UK files detail Mikhail Gorbachev's bid to boost ties with West in 1984
Papers describe 1984 UK visit which led to cold war thaw in relations with Thatcher and Reagan
Britain shed light on Mikhail Gorbachev’s audacious bid to save the ailing Soviet Union on Friday, publishing previously secret documents showing his attempt to forge better ties with the West during the depths of the cold war.
Gorbachev, whose reforms triggered the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, was in 1984 the main contender to succeed 73-year-old Konstantin Chernenko as Kremlin leader but was little known outside the Soviet Union when he visited London for his first major trip to Europe.
Invited by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev’s 1984 visit helped change the course of the cold war by convincing the “Iron Lady” and her ally, US President Ronald Reagan, that the Soviet Union might soon be led by a man with whom the West could do business.
“I certainly found him a man one could do business with. I actually rather liked him,” Thatcher told Reagan in a note marked confidential following hours of discussions with Gorbachev about the arms race of the Cold War.
“There is no doubt that he is completely loyal to the Soviet system but he is prepared to listen and have a genuine dialogue and make up his own mind,” Thatcher told Reagan.
Within days of the meeting, Thatcher flew to Camp David to convince Reagan that Gorbachev would be different from Kremlin leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov or Chernenko, who was so ill that he often missed politburo meetings.
The 1984 files show Thatcher juggling negotiations with China over handing back Hong Kong, a strike by miners at home and the high politics of reading the likely next leader of the West’s most powerful foe.
Under Britain’s so-called 30-year rule, the around 500 files from the Cabinet Office and Prime Minister’s Office in 1984 were deemed sensitive enough to be held in secret under the Public Records Act for 30 years.
Sensitive British documents were kept secret for half a century under rules brought in under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan just after the second world war, but that was reduced to 30 year under Labour prime minister Harold Wilson.
The rule has been cut to 20 years in recent years, though extremely sensitive documents can be held back for longer with permission from the justice minister.
‘Gorbachev was different’
In contrast to the stagnation of the Brezhnev era, Gorbachev, then just 53, and his elegant wife, Raisa, convinced Thatcher that if he became Soviet leader he could offer the West an opening after years of stalemate.
Thatcher’s analysis proved both influential and perceptive: Reagan was slowly convinced, the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself collapsed seven years after Gorbachev’s visit to London.
“She told me that Gorbachev was different from any of the other Kremlin leaders,” Reagan told journalists in 1990. “She believed that there was a chance for a great opening. Of course, she was proven exactly right.”
In the 16th-century country retreat of British leaders known as Chequers, Thatcher sparred with Gorbachev for hours over restrictions on Jewish emigration, the fate of dissidents such as physicist Andrei Sakharov, and the merits of capitalism and communism.
She also alluded to possible Soviet financial help for unions, according to notes taken on the meeting by her advisers.
Gorbachev said that Thatcher should not blame anyone but Britain for its problems, and that the Soviet Union had transferred no funds to the National Union of Mineworkers, adding “as far as I’m aware” to his answer after what British officials described as a “sideways glance” at his adviser.
It is unclear whether she read out the joke tentatively suggested to her by an adviser from one of Karl Marx’s letters to Friedrich Engels, recalling his mother once saying: “If only Karl had made Capital … instead of just writing about it.”
After lunch concluded with a toast to the domestic ambience and good atmosphere, Gorbachev and Thatcher had a much more private battle – fuelled by coffee in the sitting room – over the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States.
For more than three hours, Gorbachev, at one point brandishing at Thatcher a full-page diagram from The New York Times showing the firepower of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, laid out the horrors of a nuclear winter to a distinctly combative Thatcher.
Gorbachev was adamant that despite no summit between an American president and a Soviet Communist Party general secretary since Jimmy Carter met Leonid Brezhnev in 1979, the Kremlin had decided to give priority to the “loftier ideal” of peace at talks to be held in 1985.
But behind the Marxist bluster of a Soviet apparatchik abroad, Thatcher, who died last year at the age of 87, told Reagan she was impressed by his sharp personality, his willingness to debate and his possibly even sharper wife.
“His wife is far from being the usual Soviet woman,” Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, wrote in a note to the then US Secretary of State George Shultz.
“Her Doctorate of Philosophy could not conceal a forthcoming and attractive personality with a surprisingly wide knowledge of classical modern and English litreature.”
Reagan and Gorbachev, who was made Soviet leader on March 11, 1985, met for the first time on November 19, 1985 in Geneva.
After the discussion with Gorbachev, Thatcher went to China for talks about Hong Kong but aides were bemused when Gorbachev, still on his visit, turned up at Downing Street unannounced requesting to see the famous black door of Number 10.
The future leader of the Soviet Union managed to get into the front lobby, but left “reportedly in good humour” before any of Thatcher’s private secretaries turned up.