Learning Zone Strange Days: Cold War Britain


Learning Zone

A version made specially for schools of the BBC Two history series on Britain and the Cold War. Presented by Dominic Sandbrook.


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On May 7th, 1945, Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill,

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had some wonderful news for the nation.

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Hostilities will end officially

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at one minute after midnight tonight.

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CHEERING

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After six long years of fighting,

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British, American and Soviet forces

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had finally defeated Hitler's Nazi Germany.

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But as the nation rejoiced, a new enemy was looming on the horizon.

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We knew them well.

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They were our former allies, the Soviet Union.

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Many people assumed that with victory won against the Germans and the Japanese,

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we could all settle down to a lifetime of peace.

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But we were already facing a new kind of conflict.

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An armed standoff against the totalitarian empire

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of the Soviet Union.

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In the months following the war, Soviet-backed communists

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seized power across eastern Europe.

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For Churchill, these developments confirmed

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his long-standing suspicions of the Soviet Union.

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But there was little he could do.

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Just weeks after victory, Churchill was voted out of Downing Street.

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The next spring, Churchill boarded a train

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heading deep into the American Midwest and went on holiday.

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But he was keen to remind the world of his enduring influence.

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And as his train rattled through the night,

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Churchill and his travelling companion cracked open the cards

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and started knocking back the bourbon.

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But Churchill's drinking partner wasn't just anybody,

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he was a man called Harry S Truman,

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President of the United States.

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# Oh, give me land

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# Lots of land

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# Under starry skies above

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# Don't fence me in... #

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Churchill had been invited to speak at a small liberal arts college

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in Fulton, Missouri,

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the home state of President Truman.

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It was meant to be an off-duty speech.

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But as Churchill admitted to Truman,

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he wanted his words to be heard across the world.

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# But I ask you, please

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# Don't fence me in... #

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While Churchill was travelling across America,

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he wrote to Britain's new Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee,

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and casually mentioned that he might be giving a speech

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very similar to one he'd already given at Harvard two years before.

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But that wasn't entirely true.

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This was going to be something different.

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In Washington, Churchill had asked Harry Truman to help him write it.

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"It's your speech," Truman said, "you write it yourself."

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He even refused to read a draft.

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But that night on the train, a few stiff drinks down the line,

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Truman changed his mind.

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And when he put the speech down, he said it was, "Admirable."

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"It would do nothing but good," he added,

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"although it would make a stir."

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That was putting it mildly.

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For Joseph Stalin and for many others,

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this was the moment when the Cold War began.

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On March 5th, 1946, Churchill and Truman

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were shown into Westminster College's spruced-up gym,

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the only place large enough to cram everyone in.

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And it's one of the great privileges of my lifetime

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to be able to present to you

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that great world citizen, Winston Churchill.

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APPLAUSE

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From Stettin in the Baltic

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to Trieste in the Adriatic,

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an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.

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Behind that line lie all the capitals

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of the ancient states of central and eastern Europe.

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And all are subject, in one form or another,

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not only to Soviet influence,

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but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure

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of control from Moscow.

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An Iron Curtain had dropped around Poland,

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Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria.

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In this Iron Curtain speech,

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Churchill was the first Western statesman

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to single out the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to world peace.

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And he also gave us a three-word phrase

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that we're still arguing about to this day.

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A special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire

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and the United States of America.

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APPLAUSE

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Churchill himself was half American

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and he passionately believed

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that Britain's security and prosperity

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depended on closer ties with our American cousins.

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So in this gym in the Missouri heartland,

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he set out to woo his listeners,

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to persuade them to stick with the Western Alliance

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and to stand by Britain in the face of a new and terrible enemy.

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For the next half century,

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the world was locked in an ideological battle

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between communist east and capitalist west.

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Totalitarianism against democracy.

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Churchill's Iron Curtain had descended.

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# 'S wonderful

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# 'S marvellous

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# You should care for me... #

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October, 1956.

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And here, outside Covent Garden's Royal Opera House,

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people had been queuing for three days

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for the hottest tickets in town.

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We're very keen.

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We've been doing this for about ten years at Covent Garden,

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but we've never had a three-day queue.

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For London's culture vultures,

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this was an evening not to be missed.

