Return to Transcripts main page


Tribute To Margaret Thatcher; Fears Of Nuclear Conflict On Korean Peninsula Grow

Aired April 8, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The death of Margaret Thatcher has inspired tributes like "towering," "historic," "one of the most important political leaders of the 20th century."

She was more than a match for an ally of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Together, the three ended the Cold War. But Henry Kissinger credits Thatcher with being the visionary, the first to see that Gorbachev was a different kind of Soviet leader.

The country she led was known as Thatcher's Britain, and that's how her era is still remembered. Among the many words of remembrance, from President Obama who said that she would always be an inspiration to women, including his own daughters, as the woman who became the first female leader of a major Western democracy.

But she was fond of making fun of herself, as she did upon her election in 1979.


MARGARET THATCHER, FORMER ENGLISH PRIME MINISTER: I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon on evening gown --



THATCHER: -- my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved --


THATCHER: -- the Iron Lady of the Western world.


AMANPOUR: Iron Lady is what the Soviet press had dubbed her unflatteringly. But she embraced it and she was known as the Iron Lady to the very end by her legions of admirers and detractors alike for her steely spine and her unshakable convictions. She won three elections and she was the longest serving British prime minister of modern times.

She famously broke the coal miners' union, stood up against striker violence for months until she won. She delivered tough medicine to an economy wracked by inflation and industrial decline. She was lionized for surviving an IRA bomb, but vilified for her hardline stance, allowing IRA hunger strikers like Bobby Sands to die.

She went to war to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982 and in 1990, she joined President Bush in the war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the first Gulf War.

In the end, she was not defeated by her people but by her own party. After 11-and-a-half years at No. 10 Downing Street, she was forced to resign in the face of rising inflation and unemployment. Her successor was her trusted protege, John Major, and I'll speak to the former prime minister in just a moment. More on the Iron Lady later. But first a look at the other stories we're covering tonight.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Remember the nuclear nightmare of Chernobyl? Russia's President Vladimir Putin says that if North and South Korea go to war, it would make that meltdown look like a child's fairy tale.

And the road not taken -- imagine if Britain's Iron Lady had chosen chemistry instead of politics: from head girl to prime minister.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, Britain's former prime minister, John Major.


AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Major, thank you very much for joining me.

JOHN MAJOR, FORMER PM, ENGLAND: It's my pleasure, Christiane, thank you.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you first from your own personal point of view, you were in her cabinet and then you succeeded her as prime minister. What was it like working for her and succeeding her in that position?

MAJOR: Well, the two things were very different. I worked for her firstly as a junior minister and then later in her cabinet as her chief secretary, foreign secretary and chancellor. And in those latter years, we worked very closely together. And I thoroughly enjoyed the working relationship.

It was sometimes lively. Margaret liked an argument and she liked people who would express a different view to hers. And she would have a very forceful discussion before a conclusion was reached.

So she was always extremely interesting to work with and never dull.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about her relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and with Ronald Reagan and the whole sort of crumbling of the Iron Curtain. Obviously, she was famously called the Iron Lady, but it was hurled at her as an insult by the Soviet press before she was even prime minister.

What was it that turned this Cold Warrior into a bridge to be able to, you know, bring down Communism?

MAJOR: I think it was a series of things.

I think her success over the Falkland Islands, when the Falkland Islands were invaded by the Argentinians and then recaptured by the British forces under Margaret Thatcher's leadership, that changed the perception of her in the United Kingdom and, I think, around the world. It made her a world figure rather than simply a national prime minister. And that was very important.

And, of course, she stood very strongly as an anti-Communist and someone very much in favor of the free market and individual liberty. And in that she shared many of the instincts of President Reagan and the then pope and other very significant figures like Willy Brandt, the mayor of Berlin.

And collectively, with Mikhail Gorbachev, they formed the basis of what finally brought Communism crumbling down. It was crumbling from within, in any event. But they gave it a push. And I think everybody was surprised at how quickly and how comprehensively it suddenly collapsed. And I think she's entitled to her fair share of credit for that.

AMANPOUR: Mikhail Gorbachev has also issued a statement of condolences and paid tribute to her role as that bridge. Henry Kissinger has also been talking, the famous pragmatic realpolitik, secretary of state of the United States and who said that she was able to see into what was happening in the Soviet Union before anybody else was, including himself.

