FRUS Review No. 32
Published 12 October 2017
H-Diplo FRUS Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
H-Diplo FRUS Review of Alexander Wieland, ed. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981-1988 Volume XIII, Conflict in the South Atlantic, 1981-1984. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2015. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1981-88v13.
Review by James Lockhart, American University in Dubai
This volume shows how the Reagan administration attempted and failed to prevent, and then to bring to an early negotiated conclusion, the Falklands War of 1982. The volume’s documents include declassified records from the National Security Council (NSC), the Department of State, the Pentagon, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), correspondence from U.S. embassies in London, Buenos Aires, and other interested nations, and memoranda of telephone conversations between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and between Reagan and Lieutenant General Leopoldo Galtieri, president of the junta that ruled Argentina. These papers add to a growing body of evidence that illuminates this transatlantic conflict while tending to confirm existing accounts and interpretations.
The volume highlights at least three major themes: first, the limitations of American influence in both Argentina and Britain; second, the Reagan administration’s tilt toward the UK; and third, the junta’s disastrous political and military miscalculations, from the planning stages through the end of the war. Although some of the Pentagon reports discuss and assess British and Argentine performance in combat and consider lessons learned after the fighting stopped, the best accounts of British and Argentine military, naval, and air operations remain Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins’s book, Lawrence Freedman’s official history, and the Rattenbach Report, the Argentine army’s highly-critical after-action report.
The Reagan administration lacked the necessary influence to balance a collection of conflicting interests concerning the Argentine and British governments. The administration recognized Argentina and the UK as friendly, anticommunist nations who had needlessly turned against each other during a particularly tense time in the Cold War. It hoped, as Secretary of State Alexander Haig articulated it, “to sober both sides up” (150).
The Department of State’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs summarized American priorities as the conflict unfolded as “preserving our relationship with the UK and its role in the defense of the West; maintaining the Thatcher Government in power; nurturing our new relationship with Argentina; insulating our hemispheric policy, particularly in the Caribbean, from this crisis; and minimizing opportunities for increased Soviet influence in the region” (313). The NSC particularly worried about the problems that would follow a British or Argentine military defeat, which would involve, in the case of the latter, a breakdown in U.S.-Argentine relations, possibly culminating in “the splintering of hemispheric unity…The US cannot meet the Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan/Grenadian/and now Surinamese challenge in the Caribbean Basis and simultaneously face a hostile, irredentist, and Peronist Argentina while continuing to meet its global commitments. All of post-war U.S. foreign policy has been premised on the availability of a secure and non-hostile hemisphere while we meet our Asian, Middle Eastern, and European commitments” (643). Argentina’s decision to invade threw these calculations off balance.
Britain and Argentina’s disagreement began in 1833, when British forces occupied the Falklands, approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Buenos Aires, and seized the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands as well. Argentines claimed all of these islands as part of their national territory. They characterized the UK as a colonial power that had been violating their sovereignty for nearly 150 years. The junta attempted to use such emotional appeals to enlist the Reagan administration, which tried to remain neutral on the sovereignty issue, on its side. The Argentine Foreign Minister even cited the Monroe Doctrine, while telling the U.S. ambassador that “You (the USG) will sometime have to take an interest in this” (33).
It became urgent that Britain face this issue after the UN passed a resolution that instructed both the British and Argentine governments to negotiate a settlement while respecting the islanders’ rights to self-determination in 1965. The Wilson government (1964-1970) was inclined to find a way to transfer sovereignty to Buenos Aires, but the islanders, who had friends in Parliament, especially the House of Lords, and Britain’s conservative press, rejected Argentine jurisdiction and citizenship. Thus these negotiations dragged on for several years, leaving Buenos Aires frustrated and impatient. Margaret Thatcher’s election further complicated this situation. Thatcher made it clear that she would not budge on the sovereignty issue without the islanders’ consent. She also dismissed the Argentines’ anticolonial posture. She deemed them colonizers and settlers, too. As she put it to Reagan, “if they say we have no right to be in the Falklands, what right have the Spaniards and the Italians to be in Argentina?” (539).
Thus London and Buenos Aires dragged the Reagan administration into this highly-charged, rapidly-escalating dispute in April 1982. U.S. Ambassador Harry Shlaudeman, Haig, and Reagan himself attempted several times to warn the junta to alter its course on the eve of its invasion. They explained to Galtieri that should Buenos Aires and London go to war, the United States would have no choice but to support Britain. As Reagan told Thatcher, “While we have a policy of neutrality on the sovereignty issue, we will not be neutral on the issue of Argentine use of military force” (74). As Reagan also noted, neither he nor Haig got anywhere with Galtieri and his colleagues. Indeed, Galtieri initially refused to accept Reagan’s call, much to Haig’s dismay (70). The General also told the American Ambassador that Argentina was prepared to deal with the consequences the Ambassador had predicted would follow the invasion (68). These and subsequent developments led the NSC staff to lament “the emptiness of our bilateral ‘Relationship’ with the Argies” several weeks later (339).
The Reagan administration did not have much influence with the Thatcher government, either. Haig found some of the Thatcher government's positions rigid and unreasonable and some tensions rattled the Anglo-American relationship throughout the crisis. For example, Haig told Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary that, with respect to London’s insistence on maintaining sovereignty, “your position over the years has been eroded by other governments and you cannot now take a position which goes back and across history” (226). Haig also disagreed with Thatcher’s absolute rejection of Argentine participation—Buenos Aires wanted to place two representatives on the council that administered the islands as a first step—in the future government of the Falklands. The Secretary suggested that “the presence of two Argentine appointees can be defended in terms of the unquestionable Argentine interest and stake in the Islands. Indeed, giving them such representation could help relieve the total frustration that led to the crisis in the first place,” to no avail (380). Thatcher and her cabinet kept their own counsel on these matters. As the Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs reported to Haig just as the war was ending, “The Prime Minister dealt with the South Atlantic crisis largely without our advice—or contrary to it” (734).
