Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton
The Thatcher-Gorbachev Conversations
Agreement against German Unification
Encouragement on Economic Reform
Argument over Nuclear AbolitionMargaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who passed away this week, built a surprising mutual-admiration relationship with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s – including behind-the-scenes agreement against the reunification of Germany, and profound disagreement about nuclear abolition – according to translated Soviet records of key meetings between the two leaders, posted online today for the first time by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).
Thatcher met Gorbachev in 1984 in London, before he came to power in the Soviet Union, and famously pronounced him "a man we can do business with." By 1987, when Thatcher visited the Soviet Union for the first time, the documents show the two world figures engaging in vigorous debate, frequent agreement, and mutual learning. By 1989, the record documents Thatcher trying to get Gorbachev to stop the unification of Germany, supporting his approach toward the gradual (as opposed to radical) transformation of Communism in Eastern Europe, sympathizing over the difficulties of economic reform, and disagreeing only – but profoundly – on the role of nuclear weapons.
Here the documents illuminate the complexities of the Thatcher's triangular relationship with her American partner, Ronald Reagan, and her Soviet interlocutor, Mikhail Gorbachev. Both of the latter were nuclear abolitionists, who almost reached an agreement at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 for a nuclear-free world - against Thatcher's vociferous objections. The British leader believed nuclear weapons had preserved the peace for the previous 40 years, and that they were essential for deterrence and security. As did Gorbachev, she thought Reagan's notion of missile defense was dubious at best, and at worst destabilizing. As did Reagan (not Gorbachev the demilitarizer), Thatcher never met a military spending proposal she didn't like.
The close Thatcher-Reagan relationship was hardly news, since both were politically conservative leaders of countries in historic alliance. More surprising was the common ground she found with the Communist leader – her ideological opposite even when he became a social democrat at the end of his tenure in office. Starting from their early jousting over ideas, they were able to overcome the ideological divide and develop a trusting, respectful and often mutually admiring relationship, which grew stronger with each of the spirited discussions they had. The documents show Thatcher's remarkable influence on Gorbachev's thinking about economic reform, conventional weapons in Europe, and local conflicts, among many other topics.
Today, the National Security Archive publishes Soviet records of several Gorbachev-Thatcher conversations in 1987 and 1989, together with Politburo discussions of their meetings, and excerpts from the diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, who, as Gorbachev's senior foreign policy adviser, was present at each of those meetings. According to Chernyaev and to Gorbachev's own memoir, Thatcher became one of his closest peers among Western leaders, with whom Gorbachev "could discuss anything," and from whom he learned a great deal. The documents show that each meeting they had was full of discussion of the internal aspects of perestroika, Thatcher's own attempts to change Great Britain, the virtues and vices of socialism and capitalism, and the most pressing issues of international relations. Most of the time they argued, and enjoyed the argument, but then found some middle ground and were able to agree on surprisingly many issues, such as resolving local conflicts, reforming the Soviet economy, and even working through the intensely controversial issue of the unification of Germany.
These conversations also played a very positive role by pushing Gorbachev to learn about the Western perceptions of threat emanating from the Soviet Union – reinforcing his goal of reducing that sense of threat on both sides of the Cold War. But at the same time, one might argue that the strong positions taken by the British prime minister on nuclear weapons indirectly contributed to a major missed opportunity – that Gorbachev and Reagan never could realize their dream of a nuclear-free world, or even make much progress towards the arms race in reverse that Gorbachev so desired.
The Thatcher-Gorbachev Meetings
Thatcher's first visit to the USSR in March 1987 was a stellar event. She spent the entire day in Moscow arguing with Gorbachev seemingly about every global and internal issue. (Document 1) Of her many forthright statements, one in particular had a huge impact on Gorbachev - when Thatcher spoke of the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Looking at Soviet behavior through Thatcher's eyes seems to have made Gorbachev acutely aware of how threatening the Soviet actions in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan looked to Western Europe. (Document 2)
The March 1987 meeting included a forceful delineation of positions on arms control and the role of nuclear weapons. Thatcher also spoke about Soviet conventional superiority in Europe, again emphasizing the perception of threat this created throughout Europe. Gorbachev would later repeat Thatcher's point in a Politburo discussion of deterrence – which in turn had a significant impact on the development of the new defensive emphasis in Soviet military doctrine. (Document 3) Even though Thatcher was not willing to move an inch on her position against cuts in the British nuclear arsenal, the threat perception discussion reverberated in specific changes that occurred in the Soviet INF negotiating positions. Quite likely the Thatcher discussions also affected Soviet behavior during the subsequent visit by then U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz to Moscow, and Gorbachev's willingness (over Soviet military objections) to include the advanced short-range OKA missile in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty at the end of 1987.
An interesting aspect of the March 1987 conversations, characteristic of almost all of the Thatcher-Gorbachev meetings, was Thatcher's reminiscences about her own experience with economic reform in Britain. Even though Gorbachev's reform, especially as early as 1987, had little in common with the radical free market changes Thatcher had introduced in her country, she felt the need to share her wisdom with him. And he, a convinced Communist evolving toward becoming a social democrat, listened and learned. One could hear echoes of these conversations in his subsequent speeches and discussions with advisers.
During his visit to Britain in April 1989, Gorbachev was mostly concerned about the new U.S. President, George H. W. Bush, and the American's reluctance to engage with him. Gorbachev complained to Thatcher about the so-called Bush "pause," which paralyzed the process of arms control and other aspects of U.S.-Soviet relations in 1989. (Document 5) And yet, Gorbachev launched into a passionate argument in favor of nuclear abolition again – this time linking the failure to abolish nuclear weapons to future proliferation among unstable regimes. If nuclear weapons were not abolished, the situation would get out of control, Gorbachev argued to the resistant Thatcher.
At this meeting, Gorbachev gave his British counterpart a remarkably candid analysis of the Soviet economic situation and the difficulties facing perestroika and reform. Thatcher again talked about her own experience and even claimed that she "was the first to start an analogous perestroika in my country." She called the first free elections that had just taken place in the Soviet Union (March 1989) "a real watershed," but also prodded Gorbachev to focus his attention on economic reform.
In their first meeting of the visit, held on the way to London from the airport on April 5, the British and Soviet leaders engaged in an impressive review of regional conflicts. Thatcher told him about her visit to Southern Africa and her worries about the situation in Namibia. Gorbachev complained about the U.S. position on Afghanistan, and Washington's failure to comply with the Geneva accords. They disagreed on the situation in Cuba and Havana's behavior in Africa. (Document 4)
In September 1989, during her visit to Moscow on the way back from Japan, Thatcher mostly wanted to discuss the Soviet internal situation, but her hidden agenda was to reach an understanding with Gorbachev on how to prevent the unification of Germany. She expressed her continuing admiration and support of Gorbachev's efforts to reform his country and her understanding of his difficult position in Eastern Europe. Citing support and a personal message from Bush, she assured the Soviet leader that they would not do anything to try to "decommunize Eastern Europe" or destabilize the Warsaw Pact.
Asking that no notes be taken during a confidential part of the conversation, Thatcher told Gorbachev that nobody in Europe was in favor of German unification, and that although the NATO communiqué said otherwise, he should disregard it. Anatoly Chernyaev wrote in his diary on October 6, 1989, "Thatcher, when she asked to go off record during the conversation with M.S., expressed her views decisively against Germany's reunification. But, she said this is not something she can openly say at home or in NATO. In short, they want to prevent this with our hands." Chernyaev wrote down the confidential part of the conversation from memory as soon as he left the room. (Document 7)
During the same meeting, even though Gorbachev got the assurances he wanted from Thatcher on Germany, Eastern Europe and domestic reform, the Soviet leader tried to push further on the issue of disarmament – now suggesting abolition of all tactical weapons – the so-called "third zero." As in all their previous meetings, Madam Prime Minister was adamant about keeping tactical nuclear weapons as key to British and broader European security. (U.S. and NATO tactical nuclear weapons exist even today in Europe, a hangover from the Cold War.)
Overall, the documentary record suggests that Margaret Thatcher played a complex role at the end of the Cold War. Her conversations with Gorbachev on general issues of arms control helped make him more open to compromise with the United States, and to carrying out deep unilateral conventional arms reductions in Europe. However, her influence worked in the other direction on nuclear weapons policy, because of her close relationship with Reagan. Her strong stance in defense of nuclear weapons was one factor that prevented the historic breakthrough that Reagan and Gorbachev almost achieved in Reykjavik, and kept trying to return to afterwards.
This deep and principled disagreement between Gorbachev and Thatcher on the value and role of nuclear weapons ultimately meant her influence on Gorbachev was stronger in the sphere of domestic politics, and especially the economy, but not as strong on overall foreign policy and arms control.
[Note on sources: Soviet records of Gorbachev's meetings with foreign leaders generally come from two sources. Since few of the formal Soviet Foreign Ministry memoranda of conversation have been released from the Moscow archives, the most important available source is the Gorbachev Foundation. The transcripts translated below are taken from the Foundation's records of those meetings, which Foundation staff transcribed during the 1990s. The records consist of handwritten notes taken by Chernyaev and other aides, including Gorbachev's trusted interpreter, Pavel Palashenko. In recent years, the Foundation has published portions and excerpts from the transcribed records in several document volumes. During the 1990s however, and in certain cases after that, researchers were able to gain access to the full transcripts using computers at the Foundation.
Chernyaev donated his copies of many of these texts to the National Security Archive, as part of his contribution to a series of conferences in 1998 and 1999 on the end of the Cold War. He also subsequently donated his personal diary to the Archive covering his years as a high-level official of the Soviet Central Committee from 1972 to 1985, and as a top Gorbachev aide from 1985 through 1991. Without Anatoly Sergeyevich's commitment to openness and the documentary record, our mutual history would be immeasurably poorer. ]
Document 1: Record of Conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev, March 30, 1987, Moscow.
Document 2: Politburo discussion of Margaret Thatcher visit, April 16, 1987. Notes of Anatoly S. Chernyaev.
Document 3: Politburo Discussion of the New Doctrine of the Warsaw Pact, May 8, 1987. Notes of Anatoly S. Chernyaev.
Document 4: Record of Conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev, April 5, 1989, London.
Document 5: Record of Conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev, April 6, 1989, London.
Document 6: Diary of Anatoly S. Chernyaev, April 16, 1989
Document 7: Record of Conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev, September 23, 1989, Moscow.