Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

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An iconic friendship, an uneasy alliance—a revisionist account of the couple who ended the Cold War.
For decades historians have perpetuated the myth of a "Churchillian" relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, citing their longtime alliance as an example of the "special" bond between the United States and Britain. But, as Richard Aldous argues in this penetrating dual biography, Reagan and Thatcher clashed repeatedly—over the Falklands war, Grenada, and the SDI...

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Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

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An iconic friendship, an uneasy alliance—a revisionist account of the couple who ended the Cold War.
For decades historians have perpetuated the myth of a "Churchillian" relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, citing their longtime alliance as an example of the "special" bond between the United States and Britain. But, as Richard Aldous argues in this penetrating dual biography, Reagan and Thatcher clashed repeatedly—over the Falklands war, Grenada, and the SDI and nuclear weapons—while carefully cultivating a harmonious image for the public and the press. With the stakes enormously high, these political titans struggled to work together to confront the greatest threat of their time: the USSR.
Brilliantly reconstructing some of their most dramatic encounters, Aldous draws on recently declassified documents and extensive oral history to dismantle the popular conception of Reagan-Thatcher diplomacy. His startling conclusion—that the weakest link in the Atlantic Alliance of the 1980s was the association between the two principal actors—will mark an important contribution to our understanding of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Aldous re-examines popular myths of the closeness of the political partnership between President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, drawing on recently declassified documents, interviews, and newly opened private archives. Aldous (The Lion and the Unicorn), professor of British history and literature at Bard, reveals the dynamics between the leaders who ushered in the collapse of the cold war. He presents a “complex, often fractious” and competitive relationship from 1981 through the heated disputes between the two leaders over the Falkland conflict, nuclear arms, and Soviet strategies. Aldous says that while Reagan’s style was anecdotal and without frills, Thatcher’s leadership tone was “policy-driven, analytical,” and very confrontational. “It all worked,” Thatcher once said, “because he was more afraid of me than I was of him.” Yet Thatcher feared Reagan’s willingness to engage in unilateral military actions, such as invading Grenada and retaliating after the attack on American barracks in Lebanon. Aldous shows the leaders navigating on a high wire in a hothouse political climate, agreeing to disagree while never exposing the other to ridicule. This is excellent revisionist history, giving another slant to the interaction of two political icons on the world stage. 8 pages of photos. Agent: Georgina Capel at Capel and Land (Mar.)
An interesting revisionist history, Aldous’ study should attract the foreign policy audience.— Gilbert Taylor
Gilbert Taylor - Booklist
“An interesting revisionist history, Aldous’ study should attract the foreign policy audience.”
Harold Evans
“I can’t speak for President Reagan, but I’ve been both praised and pulverized by Margaret Thatcher and Richard Aldous seems to me to have captured the force of her personality. She did have an emotional understanding of Reagan and her of her that in its essence, in my judgement, was warmer than between Churchill and Roosevelt. But her fury was incandescent over the invasion of Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, as was the wimpiness of the initial American reaction to the seizure of the Falkland Islands. This is a valuable look behind the looking glass of public-relations politics of the special relationship.”
Prof. David Reynolds (Cambridge)
“Vivid, fast-paced and immensely readable, Richard Aldous' new book challenges conventional wisdom and prods us to rethink the 1980s.”
David Cannadine
“An important study, based on a wealth of recently-released documents, which puts the Thatcher-Reagan friendship in a wholy new (and more somber) light. It should be essential reading for anyone who cares about the history, the health and the future of the Anglo-American 'special relationship'.”
Kirkus Reviews
A historian charts the ups, downs, and in-betweens of a transatlantic partnership that defined an era. The just-released biopic starring Meryl Streep is likely to spark renewed interest in the whip-smart, hectoring and humorless Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first woman prime minister. No small part of her legacy was the relationship with her philosophical, transatlantic counterpart, the big-picture, affable Ronald Reagan. Partners in helping to end the Cold War, Reagan and Thatcher were always careful publicly to paper over differences, to appear united, to demonstrate that the "Special Relationship" between Britain and America remained unshakeable. But during the eight years their tenures overlapped, there were frequent, occasionally sharp differences between these two different personalities who seemingly shared only two traits: deep conservative conviction and an absolute devotion to their nation's interest as they understood it. Although Reagan's senior in service on the world stage, Thatcher was acutely conscious of her country's inferior power position. Accordingly, she set out early to court the American president. Relying for color on declassified documents, interviews, oral histories and the published accounts of many observers, Aldous (British History and Literature/Bard Col.; The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli, 2007, etc.) revisits the two tangling over supplying technology for Soviet construction of the Siberian gas pipeline, over arms sales and control and over nuclear weapons and Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan disappointed Thatcher by his less-than-full-throated support for her Falklands war; she responded with lukewarm enthusiasm for his Grenada invasion. They disagreed over policy in Lebanon and Libya, and they clashed over how best to deal with Gorbachev. Throughout, Aldous carefully and persuasively demonstrates the elaborate care each took to "handle" the other, precautions unnecessary had the relationship been as close as publicly portrayed. A revealing look at the political marriage of two titans, who, like Roosevelt and Churchill, will be forever linked in history.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft
It is a remarkable story, which deserves the fresh account that Richard Aldous…gives it in Reagan and Thatcher. His book casts new light on the heroic version in which two great leaders continued the struggle for freedom waged for generations past by "the English-speaking peoples"…Aldous's account is valuable and well informed…
—The New York Times Book Review
The Barnes & Noble Review