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A rare British appearance by the Bolshoi Ballet.

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The performance even had the royal seal of approval.

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The Bolshoi was Russian culture at its most glorious.

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Glittering and exotic.

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It was also a shiny example of Soviet soft power,

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art in the service of communism.

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But even as the dancers were gliding across the London stage,

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another European capital was experiencing

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a very different kind of Russian visit.

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The night the Bolshoi captivated London

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has gone down in history as Bloody Thursday.

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Because hundreds of miles away on the great Hungarian plain,

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Soviet tanks were rumbling towards Budapest

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in a raw display of old-fashioned hard power.

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On October 23rd, 1956,

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thousands of people had taken to the streets of Budapest

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demanding an end to Soviet rule.

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As the demonstrations gathered momentum,

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Hungary's communist leaders called on Moscow for help.

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And as dawn broke just two days later,

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30,000 Soviet troops entered Budapest.

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For four days, the Red Army opened fire on the crowds.

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And then, on November 4th, a new wave of tanks were sent in.

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After six days of fierce fighting, the uprising was finally crushed.

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But it was at the cost of at least 4,000 Hungarian lives.

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Never had there been a more brutal

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or a more spectacular demonstration

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of the Soviet Union's determination

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to crush all dissent behind the Iron Curtain.

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But here in London, Hungary wasn't even the first item on the agenda

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for Sir Anthony Eden's Conservative government.

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Because at the very moment that the Red Army was rumbling into Budapest,

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British tanks were taking part

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in an equally controversial military adventure.

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# Please, please, please, please...#

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That July, the Egyptian government had seized control

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of a major waterway running through their country. The Suez Canal.

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In Britain, the news came as a terrible shock.

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Britain had controlled the canal since the 1870s.

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And it had become a vital route for British trade,

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cutting through Africa and linking Europe to Asia.

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Now Prime Minister Anthony Eden wanted to snatch it back.

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But his timing couldn't have been worse.

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And as the crises of Suez and Hungary unfolded side by side,

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the limits of British power were painfully exposed.

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In Hungary, the Kremlin ignored the West's hand-wringing protests

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and mercilessly throttled a popular revolution.

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But at Suez, the Americans refused to back

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our little show of military muscle.

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They were outraged that Britain had sent in troops

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without consulting their allies.

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And they also wanted to send a message.

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That the days of the old European empires

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throwing their weight around were over.

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Washington, not London, was now the heart of Western power.

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Britain was forced into a red-faced withdrawal.

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It was a sharp reminder that we were no longer the superpower of old.

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For the British people, the events of 1956

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were a humiliating lesson in the harsh new realities

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of the Cold War world.

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On 22nd October, 1962, President John F Kennedy

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revealed terrifying news to the Western world.

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The purpose of these bases can be none other

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than to provide a nuclear strike capability

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against the Western hemisphere.

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American spy planes had discovered Soviet missiles on Cuba,

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just 100 miles from the American coast.

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I call upon Chairman Khrushchev

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to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless

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and provocative threat to world peace.

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For years, the front line in Europe

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had seemed the most likely Cold War flashpoint.

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But the Cuban crisis showed that east and west could clash anywhere.

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And now, as Kennedy ordered a blockade around the Cuban coast

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to stop the delivery of further Soviet missiles,

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the British people watched and waited.

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Meanwhile, Britain's Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan,

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offered the President his support

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and tried to see whether he could have any influence

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over the fate of the world.

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"Hello? Can you hear me now?"

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"Yes, sir. I hear you very clearly

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"and I'll hand the phone to the President. Over."

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"Hello, Prime Minister."

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"Hello. What's the news there? Over."

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During the crisis, Harold Macmillan spoke to President Kennedy

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almost every day, often very late at night.

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Now, Macmillan was almost 70,

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whereas Kennedy was just 45.

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But Macmillan was well aware that in this conflict,

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it was the younger man, the American,

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who was really calling the shots.

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And that he himself was basically just a junior partner.

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But Macmillan always liked to see himself as the wise old counsellor

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offering all the benefits of his experience.

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The Greek to Kennedy's Roman.

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# I want to be happy

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# I want to be... #

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The world stood at the edge of darkness.

