Opinion Articles


Margaret Thatcher and the Cold War


Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979 with an agenda focused primarily on reforming Britain's economy. She lacked any significant foreign policy experience and entrusted the post of Foreign Secretary to Lord Carrington, a hereditary peer who had served under every Conservative Prime Minister since Churchill. It was the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in April 1982 that thrust foreign affairs into the limelight, and Thatcher soon adapted to the role of war leader. By the mid-1980s, Number 10 was playing a much more active role in foreign policymaking.

The relationship between Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) could be difficult. Geoffrey Howe described 'Margaret's profound antipathy towards the Office', which she perceived as having an institutional bias. As Norman Tebbit put it, 'Departments tended to see themselves as spokesmen for particular interests. The MoD for the armed services, the Department of Labour for the TUC, the Department of Trade and Industry for business, the Foreign Office for foreigners'. In light of this, her most trusted foreign policy adviser became Charles Powell, her Private Secretary from 1983 and himself an experienced diplomat. She was also prepared to look outside Whitehall for expertise. On issues related to the USSR, for example, she consulted Oleg Gordievsky, the former head of the KGB's London bureau, and the historian Robert Conquest.

After a period of instability in the Kremlin, Thatcher welcomed the appointment of Mikael Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. They had first met the year before, with the Prime Minister famously telling John Cole of the BBC that 'I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together'. The two leaders went on to form an effective working rapport, and documents recently published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University priovide some illuminating insights into this. Thatcher's March 1987 visit to Moscow included a frank exchange of views on matters ranging from economic reform to arms control and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Gorbachev thought them worthwhile. 'Remember how long we debated whether to invite her or not?', he asked the Politburo in April, 'Now we can say that we made the right choice'.

Perhaps the most extraordinary episode in their relationship came in September 1989. At a meeting in Moscow, Thatcher informed Gorbachev in confidence that 'Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany' and told him to 'disregard' a NATO communiqué to the contrary. Prizing stability and unable to speak publicly for political reasons, she hoped to enlist Soviet support for this position. 'We are not interested in the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw Treaty either', she added. On this occasion, however, she had miscalculated. When the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November, the USSR did not intervene.

Of course, Thatcher's most notable relationship with a foreign leader was with US President Ronald Reagan. The two shared many common values in both domestic and international affairs. She believed strongly in the Anglo-American alliance and backed Reagan's more active pursuit of the Cold War. This included supporting the deployment of American Cruise and Pershing missiles on UK soil in spite of the protests at Greenham Common. Most controversially, she allowed Royal Air Force bases to be used for US airstrikes against Libya in April 1986, which were launched as reprisals for a terrorist bomb attack on a West Berlin nightclub frequented by American soldiers. She was also committed to maintaining Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, securing a deal to procure the Trident II (D5) system from the United States as a replacement for the ageing Polaris force.

However, as Richard Aldous as shown, the relationship between Thatcher and Reagan was by no means entirely harmonious. The Prime Minister was frustrated by American equivocation during the Falklands conflict. She also found hereself in oposition to the Reagan Administration when she defended British contracts related to the gas pipeline linking the USSR and Western Europe, taking a line that was consistent with decades of British policy promoting free trade. She was also sceptical about the development of the Strategic Defence Initiative ('Star Wars') and, in light of Soviet conventional military superiority in Europe, concerned about the possible implications should Reagan succeed in eradicating nuclear weapons. However, it was the US invasion of Grenada - a member of the Commonwealth and former British colony - in October 1983 that caused the most serious ruction. Nevertheless, their relationship survived, and Thatcher dedicated her book Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (2002) to Reagan, 'To whom the world owes so much'. For his part, Reagan even came to appreciate being chastised by the Iron Lady, holding up the phone for his aides to hear and proclaiming 'Isn't she wonderful?'

Thatcher and Reagan reinvigorated the special relationship to heights not seen since Harold Macmillan and John F. Kennedy 20 years earlier, and her strident anti-Communism won her respect in Washington and beyond. Indeed, she was also popular in Eastern Europe and received a rapturous reception from Gdansk ship workers when she visited Poland in November 1988. Rather surpisingly, these views did not prevent her from establishing mutual trust with Mikael Gorbachev. While she failed to prevent the emergence of a united Germany, Margaret Thatcher's presence and stature imbued Britain with prestige on the global stage. Even if this did not always translate into influence, her prominence helped make Britain appear great once again.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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