Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

Richard Aldous

W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Grant Morgan

Politicians, especially those of historic importance, are usually adept at creating myths about themselves. In Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, author Richard Aldous exposes one such myth surrounding two of the most important leaders of the past fifty years. Aldous investigates the political relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and discovers that contrary to the public perception, the partnership between the two leaders was at times fraught with tension and uncertainty. The story Aldous tells is far more compelling and complex than the image of consistent solidarity that both leaders promoted; it is instead the history of two leaders overcoming conflicting personalities to attain shared goals. It is a revisionist history that should be intriguing to any reader interested in international affairs.

Aldous is a professor of history at University College, Dublin, and has previously written on a wide range of topics dealing with British history—including biographies of former British Prime Ministers Harold MacMillan, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Gladstone, as well as a well-regarded international history of the Cold War. The Difficult Relationship is likely to prove his most controversial work to date, because it contradicts the established historical and media narrative about two recent and well-known leaders.

Aldous covers the early portion of Reagan and Thatcher’s respective terms extensively, documenting both their promising early meetings (which actually began before either was in power) as well as the major crises which strained their strategic relationship. Of those crises, three are most prominent. First, during the Falkland Islands War, the United States was put in the precarious position of having to indicate support for Britain, its most important NATO ally, while not alienating several Latin American governments, who were vital partners in fighting communist insurgencies. Several members of Reagan’s foreign policy team—most notably UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick—wanted to go to greater lengths to preserve American neutrality in the conflict, and the hesitancy with which the United States expressed support for the British severely angered Thatcher. The following year, the American invasion of Grenada, which was contrary to British policy in the Caribbean and carried out without seriously consulting Thatcher beforehand, did further damage. Indeed, Thatcher privately remarked that American actions were “even worse than the Soviets,” while Reagan openly suggested that the French were more reliable allies. Finally, Reagan’s ideas regarding nuclear weapons also caused considerable tension. Both the strategic defense initiative (“Star Wars”) and his proposals for limiting nuclear weapons deployment in Europe were viewed by Thatcher as an abandonment of American protection of Britain, leading to one of their few open disagreements.

The basic thesis of The Difficult Relationship is that despite these substantive disagreements, the two leaders recognized both their common interests and the political advantages of presenting a united public front. As the junior partner in the relationship, Thatcher’s efforts in particular were noteworthy. She visited Washington more frequently than any Prime Minister since Churchill, and tempered her public statements even while seething at American policies privately. Her professionalism and discipline allowed her to retain significant influence in Washington.

Aldous is thorough in his research and makes excellent use of primary and private sources, including both leaders’ personal papers, as well as the diaries of political contemporaries such as British MP Allan Clark. The author’s descriptions of summit meetings, in particular, include enough personal details to give the reader a sense of being there. While the book is well-written and scholarly, there are nonetheless a few criticisms which an attentive reader might make. First, while the coverage of the early years of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s terms is extensive and detailed, events after 1985 are covered much more briefly, which gives the book an unfinished feel. Conversely, the early crises Aldous describes could have been covered effectively in fewer pages—on occasion, it seems that the author was striving to quote every primary source on an event, and there is some redundancy as a result. The space devoted to multiple redundant accounts of some events could have been devoted to giving readers a more domestic context, which is another weak point in the book. Aldous occasionally references the domestic challenges faced by Thatcher, and how internal party power struggles affected her decisions, but the domestic context of Reagan’s decisions are barely referenced at all. This means that the picture of Reagan’s decision-making process is invariably incomplete.

The Difficult Relationship also appears to overstate its thesis. While there is no question that the Reagan-Thatcher partnership was more challenging than was generally revealed to the public, the later stages of the book undermine the argument that it was personally “difficult” outside of a few specific crises. The letters and speeches from the late-1980s in particular are notable for their complementary tone and personal warmth, to a degree not seen between most other leaders of the period. It appears that rather than being a case of two leaders publically cooperating despite personal tensions, the Reagan-Thatcher partnership included two leaders who genuinely liked each other, despite occasional policy differences. So while Aldous deserves credit for adding to our understanding of the partnership and the political events of the ’80s, the evidence he provides does not alter the story as radically as he suggests.

Given the focus on bilateral US-UK issues, it is not surprising that Canada does not receive much coverage in the book. However, the passages that do mention the Canadian politicians are quite revealing. On several occasions, Aldous highlights the damage done to Canadian-American relations by the personality and behavior of Pierre Trudeau. The first such instance occurred at a NATO summit shortly after Reagan had survived an assassination attempt. Under these circumstances, Trudeau berated the still-recovering Reagan so aggressively that Thatcher interrupted, calling Trudeau “obnoxious” and “a naughty schoolboy” in front of the assembled leaders. In later summits dealing with arms limitations, Thatcher similarly scolded Trudeau, responding to his behavior with the remark that “women know when men are being childish” and speaking to him in a tone that suggested she was going to “stand him in a corner.” Overall, the book makes it clear to the reader that Trudeau’s personality, as well as his open contempt for his British and American counterparts, did a great deal of damage to Canada’s influence with Britain and the United States, and among NATO as a whole. Brian Mulroney, who enjoyed a famously warm relationship with Reagan (and was later asked to be an honorary pallbearer at his funeral) is barely mentioned, which suggests, at least, that tensions disappeared with Trudeau’s retirement.

The lesson for Canadians interested in foreign affairs is clear: personalities matter. While the extent of the personal disagreements between Reagan and Thatcher detailed by Aldous is surprising, they both demonstrated the professionalism, far-sightedness, and (in Reagan’s case) natural affability necessary to ensure that the relationship worked and their major objectives were attained. Had either leader lacked these qualities, the relationship would not have been as successful. Observant voters should therefore look for both maturity and experience in balancing competing interests when selecting leaders. While not flawless or revolutionary, Regan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship combines an important lesson in the art of politics with a fascinating history of the end of the Cold War and therefore should be read widely.