Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
It gives me no joy to report this, but documents recently released by the Carter Library, as well as from Thatcher’s personal files, suggest that compared to Thatcher, Carter was a veritable rock of fortitude and resolution during the 1979 hostage crisis. This doesn’t really come as a surprise to me; I’d known this from other sources, but it’s interesting to see it spelled out.
In this letter to Carter, dated November 21, 1979–this was when it seemed the hostages would face show trials for espionage–Thatcher admires Carter’s “restraint,” and “measured response.” She then dismisses his request that Britain make even the most minimal show of displeasure:
I have been considering your suggestion that we should make a public gesture of our disapproval of Iranian behaviour by reducing the size of our diplomatic staff in Tehran. We have been keeping the level of our staffing at the Embassy under constant review with the aim of ensuring that it is no more than sufficient for operational needs. There will be some thinning out over the next few weeks. But we have not hitherto believed it wise to make a political point of any reduction, partly because we doubt whether the Iranians would be much impressed and partly because of the risk of retaliatory action against those remaining.
Nor was she willing to go as far as the Carter Administration wanted in freezing Iranian assets in London. In fact, if you take the collection as a whole, you’ll see that she was chiefly concerned that Carter not do anything that might “jeopardize British interests” in the region. That was when she was thinking about Iran at all, which she generally was not. Iran was barely a blip on her mental horizon compared, say, to Rhodesia.
I wrote about this in There is No Alternative. I hardly need say how much I admire Thatcher, but there is no doubt in my mind that she failed to grasp the significance of the Iranian Revolution, and she simply did not recognize the threat political Islam could pose to the Western world. (Churchill, by contrast, grasped it quite well.)
Some extracts from my interviews with her intimates:
CB: There’s not a single mention in your book, and not a single mention in any memoir from the time, of anyone being concerned by the growing threat of Islamic extremism—
Bernard Ingham: No.
CB: Were there no indications at the time that this was an issue that would preoccupy Britain so greatly in the next decades?
BI: Well, I suppose our objective was to keep them on our side because of the oil . . . and I suppose that perhaps in trying to keep them on our side because of the oil we did exacerbate the problem. Because we did play up to some pretty reprehensible regimes. . . . Where were the indications coming from, apart from OPEC, which was really a business response, a monopolist response, where were the indications coming from of Islamic extremism at the time?
CB: Well, the Iranian revolution, for one thing. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt. The rise of the Taliban, which of course we contributed to—
BI: Yes, but we’d put up—let me plead our history, we’d put up with so many sects in our time! HAH! HAH! I mean, we put up with India! HAH! I mean, what was another sect?! HAH! HAH! . . . But you’re quite right . . . who the hell had ever heard of Islamic extremism in 1979? I didn’t. I’d heard of oil.
“Who the hell had ever heard of Islamic extremism in 1979?”
CB: During the time that you were working with Margaret Thatcher, do you remember anyone asking the question, “Are we nurturing a problem with Islamic fundamentalism, here and abroad?”
John Hoskyns: It wasn’t in the air. It wasn’t in the air at all.
Just not in the air.
CB: When you were working with Mrs. Thatcher, was there any anticipation of the conflict with radical Islam?
Peter Walker: No, not really, no.
CB: It was really not anticipated—
PW: I never heard a murmur.
This was pretty much the universal response I received. Americans old enough to remember that time still remember it vividly–the yellow ribbons, “Day 232, Day 234,” the humiliation. The event barely registered in Britain.
When you see this, you do wonder: What are we overlooking now? What events are taking place on page 16 of our papers–and the metaphorical page 16 of our consciousness–that really should be on the front page, bold type, top of the fold?