Thatcher and Reagan may have seemed like equals. His invasion of Grenada shows they were not

The embarrassment and humiliation have in fact been known for years. But only now do we see how carefully Washington kept its supposedly close ally in the dark


‘She promised to follow him to the end of the earth,” ran the famous spoof Gone with the Wind poster of Ronald Reagan cradling Margaret Thatcher as a mushroom cloud blossoms in the background. “He promised to organise it.” But relations between the two right-wing leaders were not always as cosy as we were led to believe: natural sympathy masked intense rivalry, and if there were smiles in public it was because she had, as usual, come out on top. “She wore away at Reagan,” the political scientist David Runciman wrote recently in the London Review of Books. “She was always much better informed than he was and able to dominate any discussion. Sometimes he barely got a word in.”

So if Reagan wanted to get his way, the best approach was to stay mum. As cabinet papers published this week reveal, the British Prime Minister knew nothing at all about the US invasion of Grenada, the small Caribbean island and British crown colony, until it was already under way.

On 24 October 1983, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe made a statement to the House of Commons about the island, where five days before the Marxist prime minister Maurice Bishop had been overthrown and assassinated by what a history of the West Indies calls “a small ultra-Leninist clique” inside his government. But Howe made no mention of a possible invasion – because he knew nothing about it. That evening, Mrs Thatcher had dinner with the US ambassador. All was sweetness and light, it appeared, despite the 700-strong Cuban force that was building a large international airport in the island 1,500 miles south-east of Miami.

Later that evening, Washington sent a cable to London, informing its Special Relationship buddy that the US was considering a request from some Caribbean nations to intervene in the island. It followed up with another message, reporting laconically that the invasion was actually under way.

Mrs Thatcher exploded. All the “dear Ronnie” chumminess was forgotten. “I must tell you that the decision which you describe causes us the gravest concern,” she fired back. “I cannot conceal from you that I am deeply disturbed… [I] hope that even at this late stage you will take [my advice] into account before events were irrecoverable.”

As she learned when they spoke on a secret phone line, the Rubicon had already been crossed, or, as Reagan put it: “We are already at zero.” Within hours, 6,500 marines had descended on the island. It was over in days. Thatcher, as Howe confided, was “deeply disturbed” by this “humiliation” which caused her “intense embarrassment”.

The embarrassment and humiliation have, in fact, been known for years – Thatcher was frank about them in her memoirs. But only now do we see how carefully Washington kept its supposedly close ally in the dark over plans which, as British officials noted bitterly, had been in development for a long time.

The relationship had, of course, been profoundly unequal for decades; it was only through guile and force of personality that Thatcher bent Reagan to her will over the Falklands invasion and thus gave the world the impression that the relationship was far more equal than it really was. But the Grenada debacle exposed more than British weakness; it revealed Britain’s bizarre blindness both to the real dangers of the Caribbean becoming a Soviet lake, and to the improbability, 20 years after the Cuban missile crisis, of Washington standing by and allowing that to happen.

Today, more than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is strange to realise how easy-going the Conservative British government was about events such as those in Grenada, where an “ultra-Leninist clique” closely linked to Moscow murdered the elected prime minister. Whitehall probably regarded them all indiscriminately as daft islanders who could readily be brought to heel if need be; in any case, they were thousands of miles away, and doubtless loyal to the Queen. It was a shock for them to realise that the US saw it all rather differently.

A Roman road will be no more

Rome has its share of problems, but its traffic flow is a thing of beauty. Try it on a scooter and you will see what I mean: the fast, swirling, multi-lane Lungotevere roads along the Tiber, the vast free-form roundabout of Piazza Venezia, the incredible ride through the middle of the Roman Forum and up around the Colosseum. The Italian genius demonstrated in some of its superb autostrade produces an exhilarating experience when you ride through Rome.

So it is no surprise that many in the city have reacted in shock and disbelief at plans by the new mayor, Ignazio Marino, to close the Imperial Forum boulevard to private traffic and make it a vast pedestrian zone. At a stroke the exhilaration of zipping through the world’s most famous ancient monuments will be killed; traffic in the rest of the system risks permanent gridlock.

Yet just writing those words I recognise how selfish they must sound: what is exhilarating for the scooterist turns this unique zone into a nightmare of noise, smoke and danger for those on foot. No one could deny that this area – cleared of medieval tenements by Mussolini – is unique. Mr Marino’s plan is, by banning private traffic from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum, to transform the area into “a walk into history”. It is an idea whose time has come.

Twitter: @peterpopham

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower