She called it, simply, the worst moment of her life.
It came in March 1982 during the days before the Falklands War, after Argentina established an unauthorised presence on Britain’s South Georgia island amid talk of a possible invasion of the Falklands, long held by Britain.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher realised there was little that Britain could do immediately to establish firm control of the contested islands, and feared Britain would be seen as a paper tiger that could no longer defend even its diminished empire.
She was told that Britain might not be able to take the islands back, even if she took the risky decision to send a substantial armada to the frigid South Atlantic.
“You can imagine that turned a knife in my heart,” Thatcher told an inquiry board in postwar testimony that has been kept secret until its release by the National Archives on Friday, 30 years after the events it chronicles.
“No one could tell me whether we could re-take the Falklands – no one,” she told the inquiry board. “We did not know – we did not know.”
But she had faith that they could.
The papers detail how Thatcher urgently sought US President Ronald Reagan’s support when Argentina’s intentions became clear, and reveal Thatcher’s exasperation with Reagan when he suggested that Britain negotiate rather than demand total Argentinian withdrawal.
The documents describe an unusual late night phone call from Reagan to Thatcher on May 31, 1982 – while British forces were beginning the battle for control of the Falklands capital – in which the president pressed the prime minister to consider putting the islands in the hands of international peacekeepers rather than press for a total Argentinian surrender.
A rare failure of judgement from Reagan, where he went with the State Department view rather than supporting what was right – the democratic human right of self-determination.
Thatcher, in full “Iron Lady” mode, told the president she was sure he would take the same dim view of international mediation if Alaska had been taken by a foe.
Thatcher had huge respect for Reagan and the US. But what I loved about her is that she was no poodle. She did what she felt was right – even against the wishes of her closest ally.