The death of Margaret Thatcher marks the passing of a generation of leaders who literally remade their world. The former British prime minister was universally known as the “Iron Lady” for her steadfast commitment to anti-communist and free-market principles. Her passing is a loss to her people, to Americans – who knew in her time the full meaning of a “special relationship” between her country and ours, and to the Free World in which she was a truly heroic figure.
That was due, in no small measure, to her role at the height of the Cold War when, together with Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, she rolled back Soviet communism and undermined its sponsor, the USSR. Together, these extraordinary figures helped set free many millions of people, without firing a shot.
Margaret Thatcher is revered because she continued to provide extraordinary leadership even after she left office. To cite but one of countless examples, in 1996, half-a-century after her distinguished predecessor, Sir Winston Churchill, delivered one of the most momentous addresses of the Twentieth Century, Lady Margaret Thatcher performed a similar feat in the same forum. As the Center for Security Policy reported at the time:
In 1946, Sir Winston aroused the somnolent nations of the West to the danger posed by Josef Stalin’s hegemonic communism. His speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri brilliantly identified the “Iron Curtain” that would dominate the Cold War period, depriving the people of Central and Eastern Europe of their liberties — and threatening those of the rest of the world. Churchill’s Fulton address has been widely credited, moreover, with helping to mobilize appropriate Western responses to Soviet imperialism, including the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
For her part, Lady Thatcher has in 1996 issued a no-less-clarion call about the dangers emerging in the post-Cold War world. She also offered concrete suggestions about specific responses that are now in order. With regard to the former, she told another audience gathered at Westminister College on 9 March:
…The world remains a very dangerous place, indeed one menaced by more unstable and complex threats than a decade ago. But because the risk of total nuclear annihilation has been removed, we in the West have lapsed into an alarming complacency about the risks that remain. We have run down our defenses and relaxed our guard. And to comfort ourselves that we were doing the right thing, we have increasingly placed our trust in international institutions to safeguard our future. But international bodies have not generally performed well. Indeed, we have learned that they cannot perform well unless we refrain from utopian aims, give them practical tasks and provide them with the means and backing to carry them out.
Lady Thatcher used her speech in Fulton to talk about an issue that could have been pulled from today’s headlines in ways that demonstrate her characteristic vision, common sense and commitment to principle. She declared that, “…The potential contribution of ballistic missile defense to peace and stability seems to me to be very great.” She went on to list five specific dividends:
First, and most obviously, it promises the possibility of protection if deterrence fails, or if there is a limited and unauthorized use of nuclear missiles.
Second, it would also preserve the capability of the West to project its power overseas.
Third, it would diminish the dangers of one country overturning the regional balance of power by acquiring these weapons.
Fourth, it would strengthen our existing deterrent against a hostile nuclear superpower by preserving the West’s powers of retaliation.
And fifth, it would enhance diplomacy’s power to restrain proliferation by diminishing the utility of offensive systems.
These words are as true currently as when Lady Thatcher first spoke them. The sentiment behind them guided her government in the 1980s to join in conducting research on what President Reagan had dubbed the Strategic Defense Initiative. I had the honor of negotiating with the British what proved to be the first of several memoranda of understanding with allied nations to facilitate such activities. It is deeply regrettable that in this instance, at least, there is much work to be done to realize the vision of a properly defended Free World that she shared with President Reagan – and that she worked so hard with him to realize.
It falls to a new generation now to pick up this mantle and fulfill the Thatcher-Reagan aspiration for a Free World that is truly free and ever secure.