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Carter Library

margaretthatcher.org publishes for the first time files from the Carter Library, none of them previously available on-line or in print.

The Carter Library in Atlanta has a mass of Thatcher-related papers dating from 1977-81, but far fewer of its British files are open than in the case of the Reagan Library. Wholesale processing of the files for declassification has supposedly been taking place under the aegis of the CIA for many years (the 'RAC program'), but there has been little obvious result.

MT's relations with Jimmy Carter

Magaret Thatcher first met Jimmy Carter as President in May 1977 at Winfield House, the US Ambassador's grand residence in Regent's Park. (The request for the brief meeting came from her, the US Embassy in London recommending the President grant it "since there is a real possibility she may be Prime Minister by the end of April".) No record of what was said is currently available in the Carter Library. At that time she had been Leader of the Opposition for around a year and a half.

She met him again only a few months later, that September, in Washington. The timing was a sign perhaps that the first meeting had not gone too badly, but their second encounter went disastrously wrong: the US record of the conversation is not yet open, but other papers show that Carter formed a poor impression of her, finding her outlook dogmatic and her manner hectoring. Afterwards he instructed staff never again to schedule him to meet an opposition leader. She was probably nervous; certainly, given her strong commitment to the British-American relationship, she will have tried to get along. In her letter of thanks she praised his conviction.

Times change, however: the papers show that by the time of her election as Prime Minister, US officials had formed a better impression of Margaret Thatcher, seeing her as "cooler, wiser, more pragmatic", tempered by experience. Carter annotated his weekly NSC round-up brief to acknowledge a similar shift in his own perception.There is a hint also that the outgoing British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, who had been relatively close to Carter, was coming to seem a little time-expired from the American point of view. In fact when the British Government changed, there was concern that Carter might seem to have been too close to him, resulting in advice to the President to make a congratulatory phone call in addition to the "routine congratulatory cable".

The following week an undisclosed source (doubtless the British Ambassador) briefed the National Security Advisor over lunch, revealing that Margaret Thatcher was "extremely energetic", slept "literally only three hours a night", and that in meetings she "tends to dominate and do most of the talking". More seriously, she was would support the President over the SALT II Treaty, though with reservations, and wanted closer involvement in NATO decision-making.

NSC intelligence on the new British PM, 18 May 1979

Nuclear weapons: Cruise, Pershing & Trident, 1979-80

On 9 May 1979, days after Margaret Thatcher's election, Secretary of State Cy Vance and Defense Secretary Harold Brown sent the President a memo urging he take the lead in persuading NATO allies to accept Cruise and Pershing missiles (Theatre Nuclear Forces, or TNF) on European soil to counter the build up of Soviet SS-20s, aiming for a NATO consensus by December 1979. The President approved on 18 May.

NATO duly made the decision, resulting in political storms in Britain and Europe that lasted long after Carter had relinquished power. Passages in Brzezinski's cover document relating to timing of the US move have been redacted, but it is likely that Margaret Thatcher's arrival was one of the factors influencing it.

The initiative also owed much to the policy of the West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who began arguing that NATO needed such weapons in 1977. The Alliance, however, had failed to reach an agreed position during 1978 as the European Peace Movements began to form, helped in part by the controversy over the "Neutron Bomb", development of which Carter abandoned (against the strong advice of his closest advisors) in early 1978.

Carter letter to Schmidt, 1 June 1979

The new British Govermment had its own programme of nuclear modernisation. Within her first month in office MT raised with the President the issue of replacing Britain's obsolete Polaris strategic nuclear missile, from which resulted our purchase of Trident. Carter responded speedily and helpfully. The terms of sale were subject to lengthy bargaining and odd sidewinds - the British Government apparently was concerned not to announce the cost of Trident until it had made solid progress in its battle to cut our net payments to the EEC - and a complex deal finally emerged, involving cash payments, research & development write-offs and a large US expansion of its key military base on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Carter informed Schmidt and Giscard of his decision to supply Trident only at the end of the negotiation, stressing its compatibility with US Senate ratification of SALT II (actually a forlorn hope by this point) and declaring that it had no connection to the vexed issue of TNF modernisation. In truth, of course, there was a connection, because the decision had an impact on European (and Soviet) perceptions of US policy. The deal might have been struck much sooner if arms control and TNF had not been so controversial at the time.

NSC note on timing of Trident negotiation, 13 February 1980

NSC staffwork on nuclear cooperation with Britain & France, 29 May 1980

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, December 1979

On Christmas Day 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Carter rang Margaret Thatcher and other European leaders on 28 December to discuss his plans for response. US records of these talks ("telcons") are now open.

The Carter Administration was already deeply and damagingly on the defensive owing to the seizure of US hostages in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries on 4 November; the telcons make plain that its response to the Soviet move was conditioned by the fact (depriving it of the capacity to take the initiative at the U.N., for example). In turn, despite the hostage issue, US policy towards Iran was softened as the Administration attempted to unite the Muslim world against the Soviets. Thus began the long political funeral of the Administration, the President in melancholy attendance. The two events dominated world politics in 1980, seeming to show the helplessness of the US in the face of avowed enemies and greatly contributing to Ronald Reagan's success in winning the Republican nomination and then the Presidency itself.

