Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were often portrayed as geo-political soul mates, but government files declassified in London on Wednesday expose a deep British disdain for the president who was described in official papers as homophobic, uninformed, disinterested and, not to put too fine a point on it, “a Bozo.”
The British Foreign Office files seen by The Daily Beast show that Prime Minister Thatcher was warned President Reagan had little interest in world affairs and was unable to sustain a serious conversation about contemporary politics.
The damning critiques, which expressed sheer incredulity that this man could occupy the White House, were shared at the highest levels of government before and after Reagan’s first State Visit to Britain in 1982.
Despite the hostility of her advisors, Thatcher appeared to strike up a close relationship with Reagan based on their shared values. They loudly battled Communism together and were determined to vanquish the post-war economic consensus, which had been based on the work of John Maynard Keynes, in favor of trickle-down economics and low taxes.
Successive British ambassadors in Washington were deeply unimpressed with the former California governor, however. Sir Nicholas Henderson, who was in the job when Reagan was elected, described him as a dogmatic and simplistic man. “He has clear-cut opinions, not to say prejudices, as was apparent to me when he told me à propos Keynes that it must not be forgotten that he was a homosexual,” Henderson wrote in his United States Annual Review of 1981.
Sir Oliver Wright replaced Henderson in Washington the following year but the dispatches he sent back to London were no more encouraging. “We have self-evidently a President—how shall I put it?—whom it is difficult to engage in a serious discussion on any subject of contemporary politics,” he wrote in October 1982.
Wright was aghast to find that smart and serious political operatives in D.C. appeared happy to work under Reagan’s leadership. “No one in Washington smirks when they are expounding the President’s views or communicating his policies,” he said. “No one in official and hardly anyone in non-official Washington decries his want of powers of analysis or his inability to argue a closely reasoned case.”
Wright’s summation of the twin threads of the Administration’s policy objectives was equally damning. He described Reaganomics as “unsophisticated… it’s component parts self-contradictory” and his foreign policy as cartoonish and based on Reagan’s Wild West heritage. “California is on the look out for baddies and Public Baddie No 1 is the Soviet Union… baddies, as we all know, have only one proper fate: to bite the dust.”
The Wright briefing from 1982, entitled The Reagan Administration or How the West Was Won. Second Impressions of the United States, concludes that the 1984 election still looked a long way off. “This then is the guy with whom we have to deal and with whose instincts we have to live, God willing, for at least the next two years. From a European point of view it is not an ideal prospect.”
It was such a hit when it arrived back at the Foreign Office in London that copies were produced and circulated throughout Whitehall and Downing Street. “We greatly enjoyed reading your ‘Second Impressions’ dispatch,” replied a senior diplomat. “While I do not expect anyone to take issue with your main themes, no doubt your observations will draw reactions.”
Indeed, on Wednesday the observations drew a reaction from Senator John McCain. He told The Daily Beast that he was sure Thatcher and the British public liked Reagan no matter what her senior staff thought. “I’m sure that there were many elitist Britishers, just like Americans, who called him a cowboy and all that stuff. I’m not surprised. The key to it is Margaret Thatcher said in the open and repeatedly that Ronald Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot,” he said. “All I know is that they were not totally in lockstep on everything. There are always people who will take shots at any leader but there’s also no doubt that Ronald Reagan remains the most popular president in recent history with the British people and that matters.”*
Within the grand halls of the Foreign Office on King Charles Street in Central London, it seems he was far from popular. In a dispatch from Washington dated March 18, 1982 Stephen Wall, an embassy official who would later work for numerous foreign secretaries and prime ministers, suggested that even Reagan’s closest staff were worried about his reputation. “The White House are certainly concerned that the President could acquire a national image as a bumbler which, like Ford’s image as a stumbler, could not be eradicated once firmly established in the public mind. The same thing happened to President [Jimmy] Carter.”
The missive was received back in London by David Barrie, a senior diplomat, who appended his own note. “My guess is that it’ll take some time before Reagan gets labeled as a Bozo by Middle America,” he wrote.
Another note added to a Washington dispatch, this time by Sir Derek Malcolm Day, Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in January 1982, bemoaned the Reagan White House’s unwillingness to cooperate with its allies. “There is still a disturbing tendency, if consultation does not produce an early and desired result as far as the Americans are concerned, for the Administration to go their own way virtually regardless of the consequences,” he wrote. “I fear that this may be a feature of life that we shall have to get used to with the Reagan Administration. Patience is not a strong suit in Washington these days.”
One can imagine that patience with the British envoys was in particularly short supply.