MAJOR: She had one great advantage and I agree with Henry about that. But she had a great advantage; she actually met Gorbachev a good deal before most of the other Western leaders.

And she formed the impression that here was a leader of Soviet Russia, as he then was, who was different from any of his predecessors and who could see that the Soviet system was crumbling from within and was looking for a way to bring it to an end with a minimum of disruptions. And she played on that.

And she did have a good relationship -- she famously said of Gorbachev, "Here is a man I can do business with," and then she proved that that was emphatically true.

AMANPOUR: Tell me about the Falklands, because obviously that was, as you say, a signal moment in her career, but also in the regional politics of the time.

Yet recently or lately declassified documents, both from Britain and from the United States, show that the United States wasn't really as much on her side as she would have liked, that Alexander Haig would have preferred the U.S. to align itself with Argentina.

How exercised was she about that? How disappointed was she about that?

MAJOR: She was very exercised about that. She was a great believer in the Anglo-American alliance. It would have taken a very great deal for Margaret not to support the United States in something that was important to them.

And she believed the counterpoint to that was in something that was important to us; she expected the support of the United States. And she made that point very clear.

And although there were misgivings, understandable regional misgivings, when you look at Argentina and Latin America's relationship to the United States, understandably there were regional concerns. But nonetheless, she pushed for support and she received it.

AMANPOUR: And, of course, that also sent her to a triumphant reelection. Let me ask you about some of the things that she got wrong. History, I think, will say that she got the South Africa situation wrong.

She was not for sanctions regime. She did famously call Nelson Mandela a terrorist. And you know, history has shown what Mandela turned out to be and how it was important to confront the racist apartheid regime.

How did you feel about how she led Britain at that time in that issue?

MAJOR: There were a handful of things she got wrong. I think her assessment of South Africa and Nelson Mandela was one. Her opposition to the reunification of Germany, I think, was probably another. And domestically, her advocacy of a poll tax, which really divided her from her cabinet, from her party and from the country, I think those three things were wrong.

But I think if you match them against the remarkable things she got right, no politician is always right. Never have been, never will be. She had convictions and so when she was wrong, it was in Technicolor and people saw it. But she got infinitely more things right than she got wrong.

AMANPOUR: And let me ask you about her being a woman. You know, today, still, we're having this discussion about, you know, how far can women go. Certainly here I sit in the United States -- no woman president, no vice president, barely even, you know, a quarter of Congress is made up of women, much less than a quarter of Congress.

Did she play on her femininity or was she, you know, marching Margaret Thatcher?

MAJOR: That's a more complex question to answer than it immediately seems. I mean, she broke the glass ceiling in a spectacular way and it's made a huge difference in the United Kingdom over the last 30 years, not only that but other events as well.

Was she an everyday advocate for the rights of women? No, she wasn't, frankly. She saw herself as a politician and she had made her way using her skills as a woman. She believed other women should do exactly the same thing. So she wasn't looking for preferential treatment for other women, and she didn't in any way offer it.

Did she use her femininity when dealing with men? Yes, she did. Yes, she did. She could be very charming, very attractive and very persuasive. And yes, she would use her femininity. And I think that was very effective with some leaders that I saw her with over the years. I'm not going to name them.

AMANPOUR: Ha, I was going to ask you --

MAJOR: -- yes, she did.

AMANPOUR: Please name them.

MAJOR: I had a horrible feeling you were going to ask me.

AMANPOUR: Name me one.

MAJOR: Well, I think she and President Reagan had a very good relationship. And I think she understood him very well. I think they liked one another. A more striking example is President Mitterrand. President Mitterrand disagreed with almost everything that Margaret stood for, not quite everything, but a very large part of it.

But as a person, he liked her and he admired her and I think she found him endlessly fascinating and he certainly was a remarkable and fascinating man. And I think he found her very attractive.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Prime Minister Major, thank you so much indeed.

MAJOR: My pleasure.


AMANPOUR: And Margaret Thatcher was brought to live on the silver screen by Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar for her riveting portrayal in "Iron Lady."



AMANPOUR: And today, Meryl Streep issued a lengthy and insightful statement, saying Thatcher did exhibit traits of true greatness, while also acknowledging that history will have to settle some of the bitter arguments over her legacy.

