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April 9, 2013 | Wall Street Journal

Margaret and Ron

Has a friendship ever seemed more unlikely? Genial and easygoing, Ronald Reagan grinned readily, swapped jokes and put people at ease instinctively. Margaret Thatcher worked incessantly, always pressing everyone around her for more facts, details and statistics. "You would not have called her presence 'relaxing,' " says John O'Sullivan, who wrote speeches for Thatcher at No. 10 Downing Street. " 'Bracing'—that would be the better word."

Reagan, the former actor, saw in world affairs a parti-colored pageant in which good combated evil. Thatcher, the former chemist, saw complex actions and reactions. He was intuitive. She was analytical. He told stories. She argued policy. He exhibited the relaxed glamour of Hollywood, where he rose to fame, she, the earnest striving of Finchley, the suburban London constituency that elected her to Parliament.

Yet the president and the prime minister cherished each other.

"She'd come steaming into the Oval Office, and there was always something upsetting her," says Judge William P. Clark, who served as Reagan's national security adviser. "Instead of complaining to the president, she'd turn to me and say, 'Judge Clark, how could you have permitted that to happen?' The president would get that catbird grin of his and look at me as if to say, 'Yeah, Bill, how in the hell could you have let that happen?' He always got the biggest kick out of her. And you could tell she enjoyed him just as much."

How could two such disparate personalities have responded to each other so warmly? One answer, of course, is simply that boy met girl. Reagan always liked intelligent, ambitious women, while Thatcher admired self-confident men. "When Margaret walked into the room," recalls Edwin Meese III, who served as counselor to the president, "the president lit up."

Yet there is a second answer. Reagan and Thatcher needed each other. During the 1981 Ottawa summit of the Group of Seven, for example, Thatcher took Reagan aside to lecture him. In recent speeches, she reminded him, he had spoken of "a rising tide of neutralism" in Europe. Reagan, Thatcher insisted, should keep such observations to himself. Not that she disagreed with him. But the more Reagan talked about "a rising tide of neutralism," Thatcher insisted, the more he offended Europeans, contributing to that very tide.

How did Reagan respond? By taking Thatcher's advice.

The incident provides a neat illustration of the way Thatcher served as a go-between. In Ottawa, she explained the Europeans to Reagan. Elsewhere she explained Reagan to the Europeans. Working back and forth—a conversation here, a speech there—Thatcher made it impossible for Reagan to dismiss the Europeans as effete or for the Europeans to dismiss Reagan as a cowboy. For Reagan, the unity of the Western alliance proved imperative—had Europe begun drifting away, he would have struggled to prevent America from becoming isolated, less capable of applying new pressure to the Soviet Union—and Thatcher did more than anyone else to preserve that unity.

During the 1982 Falklands War, Reagan in turn proved indispensable to Thatcher. Although publicly neutral, the president permitted his secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, to provide the British with Sidewinder missiles and to stock Ascension Island, which the Royal Navy used as a way station, with fuel and materiel. This enabled Thatcher to secure the victory that transformed her from an untested prime minister into the Iron Lady.

The friendship had its complications. Reagan took longer to swing American support behind the Falklands war than Thatcher considered reasonable. Then in 1983 the U.S. invaded Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth, without consulting her—the Pentagon had put the mission together in a matter of days, requiring secrecy. Thatcher telephoned Reagan. To judge from the expression on the president's face—Ed Meese still recalls this incident vividly—the prime minister used language on Reagan to which he had grown unaccustomed.

For his part Reagan could never fathom Thatcher's opposition to his Strategic Defense Initiative, all but ignoring her insistence that nuclear weapons had rendered the world safer, not more dangerous. (In her memoirs, Thatcher did something unusual, admitting she had been wrong. SDI had not undermined the West, she granted, but had instead broken the Soviet Union. She wrote: "Looking back, it is now clear to me that Ronald Reagan's original decision on SDI was the single most important of his presidency.")

Despite their disagreements, Reagan and Thatcher always understood each other as united in a cause: They were saving the West. They exchanged ideas and encouragement, offering one another moral support—and political validation.

"You could hardly portray Ronald Reagan as a crank on economics when someone as obviously intelligent as Margaret Thatcher agreed with him," John O'Sullivan says, "and you could hardly portray Thatcher as an isolated free-market extremist when Reagan was enacting free-market reforms in the country with the biggest economy on the planet."

Together, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stood up to the Soviets, to the left, to elite opinion and to the press. Reagan's predecessors in the Oval Office, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, sought to compromise with opponents rather than overwhelm or convert them. Not Reagan. Thatcher's predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party, Edward Heath, performed the famous "U-turn," proposing deregulation and cutbacks in spending but then backing down. Not Thatcher. "You turn if you want to," she declared. "The lady's not for turning."

Reagan and Thatcher persisted. Instead of compromising with the world, they transformed it. Yet neither could have accomplished nearly as much without the other.

Mr. Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a founder of Ricochet.com, was a speechwriter for President Reagan.