Margaret Thatcher and the Collapse of Communism
Margaret Thatcher, one of the great political figures of postwar Europe, has died at the age of 87. Thatcher’s accomplishments are significant, especially her revitalisation of the British economy following the disappointing 1970s mired in stagflation. However, Margaret Thatcher’s role in the collapse of Communism was much more modest than many have exaggerated.
In assessing the true role that Thatcher played in the collapse of Communism a helpful starting point is The Cold War: A New History written by Yale University’s John Lewis Gaddis, arguably the greatest living historian of the Cold War. Gaddis identifies six “saboteurs of the status quo” most responsible for the end of the Cold War: Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, Deng Xiaoping, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. Of these six individuals, Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping arguably have the most modest role in the end of Communism. Lewis essentially limits their role to reigniting the world’s faith in the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism over the planned economy in the economic crisis-hit 1980s.
The British journalist John O’Sullivan – himself a former speechwriter for Thatcher – went a step further, writing a book titled The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World. According to Sullivan’s book – whose bibliography mostly consists of secondary notes and, at least in regards to its discussion of Poland, contains some factual errors – Margaret Thatcher is one of the three individuals most influential in the end of Communism. O’Sullivan’s book typifies much of the Cold War literature that grossly exaggerates Thatcher’s role in ending Communism.
Thatcher’s relationship with Solidarity was quite ambiguous. In January 1982, right after the imposition of martial law in Poland, the United States Information Agency produced a television special for American viewers entitled Let Poland Be Poland. Hosted by Charlton Heston, the film features uplifting words of support for the Polish nation from celebrities as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles. Margaret Thatcher also makes an appearance in the programme, claiming that many in Britain admire the bravery of the Polish fighter pilots who fought in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and that the Poles’ defiance of totalitarianism again impresses many Britons.
Another gesture of support for Poland was Thatcher’s visit to Gdansk, the cradle of Solidarity, in 1988. She had rejected General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s invitation three years earlier, and insisted that she would once again decline to visit Poland if she could not meet with the head of Solidarity Lech Wałęsa and Cardinal Józef Glemp, the head of the Catholic Church in the country. During the visit, Lady Thatcher laid flowers at Westerplatte, the site where the first shots of the Second World War were fired.
Despite these sympathetic gestures, Thatcher herself was skeptically disposed towards Solidarity. Recently declassified archives discussed at length in Germany’s Der Spiegel reveal that, based on the notes of West German diplomats, Thatcher herself distrusted Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa. Specifically, she feared that Solidarity’s demands as a labour union would radicalise Polish society and lead to Soviet intervention. Whereas the United States directly helped fund Solidarity through the CIA, Thatcher’s foreign minister, Peter Carrington, claimed that Britain would not directly support Solidarity and its aid to Poland would be limited to kind words. Thus, Margaret Thatcher opposed the Reagan White House’s imposition of sanctions against General Jaruzelski’s Poland in the 1980s. This fact should be somewhat surprising to the many Polish politicians and journalists who in the past few days have been repeating that they owe their freedom in large part to Margaret Thatcher.
Also, it is worth noting that Thatcher vociferously opposed the reunification of Germany, a symbol of the reunification of Europe after 1989 to many, fearing that it would lead to an aggressive rearmed German state. In this regard it is surprising that so many in the media regard Margaret Thatcher and not, for example, Helmut Kohl, as one of the figures most responsible for the unification of Europe.
It is undeniable that Ronald Reagan’s presidency played a key role in exposing the weaknesses of the Soviet Union and posing a formidable threat to Moscow. The building up of the United States’ military, the support of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, the rejection of détente, the fighting of Communism in the Western Hemisphere, and the realisation of Marxism-Leninism as an immoral ideology were all potent anti-Soviet weapons of Reagan’s foreign policy. Granted, Washington’s anti-Communism sometimes had a dark side, such as its support of El Salvador’s brutal junta in the 1980s (although to be fair, the Reagan administration did push democracy promotion in US-backed military dictatorships such as the Philippines and Chile), but overall it aided the liberation of many oppressed nations.
With regards to Reagan, it is traditionally believed that Margaret Thatcher was his closest ally. Indeed, the British prime minister and the American president enjoyed a close friendship and had great respect for each other. Both had a similar economic philosophy that was influenced by the Austrian and Chicago schools of economics. In reality, Reagan and Thatcher had strong disagreements on Cold War policy. Their political alliance can best be understood by the title of Richard Aldous’ illuminating book, Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship.
In 1983, the United States sent in Marines to end a pro-Communist coup d’état in the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. Margaret Thatcher strongly opposed the American invasion of a nation that was an ally of Cuba, North Korea, and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, giving him an angry phone call to express her disapproval. Since then, Thatcher never fully trusted Reagan again.
Additionally, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher profoundly disagreed on nuclear weapons. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which Reagan’s opponents jokingly called “Star Wars”, was Reagan’s ambitious effort to protect the United States from nuclear attack by creating anti-missile technology as opposed to continuing the nightmarish Cold War strategy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” between the US and USSR. Likewise, Reagan was committed to the principle of bilateral nuclear disarmament. On the way to the summit in Reykjavik with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan was ready to agree to bilateral negotiations between the two superpowers to rid the world of nuclear weapons for good. However, Thatcher’s strong protest ultimately led to Reagan’s abandonment of these intentions.
Finally, Thatcher did not quite share Reagan’s concerns about Europe’s energy dependence on the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, Reagan strongly opposed the Soviet Union’s building of a gas pipeline to continental Europe and, in fact, threatened to impose sanctions on British companies participating in the project. This reaction provoked a strong rebuke from Margaret Thatcher. If the dependence of today’s Europe on Russian natural gas has profound political implications, during the Cold War it could have led to victory for the Soviets.
Margaret Thatcher’s place in history is, however, secure. Having inherited a rapidly deteriorating British economy, her economic reforms related to deregulation and the downscaling of the welfare state quickly brought her country back to prosperity. At a time when Europe’s economy is in free fall, the most successful EU economies are in the Baltic States, whose leaders openly acknowledge their deep debt to the ideas of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Milton Friedman. Today, so many politicians in the West are partisan sycophants who lack principles, and one can only miss how Thatcher tenaciously held to her values even when her own cabinet was in disagreement with her.
And while Thatcher did give moral support to the opponents of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, to credit her as one of the architect’s of Communism’s fall is exaggerated.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student studying international relations and European studies at the George Washington University. His academic interests include Second World War history, Polish-Jewish relations, and Christianity in modern Europe.