Nicholas Wapshott’s new book Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage offers a fresh look at the political relationship and friendship of two profound leaders in the late 20th Century. While the biographical information is not new for those who have read extensive biographies of Reagan and Thatcher, the author examines some of the deep disagreements the two leaders had in foreign policy. While there were arguments between the two over the Falklands War, Grenada, sanctions, and nuclear disarmament, and were often heated, the rifts healed quickly.
Wapshott initially traces the roots of their family life which helped foster an embracing of fiscal conservatism. While Reagan’s father was a New Dealer and an admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he also instilled a sense of optimism in Reagan about the ability to succeed in America through hard work. Both of their fathers were involved in business, and of modest means, especially Reagan’s alcoholic father. Thatcher’s father owned a grocery store, which was still much more modest than many of the backgrounds of conservative party leaders in Great Britain. “Neither Reagan nor Thatcher thought for a moment that to be involved in trade was any less admirable than to be involved in the professions. It provided both of them with a matter of fact approach to life and marked absence of social snobbery,” Wapshott says. Reagan and Thatcher also grew up in homes where the Christian faith was taught, and both shared a devotion to the Protestant work ethic.
In their rise to power Wapshott also declares, “Both were painted by opponents – not least in their own parties – as unrealistic extremists with strange, unworkable ideas.” When Reagan addressed both Houses of Parliament in 1982 with his now famed Westminster Speech, he was considered a divisive figure by many in Britain. 195 of the 225 Labour MP’s boycotted his address, which has been considered one of his finest assaults on the Soviet Union. Thatcher toasted Reagan after the speech declaring, “We are so grateful to you for putting freedom on the offensive.” Because of Reagan’s optimism and his faith in developing a missile defense shield, or the Strategic Defense Initiative, he also wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons later in his presidency, while Thatcher who was less optimistic and more of a realist, ascribed to mutual assured destruction (MAD), arguing that a nuclear stalemate prevented conventional war with the Soviets. In the end, the Soviet obsession with SDI, and Reagan’s refusal to abandon the research, did help accelerate the Soviet demise.
Wapshott’s publication shows strength in printing more of the personal correspondence between Reagan and Thatcher. The reader clearly sees there is a level of affection and admiration that transcends just a shared political ideology, national interests, and the occasional sharp disagreements. In public the two always lavishly praised one another and their respected nations, both leaders who were united in conservative principles and committed to expanding freedom at home and abroad.
Reagan wrote Thatcher who attended his 83rd Birthday Party in 1994, and just months before his letter to the American people telling them of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis saying:
Throughout my life, I’ve always believed that life’s path is determined by by a Force more powerful than fate. I feel that the Lord brought us together for a profound purpose, and that I have been richly blessed for having known you. I am proud to call you one of my dearest friends, Margaret; proud to have shared many of life’s dearest moments with you; and thankful that God brought you into my life.
In frail condition from multiple strokes, Thatcher defied medical orders not to travel and attended Reagan’s funeral service in Washington and California. She called Reagan “The Great Liberator” and said in her recorded eulogy:
We have lost a great president, a great American, and a great man. And I have lost a dear friend. In his lifetime Ronald Reagan was such a cheerful and invigorating presence that it was easy to forget what daunting historic tasks he set himself. He sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world, and to free the slaves of communism…Ronald Reagan knew his own mind. He had firm principles – and, I believe, right ones. He expounded them clearly, he acted upon them decisively…The President resisted Soviet expansion and pressed down on Soviet weakness at every point until the day came when communism began to collapse beneath the combined weight of these pressures and its own failures. And when a man of goodwill did emerge from the ruins, President Reagan stepped forward to shake his hand and to offer sincere cooperation. Nothing was more typical of Ronald Reagan than that large-hearted magnanimity – and nothing was more American.