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Reagan-Thatcher: trusted allies but often at odds

A picture dated July 17, 1987 shows then US President Ronald Reagan and British PM Margaret Thatcher at the White House
A picture dated July 17, 1987 shows former US President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher posing for photographers on the patio outside the Oval Office, Washington, DC. Thatcher and Reagan were ideological soul mates, shari

When US president Ronald Reagan ordered the 1983 invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada after a coup, he got an earful from an angry world leader: his closest ally, Britain's Margaret Thatcher.

Friends with her fellow conservative confidante since the mid-1970s, the prime minister was furious she had not been consulted ahead of the US storming of a territory in the British Commonwealth.

Thatcher and Reagan were ideological soul mates, after all -- two Western giants who were staring down the Soviet empire while sharing free-market and anti-communist convictions that led to startling shifts in the political and economic landscapes of their countries.

That did not stop Reagan from what he described in his diary at the time as his need for operational secrecy.

A livid Thatcher summoned assistant secretary of state Richard Burt, who "just let her yell at us for a couple of hours," he recalled to AFP after Thatcher died of a stroke Monday at age 87.

The episode illustrates the complexities of the deep but volatile friendship between the leaders that endured a pinballing of crises and lasted well beyond Reagan's 1981-1989 presidency and Thatcher's 1979-1990 premiership.

Fierce defenders of their own interests, together they ushered in dramatic turnarounds from the economic malaise gripping their countries and rolled back the welfare state movement as they pushed to shrink government and grow the global free market.

Ex-US President Ronald Reagan (L) greets ex-British PM Margaret Thatcher at his home in Los Angeles, February 15, 1995
Former US President Ronald Reagan (L) greets former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a visit she made to him at his home in Los Angeles on February 15, 1995.

US lawmakers bent over with praise of Thatcher and the relationship she cultivated with the man she called her "dear friend."

President Barack Obama was reminded of her "standing shoulder to shoulder with President Reagan," while Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner spoke of Thatcher's "loyalty to Ronald Reagan and their friendship that we all admired."

Looking back, Burt said the two leaders "had a very warm relationship. They saw the world in similar ways."

Nancy Reagan agreed, telling MSNBC on Monday: "I loved it that she and Ronnie were as close as they were."

But while images of "The Gipper" driving a beaming "Iron Lady" around Camp David in a golf cart filled newspapers, they masked crucial disagreements about Cold War flashpoints like the Falklands, the Soviet Union, nuclear threats and the Middle East.

"On all these things we now know they disagreed, and very often Margaret Thatcher would tear a strip off the president during their phone calls," said Bard College professor Richard Aldous, author of "Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship."

"So I think that the very kind of 'flowers and champagne' image that they very often liked to present is very far from the much harder political reality."

But such shrewdness hardly undermined the most storied trans-Atlantic partnership of the last 70 years.

"It just shows how incredibly clever they were at... marketing their relationship in a kind of political marriage," Aldous said.

They came from similarly humble backgrounds, and each grew up far from their nations' capitals, wary of big government.

Reagan wrote in his memoirs after hosting Thatcher for his first White House state dinner that he was "immediately" smitten.

Then-US President Ronald Reagan (R) and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (L) at Camp David on December 22, 1984
Then-US President Ronald Reagan (R) and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (L) at Camp David on December 22, 1984.

"She was warm, feminine, gracious and intelligent -- and it was evident from our first words that we were soul mates when it came to reducing government and expanding economic freedom," Reagan noted.

Thatcher later returned the compliment, praising Reagan for having "won the Cold War without firing a shot."

But in private they often were at odds.

When Thatcher ordered British troops deployed to the windswept Falkland Islands in April 1982 amid a sovereignty dispute with Argentina, Reagan spoke with his friend several times by phone in an effort to avoid war.

He dispatched his top diplomat Alexander Haig on a mission of shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires, but the talks fizzled.

After a May 13 call to Thatcher, Reagan wrote in his diary: "I talked to Margaret but don't think I persuaded her against further action."

In 1986 the tension rose again, after the Reykjavik Summit where Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pressed for a dramatic reduction in their nuclear arsenals.

Thatcher two years earlier had met with Gorbachev and famously said that "we can do business together," but after Reykjavik she went to Camp David and quietly berated the US president for exposing Western Europe's defensive flank with his nuclear stance.

"When Margaret Thatcher got upset, people noticed in Washington," said Burt.

"She had a credibility that nobody else in Europe had with people in the White House."

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