Margaret Thatcher: how she took on the men and won

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Following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on April 2 1982, Mrs Thatcher knew that the attitude of the Reagan administration would be crucial to her success. Believing that the simple injustice of the invasion would be clear to all, she was surprised – and disappointed – that the Americans did not back Britain wholeheartedly from the start. Instead, Alexander Haig, the US secretary of state, attempted to mediate between London and Buenos Aires. The administration remained sharply divided between the Anglophiles and those advocating a “balanced” – or even pro-Argentinian – approach. Reagan himself was ambivalent. On the one hand, his instinctive sympathy with Mrs Thatcher was genuine. He was very anxious that her government should not fall, a concern that had been stoked by Rupert Murdoch, among others. Murdoch had earlier asked Vice-President [George HW] Bush to warn Reagan that “anything less than Argentina’s pulling out of the Falklands will cost Mrs Thatcher her job”, adding that he was “very worried as to what will follow should Margaret Thatcher fall”. Bush reassured Murdoch that “all concerned here would not want to see the fall of the Thatcher government”. According to Judge [William P.] Clark, the National Security Adviser, for Reagan “there was no question as to where the blade would have to lie,” and, from early on, the President authorised the trusted Caspar Weinberger [defence secretary] “to give smart weapons out the back door” to Britain. But although he was consistent with his line of seeking a peaceful solution while in the end favouring Mrs Thatcher, Reagan was detached, almost cynical, in his approach. On April 16 the US syndicated journalist Jack Anderson published an illicit tape of a call the President had made to Haig while the latter was flying to Buenos Aires. In it, Reagan asked about a possible British attack: “That submarine of theirs, do you think it’s apt to go ahead with retribution and sink anything within the 200 miles, and would that be enough to vindicate them?” This report, which Mrs Thatcher was informed by Nicholas Henderson [the British ambassador to the US] was authentic, distressed her. When she came to write her memoirs, she decided not to mention it because of the sour taste it left: she wanted to give a more positive account of her relations with Reagan. Towards the end of April, Haig’s mediation effort foundered on Argentine intransigence and the US tilted its stance towards Britain. But this did not mean an end to US efforts to push Britain towards a peaceful solution. After the first major losses of the conflict (the Belgrano and HMS Sheffield), pressure built around a new peace proposal, known as the Peruvian Plan but in reality masterminded by Haig, which was unfavourable to Britain. When, on May 5, Reagan wrote to Mrs Thatcher urging that she accept this plan, she felt compelled to call a meeting of the full Cabinet. It was the Prime Minister herself who pushed colleagues towards acceptance. She agreed that the Peruvian Plan “compromises principles”, but Britain simply would not be able to get everything it wanted into the plan: “I fear we can’t get wishes of people and self-determination . . . If we can get something different on local administration, exclusion of South Georgia [the government was anxious to establish that the ‘dependent territories’ such as the reoccupied South Georgia were not necessarily to be covered by the same agreement as the Falkland Islands], guarantee from US, then worth it,” the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong’s notebook records. The official minutes of the Cabinet recorded the collective view that acceptance of the plan was required for presentational reasons: “If Britain were seen to reject [it], she would be severely criticised by international opinion, which was already moving against her.” Far from scuppering the US-Peruvian proposals, the sinking of the Belgrano had the opposite effect. Followed by the loss of Sheffield, it forced Mrs Thatcher to be seen to accept them. After Cabinet, the Prime Minister replied to the US President. Unlike Reagan’s slightly chilly letter, hers was more personal: “I am writing to you separately because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am saying.” She had, she said, always tried “to stay loyal to the United States”; the friendship between the two countries “matters very much to the future of the free world”. Argentina, on the other hand, did not respect basic principles. She feared that, under US suggestions, “we shall find that in the process of negotiation democracy and freedom for the Falklanders will have been compromised”. The settlement proposed “did not provide unambiguously for the right of self-determination”, and Haig had rejected any self-determination provision because Argentina would turn it down. Therefore, “I have tried to temper Al Haig’s latest proposals a little by suggesting that the interim administration must at least consult with the locally elected representatives. It is not too much to ask – and I do not think you will turn it down.” In the commentary for the President which he attached to Mrs Thatcher’s reply, Judge Clark wrote: “In a word, Maggie accepts the proposal.” In her memoirs, Mrs Thatcher says that she was “deeply unhappy about the US-Peruvian proposals” and implies that Francis Pym [foreign secretary] was weaker on the subject than she was, “but we had to make some response”. She makes much of the modifications to the proposals which the Cabinet agreed and which she communicated to Reagan. She records that her original letter to Reagan had to be redrafted because it “revealed perhaps too much of my frustration”. This is true, but grossly understates the facts. The phrase about Reagan being “the only person who will understand the significance of what I am saying” survived into the final draft, but had more or less lost the powerful meaning it possessed in the first. That first draft, written in her own hand, was a personal letter from Margaret to Ron, half begging, half defiant – a cry of wounded friendship. In it, she bluntly rejected Reagan’s claim that his suggestions were “faithful to the basic principles we must protect” – “alas they are not.”

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