Newly declassified documents from the British government archives reveal a secret cable in which UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher almost clairvoyantly warned President Jimmy Carter of Soviet aggression less than three months before Russia’s Christmas Eve 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
“After what has happened in Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere, there is an imperative need to demonstrate to the Russians that the West will not tolerate further action of this kind by them and their allies,” Thatcher said in the strongly worded communiqué sent on Oct. 2, 1979.
In 1974, a Soviet-backed junta had come to power in Ethiopia under Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and in the f0llowing years that regime was massively armed by Moscow, East Germany, Cuba, and North Korea. By the mid-1970s Cuba had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Angola to help Soviet-aided Marxist guerrilla forces.
Britain’s “Iron Lady” also stressed the importance of the U.S. military being able to assert itself globally, and the criticality of presidential determination. She told Carter she was “especially encouraged by your statement that you are accelerating efforts to increase the capability of the United States to use its military forces world wide.” And she called it “essential that the Soviet Union should recognize your resolve in this matter.”
The document became available to the public last week on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s MargaretThatcher.org website.
Thatcher’s secret communication was a response to a message Carter had sent her the previous day, before delivering a televised address to the nation that evening. The Soviets apparently did not find much resolve in what Carter had to say.
In it, Jimmy Carter announced the recent discovery in Cuba of a Soviet “brigade of two to three thousand men … armed with about forty tanks and other modern military equipment” and “organized as a combat unit” – but he called it “no direct threat to us.”
The 39th president told the American people, “I have concluded that the brigade issue is certainly no reason for a return to the Cold War. A confrontation might be emotionally satisfying for a few days or weeks for some people, but it would be destructive to the national interest and the security of the United States.”
Instead, Carter said, “the greatest danger to American security tonight is certainly not the two or three thousand Soviet troops in Cuba. The greatest danger to all the nations of the world – including the United States and the Soviet Union – is the breakdown of a common effort to preserve the peace, and the ultimate threat of a nuclear war.”
Carter then repeated his call for the Senate to ratify the SALT II treaty with the Soviets, strongly opposed under the leadership of Democrats Scoop Jackson and Fritz Hollings. Shortly after Carter’s television address, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would come out against the treaty. “SALT II is not a strategic arms limitation; it is strategic arms buildup,” Reagan stated.
Thatcher, on the other hand, reflecting the views of Western Europe, expressed “hope that the treaty will be ratified without delay,” in her message to Carter. “We would not wish any complications concerning SALT II to stand in the way of necessary improvements in the alliance’s defenses.”
Her agreement with Carter on SALT notwithstanding, however, it would clearly be Reagan and not Carter who fulfilled the resolve Thatcher considered essential in the presidency of the United States. In her eulogy to him in 2004 Baroness Thatcher said, “when his enemies tested American resolve, they soon discovered that his resolve was firm and unyielding.”
He set “daunting historic tasks” for himself, “causes hard to accomplish and heavy with risk,” Thatcher said. “He sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world, and to free the slaves of communism.”
Possibly referring to Carter, Thatcher added, “Others hoped, at best, for an uneasy cohabitation with the Soviet Union; he won the Cold War – not only without firing a shot, but also by inviting enemies out of their fortress and turning them into friends.” She said, “the President resisted Soviet expansion and pressed down on Soviet weakness at every point until the day came when communism began to collapse beneath the combined weight of these pressures and its own failures.”
As a result, “in Prague, in Budapest, in Warsaw, in Sofia, in Bucharest, in Kiev and in Moscow itself, the world mourns the passing of the Great Liberator,” Lady Thatcher said in concluding her tribute.
In 1979 it was still the age of détente and a British prime minister had to remind a U.S. president of the “need to demonstrate to the Russians that the West will not tolerate” Communist aggression. A quarter century later, she would hail the legacy of the president who rejected détente and became liberator.
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