A review of Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous

Historian Richard Aldous has produced a well-written, well-paced look at the extra-special "special relationship" between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Any such undertaking is necessarily revisionist, since its main theme—that the friction between Reagan and Thatcher nearly resulted in open breaks—is well known and unflinchingly acknowledged in previous major works on Ron and Maggie. (These include Geoffrey Smith's 1991 book, Reagan and Thatcher, and Nicholas Wapshott's Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, published in 2007.)

For Aldous to break new ground requires him to go further by suggesting the apparently close working relationship between the two was a façade. His Difficult Relationship does offer some new details about familiar flash points, especially the Falklands War in 1982 and the train wreck of Reagan's sanctions against the Soviet gas pipeline, in addition to introducing a few smaller conflicts that other authors have missed. In its entirety, however, the book doesn't bear the weight of its sensational opening, which leans heavily on the hearsay comment from Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain's ambassador to the U.S. when Reagan took office: "If I reported to you what Mrs. Thatcher really thought about President Reagan, it would damage Anglo-American relations."

Reagan and Thatcher were ideological soul mates, conviction politicians shunned by their respective party establishments for their "extremism." Their numerous clashes over the eight years of Reagan's presidency show that strong ideological ties and a common political culture as "English-speaking nations" can reconcile only so many differences. Aldous's account of this aspect of the Reagan-Thatcher story places these difficulties in the context of underlying tensions between Britain and the U.S. stretching back through the Suez Crisis to World War II. He notes that the "special relationship" was cemented by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt even though Roosevelt was, to quote Walter Russell Mead, "the most Anglophobic American president of the twentieth century."

Examined from this longer perspective, the friction between Reagan and Thatcher resembles the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship closely. Churchill, as we know, was bitterly critical of American strategic shortsightedness toward the end of World War II, and suppressed criticisms of Dwight Eisenhower in his World War II memoirs, which were nearing completion when Eisenhower was elected president. Yet Churchill's love of America and respect for American leadership was unshakeable. "Never be separated from the Americans," Churchill said in his last Cabinet meeting in 1955. In this respect the deep Reagan-Thatcher differences on so many issues, amidst a strong personal bond, are not extraordinary. Practically from the first day to the last, "It took a crowbar to get them apart," in the words of Reagan's press secretary James Brady. By contrast, Aldous notes, there was no personal chemistry between Thatcher and Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush. The "forty-first president," he writes, "seemed actively to dislike her."

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That the special relationship endures, despite regularly recurring fissures between the nations, ultimately suggests thestrength of Anglo-American ties. Aldous would have departed from his narrative to investigate this subject. Doing so, however, would have illuminated some of the deeper reasons for the frictions between the U.S. and the U.K. in general, and for differences in the executive styles of Reagan and Thatcher in particular. Parliamentary government shapes the character and practices of British prime ministers, for example, in ways quite different from how the American system affects presidents. This difference alone explains some of the ways Thatcher dealt with Reagan, and vice versa.

Instead, Aldous is content to cite repeatedly Lord Palmerston's famous comment: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they have only permanent interests." Aldous adds, "Rather like the rules of cricket or baseball, the terms of that relationship have a quaint and archaic quality that obscures the reality of a fast and often adversarial conflict." It is unfortunate the matter is left with this gloss. Neither he nor other authors observing the fights between Reagan and Thatcher have extended themselves on the obvious question of how they remained so personally close despite their clashes.

Though his treatment is only one level deep, Aldous gets many things right about Reagan, even as some of the British, like their late ambassador to the U.S., Nicholas Henderson, didn't. (Henderson is clearly a British counterpart of Clark Clifford, who famously dismissed Reagan as an "amiable dunce.") In contrast to the domineering Thatcher, "Reagan never seemed bothered about needing to be the smartest guy in the room," Aldous observes, "and was relaxed about listening more than he spoke." He discounts the lingering theme that Reagan was overly dependent on his staff, concluding that Thatcher recognized that "in important ways the president was entirely his own man" and "strategist-in-chief." Aldous also notes correctly that Reagan was a shy and intensely private man, making him an outlier among politicians in yet another way.

These insights sit uncomfortably alongside some crude and credulous claims about Reagan. Aldous describes Reagan's initial election as governor of California in 1966 as part of "a radical right-wing ticket," and writes that Reagan's time visiting with the Hoover Institution in the late 1970s "gave Reagan the grounding in ‘Jefferson' to add to his Sunbelt evangelical ‘Jesus.'" These ill-founded judgments, along with the jaw-dropping statement that "Jimmy Carter began the process of realignment toward supply-side economics," give reason to doubt Aldous's command of politics.

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This mixture of perception and carelessness helps explain why The Difficult Relationship fails to debunk the popular impression of a close Reagan-Thatcher collaboration. The sensible grasp of Reagan's ability and main ideas complicates claims elsewhere in the book that Thatcher "did not consider Reagan to be her intellectual equal," a contention resting on the not necessarily reliable Henderson, while Reagan thought Thatcher was "not a great listener."

The author does not reflect long on the apparent contradiction between Thatcher's concern that Reagan was too reflexively anti-Soviet and not open to the reform possibilities of Mikhail Gorbachev, and her alarm when she thought Reagan was getting too close to Gorbachev and allowing himself to be beguiled by the Russian's deceptive charm. The narrative does contain the answer to this difficulty, though the reader has to assemble it for himself. Reagan and Thatcher held fundamentally different views about Cold War grand strategy, and especially about nuclear deterrence. Thatcher understood Britain's subordinate position in the great power hierarchy, while Reagan sincerely wished to abolish nuclear weapons. She was skeptical of his missile defense proposals and fiercely opposed the disarmament deal nearly reached at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, which plausibly threatened to decouple the U.S. from Europe or require huge, politically unsustainable expenditures for conventional forces to replace the nuclear deterrent. In this, Thatcher found herself in complete agreement with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and many Reagan advisors, who were equally alarmed at their boss's objectives.

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And yet Thatcher and Reagan never allowed any distance to open between them, despite several serious breaches that might have sundered any other alliance. "Even when the two were at loggerheads," Aldous writes in his conclusion, "both leaders took care to maintain an impeccable bonhomie during their public appearances." They bucked each other up when each was threatened with scandal (the Westland helicopter contract affair in Thatcher's case; Iran-Contra in Reagan's), and rode together in harness at most of the G-7 meetings. Differences in national interest could not efface the deeper common bonds of language, ideology, and political tradition.

Aldous recognizes this but apparently finds it wanting or defective. A key passage at the end reads:

Even Thatcher, in an attitude that would solidify as time went by, developed an analysis that departed from the hardheaded realism of her early years. Then she had recognized that a close relationship with the American president was important because it allowed her, the leader of a medium-sized country, to speak truth to power in the furtherance of British interests. Now she had come dangerously close to seeing that relationship as an absolute good in itself.


What, exactly, is "dangerous" about this? Aldous never explains, nor meditates on what Thatcher said in later years about the overriding nature of the special relationship. In 1999, for example, she explained, "In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world." Clearly there is something shared between the principal English-speaking nations beyond their common language. This is why there is no real contradiction between Nicholas Wapshott's subtitle for his Reagan-Thatcher book—A Political Marriage—and the subtitle of Aldous's—The Difficult Relationship. What is more difficult than a marriage?