When researching historical figures and events, some of the most interesting and useful primary sources can be the written accounts of the particpants themselves. The problem with these sources, however, is that the author(s) version of events can not be taken at face value. First-hand accounts are, in reality, personal accounts that reflect the author's point-of-view and carry with them the author's feelings, prejudices and/or agendas. Such sources are often used deliberately by authors to "set the record straight" and to provide ex post facto justification for controversial decisions.
When using first-hand accounts as primary source material for research, one should attempt to weigh these accounts against other supporting and contradictory primary and secondary source material.
The following is a critical appraisal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's memoir, "The Downing Street Years." The author was attempting to assess its validity as a primary source for a course taught at the London School of Economics by one of her former policy advisors on Europe.
The Downing Street Years: A Critical Appraisal
The first volume of Margaret Thatcher's memoirs, "The Downing Street Years," provides an inside look at the government and personality of one of Great Britain's most famous political leaders. Her book gives a first-hand account of the events and people that helped shape the world during the 1980s and it also treats the reader to a heavy dose of Thatcher's political convictions and ideals. Yet like all political memoirs, one must take The Downing Street Years with a grain of salt. Although her description of the Falklands War provides both an accurate and riveting narrative of the conflict, Thatcher also uses her memoirs to justify unpopular decisions and to sometimes shift the blame for policy failures onto others. On occasion, her "vengeful self-glorification makes [The Downing Street Years] unreliable" as a primary source. In an attempt to asses the accuracy of Thatcher's book, this essay will examine the prime minister's description of the Falklands War, German reunification, and the Poll Tax Reform. Thatcher's version of the events and the policy process itself should be weighed against the available facts and interpretations of others to assess the historical reliability of her memoirs.
The Falklands War
The British victory over Argentina in 1982 solidified Thatcher's reputation for determined leadership and provided her with a tremendous boost in political support at home. Many believe that had it not been for the Falklands conflict, she would not even have been elected for a second term. Yet the war itself was not predetermined to end as a great victory for the United Kingdom and the acclaim given Thatcher for her steadfast leadership is warranted - even her critics usually give credit for her resolve during the crisis.
Thatcher devotes two entire chapters to the Falklands War and they are among the most fascinating of her book. She begins by admitting the profound effect the victory had for national morale and Britain's international standing. Thatcher then gives a brief synopsis of Britain's legitimate claims to the islands vis-à -vis those of Argentina. Her argument is persuasive and in accord with the accepted conventions of international law. She then addresses the question of whether or not the invasion should have been anticipated. She points out that short of keeping a permanent battle fleet in the South Atlantic, little could have been done to prevent such an attack. That a military junta would seize the islands to shore up its shaky domestic situation could not have been predicted, and certainly not in time for such a force to arrive from the UK. The truth is, as Mrs. Thatcher concluded, "the invasion could not have been foreseen or prevented" - a statement later supported by the findings of the Franks Commission.
Thatcher is at her best when describing the tense atmosphere and important decisions made in the midst of the crisis. The matter-of-fact presentation of her reaction to the invasion in the face of a pessimistic military analysis is classic Thatcher; "if they are invaded, we have got to get them back." Thatcher's portrayal of her actions throughout the crisis is less than modest, but one gets the feeling that her version is not far from the truth. William Whitelaw would later write that Mrs. Thatcher "never wavered in her determination to meet such a challenge" and that her courage in the face of adversity "proved her capacity as a national leader." The political memoirs of her friends and foes alike pay tribute to her leadership during the crisis, and do not significantly differ from her own account.
Some critics of Thatcher's behaviour during the Falklands War point to the sinking of the Argentinean ship General Belgrano. This action occurred at a time when various last minute appeals for peace were being made by the United States and Peru, and the sinking of the Belgrano has been characterized by some as a deliberate "sabotaging [of] any possibility of any peace plan succeeding." In truth, there was little hope for a peaceful solution because the Argentinean Government was not negotiating in good faith. ...