The British prime minister prodded President Ronald Reagan to recognize the potential of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a reception held at the Kremlin on March 30, 1987.  Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a reception held at the Kremlin on March 30, 1987. Photo: Boris Yurchenko/Associated Press

In February 1984, Margaret Thatcher flew home from the Moscow funeral of the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Frustrated by his equally aged successor, Konstantin Chernenko, the British prime minister told her aides, “For heaven’s sake, try and find me a young Russian.”

She was searching for change. In London in April 1975, as leader of Britain’s opposition, Thatcher had her first one-on-one meeting with a former governor of California named Ronald Reagan. He, too, was out of office, seeking the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. The pair agreed that the West was giving away too much to the Soviets, while Moscow was winning the arms race. This was an unpopular view, so the Reagan-Thatcher friendship was forged in adversity. It would prove the stronger for it.

Thatcher gained power in 1979, Reagan in January, 1981. Together, against big protest movements, they installed a new class of nuclear weapons in Europe to counter the burgeoning Soviet arsenal. Having achieved this position of strength, Thatcher thought it should be bargained from. In September 1983, she said publicly in Washington, “We stand ready…if and when the circumstances are right—to talk to the Soviet leadership.” Reagan told her, privately, that he agreed.

In 1984, Thatcher found the man she was looking for: Mikhail Gorbachev, age 53. She wagered that he would be the next Soviet leader and had him and his wife, Raisa, to Chequers, her country residence, just before Christmas.

Their discussions were sensational—sensationally rude—but in a way that both found refreshing. According to her interpreter, Thatcher “deliberately and breathtakingly…set about serially cross-examining [Mr. Gorbachev] about the inferiority of the Soviet centralized command system.” He invited her to come see the Soviet people living “joyfully.” She denounced communism as “synonymous with getting one’s way by violence” and accused the Soviets—accurately—of secretly funding the British miners’ union in its bitter strike against pit closures.

The tension was so great that Raisa Gorbachev mouthed to her husband, “It’s over.” “I wondered if I should leave,” Mr. Gorbachev recalled. But Thatcher, sensing danger, announced that “the difficult part of the discussion was now over.” After lunch, they sat by the fire and talked about missiles.

Thatcher interpreted Reagan to her Soviet visitor. She described the president as peace-loving and ready “to have another go” at talking. But she also hinted at a difference with her friend in the White House: She supported the research component of his Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, designed to create a missile shield against Soviet nuclear attack, but candidly said that Reagan’s desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons was “not a viable dream.” She was worried that unilateral U.S. action on SDI might split the Western alliance and terrify the Soviets into rash pre-emptive actions.

Thatcher risked letting Mr. Gorbachev drive a wedge between her and Reagan. The Soviet leader immediately tried to do just that, telling her that America was being “egotistic” toward its allies. They agreed to start a process of disarmament talks, leaving her to gamble that her high level of trust with Reagan would see her through. Indeed, she had already invited herself to visit Camp David the following weekend. (Aides had advised Reagan that Thatcher would be intruding on “family time,” but he had told them, “She is family.”)

After Mr. Gorbachev left Chequers, Thatcher announced that he was “a man I can do business with.” Writing privately to Reagan, she noted, “I actually rather liked him. I got the impression that…he was using me as a stalking horse for you.”

Not everyone in the White House was happy. The Washington Post reported that Reagan “fervently hopes” that “his straight-talking conservative ally from London will get off her gee-whiz kick about the Kremlin’s personable heir apparent.” But precisely because she was a true U.S. ally, Thatcher could make a difference within the administration: Europe’s greatest hawk was making dovish noises.

The administration, whose lines of information from the Kremlin were not strong, could not help being interested. Colin Powell was then military assistant to Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense and arch-hawk. “Along comes Gorby,” Gen. Powell recalled. “He’s like none we’ve ever seen before—with his beautiful suits and his French ties and a stunning wife…And the first statement he got of acceptability was from Margaret…The feeling was, ‘Jesus, if dear old Margaret thinks there’s something here, we’d better take a look.’ ”

That is what Reagan did, after his discussions at Camp David with Thatcher. Already interested in talking to the Soviets and further encouraged by Secretary of State George Shultz, he did not swing from a “no” to a “yes” because of Thatcher. But she gave the right nudge at the right time.

Three months later, Chernenko died, and Mr. Gorbachev became general secretary. In November 1985, he and Reagan met in an ice-breaking summit in Geneva. “Maggie was right,” the president told his aides afterward. “We can do business with this man.” The unfreezing of the Cold War had begun.

That thaw’s consequences did not always please Thatcher. She was appalled when Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986 and all but agreed to abolish nuclear weapons. Giving them up, she told Reagan, would be “tantamount to surrender.”

Steering Reagan away from his line at Reykjavik, she helped persuade him to get less exotic arms-control negotiations back on track. The process that she and Mr. Gorbachev had first discussed at Chequers continued on to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and beyond. The woman whom the Soviets themselves had named the Iron Lady had known when to bend a bit.

The story says something about Anglo-American friendship in world affairs. As Thatcher wrote to Reagan during the Iran-Contra controversy in December 1986, “Anything which weakens you, weakens America; and anything that weakens America weakens the whole free world.”

It also says something in the menacing era of Vladimir Putin about the value of strong, shared beliefs among allies. In March 1987, Thatcher had a highly successful visit to Moscow, including many hours of fierce argument with Mr. Gorbachev. In the dining room, he pointed out a painting of a rural landscape in the evening, sunny after rain. “This is like our conversation,” said Mr. Gorbachev. “There have been storms, but the light is coming through.”

Thatcher studied the painting. “Yes,” she said. “The light is coming from the West.”

—Mr. Moore is the author of “Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith—In London, Washington and Moscow,” to be published by Knopf on Jan. 5.

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