And from her own unique vantage point, Streep added, "To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream, the real-life option of leading their nation, this was groundbreaking and admirable."

So how would Margaret Thatcher have handled the crisis on the Korean Peninsula? When we come back, I'll ask President Obama's former top nuclear adviser about the growing tensions between North and South and how to keep the peace without starting a war. (MUSIC PLAYING)



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. A nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula could make the Chernobyl nuclear accident look like child's fairy tale. That warning today from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

While nobody believes that North Korea is going to launch any kind of nuclear strike, after a week of threats of nuclear attacks, there is no evidence that the North is planning an imminent nuclear test. But both South Korea and the United States say they wouldn't be surprised if the North launched some kind of conventional missile later this week.

Whether that would be a hostile act or a test is anyone's guess, and that's the problem, how little is known about the new North Korean leadership and Kim Jong-un's intentions.

Gary Samore was President Obama's top nuclear adviser up to January, and he played a key role in the Clinton administration, negotiating an agreement to stop North Korea's nuclear program back in the early '90s. I spoke to him a short time ago.


AMANPOUR: Gary Samore, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.


AMANPOUR: What do you think is going to happen? The United States and South Korea says they would not be surprised if there was some kind of missile launch.

SAMORE: Well, the North Koreans may very well launch another missile or they may even conduct another nuclear test. But I think most of their threats to take military action are probably just theatrics designed to intimidate and to frighten people.

At the same time, the U.S. government and the Korean government can't be complacent. So they have to make preparations for the possibility that the North Koreans might actually take some limited military action.

AMANPOUR: So you, if you had to bet, would think that they'll do something, but it'll be more in the test mode. And yet you have to be on the defensive in case there's a hostile act.

SAMORE: Yes, exactly. That's certainly been the pattern in the past. Now of course, at the same time, there have been at least two recent incidents when North Korea has used military force. The sinking of the Cheonan and then the shelling of the Wipido (ph) Islands.

And I think the South Korean government has made it very clear publicly and privately that if anything like that happens again, they're going to retaliate militarily. They're not going to take it lying down. And the U.S. and the ROK have been talking about how to conduct a retaliation that doesn't -- or that reduces as much as possible the risk of a -- of it leading to an escalation on a broader (inaudible).


AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, you sat inside the Obama administration. You were there throughout the Clinton administration during a previous agreement with North Korea. Right now, do you think the chance of a miscalculation, a wider war, is possible or not?

SAMORE: Well, it's certainly possible. But I think, on balance, it's unlikely. The one uncertainty factor we have here is there's a new young leader in North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who's never really been battle tested. He's never gone through these cycles of provocation and rhetoric.

His father, Kim Jong-il, actually turned out to be pretty predictable because we went through a couple of these cycles. And I think he had a pretty good sense of when it was time to cool down the temperature and make another peace overture.

Kim Jong-un, we just don't know. And so to the extent that there is a greater than normal risk, it's because of the uncertainty about Kim Jong- un's character and calculations.

AMANPOUR: In terms of military response, in terms of what might be going on within the decision-makers at the White House, President Obama apparently has ruled out the idea of attacking the launch sites, at least for now. If that is off the table, what are the options if there is some kind of military action by North Korea?

SAMORE: Well, first of all, I think a North Korean missile strike, much less a nuclear armed missile, is very, very unlikely because the North Koreans know that that would lead to general conflict and the destruction of their state.

I think much more likely is a limited attack perhaps in disputed areas, as we saw in the Wipido (ph) Island shelling a few years back, or some kind of a military attack that couldn't be easily attributed, for example, a terrorist attack in Seoul; a bomb goes off and nobody's quite sure who was responsible.

And so I think the U.S. and the ROK have looked at these limited contingencies and tried to prepare a range of potential retaliation, again, trying to show the North Koreans that it won't be cost-free but avoiding the kind of action that would -- that could trigger a general conflict.

AMANPOUR: ROK, of course, is the Republic of Korea; we know it as South Korea. Let me ask you about the diplomacy, then. If the military sort of provocation and cmeass is so difficult and you're looking at somebody who you don't really know what they're going to do, what their intention is, what about the diplomacy?

