the gulf war
homeoral historywar storiesweaponsmapsdiscussion

oral history: margaret thatcher

Photo of margaret thatcher

Interview with Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain
we would cut off a lot of the money flowing to Iraq, by cutting out the oil. Sanctions are still on Iraq. They haven't worked now. You have to put sanctions on and make it quite clear that you are doing so, but I'm afraid that there's a great deal of smuggling which goes on across borders. There always is and proof positive is, they don't work, is there still there, and indeed if we hadn't taken action, Kuwait would still have been occupied and the people under the most terrible tyranny.

And of course you know the Iraqis took hostages as they retreated, they took hostages. Not only prisoners of war but hostages. They just gathered them and pulled them out of the house and took them back with them and some of those, I think something like between 500 and 600 of those are still not back at their homes in Kuwait. This is what you are dealing with, this is the sort of person you have to deal with firmly.

Q: Lady Thatcher, can you recall the moment when you heard that Saddam had invaded Kuwait.

Thatcher: Yes, very clearly because I had gone to speak at a conference at Aspen. President Bush was going to open it and I was going to close, so naturally I went out there to see what he would say. It was not long after I had arrived there that Charles Powell who was staying at an hotel in Aspen rang and said Saddam Hussein has gone into Kuwait, over the border into Kuwait. And immediately I said, "well please find out where our naval ships are, and also where our aircraft are and whether we can get any aircraft to go to the Gulf and whether we can divert the naval ships". You've got to take some action quickly, and you want first to know the facts.

Q: What was the first conversation that you had with the American President, George Bush, was it by telephone, was it personally, what happened?

Thatcher: No, I think that the contacts were done through Charles and I asked immediately, "is the President now coming to Aspen, tomorrow morning", and we had to wait to find that out, and then he was and so all of my thoughts were then on how one would conduct that meeting and the arguments one would put at that meeting.

So the following morning, I woke up early and started to sort out in my mind, the really big issues. I went out for a walk, always lovely in the mountains, and got things worked out in my mind, but it was perfectly clear, aggression must be stopped. That is the lesson of this century. And if an aggressor gets away with it, others will want to get away with it too, so he must be stopped, and turned back. You cannot gain from your aggression.

There was a secondary factor there. That part is the oil center of the world. Oil is vital to the economy of the world. If you didn't stop him, and didn't turn him back, he would have gone over the border to Saudi Arabia, over to Bahrain, to Dubai.......and right down the west side of the Gulf and in fact could have got access and control of 65% of the world's oil reserves, from which he could have blackmailed every nation. So there were two things, aggressors must be stopped and turned back, and he must not get control of this enormously powerful economic weapon.

Q: What was your first instinct about how he should be stopped? Did you first think that it would be purely an American action or an Anglo-American action, or a United Nations action?

Thatcher: No, my first instinct is what can we do? It's no good advising other people what they should do, unless you do the maximum that you can to have it stopped. And so by the following morning Charles told me that some of our ships were being diverted to go towards the Gulf and not to come straight home, and I knew how many Tornados and Jaguars we could in fact get to go to the Gulf and I knew also the friendly rulers in the Gulf who were accustomed to being host to our aircraft.

So we were all ready, and by that time Charles came into breakfast and also Anthony Ackland, who was Permanent Secretary, at that time, of the Foreign Office, so once again we worked through the arguments. I had no doubt about them.

When I then went to Ambassador Cato's main house where President Bush had come, George Bush just said to me, "now Margaret, what do you think?" straight away. And so I was able to say exactly what I have said to you, what I thought. And then while we were talking, a telephone message came through, I think from the ruler of the Yemen, and I said to him "President, you do know that the Yemen, being on the Security Council did not vote last night against Saddam Hussein", so we were already alert that there were some people who were in fact, not going to take the view which the President and I took, but were going to argue as indeed the next telephone calls that came in, from I think King Hussein, from Yemen. Let's try to get an Arab solution.

It was too urgent for that. The negotiations could have gone on and on and in the meantime, Saddam Hussein would have been control of the people of Kuwait. So we left it for a short time, -- we really weren't enamoured in any way with the possibility of an Arab solution, because we didn't think it really existed.

Q: Could you just recall the exact nature of that first conversation with George Bush. As you say, the President said to you "Margaret, what should we do?"