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This was a genuine doomsday scenario

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that might mean the end of civilisation itself.

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# But a mushroom cloud hangs over my dreams

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# It haunts my future and threatens my schemes... #

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Some people could only think of their nearest and dearest.

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Among all the stories about British reactions to the Cuban crisis,

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this one strikes me as particularly moving.

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"A father of six kept his three eldest children from school yesterday

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"so that the whole family could be together during the Cuban crisis.

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"Mr Peter Gardner, a 44-year-old company director

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"from Shoreham, Sussex, explained,

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"'I could not protect my children in a bomb raid, nor could anyone else,

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"'but I feel we should all be together at this dangerous time.'"

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-# We prayed

-# We prayed

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# We partied, we laughed and we pray... #

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With the Third World War apparently only moments away,

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this was as close as Britain ever came to nuclear annihilation.

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# I cling to my baby

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# And she clings to me... #

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And then the Kremlin blinked.

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On 28th October, the Russians agreed to dismantle the missiles.

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The crisis was over.

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The British people could breathe a great sigh of relief.

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# Please, please, please

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# Where did you go?

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# Where did you go? #

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And so could Harold Macmillan.

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But the reality was much, much more frightening

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than either Macmillan or the British people had ever guessed.

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Because if the missile crisis had escalated,

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we would have been the launch pad

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for the Americans' attack on the communist block.

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All thanks to a deal struck in the 1950s.

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The arrangement was called, Project Emily.

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It sounds innocuous enough,

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but under the terms of the deal,

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the Americans installed 60 Thor ballistic missiles

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on RAF sites up and down the United Kingdom.

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By hosting the Thors,

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the Government had effectively drawn a target on Britain

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and invited the Kremlin to take aim.

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And what neither the public, nor, more shockingly,

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Macmillan himself knew during those long days and nights in October,

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was just how close to that attack Britain almost came.

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The Cuban crisis was a chilling reminder of Britain's vulnerability.

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It left many people convinced that a devastating nuclear war

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was now not a possibility, but a terrifying probability.

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In June 1982, a hero of the old west came riding into town.

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The Hollywood actor turned President of the United States, Ronald Reagan,

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had arrived in London for what would be an historic visit.

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You wanted law and order in this town. You've got it.

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I'll shoot the first man that starts for those sticks.

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Come on!

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This was Ronald Reagan's first visit to Britain

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as President of the United States.

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He stayed at Windsor Castle

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and it was, he wrote in his diary, "A fairytale experience."

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Early the next morning, in the calm before the storm,

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Reagan saddled up his horse

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and went for a ride here at Windsor Great Park.

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With him was his trusty sidekick.

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On this occasion, the Queen.

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But he wasn't here just to show us how to ride a horse Western style.

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Reagan had come to make a speech

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in which he would present his vision

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of the Soviet Union's inevitable demise.

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The President spoke in Parliament's Royal Gallery,

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dwarfed by paintings of Waterloo and Trafalgar.

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Great British victories over another evil empire.

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FANFARE

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And one phrase in particular captured Reagan's confidence

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that communism was doomed.

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APPLAUSE

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The march of freedom and democracy, which will leave Marxism-Leninism

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on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies

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which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.

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'..leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history

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'as it has left other tyrannies...'

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This speech was Ronald Reagan's manifesto for winning the Cold War.

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And at its heart was a sense of moral certainty

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that the communists were wrong and we in the West were right.

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In many ways, Reagan was echoing another speech

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made by a great international statesman on foreign soil.

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Winston Churchill's speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946.

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Now, that was the speech in which Churchill coined the phrase,

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the Iron Curtain.

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And it's often seen as the moment that the Cold War began.

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And now, here in the Palace of Westminster,

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Reagan took the great man's career

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as an inspiration for victory.

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During the dark days of the Second World War,

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when this island was incandescent with courage,

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Winston Churchill exclaimed about Britain's adversaries.

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"What kind of a people do they think we are?"

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Afterwards, at a Number 10 lunch in the President's honour,

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Mrs Thatcher told Reagan that she thought his speech magnificent.

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He had, she said, written a new chapter in our history.

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It was time, they thought, to say what we really believed.

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Time to take on the Soviet Union and beat it.

