The strength of Thatcher

December 29th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

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.

Heh, wonderful.

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.

100 years ago

February 8th, 2011 at 5:45 am by David Farrar

The 6th of February is not just Waitangi Day, but 100 years ago also saw the birth of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

I republish this story from General Debate, in tribute:

The inestimable Powerline blog in the US paid tribute to Reagan’s famous “Tear Down this Wall” speech by quoting from the memoirs of one of Reagan’s speechwriters Peter Robinson

The story behind this speech is fascinating and I quote portions of it verbatim from Robinson’s book “How Ronald Reagan changed my life”:

“In April 1987, when I was assigned to write the Brandenburg Gate address, I spent a day in Berlin with the White House advance team, the logistical experts, Secret Service agents, and press officials who went to the site of every presidential visit to make arrangements. In the evening, I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz, who, after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington, had retired to Berlin. Although we had never met, we had friends in common, and the Elzes had offered to put on this dinner party to give me a feel for their city. They had invited Berliners of different walks of life and political outlooks–businessmen, academics, students, homemakers.

We chatted for awhile. Then I explained that, earlier in the day, the ranking American diplomat in West Berlin had told me that over the years Berliners had made a kind of accommodation with the wall. “Is it true?” I asked. “Have you gotten used to it?”

The Elzes and their guests glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty miles in that direction,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Another man spoke. As he walked to work each morning, he explained, a soldier in a guard tower peered down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.”

Our hostess broke in. A gracious woman, Ingeborg Elz had suddenly grown angry. Her face was red. She made a fist with one hand and pounded it into the palm of the other. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika,” she said, “he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”

Back at the White House I adapted her comment, making “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the central line in my draft. On Friday, May 15, the speeches for the President’s trip–he would be traveling to Rome and Venice before reaching Berlin–were forwarded to the President, and on Monday, May 18, the speechwriters joined him in the Oval Office. My speech was the last we discussed. “Mr. President,” I said, “I learned on the advance trip that this speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany. Is there anything you’d like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?”

The President cocked his head and thought. “Well,” he replied, “there’s that passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say to them.”

With three weeks to go before it was delivered, the speech was circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council. Both attempted to suppress it. The draft was naive. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts–my journal records that there were no fewer than seven. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.

When in early June the President and his party reached Italy (I remained in Washington), Ken Duberstein, the deputy chief of staff, sat the President down in the garden of the palazzo in which he was staying, then briefed him on the objections to my draft. Reagan asked Duberstein’s advice. Duberstein replied that he thought the line about tearing down the wall sounded good. “But I told him, ‘You’re President, so you get to decide.’” And then, Duberstein recalls, “he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it in.’”

The day the President arrived in Berlin, State and NSC submitted yet another alternate draft. Yet in the limousine on the way to the Berlin Wall, the President told Duberstein he was determined to deliver the controversial line. Reagan smiled. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”


I like this story, partly because I have heard it first hand from Peter Robinson.

Peter Gibbons reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall

November 10th, 2009 at 1:45 pm by Peter Gibbons

Mr Farrar posted earlier today with some of his thoughts on the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago.  I certainly recall my Legal and Political Studies teacher at school showing a slide of the Wall and intoning solemnly “you won’t see that down in your life time.”  Twenty months later and it was a pile of rubble.  When it happened, it all happened so quickly and with remarkably little bloodshed.  It was a watershed geo-political event.

The role of President Ronald Reagan in the reunification of Germany and indeed the end of the Cold War is still a matter of intense debate.  Russell Brown summed up one school of thought with his comment on David’s original post:

Trade unionists, dissidents, intellectuals and ordinary people drove the events that led to the wall opening.  Only months before it happened, Georgian protesters were shot in the street by their own security forces.  I think it’s much more important to remember them than Reagan, who merely read a catchy line.

Let’s look first at the role of Reagan in the end of the Cold War.  Though heavily criticised by media, experts and even some in his Administration at the time, Reagan consistently took a hard line on Soviet expansion and arms negotiations.  This hard line was predicated on Reagan’s belief that “the Soviet Union was economically weak and its vulnerability would not permit a matching acceleration of arms and technology thus forcing them to negotiate arms limitations.”  This unshakeable belief underpinned Reagan’s unorthodox and often criticised decisions. 

For example, in 1984, the Soviets walked out of the Geneva arms negotiations.  In a 1997 Presidential Studies Quarterly, Douglas Hoekstra argued “rather than Reagan shifting bargaining positions to elicit Soviet response, as might be expected, Reagan blithely continued to insist that the Soviets would return to negotiations.”

Reagan was right.  The Russians did return and, incredibly, within five years were on the brink of a (relatively) peaceful collapse.  Soviet attempts to match the West had caused the system to collapse from within.  While some (including Hoekstra) are reluctant to give Reagan much credit for his strategy, one of the foremost Cold War scholars, John Lewis Gaddis, has changed his tune.  Once a scathing critic, he is now praising Reagan for his foreign policy.  In a 1989 piece called “Hanging tough paid off”, Gaddis wrote “it would be uncharitable – and historically irresponsible – to begrudge the strategic vision of an administration once thought by many of us to have had none at all.”  

Paul Kengor, in “Reagan Among the Professors – His Surprising Reputation”, categorises the emerging academic view is that Ronald Reagan will be widely accepted by historians as a “near-great chief executive” who “revived a sick economy, established a policy course that won the Cold War” and “uplifted a depressed national spirit with his rhetoric.”  The rehabilitation of Reagan’s reputation is reflected in several surveys of academics and commentators which have Reagan consistently placed in the ‘near great’ President category.  In less than a decade, Reagan moved in one major poll of academics from being the 25th ranked President to the 8th.

The final point relates to Russell’s last comment that Reagan “merely read a catchy line.”  Again, that accurately reflects the initial academic and media animus towards Reagan.  It has always been a paradox that Reagan was considered by many to be simultaneously a dangerous ideologue and an empty suit.

An analysis of the files at the Reagan Library reveals a quite different story.  Jones and Rowland, writing in the Communication Studies journal, reviewed the Handwriting Files there and concluded they showed that “Reagan was an involved principal in the creation of the radio speeches and skilful speechwriter himself…  Reagan was an active participant in the creation and revision of his discourse rather than simply a performer who repeated the words and ideas of others.”  Their analysis demonstrates that Reagan was concerned with both the style and ideological substance of his speeches.  In fact, at the 1984 Geneva conference mentioned earlier Reagan extensively revised the State Department draft speech which signalled concessions to the Russians which the President did not agree with.

Russell is right to say on this day we need to remember the everyday people who stood up to tyranny as well as the political and religious leaders on the world stage.  However, it seems unfair to belittle the contribution of the 40th President of the United States to these historic events.