Thatcher: "Margaret, what is your view?" and so indeed I told him that aggressors must be stopped, not only stopped, but they must be thrown out. An aggressor cannot gain from his aggression. He must be thrown out and really, by that time in my mind, I thought we ought to throw him out so decisively that he could never think of doing it again.

But then don't forget I'd had all the experience of the Falklands and so I had no doubt what you had to do to deal with an aggressor, and my generation, as indeed, President Bush's, knew a terrible World War which had been caused because we didn't deal firmly enough with Hitler in the early stages, and of course the Japanese came into Pearl Harbor, so we knew the importance of stopping it quickly and then reversing it.

Q: But of course the, the President was receiving very conflicting advice wasn't he?

Thatcher: Oh yes, you often receive conflicting advice. That's why it is so vital to get your own ideas sorted out and the reasons for them. You don't have to accept advice which you think is unsound, but it is vital that you work out, what you think has to be done and the reasons for it. It's not enough to say well, I can put things across. You must know the reasons, and we were on absolutely firm ground. Dictators must be stopped. They must not be able to march into other peoples' territory, rule their lives, take away their whole mode of existence and just get away with it.

Q: How concerned that the President was receiving, not only conflicting advice, but very strong advice from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in America, General Colin Powell, who was saying "let's give sanctions the chance to work?"

Thatcher: We had sanctions because the United Nations resolution prescribed that we have a period of sanctions and you have to give them a chance to.... sanctions you know don't usually work.

On that day, we knew full well that if sanctions were to have any chance and you must stop the oil from flowing through to the enemy, very quickly, that meant getting on to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the rulers of Turkey, because there was a very important pipeline from Iraq which went south, which went through Saudi Arabia and and the flow of oil through that pipeline had to be stopped, so ships couldn't get it from there.

Also, the President had to get on to the President of Turkey, who was splendid, he's absolutely firm. And we knew what it would cost him to stop that pipeline, because he gained a good deal of income from it, but he agreed to stop it. So we had a very very good reply to the effectiveness of the oil sanctions straight away. And that was due both to King Fahd, and also to I think, I can't remember whether he was President or Prime Minister Ozal, but Turkey was splendid.

Q: Why did Saddam Hussein believe that he would get away with invading Kuwait?

Thatcher: Well, he misjudged the people he was dealing with. I think he thought if he went little by little, he maybe could get away with it. And we had in fact, or the other Arab countries actually had been negotiating with Saddam Hussein, was in the middle of negotiations and he decided to go straight in. So it was no good saying negotiate, this man had broken his word. When he was actually negotiating, and he said I'm fed up of negotiating, I'm going to go in and take it.

Q: George Bush, Dick Cheney were being told by Colin Powell, to give sanctions a chance....

Thatcher: Look, sanctions don't work. There's a possibility that we would cut off a lot of the money flowing to Iraq, by cutting out the oil. Sanctions are still on Iraq. They haven't worked now. You have to put sanctions on and make it quite clear that you are doing so, but I'm afraid that there's a great deal of smuggling which goes on across borders. There always is and proof positive is, they don't work, is there still there, and indeed if we hadn't taken action, Kuwait would still have been occupied and the people under the most terrible tyranny.

And of course you know the Iraqis took hostages as they retreated, they took hostages. Not only prisoners of war but hostages. They just gathered them and pulled them out of the house and took them back with them and some of those, I think something like between 500 and 600 of those are still not back at their homes in Kuwait. This is what you are dealing with, this is the sort of person you have to deal with firmly.

Q: But how concerned were you about the fate of our troops in the desert,I mean there were all sorts of possibilities, what went through your mind?

Thatcher: Oh, I broached the problem of chemical and possibly even biological with the President and we all knew that if they did, we hadn't chemical or biological weapons. That we had to threaten much worse than that and that the threat would be enough to stop them using it, which it was.

I often had to say to some of our generals, look I'm concerned that we haven't any chemical to deter chemical, biological should never be ...... what is the answer? And they would say, the answer is, if anyone uses chemical weapons, you in fact use a nuclear weapon, and I used to say, now, just give me your view, do you think that would deter them. He said it's a much more effective deterrent than chemical weapons back.

So it was not used, the threat didn't need to be used, but it was known that it was always there...

Q: Saddam Hussein understood, you think, that the nuclear option was there?

Thatcher: He knew, that if he used chemical or biological, there would be a terrible reply. You make it clear that you would consider it in order to secure the non-use of those things. Now I think they did. We have had experience of Saddam Hussein using it during the Iraq/Iran war, we'd had experience of him using it on his own people, on the Kurds.

