Papers Reveal Thatcher Kept Reagan’s Doodles
The page of ink drawings is among personal papers from 1981 released last month by the Thatcher archive at Cambridge University.
Reagan left the piece of paper sitting on a table at the meeting near Ottawa, Canada, in July 1981. It is adorned with a scribbled eye, a man’s muscular torso and several heads, including one that looks like a self portrait.
“She told me it was fascinating to see it, and she just grabbed them,” said historian Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. “He just left it on his desk. She snaffled it up, put it in her papers, brought it back to Downing Street and kept it in her flat.”
Cary Cooper, a psychologist at Lancaster University in northern England, said Thatcher’s souvenir provided an insight into the president’s state of mind during the summit – he was bored.
“Here’s a body, there’s a head separate from the body,” Cooper said. “Is he so unenamored with what’s going on that he’s having an out-of-body experience?
“The eye means I’m watching what’s going on, I’m observing, but I’m not altogether there.”
The documents confirm the immediate warmth between the two conservative leaders, who forged a strong anti-communist alliance during the 1980s. But they also reveal a lesser-known story – the lengths the US administration went to distance itself from Thatcher’s then-unpopular government, which was facing a recession, rising unemployment and inner-city riots.
Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister between 1979 and 1990, was the first foreign leader invited to Washington by Reagan for a state visit. The papers reveal she was briefed extensively ahead of the February 1981 trip on how to rebut criticisms coming out of the US administration.
A briefing paper from senior adviser Alfred Sherman, marked “highly confidential,” warns Thatcher of “ominous aspects” and “underwater snags” to the upcoming visit because of diverging interests.
On issues like Latin America and the Caribbean, Americans “now expect Britain to see Caribbean problems in terms of America’s strategic interest and not in terms of Britain’s residual commitments in the area,” Sherman wrote.
South Africa was another potential problem. The US administration wanted to maintain a policy of engagement with the apartheid regime, amid growing criticism around the world of the regime’s racist policies. Sherman noted that the Reagan administration believed anti-apartheid sentiment was confined largely to “psychologically unbalanced middle class ‘liberal’ whites.”
“In other words, the gap between American and British views is widening,” Sherman said.
Sherman also warned that since Reagan’s election in November 1980, “Reaganites have quite brutally differentiated themselves from the Conservative government here” – going so far as to brief journalists on differences between US and UK economic policy.
“The economic arguments were very serious,” Collins said. “It was very embarrassing for her to have the Americans attack her economic policy. And it was very crudely done.”
Thatcher addressed the issue head-on in her first phone call with Reagan on January 21, 1981 – the day after his inauguration.
“The newspapers are saying mostly that President Reagan must avoid Mrs. Thatcher’s mistakes so I must brief you on the mistakes,” she told him.
But the overall tone of the call was warm. “We will lend strength to each other,” Reagan said.
And when the two leaders met in Washington, they struck up an immediate rapport. Thatcher considered the visit a triumph.
“The relationship gets warmer and warmer,” Collins said. “After the February meeting, she’s euphoric.”
After the visit, Thatcher wrote to the British ambassador in Washington: “I have great confidence in the President. I believe he will do things he wants to do – and he won’t give up.”
Soon they were addressing their letters “Ron” and “Margaret”; the rest is history.
— By Jill Lawless