the Iron Lady. As Richard Aldous notes in his thorough and engaging new history, Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, Ronnie and Maggie may have had something special going on, but like any love affair, this one had its issues.
In the years preceding this partnership, however, relationships between presidents and prime ministers tended to be distinctly unspecial. Lyndon Johnson was so irked by Harold Wilson’s attempts to use him for electoral purposes that he referred to the Labour premier as “that little creep camping on my doorstep.” A decade earlier, during the Suez Crisis, Dwight Eisenhower asked Anthony Eden, the Conservative prime minister, whether Eden had gone out of his mind. (The question was not rhetorical). Richard Nixon and Edward Heath were not very chummy, and although John F. Kennedy and Harold Macmillan had patrician backgrounds in common, the Jane Austen-loving premier was nonplussed at a meeting in 1961 to hear Kennedy pronounce, “If I don't have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.”
Still, the narrative of the “special relationship” tends to be defined by the public’s perception of the Roosevelt-Churchill union. Though the correspondence between the two men make clear the wounded pride (on Churchill’s part) and the frustrations with his opposite number’s personality (on Roosevelt’s)—not to mention the general lack of camaraderie and fellow feeling—the relationship is still frequently presented in the popular press as overwhelmingly warm. (The portentous title of Jon Meacham’s tome on the subject, Franklin and Winston, is standard fare for the genre.) And the Reagan-Thatcher partnership is generally discussed in similar tones.
Aldous is a strong believer in the special relationship, but his book is nevertheless intended to pop the Reagan-Thatcher bubble: The honeymoon ended quickly, and the marriage wasn’t as fun as all that. As Aldous states at the outset, “Thatcher time and again …would find herself in conflict with a president who, despite her protestations to the contrary, she often viewed as much as a hindrance as a help to British foreign policy.” Aldous often takes the tone of a teenager shocked to discover that mom and dad used to get drunk in college. Apparently, gasp, Britain and America sometimes have divergent interests and different methods for achieving those interests.
As it has been since Churchill’s day, the problem was a fundamental imbalance in power. Reagan may have been happy to have support, but the British did not have any veto power. It is amusing to note the number of examples—from skirmishes over missiles in Europe to a dispute over Poland—wherein American officials adopted the precise posture taken by Billy Bob Thornton in Love Actually, where he plays an obnoxious American president—a Bush/Clinton hybrid—who meets his match in Hugh Grant’s oh-so-charming prime minister. When the Reagan administration decided that military force was necessary in Grenada, for example, the White House did not even bother to inform the British of their preliminary planning. A member of Thatcher’s Cabinet went before Parliament and said he had no reason to think an invasion was imminent. Reagan finally asked Thatcher’s opinion of the crisis, leading the British government to believe it had some say in the matter. Several hours later, without waiting for Thatcher’s response, Reagan sent her a short note saying that military action had been approved.