So you never make it explicit, they just understand.

Q: But you as British Prime Minister would have sanctioned the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq, if they had got ...

Thatcher: You would have considered the situation with which you are faced. That was where were your own troops, would it affect them, and what were the alternatives? But, you would not rule it out.

Q: Can we move now to the incident on 26th August, when you received news and so did the President, that an Iraqi tanker was sanction-busting. You wanted strong action taken immediately. The President refused.

Thatcher: Yes it was quite clear, that there was an Iraqi tanker, trying to run the gauntlet of the sanctions and coming down the Gulf. Now we didn't know if it was loaded with oil or not. And if it was you tried not to sink it in the Gulf because of the tremendous consequences and effect of the Gulf when that happened, although we were very much better at dealing with it at that time, as you know, than we had been before.

And also, we found that the British Navy is quite used to boarding a foreign vessel. Now the Americans are not used to, so we have a drill, we know how to do it and deal with it. And the question was whether we should board there, in the Gulf and I got on to the President who thought that we should first find out whether it had any oil on board and therefore we would follow it. Get outside the Gulf and therefore follow it and take a decision later, if need be.

We don't think as it happened, that it had anything or anything significant on. But I knew and recognised what I'd had to cope with earlier, in the Falklands.

The first time you actually go to the use of force is quite a decision for the person who has to authorise it. And so you do tend to say, well look let's just see if there's anything else we can do. And so this was the reason why I said, "look George, this is no time to go wobbly, we'll do it this time, but we can't fall at the first fence, just this time."

You see if they thought that they were cracking our resolve and will, then the first crack can become a bigger crack and if you're not careful, you don't go the job, you set out to do, which is to free the lands of Kuwait, the lands and the people and in fact you encourage an aggressor to go further, happy in the knowledge that the West wouldn't have the leadership or the guts to tackle him.

We had both.

Q: Could you describe your meeting with King Hussein, because some accounts have it that you pinned him to the wall at 10 Downing Street?

Thatcher: Well not quite, but I was very firm, as I've indicated, I had no doubt about what we had to do. I was deeply concerned. We'd had an ancient relationship with the Jordanians and with King Hussein, an ancient relationship, it goes back a very long time and we've always done training and helped them to defend their own interests.

And then of course, I knew full well what was happening, they formed a foursome alliance, between Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and the Yemen, and naturally Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries were deeply concerned, and I found it very difficult to understand how, King Hussein could form an alliance with Saddam Hussein, after all it was Saddam Hussein's ancestors who had murdered King Hussein's cousins in Iraq and had taken control, and I thought that in Arab terms, you know the family matters very much.

I think what he found was, that there were quite a number of people in Jordan who were supporting Iraq because they thought that Iraq was very, very tough and in fact would do what they wanted to do, would tackle Israel. We in fact were desperate that Israel should not come in, and Israel was very, very wise indeed.

So he was in very great difficulty. But the views that he put up, that there should be kind of enormous whole redistributive mechanism around all of the Arab states and that.....they were entitled to take, be friendly with Saddam Hussein, but it just just didn't tie up.

King Hussein is the most decent person. I have seen him on television. The first television performance he did. He was torn. He really was torn, between what he knew was right and between what he knew was the view of some of the extreme Muslims in his territory. But there was no suggestion to me, no question of saying that you could kind of carve up the territory or carve up the em, oil revenues in any way.

I was not discourteous. I was firm. Very firm indeed. Wouldn't you be firm? Do you know what was happening. The oil could come out, straight along the road from Iraq, straight along, out, through Jordan. They were getting their petrol, they were getting supplies and supplies we felt might be going in, so of course I was very tough. I had to be.

But it gave me great sorrow to be tough in that way, but the most important thing, perhaps at that time, we simply could not have taken it if in addition to all of the other problems, if King Hussein had been toppled in his own country. It would have been catastrophic for us all.

Q: Do you think King Hussein was guilty of duplicity?

Thatcher: No, I think he had a very, very difficult hand to play. He played it as best he could. But for us to do anything to de-stabilise him when we had enough on our hands, with fighting Saddam Hussein, it was just not possible.

Q: How did you feel because of your resignation in November, that year, how did you feel about leaving this crisis unresolved?