We know the United States is not in direct diplomacy with the North Koreans. And we know that you, the U.S., is hoping that China will do this job.

Do you think China can and will? And how do you read what the new leader, Xi Jinping, said about this situation over the weekend?

SAMORE: I think there is a slight opening with the Chinese. A Chinese foreign policy is very conservative, and I wouldn't expect it to dramatically shift overnight. But I do think the Chinese are pretty fed up with North Korean antics.

It's clear that Pyongyang has ignored Chinese advice on missile tests, nuclear tests. It's clear that the Chinese are very concerned that these North Korean activities are hurting China's national security interests, in part by giving the U.S. opportunities to beef up its military strength in the region. So I do think the Chinese are putting diplomatic pressure on the North.

The big question is whether they use any of their economic leverage because North Korea is very dependent on China for food and fuel and cash. And that's always been dangerous for the Chinese, because they don't want to create instability and a potential conflict.

AMANPOUR: Xi Jinping said that no entity, no nation, should try to, you know, cause chaos or instability in the region. Do you think he was referring to North Korea? Or was he maybe even referring to the United States, who the Chinese frequently accuse of overmeddling in the region?

SAMORE: Well, of course, there's great ambiguity in what President Xi said. I assume that he's referring to everybody. But at least in the first instance, it's North Korea that threatens to cause instability. I mean, the U.S. and the ROK are not going to attack first.

So it's really a question, I think, a warning to the young North Korean president, Kim Jong-un, not to go too far. And the North Koreans have to be careful that they don't alienate China to the point where China begins to cut off some of the essential supplies across the border.

AMANPOUR: But isn't the United States in a pretty tricky situation? Successive presidents have said they will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea. Well, North Korea is nuclear. What does the United States really do?

SAMORE: Well, I think the formula that has been used going back to the Clinton administration and then repeated by President Bush and by President Obama is that the U.S. will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state.

Yes, we know, as a matter of physics, that North Korea has some kind of nuclear capacity, since they've conducted three nuclear tests, although we don't know whether they can deliver a nuclear warhead.

But the point is that we won't recognize them as a nuclear state. To do so would fundamentally destabilize East Asia; I think it would lead both South Korea and Japan to build nuclear weapons.

And so we will -- the U.S. government will continue to insist, no matter who's president, that we are not prepared to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. And any improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations will depend upon progress toward disarmament.

AMANPOUR: Gary Samore, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

SAMORE: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And after a break, a final thought about the legendary life of Margaret Thatcher. Imagine if she had gone on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry instead of Britain's highest political prize. What might have been, when we come back.


AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, tributes to the late Margaret Thatcher have been pouring in all day, from presidents and prime ministers around the world. Nancy Reagan said that "Margaret and Ronnie were soulmates."

But imagine if Britain's Iron Lady had become a scientist instead of a politician. Long before she was a polarizing prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was a young girl. She's the one on the left with her oldest sister, Muriel, a small-town grocer's daughter. Her family lived above the store that is now a chemist's shop.

Young Margaret Hilda Roberts adored her father and always credited him for her values and her success. "I just owe almost everything to my father," she said. "He brought me up to believe almost all the things I do believe."

Chosen head girl in her local girls' school, there she is the top left corner, young Margaret was marked for leadership even as a teenager. However, her love of science led her to Oxford, where she studied chemistry. And who knows; she might have become the next Madame Curie instead of Britain's first female prime minister.

But when she applied for a job in a chemical company, she was rejected. Years later, by now a legend in her own time, she saw the interviewer's notes on that job application. "This young woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated," words that reverberate for other women who've dared to carve their own paths in a man's world.

And yet, surely, they are the precise qualities needed for leadership in any arena. And though she wasn't destined for a career in science, a shared interest in chemistry led her to her future husband, Denis Thatcher, whose family owned a chemical company. And with his support, she launched her political career.

Still, her love of science never left her. And in 1989, she became the first world leader to take up the cause of global warming in a speech to the United Nations. Now she'd later reverse herself and become a skeptic. But she remained interested in the effects of climate even at the unveiling of her bronze statue in Parliament. "I might have preferred iron," she said, "but bronze will do. It won't rust."

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website as well as on Twitter and Facebook. We are at Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.