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For Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,

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the status quo was no longer an option.

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Their mission wasn't to contain communism, it was to roll it back.

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To exploit its weaknesses

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and to assert our strengths.

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Free markets, free speech

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and above all, military strength.

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So to Reagan's critics, his image of the ash heap of history

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was disturbingly appropriate,

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but you didn't need to be a card-carrying CND supporter

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to appreciate this fantastic poster.

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"She promised to follow him to the end of the earth.

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"He promised to organise it!"

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We often think of Margaret Thatcher as the ultimate Cold War warrior,

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talking tough and looking tough.

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But this wasn't always the case.

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# Her hair is hollow gold

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# Her lips sweet surprise... #

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The daughter of a grocer,

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Margaret Thatcher had risen from humble beginnings.

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When she became the first female leader

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of the Conservative party in 1975,

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many people saw her as an irritating, short-lived fluke.

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There's a little bit sticking up there.

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You can see it in the reflection.

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Then, in 1976, she delivered a speech

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that would transform her image for ever.

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In Britain, her speech made little impact,

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but 2,000 miles away in Moscow,

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a young Soviet journalist called Yuri Gavrilov

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was paying close attention.

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And he coined a phrase that gave Mrs Thatcher her warrior image.

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And here it, is Gavrilov's article, under the ominous title,

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Iron Lady Frightens.

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"The Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher," he says,

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"recently gave a spiteful anti-Soviet speech

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"at Kensington Town Hall.

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"Pretentiously entitled, Wake up, England!

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"In her hysterical speech,

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"the Russians are trying to take over the world.

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"And, according to Mrs Thatcher, the English people are asleep

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"and oblivious to the danger which only she can see."

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You know, the funny thing about Gavrilov's article

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is that he meant those words, Iron Lady, as an insult.

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But, of course from that day on,

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Margaret Thatcher wore them with defiant pride.

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I stand before you tonight

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in my Red Star chiffon evening gown.

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LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE

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My face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved.

0:23:480:23:53

LAUGHTER

0:23:530:23:55

The Iron Lady of the Western world.

0:23:570:24:00

LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE

0:24:000:24:03

A Cold War warrior,

0:24:050:24:08

an Amazon philistine,

0:24:080:24:11

even a Peking plotter.

0:24:110:24:15

LAUGHTER

0:24:150:24:16

Well, am I any of these things?

0:24:160:24:18

ALL: No!

0:24:180:24:20

Well, yes, if that's how they...

0:24:220:24:24

LAUGHTER

0:24:240:24:26

Yes, I am an Iron Lady.

0:24:260:24:29

Margaret Thatcher had found her mission,

0:24:330:24:36

as a committed crusader against communism.

0:24:360:24:39

We must start with the essence of our Conservative belief.

0:24:410:24:45

Individual liberty.

0:24:450:24:48

When she became Prime Minister in May 1979,

0:24:490:24:53

these beliefs underpinned all her political objectives.

0:24:530:24:57

And eight years later, in March 1987,

0:25:010:25:04

she was ready to take them

0:25:040:25:06

directly to the heart of the communist empire, Moscow.

0:25:060:25:12

At last, the Soviet people saw the Iron Lady for themselves.

0:25:120:25:18

She wanted to show the world

0:25:180:25:20

that she was the West's most respected and experienced leader.

0:25:200:25:25

And she saw herself as the chief representative

0:25:250:25:28

of the West's increasingly wealthy society.

0:25:280:25:32

the Western economy was entering a new era of growth and confidence,

0:25:330:25:37

but in the East, the Soviet alternative to capitalism

0:25:370:25:42

was grinding to a halt.

0:25:420:25:44

# Everybody wants to rule the world... #

0:25:440:25:47

Here, in the heart of the Kremlin,

0:25:490:25:51

would the Iron Lady denounce the Soviet bear or embrace it?

0:25:510:25:55

Mrs Thatcher told the press that of all her foreign visits,

0:25:550:25:59

this was one she was most prepared for.

0:25:590:26:01

She was ready, she said, for a long dialogue,

0:26:010:26:04

plenty of disagreements and a hostile press.

0:26:040:26:08

CHEERING

0:26:080:26:10

Mrs Thatcher had dressed to impress.