Thatcher: I've never felt to strongly about anything in my life. I didn't understand it.I have no regrets about leaving office, I decided after all to go, when I didn't get enough support, but of all of the things that I've ever thought of, and I have again, bear no grudge at all, but that I thought was astonishing.

Q: That you were, in real terms, in the middle of fighting a war.

Thatcher: That yes, and that I had had perhaps a good deal of influence on persuading people that you could not let this aggression stand.

Q: What did you think the aims of the war should be. As far as you were concerned, was it simply to reverse the invasion of Kuwait, or was it much more than that?

Thatcher: It's not enough just to reverse the invasion. If you leave them with an army strong enough to come back and do it again. You've got, as we knew, you've got to destroy their army. We couldn't bring down Saddam Hussein. What I thought it was our job to do, was to make it quite clear to the world and particularly the people who'd been wronged, that he'd been totally and utterly defeated and his army had been totally and utterly defeated. So that he couldn't come back again.

And it didn't seem to me that that part of it was fully achieved. And you know full well they went and attacked the Kurds, they went and attacked the Marsh Arabs and the Republican Guard, I'm afraid, were not dealt with.

Q: Your reaction to the way the war ended...

Thatcher: I was surprised, because it seemed as if they've said, its been 100 hours. Kuwait is free. But they hadn't then said, we've not completed the job, because many of the army is still there and they could be able to repeat the action.

Q: Were you annoyed that the war had been stopped....

Thatcher: No point in being annoyed. I wasn't there then, and as always happens, everyone is very pleased when a war comes to an end. The next thing that really happened, it was, happened during the Easter recess. I was in London, and there weren't many officials or ministers in London, and I had been told there was going to be a deputation of Kurdish women, to come and see me and I said, look, it's not me you want to see, I no longer have any power. You really want to see the ministers of the Foreign Office, but they were out, they were away, and I asked if I could speak to one of them and was told that no relevant person, was not in London, so I saw them. Someone had to see them, and then put their view very strongly to the Foreign Office, and then there was some action taken the next day.

But they were desperate and we hadn't in fact to me, dealt with the full consequences of that war sufficiently effectively.

Q: Do you think that the West in fact, betrayed the Kurds and the Shi'a?

Thatcher: Well, we'd tried and the Prime Minister then got the idea of safe havens, it was at least something. But the fact was that the Iraqis were still in a position to cause great turmoil, unfortunately.

And of course again, they went agin their own people, in the Marsh Shi'ites in another part of Iraq. So we hadn't in fact really defeated their army.

Q: And you think the job wasn't done properly?

Thatcher: I think they stopped, rather too soon. I think there may have been some confusion about the information they are getting. That often happens during wartime. But, Saddam Hussein is still there.

Q: What do you think the war aims should have been? Should the coalition forces have gone onto Baghdad, should an attempt have been made to arrest...?

Thatcher: I don't know that it was necessary, I don't know that it was necessary to go onto Baghdad, I wasn't there at the time, nor what changes they made to the rules of engagement. You're asking me views on things er to which I was not privy. But I had after all, I hope, managed as Prime Minister, things reasonably successful before, successfully before, and, just look now. Its not over.

Q: How concerned were you that the American Secretary of State was prepared to go that extra mile for peace?

Thatcher: Well, I've always found Jim Baker very good to deal with. After all it was he who came to see me to say look I know that you are sending one armoured brigade, please the President would like you to send another one. I said, I'll go and see, I'll do my level best to to comply with what the President wants because I understood this absolutely vital thing in America that their allies have to be seen to be doing their task fully and not just relying on America.

Q: But you must have been concerned when you heard that he planned to go to Baghdad?

Thatcher: I find these things very strange. It's too much negotiating you know. Once you've started the job, its not starting a job, its carrying on until its well and truly finished, that is the real strength.You know Drake's prayer-- "it is not the beginning of any great venture, the completion of the same, until the task be well and truly finished, which yieldeth the true glory", I rather agreed with that.

Q: Did you counsel either James Baker or President Bush against going to Baghdad...

Thatcher: I was no longer there, I was out. I was out in November. They didn't in fact start the ground war until middle January. I was no longer there, nor consulted, and rightly not consulted.

Q: The end of the war--one of the American generals involved, when he was told the war was coming to an end, he couldn't believe it, he thought it was a joke.

Thatcher: Well, I was very surprised. When you're dealing with a dictator, he has got not only to be defeated, well and truly, but he has got to be seen to be defeated.