"Mr. President, the prime minister is on the phone." So said the White House butler to Ronald Reagan on October 25, 1983, during a briefing on the United States' impending invasion of Grenada. Margaret Thatcher was upset that Reagan had disregarded her advice against attacking the Caribbean nation (and Commonwealth member), where Marxist rebels had staged a coup. By invading, Reagan sought to check leftist advances and perceived Soviet influence in Latin America. He excused himself and took the call in the next room. In Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, Richard Aldous describes what happened next, based on interviews with the meeting's attendees. They heard a series of "But Margaret"s on Reagan's end, followed by long pauses in which Thatcher presumably hectored the president just as she hectored everyone else. Reagan returned to the briefing looking sheepish and said, "Mrs. Thatcher has strong reservations about this." Yet the invasion went ahead as planned. In fact, he could not bring himself to tell her that it had already begun.

So went the special relationship during the 1980s, according to Aldous, a professor of British history and literature at Bard College. The great transatlantic right-wing love-fest was actually filled with spats, some of them venomous, and occasionally dishes were broken and pictures flung. Sometimes when Thatcher would call to bark at Reagan, he would hold up the phone for others to hear, saying, "Isn't she wonderful?" He found her intellectually and personally fearless, and a useful ally when she agreed with him. When she disagreed, as she often did, he endured the browbeating but rarely changed course. He did not need to. As Thatcher knew all too well, Britain was a second-class power compared to the United States. She had to play Reagan and his divided staff skillfully in order to gain advantage for her country. Performing such delicate surgery was often too fine a task for her sledgehammer hands. In 2008 Thatcher was overheard to reminisce that "It all worked because he was more afraid of me than I was of him."

Aldous's splendid and sharp account of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship is agnostic on the merits of the policies that the two leaders pursued. It is also openly revisionist. The standard narrative that took hold in the final years of Reagan's presidency was one of great personal fondness and ideological affinity. As the sun set on the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher treated each other to lavish dinners and sentimental toasts in which mawkishness and superlatives were the order of the day. Broadly speaking, the picture of enthusiastic partnership that they presented was accurate. They had been through much together and saw eye to eye on major issues, such as privatization and the moral bankruptcy of Soviet communism. Yet Aldous contends that these surface pleasantries masked "a complex, even fractious alliance."

Reagan and Thatcher is a welcome corrective to the standard thinking. Yet Aldous reveals the limits of his thesis by describing many occasions on which Thatcher and Reagan clashed fiercely in private, only to emerge in lockstep publicly. One such issue was the American military response to Libyan terrorism in 1986. Reagan sought Thatcher's permission to launch jets from a Royal Air Force base for strikes against targets near Tripoli, and she initially resisted. But she came around soon enough and subsequently defended the action in strident terms to the British public. (François Mitterand, by contrast, denied permission for the jets to traverse France's airspace.) Thatcher also voiced serious reservations about Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (the "Star Wars" program), which threatened to disrupt the West's carefully calibrated policy of nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union. Yet Britain was the first ally to sign up for SDI research, in 1985. In return for her loyalty, Thatcher won the president's ear and his firm support when Britain's interests aligned with those of the United States. Tony Blair was not the first prime minister to be derided as an American president's poodle.

