Margaret Thatcher on Anglo-Soviet relations (1979)

In October 1979 newly-elected British prime minister Margaret Thatcher delivered the Winston Churchill Memorial Lecture in Luxembourg. In this address she warned of a Soviet military build-up in Europe and possible aggression, while urging greater communication with Soviet bloc nations:

“If we need a clear view of the principles, we also need to identify the challenges to liberty…

Constant vigilance must be our aim too, in meeting the external challenge. At the beginning of this century, even the great autocracies of Russia and Austria were moving towards parliamentary government. The dismantling of the European empires after the last war led to the creation of many new democratic states throughout the world. Yet today, despite their evident success in combining liberty and prosperity with the historical traditions of the national state, the democracies are a minority in the world. They are everywhere opposed by regimes which openly despise our system, and do so forcefully and menacingly.

The challenge to our way of life represented by the Soviet Union is deep-seated. The Russians have equipped themselves with military forces whose capabilities and philosophy are better matched to the demands of an offensive than of a defensive policy and whose ambitions are global in scale. Nor is the Russian challenge only military. It is also political and ideological.

The Russians talk loudly, and rightly so, about the need for peace. But they also proclaim the certain demise of the Western system of democracy. They claim the right to promote this end through what they call the ideological struggle. It is scarcely surprising that, since the end of the war, we have had in Europe no more than the ‘prolonged armed truce’ which Maxim Litvinov, the former Soviet Foreign Minister, predicted as early as 1946. That is the true meaning of peaceful co-existence. It is far from clear that, for the Russians, the meaning of detente is any different…

Let me be clear. The Soviet armies in Europe are organised and trained for attack. Their military strength is growing. The Russians do not publish their intentions. So we must judge them by their military capabilities. I doubt whether any Russian leader would easily contemplate a repetition of the immense sufferings through which his country went less than forty years ago. But it is up to us to ensure that there is no doubt in his mind that this—and worse—would now be the price of any Soviet adventure. That is what we mean when we talk of maintaining the credibility of our defensive forces.

To do this is well within our economic and technical capacity. Our economies are incomparably more prosperous, more productive, more sophisticated and more flexible than the economy of the Soviet Union. The Alliance can maintain its defences without undue burden. And we have other, less tangible assets. The peoples of Europe decided, of their own will, to enter the Western alliance. Unlike the members of the Warsaw Pact, they are consulted about the part defence should play in their national affairs. What they give, they give willingly, however much they grumble. And they will give more if they believe the need is there.

We therefore face an issue of political will. There is no need to match the sacrifices demanded of the Russian people. But can we match the resolve shown down the years by their leaders? Happily the Alliance is bestirring itself. The facts are becoming more widely acknowledged. NATO countries have agreed on a target of annual increases of three percent in defence expenditure. We British are prepared to meet that challenge. We look to our allies to do likewise.

And new decisions are necessary. These decisions, which can be taken within the framework of the proposed SALT II treaty, are needed to preserve the credibility of the West’s nuclear deterrent. Because of their fear-some implications, as well as their expense, nuclear weapons raise issues of particular difficulty for democratic governments. But in the conditions of Europe today, the need for the instruments of deterrence is inescapable. This is why the British Government are already taking steps to ensure that our Polaris force will remain effective into the 1990s. It is why we intend to ensure that our strategic deterrent, which is also the uniquely European contribution to NATO’s deterrent, remains effective for a long time thereafter. We shall take the necessary decisions within the next few months…

The Soviet Government have introduced formidable new weapons: the SS20 missile and the Backfire bomber. NATO’s equivalent weapons are few in number and becoming obsolete. The Russians already enjoy an advantage. Unless we deploy more modern weapons soon things will get worse. This might tempt the Soviet leaders to think they could exercise political pressure on Europe. Such a situation cannot be allowed to arise. I know that some members of the Alliance will not find it easy to take the necessary decisions about modernising our nuclear forces. I note Mr Brezhnev ‘s willingness to withdraw a few tanks and troops from East Germany and the conditions he attached to his statement on nuclear weapons. What he said must not divert us from our intention. Our sense of common purpose must prevail. The British government will play its part to the full.

The restoration of a military balance in Europe is not an end in itself. It is the necessary condition for the development of relations between East and West. We may not like the regimes under which the countries of Eastern Europe live. But we neither can nor should ignore the many peoples who in the past have been bound to us by common traditions. They are no less Europeans in spirit than are we ourselves. We should, therefore, pursue a realistic dialogue with the Soviet Union and the nations of Eastern Europe. Of course, the relationship cannot be easy. The Communist governments claim the right to pursue the ideological struggle. We will continue to proclaim our belief in the democratic system; the nervousness which Soviet leaders betray at the thought of ‘ideological contamination’ by the West is a tribute to that system.

We must build on our interests where these coincide with those of the East. We must try to limit the consequences where our interests conflict. To discover where the prospect of agreement, or the risk of conflict lies, we need contacts with the Communist countries at all levels, from the highest to the most humble. Ordinary people should meet – as tourists, as journalists, as teachers, as businessmen, as men of science and the arts. The statesmen of both sides should meet to explain their policies. All this can only help the atmosphere for actual negotiation on the issues of trade, disarmament, arms control and world affairs which will determine the issue of peace and war itself.”