Although Margaret Thatcher profoundly welcomed Reagan's election, in the dark times of 1979-80 it is likely that her standing with Carter was as good or better than almost any other world leader. They got on very well during her tightly scheduled one-day visit to Washington on 17 December 1979, according to the diary of the British Ambassador. (The music, on the other hand, may not have been so good: at a White House dinner that night diners were entertained by a troupe of Slavonic violinists in uniforms "which smacked more of the Police than the Blue Danube", following which carols were sung by a choir which included Kirk Douglas and the Secretary of State.) In contrast, Carter's relations with the French President, Giscard D'Estaing, and West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, were far from warm at this point, as the Afghanistan telcons show. The conversations covered similar ground to his talk with MT, but familiar American-French tensions were plain and Carter's relations with Schmidt - never close - had begun to disintegrate.

That said, Carter was critical of British reaction to the Soviet invasion pronouncing it - and that of Europe generally - "very weak". And he had been disappointed too by Britain's reservations regarding sanctions on Iran (especially our refusal to freeze Iranian assets in London), an issue addressed in the 28 December conversation.

In part Carter's judgments on these matters may have been influenced by the people and bureaucracy around him, because some of the advice he was receiving on US relations with European allies was astonishingly downbeat and defeatist. Thus a CIA assessment of "Changing power relations among OECD states" in October 1979 asserted that "that the United States is losing its leadership position" among Western allies, an event "probably inevitable ... hastened by the years of American dominance". With regard to Britain, the Agency commented: "The 'special relationship' between the United States and the United Kingdom, finally, has lost much of its meaning. The United States is no longer significantly closer to Britain than to its other major allies", while the outlook of the Thatcher Government was completely misjudged: so far as it found scope to increase Britain's "largely secondary" role in the world, "it apparently intends to do so in an EC more than an Atlanticist framework". (Carter annotated the document: "Partly accurate, partly fallacious".)

Carter letter to Brezhnev, 28 December 1979

Brezhnev reply to Carter, 29 December 1979

Boycott of the Moscow Olympics, 1980

The US decision in January to urge a world boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics accelerated the collapse of Carter's relations with Schmidt, with the German Chancellor suffering heavy political damage keeping his athletes from attending. (Despite MT's best efforts the British Olympic Committee decided to send a team, as did the French.) These events helped to precipitate a shattering argument between Carter and Schmidt in a bilateral meeting during the Venice G7 summit in June 1980, at which the Chancellor bitterly attacked the President for a leaked letter criticising perceived German backsliding on arms control.

Within the US Administration deep tensions soon developed on the question of Afghanistan, Secretary of State Vance urging a resumption of US dialogue with the Soviets while National Security Advisor Brzezinski occupied his accustomed role of hawk. At the end of February 1980 Carter seems to have allowed the State Department to propose the despatch of a secret emissary to Moscow (in the event turned down by the Soviets) and to draft a Presidential letter to Brezhnev asserting that "I see no alternative to a policy of [superpower] cooperation", floating postponement of the Olympics till the following year in the hope that withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan might open the way to the sending of a US team. The letter was not sent.

US divisions over renewing dialogue with Soviet Union, 29 February 1980

Olympic boycott in trouble, 3 March 1980

British Olympic Committee determined to attend, 20 March 1980

Solidarity & Poland, 1980

During the course of 1980 the growth of Solidarity in Poland raised Western concerns of a Soviet crackdown. Blooded by Afghanistan, the Carter Administration formulated detailed contingency plans for a range of possible crises, from a Soviet-engineered coup in Poland to full-scale invasion meeting significant Polish resistance.The Johnson Administration's response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 constituted a benchmark, at least of a minimum kind.

There was striking confidence on the part of the Administration that Allied responses to an invasion of Poland would be a lot tougher than to the invasion of Afghanistan (particularly in France) and much planning was done multilaterally. Detailed economic and political sanctions were discussed; Pentagon advice was to avoid any hint of military intervention, but to respond to any Soviet measures that threatened the West.

By 12 December US intelligence suggested that the Soviets were ready to invade, but that no final decision had been made. Deterrence, therefore, became an urgent task. A week later the same (Polish) source was telling the US that the policy had succeeded: an "indefinite postponement" of Soviet action had taken place as a result of Western threats of political and economic retaliation. Carter annotated the report: "Sounds accurate".

NSC contingency planning for Polish crisis, meeting to consider Polish situation, 21 October 1980

SCC meeting to consider "Polish Contingencies", 23 October 1980

BBC APPROACHED US GOVERNMENT FOR SUPPORT AGAINST THATCHER SPENDING CUTS, 1979

"[The] BBC has approached our Embassy in London for USG support against [planned cuts in its budget for external services], and Ambassador Brewster agrees we should help ..."

NSC file on BBC, October 1979

Other files on MT and the BBC, 1979

 

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