0:26:140:26:16

With her glamorous array of hats, coats and tailored suits,

0:26:190:26:23

her look symbolised the Western luxury,

0:26:230:26:26

to which the Soviet people aspired.

0:26:260:26:29

# She's a juvenile scam never was a quitter

0:26:290:26:32

# Tasty like a raindrop She's got the look... #

0:26:320:26:34

Everywhere she went, she was mobbed.

0:26:340:26:36

# She's got the look

0:26:360:26:38

# She's got the look

0:26:380:26:39

# She's got the look... #

0:26:390:26:41

The Russians admired strength.

0:26:410:26:42

And here, on primetime TV,

0:26:420:26:45

was the warrior queen in full force.

0:26:450:26:49

Look, if you attack us,

0:26:490:26:52

you will have such a terrible time that you cannot win.

0:26:520:26:56

And isn't that the best defence to anyone who threatens you?

0:26:560:27:01

Doesn't...? One moment.

0:27:010:27:03

..Doesn't the bully go for the weak person, not for the strong?

0:27:030:27:07

You have more... If you take this view,

0:27:070:27:10

I wonder why you have so many nuclear weapons.

0:27:100:27:13

To the Russians, Britain's Prime Minister

0:27:160:27:19

had once been the capitalist enemy,

0:27:190:27:22

but now they treated her like a film star.

0:27:220:27:25

Here in the Kremlin, they didn't call Margaret Thatcher the Iron Lady any more,

0:27:270:27:31

they called her the lady with the blue eyes.

0:27:310:27:34

Here in Britain, Mrs Thatcher remains

0:27:360:27:39

a controversial and divisive character.

0:27:390:27:41

But there's no denying her impact

0:27:430:27:45

in those last days of the Cold War.

0:27:450:27:47

CHEERING

0:27:510:27:54

At time when Soviet communism was flagging,

0:27:540:27:56

she strove unceasingly

0:27:560:27:58

to represent and advance

0:27:580:28:01

the Western way of life.

0:28:010:28:03

And in the end, she won.

0:28:030:28:05

East Germany has tonight opened its borders to the West.

0:28:070:28:10

28 years after the Berlin Wall was built,

0:28:100:28:13

its people are once more free to travel anywhere.

0:28:130:28:16

# With or without you

0:28:220:28:26

# With or without you

0:28:260:28:31

# I can't live

0:28:310:28:35

# With or without you

0:28:350:28:40

# With or without you. #

0:28:400:28:43

A version made specially for schools of the BBC Two history series on Britain and the Cold War, looking at the period from the end of the 1950s to the mid-1970s, presented by Dominic Sandbrook. The compilation of short films includes:

The Ash Heap of History - President Ronald Reagan arrives in London in June 1982. He delivers a speech in Parliament in which he predicts the future course of the Cold War by using the phrase 'ash heap of history'. The speech was a manifesto of the Reagan Doctrine. Prime Minister Thatcher felt that this speech was a new chapter in the Cold War. Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech - Churchill announces the allied victory in his VE Day speech but is then defeated in the 1945 election two months later. In the spring of 1946, Churchill goes on holiday to America where he makes the speech in which he refers to the Iron Curtain. The speech is seen by many as the beginning of the Cold War as well as asserting the need for a special relationship between America and the UK.

1956 Hungary and Suez - In October 1956, the Bolshoi Ballet arrive in London. It is an example of 'soft power'. At the same time, two events take place in Hungary and at the Suez Canal which are examples of 'hard power'. In Hungary, thousands of people take to the streets, demanding an end to Soviet rule. Moscow responds by sending in troops and tanks, killing thousands of Hungarians. In Egypt, the government nationalises the Suez Canal. Britain no longer has control over this vital trade route. Prime Minister Eden tries to take it back. Margaret Thatcher - The Iron Lady - Mrs Thatcher's image as a Cold War warrior developed, in part, as a result of an article written by a Soviet journalist in 1976. The journalist coined the phrase Iron Lady. Mrs Thatcher embraces this name. She becomes committed to defeating communism at all costs. She staunchly supports America and in 1987 makes a trip to Moscow where she confronts Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, on his political and economic policies.


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