The Reagan administration’s tilt toward the UK, however, particularly Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s prompt attention to the British Ministry of Defense’s needs, enabled the Royal Navy’s task force to bring the war to a faster conclusion than would have been possible without the tilt. Some of this was predetermined through longstanding military and intelligence relationships. For instance, Britain had the right to use American basing facilities at Ascension Island, and 11 percent of the Defense Satellite Communication System's (DSCS) Atlantic satellite’s capabilities were dedicated to supporting British military and naval operations even before the crisis. This notwithstanding, the administration’s tilt exceeded these preexisting requirements. For example, Weinberger authorized an emergency airdrop of Stinger missiles to the task force, which Haig approved, partly “because he was just ‘disgusted’ w/ the Argent.” by this time (233).
Meanwhile, the junta was painfully slow to realize the full extent of the problems it had brought upon itself. Its members and the corps commanders and the other senior officers they consulted when making political and military decisions had badly miscalculated political realities in the United States, Britain, and the South Atlantic. The junta assumed, for instance, that since it had partnered with the Reagan administration in Central America, the administration owed it a quid pro quo in the Falklands. When this quid pro quo did not materialize, the junta, hoping to press Washington to act, threatened, repeatedly, to withdraw from Central America and also to accept Soviet and Cuban assistance in the war. This backfired, however. Haig simply called the generals’ bluff: “Tell them to do so!” he wrote in the margins of one report (521). The junta also believed, as the CIA reported, that Britain “would react to the seizure as gentlemen react to a duel: when the first blood was drawn (the Argentine seizure), the winner (Argentina) would be declared, and the loser (the UK) would gracefully retire from the field” (110). The Rattenbach Report confirms that the junta did not even begin to plan for actual combat operations until after the Royal Navy had put to sea.
The junta also failed to understand how frustrating both British and American negotiators would find the dictatorship. Again and again, Haig thought he had finally drafted an agreement that both sides could accept only to see the junta—which would only negotiate with London if it guaranteed a transfer of sovereignty by the end of the year would result—come back and overrule it. “I do not know whether more can be wrung out of the Argentines,” Haig wrote to his British counterpart. “It is not clear who is in charge here, as many as 50 people, including corps commanders, may be exercising vetoes” (328).
Thus the Thatcher government considered the negotiations over by the middle of April. Thatcher refused to get bogged down in what seemed like delaying tactics while she had a task force moving toward the Falklands. As she explained to Reagan when rejecting Buenos Aires’s agreement to a ceasefire in place, “it’s easy for them to hold off knowing that I with a task force bobbing around on the sea have not got the length of endurance on the sea which they have on the mainland” (536). Naval and air combat followed, with the Argentine air force punishing the Royal Navy with its French-supplied Exocet missiles and British sailors and marines’ eventually establishing a strong beachhead on East Falkland Island, which they used to retake the entire chain on 14 June 1982.
The volume’s last section describes the fall of Galtieri and the restoration of democratic, civilian government in Argentina in December 1983. A U.S.-supported UN resolution that asked London and Buenos Aires to resume negotiations over the status of the Falklands ended in July 1984, when British delegates, who only came to the talks to discuss the normalization of UK-Argentine relations, clarified that they “were not disposed to study the sovereignty issue” (915). The volume concludes with a report from the American embassy in Buenos Aires predicting that the Argentine government “will continue to pursue its Malvinas goals through negotiation only” (924).
While this volume reveals much from the American side, it can only hint at Anglo-Chilean cooperation and Soviet and Cuban perceptions and involvement in the conflict, all of which seem worth exploring further, even if Moscow and Havana’s participation was probably only peripheral. British special operations forces appear to have run several Chilean-supported raids into mainland Argentina during the war, attempting to locate and destroy the Argentine air force's arsenal of Exocet missiles and the aircraft that delivered them on the ground. Thatcher hinted at this when defending Chilean General Augusto Pinochet during his detention in London after November 1998, when she explained that he had been very helpful during the conflict. Similarly, the Argentine general who followed Galtieri while civilian government was returning “thanked Cuban President Fidel Castro for Cuba’s assistance to Argentina” in the months after the war (865). Further research into this will have to await the declassification of documents in Santiago and Havana.
James Lockhart is Assistant Professor of History in the Department of International and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University in Dubai. He earned his doctorate in American foreign relations and world history at the University of Arizona. His forthcoming book, Chile, the CIA, and the Cold War: A Transatlantic Perspective, reinterprets Chile’s Cold War history.
© 2017 The Author. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
 For the most important accounts, see Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1983); Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign , Vol 2: War and Diplomacy, Rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2007); and Lieutenant General Benjamín Rattenbach, “Informe Rattenbach, ” 2 December 1982, at http://seprin.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Informe-Rattenbach.pdf. Also consult the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s digital archives, at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/archive; Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York: HarperCollins, 2007); Alexander Haig, Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1984); and Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon (New York: Warner, 1990).
“Our new relationship with Argentina” referred to U.S.-Argentine covert military cooperation in Central America in the early 1980s after decades of acrimony between the United States and Peronist Argentina. See Ariel Armony, Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-Communist Crusade in Central America, 1977-1984 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
For Anglo-Chilean cooperation, see Richard Hutchings, Special Forces Pilot: A Flying Memoir of the Falklands War (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2008).