Share This Article

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

By Richard Aldous; W.W. Norton

Books scoping out the thorny alliance between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have filled library shelves for 30-odd years. The latest—Richard Aldous’ Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship—arrives as The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep, has generated renewed interest in the rise of British and American conservatism.

Aldous’ volume may not be the most comprehensive on the subject, but it is certainly the liveliest. This Odd Couple shared left-of-center family roots that Aldous examines in detail. Thatcher’s father, an old-fashioned liberal in the Gladstonian tradition, converted to conservatism; Reagan’s parents benefited greatly from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Otherwise, the two leaders’ backgrounds could not have been more different. Margaret Roberts went on scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, where most contemporaries found her “boring.” As she put it, in college “My sister and I didn’t go dancing.” While Reagan was growing up, his family moved frequently as his salesman-father sought work; later, of course, he became a success in Hollywood, where he was as popular as some of the college boys he often played in movies.

Thatcher’s conservatism was more cerebral (one of her biggest influences was the Nobel Prize–winning Austrian economist Frederick Hayek), while Reagan’s was more instinctual. “She did not,” writes Aldous, “consider Reagan to be her intellectual equal.” Their common bond was a fervent hatred of Communism. Reagan admired Thatcher’s patriotism and resolve, and Maggie, for her part, was charmed by Ronnie.

But agreeable public displays “masked the reality of a complex, even fractious alliance.” What divided them were the inevitable pitfalls of international politics. The prime minister chafed when the president did not offer more immediate support to Britain in the Falklands war (the U.S. did not want to alienate potential South American allies), and Reagan fumed that Thatcher did not support the invasion of Grenada. Aldous argues that Thatcher bridled at the unspoken knowledge that she, as Winston Churchill had to FDR, “always remained a junior partner, a fact that she more than most rarely forgot.” She had ample reason to remember this after she allowed the U.S. to use British air bases to bomb Muammar Gaddafi in 1986, prompting UK satirical magazine Private Eye to call her “President Reagan’s answering machine.”

“These constant skirmishes and conflict,” says Aldous, “were far removed from the popular myth of Reagan and Thatcher in a loving ‘political marriage.’ ” Ultimately the relationship, personal and political, clicked for two reasons. Thatcher believed the West won the Cold War because “Above all, Ronald Reagan won it.” And, she characteristically observed, “It all worked because he was more afraid of me than I was of him.”

They didn’t call her the Iron Lady for nothing.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.