Last month marked the 40th anniversary of a very British diplomatic coup.
On Feb. 27, 1981, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and the Cabinet sat down for dinner at the British Embassy as guests of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With his presidency barely a month old, this marked the first time Reagan had set foot on foreign soil.
That it was British soil sent a clear signal. The idea that the president would attend a formal dinner at any foreign embassy was unheard of during the Carter years. Reagan’s decision to break with precedent marked the culmination of some wily diplomatic wrangling—and raised the curtain on a unique chapter in Anglo-American relations.
The opportunity to lure Reagan to 3100 Massachusetts Avenue arose when Thatcher became the first head of government to visit the newly inaugurated president. The two had met twice before with great success. Their shared political outlook and personal affinity sent a frisson of excitement through the press, who wrote breathlessly of an impending “lovefest.”
Aware of the journalistic tendency to delight in pulling down strawmen of their own making, Thatcher was nervous. How could she possibly deliver on such sky-high expectations?
Grappling with this dilemma was Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Sir Nicholas Henderson. An old pro whose unkempt demeanor (Barbara Bush felt he reassembled an unmade bed) belied shrewd political judgement, Henderson was looking for a way to elevate the Thatcher visit. The centerpiece of the official schedule was to be a White House banquet in Thatcher’s honor. Henderson’s gambit was to host a second dinner, in Reagan’s honor, at the ambassador’s residence the very next night.
News of Henderson’s maneuvers engendered considerable disquiet within the administration. Presidents did not attend return dinners during official visits: doing so for the Brits would, it was feared, set an unwelcome precedent. Henderson dispatched this difficulty by simply ignoring it and sending out invitations regardless.
When the White House took him to task, he insisted that Richard Allen, the president’s national security advisor, had offered assurances that the administration would welcome the idea. This did not go down well. “I did not give such assurances,” Allen scribbled furiously on an internal memo. “I said we’d check into it.”
But by now the horse had bolted. To the despair of the Protocol Department, the president himself showed no interest in closing the barn door but jumped at the chance to spend more time with Thatcher. The NSC staff duly provided intellectual heft. Domestically it would be “psychologically valuable” to demonstrate the president’s commitment to transatlantic relations in this manner, argued one memo: “Novelty is politically useful in its own right.”
Although Allen had not enjoyed his tussle with Henderson, he remained a committed anglophile and advised the president to use Thatcher’s visit to “dramatize” their “meeting of minds.” The dinner was on.
Under the direction of Henderson’s wife, Mary, the embassy staff threw themselves into the most intricate of preparations. The guest list, which included the Cabinet, top Congressional leaders, corporate titans and Bob Hope, was carefully checked with the White House.
Two full days were devoted to filling the residence with flowers: several pots of daffodils became so large that the Secret Service deemed them a risk; they were duly removed. The Reagans were known to enjoy veal, but Mary chose a bold menu of lemon broth soup and quail pie, with recipes drawn from her own cookbook. Great care was taken to source wine from California, including Robert Mondavi’s 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon, a Reagan favorite. On the night, this led to an animated conversation between Reagan and Henderson in which the president suggested Californian vintners would benefit from laying down their bottles for longer.
In front of over 100 guests, sitting at round tables across the breadth of the embassy ballroom, Reagan and Thatcher extolled each other in extravagant toasts.
“We’re very sensible of the honor that you do us in coming here,” said she, proclaiming her “total faith” that Reagan would take decisions “right for protecting the liberty common humanity.” Reagan, somewhat overcome by the generosity of her rhetoric, felt moved to depart from his prepared response. With a twinkle in his eye, he turned to Thatcher and beamed: “You are a hard act to follow!”
That night Reagan wrote in his diary of a “truly a warm & beautiful occasion.” In her own correspondence, Thatcher wrote: “We shall never have a happier visit.”
Clearly, the embassy had succeeded in creating an intimate, almost family atmosphere that reinforced and strengthened a broader meeting of minds. The symbolism of Reagan’s presence and the genuine enjoyment of the guests proved a potent combination. It was grand diplomacy at its best—reinforcing a relationship that would reshape Anglo-American relations for years to come.
Daniel Collings is co-author of “The Architecture of Diplomacy”—the authorized history of the British Embassy in Washington, and director of US research for Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biography. To reach him, contact email@example.com.