‘‘That required enormous leadership,’’ Ingham said. ‘‘This was a formidable undertaking, this was a risk with a capital R-I-S-K, and she demonstrated her leadership by saying she would give the military their marching orders and let them get on with it.’’
In deciding on war, Thatcher overruled Foreign Office specialists who warned her about the dangers of striking back. She was infuriated by warnings about the dangers to British citizens in Argentina and the difficulty of getting support from the U.N. Security Council.
‘‘When you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them,’’ she said in her memoir, ‘‘Downing Street Years.’’
‘‘And anyway what was the alternative? That a common or garden dictator should rule over the queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was prime minister.’’
Thatcher’s determination to reclaim the islands brought her into conflict with Reagan, who dispatched Secretary of State Alexander Haig on a shuttle mission to London and Buenos Aires to seek a peaceful solution, even as British warships approached the Falklands.
A private diary kept by U.S. diplomat Jim Rentschler captures Thatcher at this crisis point.
‘‘And here’s Maggie, appearing in a flower-decorated salon adjoining the small dining room (...) sipping orange juice and sherry,’’ Rentschler wrote. ‘‘La Thatcher is really quite fetching in a dark velvet two-piece ensemble with grosgrain piping and a soft hairdo that heightens her blond English coloring.’’
But the niceties faded over the dinner table.
‘‘High color is in her cheeks, a note of rising indignation in her voice, she leans across the polished table and flatly rejects what she calls the ‘woolliness’ of our secondstage formulation,’’ Rentschler writes.
Needless to say, Haig’s peace mission soon collapsed.
The relatively quick triumph of British forces revived Thatcher’s political fortunes, which had been faltering along with the British economy. She won an overwhelming victory in 1983, tripling her majority in the House of Commons.
She trusted her gut instinct, famously concluding early on that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represented a clear break in the Soviet tradition of autocratic rulers. She pronounced that the West could ‘‘do business’’ with him, a position that influenced Reagan’s vital dealings with Gorbachev in the twilight of the Soviet era.
It was heady stuff for a woman who had little training in foreign affairs when she triumphed over a weak field of indecisive Conservative Party candidates to take over the party leadership in 1975 and ultimately run as the party’s candidate for prime minister.
She profited from the enormous crisis facing the Labour Party government led by Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan. Britain was near economic collapse, its currency propped up by the International Monetary Fund, and its once-defiant spirit seemingly broken.
The sagging Labour government had no parliamentary majority after 1977, and the next year it suffered through a ‘‘winter of discontent’’ with widespread strikes disrupting vital public services, including hospital care and even grave digging. The government’s effort to hold the line on inflation led to chaos in the streets.
Britain seemed adrift, no longer a credible world power, falling from second- to third-tier status.
It was then, Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, that she came to the unshakable, almost mystical belief that only she could save Britain. She cited a deep ‘‘inner conviction’’ that this would be her role.
Events seemed to be moving her way when she led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979, with a commitment to reduce the state’s role and champion private enterprise.
She was underestimated at first — by her own party, by the media, later by foreign adversaries. But they all soon learned to respect her. Thatcher’s ‘‘Iron Lady’’ nickname was coined by Soviet journalists, a grudging testament to her ferocious will and determination.
Thatcher set about upending decades of liberal doctrine, successfully challenging Britain’s welfare state and socialist traditions, in the process becoming the reviled bete noire of the country’s left-wing intelligentsia.
She is perhaps best remembered for her hardline position during the pivotal strike in 1984 and 1985 when she faced down coal miners in an ultimately successful bid to break the power of Britain’s unions. It was a reshaping of the British economic and political landscape that endures to this day.Continued...