At times Thatcher was more like Reagan's attack dog. Aldous recounts colorful scenes at G7 summits in which Thatcher took on Mitterand and Canada's Pierre Trudeau when they tried to gang up on Reagan. She used her trademark mixture of brute force and coquettish sexuality: "Pierre, you're being obnoxious. Stop acting like a naughty schoolboy!" (The late Christopher Hitchens swore that Thatcher once forced him to "bow lower" in the House of Lords, and then spanked him on the backside.) Some of the closeness that developed between Thatcher and Reagan seems to have arisen from protectiveness toward each other during key moments of trial. She stuck by him during the Iran-contra affair, while he dropped everything and called her after the IRA tried to assassinate her with a bomb in 1984.

Personal relationships undoubtedly matter in statecraft, but in the end countries act primarily according to their interests. Hard realism caused the biggest strain on the alliance during the Reagan-Thatcher years: the Falklands War of 1982 between Britain and Argentina. The United States, which valued its Cold War alliance with Argentina, pushed hard for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, hamstringing Thatcher and infuriating her as she ordered warships into the South Atlantic. Yet when Argentina rejected a proposed settlement, the Americans stopped playing go-between and took Britain's side openly and without reservation. And interests can sometimes be relaxed for friends, as when Reagan directed the Justice Department to drop an antitrust investigation of British Airways as a personal favor to "Maggie" (as he called her in private). The special relationship is messy and uneven — at times, it seems little more than a fiction. Here's hoping Aldous turns next to an account of the Bush-Blair years.

Michael O'Donnell is a lawyer who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His reviews and essays appear in The Nation, the Washington Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

Reviewer: Michael O'Donnell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393069006
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/19/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 755,092
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Aldous, the author of eight books, including The Lion and the Unicorn and Reagan and Thatcher, is the Eugene Meyer Professor of British History and Literature at Bard College. He lives in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 9

Chapter 1 Churchill, Jefferson, and Jesus 13

Chapter 2 Thinking the Unthinkable 40

Chapter 3 Come In, It's Freezing! 69

Chapter 4 Little Ice-Cold Bunch of Land 135

Chapter 5 Even More of a Wimp Than Jimmy Carter 182

Chapter 6 Another Island, Another War 241

Chapter 7 This Is How Large Powers Behave 293

Chapter 8 Not a Great Listener 345

Chapter 9 The Day the Earth Shook 378

Chapter 10 A Thunderous Round of Applause 431

Chapter 11 The Last Waltz 471

Epilogue Lead Me into the Sunset 505

Acknowledgments 529

Notes 533

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 26, 2012

    I am giving this book 5 stars because of the other reviews on th

    I am giving this book 5 stars because of the other reviews on this book. I have not read the book, but neither have these other mean spirited demoncrats (rats).

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 20, 2012

    Two of historys giants if you live in a land of mental midgets!

    Two of historys giants if you live in a land of mental midgets! They had more to do with setting the world on a path of financial destruction than anything that really cause the downfall of an already decaying Communist Soviet Union.It is no wonder that in their waning years both of these mythologically vaunted phonies spent their final days as blithering idiots,neither of them writing memoirs because the truth is their legacy and only accomplishment was the greatest shift in wealth from the many to the few in all of human history.

    1 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2013



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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2013

    Thatcher was an amazing woman!

    Contrary to another review of this book that I read, neither Regan nor Thatcher led to any cause of financial disaster. They did do much in destroying communism and anyone who says different is a lyer (a.k.a. democrat).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2012

    Thatcher was quite a Dame

    I always figured Thatcher was the real woman behind Reagan, she kept him on his toes or he would have looked like a big wusse. The fact Reagan had to allow illegal squatters to get amnesty so he could get elected to a 2nd term when he was in the ditch is unforgivable. We now have over 20 million illegals here wanting the same 'gift'. The 11 million illegals who signed the census so the Hispanice community can get more money isn't even close to the real count, but thanks to election time thats the count Hispanic PEW and politicians want us to believe. Hispanic PEW wants the Dream Act, so they refuse the leave their desks to tell the truth about low balling the real illegal count.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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