Published March 18, 2011
CAMBRIDGE, England – Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were political soul mates, right-wing Cold Warriors who helped define the 1980s.
But politics makes strange bedfellows. Newly released papers from the former British prime minister's personal archive reveal a surprising rapport between the "Iron Lady" and Reagan's political antithesis — Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
He and Thatcher were not natural political allies or obvious friends, but documents from 1980, released Saturday by the Thatcher archive at Cambridge University, contain many cordial letters to and from Carter. There are few signs of tension as they confront crises including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of 52 American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
"Carter is somebody she worked hard to get along with," said historian Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. "She had considerable success at it. Had Carter lasted two terms we might be writing about the surprising amount of common ground between the two."
Thatcher had met Carter twice before she was elected, and the U.S. president came away displeased, though according to previously released papers he mellowed by the time Thatcher became prime minister in 1979.
Perhaps their affinity is not so surprising. They came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but in 1980, the final year of Carter's term, both leaders were under pressure, facing economic crisis at home and turmoil in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The arch-capitalist Thatcher even praised liberal Carter on the economy, sending a letter endorsing his "painful but necessary measures" to get inflation down and cut gasoline consumption.
On Afghanistan, the two leaders shared alarm at the Soviet invasion, and worried other European nations were being soft on the Russians.
Carter wrote warmly — "Dear Margaret" — to "express to you my deep personal appreciation for your words in the Commons" condemning the invasion.
He was keen to solicit her opinion, and expressed hope she could sway other European countries to condemn the incursion.
Thatcher was supportive of Carter's attempt to have the 1980 Olympic Games moved from Moscow, saying "I had been thinking very much along the same lines as yourself" and offering to hold some Olympic events in London.
In the end, British athletes defied Thatcher's wishes and attended the games. The U.S. and several dozen other countries boycotted them.
The pair also exchanged many letters about the hostage-taking in Iran.
Carter's increasing frustration at failure to negotiate an end to the crisis, which dragged on for 444 days, is palpable. "I need your help in impressing on Iranian authorities the gravity of their continuing disregard of international law and human rights," he told Thatcher in March, imploring her to talk to Iran, "if channels are available to you."
In another, he said he attached "great importance to our personal correspondence; the breadth and candor of this exchange is very helpful to me."
Thatcher, for her part, showed sympathy for the U.S. leader. In a phone call that April — "Hello there, Jimmy. Margaret here" — Thatcher sounded concerned. "You are all right, are you?" she asked him. "You do sound a little bit — well, it is not surprising that you sound a little bit worried."
The papers contain no references to the U.S. presidential election of November 1980 that brought Reagan to office. Collins said Thatcher was careful not to express a preference for one candidate over the other.
"I have no doubt she wanted Reagan to win but she didn't say so, not even privately," Collins said. "She is very, very cautious."
On the home front, the papers show the "Iron Lady" looking a bit shaky.
They reveal a leader at war with "wets" in her own party, antagonistic to Europe and faced with bad news about the recession-hit economy.
Aides rallied around with a campaign to cheer up the prime minister, passing on positive press articles and letters of support from business leaders. One, a clipping from the tabloid News of the World was sent complete with a topless "page 3 girl" still attached.
Even an innocuous interview with Woman's Own magazine contained unexpected pitfalls. Thatcher's offhand comment that she disliked the flock wallpaper in her Downing St. study brought a letter from I.R. MacLeod of Fabrelle Wallcoverings and Textiles Ltd., criticizing the "potentially damaging reference to our type of product" and demanding a meeting with the prime minister.
The irate wallpaper-maker said that while once such wallpaper had been "associated with foreign restaurants," such styles "have almost totally been superseded by domestic and more sophisticated designs, suitable for a wide cross-section of the higher price market."
The letter caused a flurry of activity, with civil servants mobilized to calculate the cost of the wallpaper — 288 pounds when it was installed in 1972 or 1973.
A diplomatic letter was sent from the Downing Street press office thanking MacLeod and saying the prime minister was "grateful to you for your offer to discuss these matters with those concerned" — though there's no evidence the offer was taken up.
In the end, Thatcher did replace the offending wallpaper. Mindful of the tough economic times, she paid for it herself.
Thatcher Papers at the Churchill Archive, Cambridge: http://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/collections/thatcher/thatcher_home.php
Margaret Thatcher Foundation: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/