Half measures never work, you've either got to do the job properly and show the world you're serious so they better not let it happen again. No half measures, just not on.

That would have left Kuwait, an enormous asset, completely in the hands of Saddam Hussein, and the people there, and they weren't being treated well as you know. And you recall some of the scenes on television, I remember them very vividly, there was Saddam Hussein, seeing some of our hostages whom he'd taken, hostages. And patting a charming young boy on the head and saying, we're keeping you here so that your country can't attack us.

I had already seen the Emir of Kuwait and some of his ministers, and made it quite clear that as far as I was concerned, we had to do the job properly and then I just went on television and said, I simply don't understand it. There's Saddam Hussein, a dictator, a man hiding behind the skirts of women and children, what sort of man is that?

Now, the generals in the Gulf, weren't even allowed to take a surrender. I have forgotten what they called it, was it a truce? Those people should have been seen to have been defeated, they should have surrendered their equipment and their armed forces. They knew full well, it had been well treated with us.

And I just didn't understand it, this is how we'd done it in the Falklands and then you have to look after all of the people who you have taken prisoner of war, of course you do, but it could have been done, many of them surrendered of course and came over, but there are a lot that totally got away, including the Republican Army.

So the people of Iraq never saw this dictator, humiliated and beaten.

Q: Why do you think that happened?

Thatcher: I don't know. I think that there were people who said look, Kuwait is free, we've done what we came to do. Let us free it, let us just stop now. What they didn't have any regard to was that the same thing can be done again, unless their army is destroyed.

Now sanctions admittedly are still on, but you couldn't bring down Saddam Hussein directly. You could only bring him down by humiliating him. It was not done. Not even the marvellous battle they'd fought, not even to take a surrender, and I think someone said 100 hours isn't that marvellous, we've done it all in 100 hours. Let's stop now, for the job had not been properly done.

Q: But do you think they did it because of resolution 678--that being ambiguous and unclear as to what the real war aims were.

Thatcher: If you are to stop an aggressor, you not only have to stop him on that occasion. You have to make certain that those who flouted every rule of decent behavior in fighting the war are brought before a tribunal and you also, in fact, have to see that the army surrenders everything they've got, and the people so they cannot do it again.

Q: What do you think the long term lessons, if any, of the Gulf crisis are?

Thatcher: Well, the long term lessons, I think are, complete the task to which you put your hand, because most people think that we should not in fact go in such very considerable numbers again. And also don't forget the aggressor would have learned a thing or two on how we would react.

Q: How do you think this crisis is finally going to be resolved? Do you think the people of Iraq will do it themselves or do you think somehow that the West has got to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Thatcher: I don't see how the West can, we had the chance to to, to defeat him and make him surrender, I don't think we can. There is a balance of power there, certainly, between Iraq and Iran, very much so and now we are all watching very carefully, what happens to some of the weaponry that is coming out of the former Soviet Union, and obviously there has to be some equipment still kept down the Gulf in case we have to have a look at it again. Now, just look, there is the aggressor, Saddam Hussein, still in power. There is the President of the United States, no longer in power. There is the Prime Minister of Britain who did quite a lot to get things there, no longer in power. I wonder who won?

Q: Do you think we betrayed the Kurds?

Thatcher: I think the public opinion was very strong at the time and it was public opinion which virtually insisted that these people must in fact be guarded, and indeed they were, but the problem still isn't fully solved and indeed, in addition you have the Marsh Muslims who lived in the marshlands in the south of Iraq. Their rights haven't been properly regarded either.

You see so much of the problems we are dealing with now, comes from the end of World War I.

The German empire collapsed. The Austrio-Hungarian empire collapsed. The Turkish empire collapsed and the British empire went on and also the French empire did, but right down the heart of the whole of Europe were countries with strange names, which were put together artificially and so, Czechoslovakia came into existence and so because of the collapse of the Turkish empire, Palestine was put together and we the Britons were given a mandate to have regard to that.

And, because the Turkish empire again had collapsed, the pieces of Iraqi, administrative areas from the Turkish empire were put together, merely because they'd been administrative regions and they were put together and called Iraq. And all of the countries, the Balkans, many of them were put together and called Yugoslavia, and we're still suffering from the un-wisdom of some of those events, and we still haven't sorted it all out.

home · oral history · war stories · weapons · maps · chronology
tapes & transcripts 
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation