Margaret Thatcher never shied away from a fight, be it with trade unionists or feminists, Irish Republicans or Argentines intent on seizing the Falkland Islands. Yet her most enduring legacy is one of peace. The former British prime minister, who died Monday at age 87, played a critical role in ending the Cold War — the nuclear-tipped threat to world peace as nations clustered in Soviet and Western blocs for four-plus decades after World War II.
With American President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher recognized the potential for transformative change in the rise of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Like Reagan, Thatcher hated communism. Like Reagan, she supported an ever-stronger nuclear deterrent to Soviet armaments. Yet when the time came to make history, Thatcher, like Reagan, stuck out her neck. The world is safer today because this woman of conviction took on the burden of leadership at the fateful hour.
Her role as peacemaker was unlikely, given how she had earned her “Iron Lady” nickname: from the government-controlled Soviet news media in 1976. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. The Cold War was running hot. As leader of Britain’s opposition Conservative Party, Thatcher had given a speech bashing communist leaders in Moscow. She accused them of mounting an imperialist quest for world domination at the expense of their own people: “The men in the Soviet Politburo do not have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion,” she said. “They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.”
Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, making her the first — and, to date, only — woman to rule from No. 10 Downing Street. Her country was a shambles. Unemployment had become chronic. No one but Thatcher had the willpower to privatize, deregulate and otherwise act to free a recession-bound economy from its downward spiral.
To those who urged her to make a “U-turn” in her austere policies, she famously replied, “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” By 1990, when she left office, the British economy had indeed staged a turnaround.
Such willful certainty made her U-turn on relations with the Soviets all the more remarkable.
Reagan, after taking office in 1981, had expanded a U.S. military buildup begun under his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. A resolute Reagan was famously determined to “leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Gorbachev, installed as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, found himself badly trailing the West in an arms race that his battered economy could not continue to run.
Thatcher, from her London vantage point, saw that Gorbachev represented a break from the Russian tradition of hardened autocrats. She had said the West could “do business” with him, teaming with Reagan to help bring about a nonviolent end to the Soviet era. Historians never write such unadorned verdicts, but in essence, Gorbachev and the crumbling Soviet Union had no choice but to end the Cold War in surrender.
In comments from his website reported Monday, Gorbachev recalled: “Our first meeting in 1984 set in motion relations that were sometimes complicated, not always smooth, but which were serious and responsible on both sides. Human relations also gradually took shape, becoming more and more friendly.
“In the end we managed to achieve a mutual understanding, and that contributed to a change in the atmosphere between our country (the Soviet Union) and the West and the end of the Cold War.”
History will remember Thatcher, even beyond her unleashing of the British economy, for the role she played in ending that terrible conflict, distinguished by the fact that its principal warriors never engaged in armed combat. Thatcher began retreating from the global spotlight after a series of strokes in 2002. On Monday, another stroke ended her life.
A new generation knows Thatcher mainly from actress Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the 2011 movie, “The Iron Lady.” It’s a fine flick, as far as that goes. But if you’re old enough to remember how Maggie Thatcher helped defeat communism’s nearly half-century threat to Western liberalism, you’re ahead by more than the cost of a ticket.