LONDON – British government files from 1983, opened to the public for the first time Wednesday, include an official’s view of the message Queen Elizabeth II would have broadcast to the nation in the event of World War III.
The speech was drafted as part of a war-games exercise code-named Wintex-Cimex, in which officials in NATO countries acted out responses to an attack by Soviet-led forces. In 1983, they ended the simulated conflict by launching a limited nuclear strike on the enemy.
“I have never forgotten the sorrow and the pride I felt as my sister and I huddled around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspiring words on that fateful day in 1939” when World War II was declared, the scenario had the queen telling her subjects at noon on Friday March 4, 1983. “Not for a single moment did I imagine that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me.”
Elsewhere, the files, published by the National Archives in London, show a period of tension in the normally close relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The cause was a U.S. invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country and former British colony, hours after Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe told Parliament there was no reason to expect such a move.
According to a memo from one of her aides, when the president called the prime minister to apologize for embarrassing her, he said that if he were visiting in person “he would throw his hat in the door first,” a reference to his past as a cowboy actor.
While Thatcher told her Cabinet that “Britain’s friendship with the U.S. must on no account be jeopardized,” the two leaders would shortly clash again, over possible U.S. retaliation for the bombing of a barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen.
Three weeks after the attack, Reagan sent Thatcher a message outlining his proposed response. While that document remains classified, it was sufficiently concerning for the prime minister to convene an immediate meeting to discuss how best to change the president’s mind.
An official recorded the British anxiety: “The U.S. spoke of carrying out a surgical operation but one could not depend on any action being sufficiently surgical.”
American military action in 1980 to rescue those held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran had ended in failure.
In the first draft of Thatcher’s response to Reagan, she described herself as “frankly apprehensive.”
“Dear Ron,” she wrote in the message she finally sent. “You face a very difficult decision, and I can well understand all the pressure upon you to take action. In such circumstances, leaders find themselves in a lonely position, and I want to let you have my frank views as someone who has been in a similar situation. The decision must be yours.” Thatcher had gone to war the previous year after Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands.
It took five days, and another note from Thatcher, before Reagan cabled back. “I have decided not to take any military actions at this time,” he said. “I want you to know how much I appreciate your frank views on this very difficult matter.”
The threat of nuclear war, deliberate or accidental, hangs over the files. With the U.S. preparing to site cruise missiles at its Greenham Common base in southern England, Thatcher was urged to press for a “dual-key” system, under which a British officer would have to consent before a weapon could be launched.
In the course of investigating the option, the government learned that the only time there had been such a system, on Thor missiles in the early 1960s, a Royal Air Force technician had discovered that the British key also turned the American lock.
Still, Defense Secretary John Nott told Thatcher he was worried about the level of opposition to siting cruise missiles in the U.K. and that he’d “sleep more safely” if he knew there was a dual-key system.
Thatcher rejected the idea, on the grounds that it would imply distrust of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, and replaced Nott. The files show her dismissing as “an eccentricity” the women protesters at Greenham Common, who would stay outside the base in Berkshire until the missiles were removed in 1991.
The queen’s speech in the Wintex-Cimex exercise has the monarch urging families to remain united in the face of war and to give assistance to those in need.
“Help those who cannot help themselves, give comfort to the lonely and the homeless and let your family become the focus of hope and life to those who need it,” the message read. “As we strive together to fight off the new evil let us pray for our country and men of good will wherever they may be.”
The war-games file shows the level of imagination the officials running the exercise put into every aspect. A daily media briefing listed stories run by all the newspapers during the 15-day drill. As Orange forces — the code-name for the Soviets — launched chemical attacks, the Daily Mail was asking why the government hadn’t issued biological-warfare suits to every citizen.
There was even a line about 1983’s royal baby. The officials had the Sun newspaper reporting that the royal family had fled to Scotland and running a picture of Prince William, then 8 months old, with his father. “Keep him safe Charlie: We shall be needing him,” was the headline.
That media briefing closed by reporting that it would be the last one, because the country had run out of paper on which to print news. “Morituri te salutamus,” the authors signed off — Latin for “We who are about to die salute you.”
Later that day, the officials playing the war game ended it by launching limited nuclear strikes against the Warsaw Pact forces, which led to a request for unconditional peace talks.
The files also feature an early appearance from William Hague, who would go on to lead the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001 and is now foreign secretary. Then he was a 21-year-old applying for a job as a special adviser at the Treasury. He had first come to national prominence speaking to the 1977 Tory conference as a schoolboy warning of the approach of socialism in the U.K.
While the chancellor of the exchequer wanted to hire Hague, Thatcher blocked the move. “No — this is a gimmick and would be deeply resented by many who have financial and economic experience,” she scrawled on the chancellor’s letter.
Hague’s office said this week that “the foreign secretary’s view was that ‘Mrs. Thatcher was, as usual, right.’ “
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