H-Diplo/ISSF Article Review 144 on “Was the Malvinas/Falklands a Diversionary War? A Prospect-Theory Reinterpretation of Argentina’s Decline.”

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Article Review 144



Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Production Editor:  George Fujii


Luis L. Schenoni, Sean Braniff, Jorge Battaglino.  “Was the Malvinas/Falklands a Diversionary War?  A Prospect-Theory Reinterpretation of Argentina’s Decline.”  Security Studies, 29:1 (2020):  34-63.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2020.1693618.

Published by ISSF on 20 November 2020




Review by Lawrence Freedman, King’s College London


This article uses the testimony to the Rattenbach Commission,[1] the official Argentine inquiry into the Falklands/Malvinas War, to refute fallacious explanations for the Argentine decision to invade the islands at the start of April 1982 and to offer an alternative explanation of its own.  Those to be refuted are described as the “diversionary thesis,” which suggests that the war was launched to distract from the domestic woes of the ruling Junta, and the “miscalculation thesis” (34), which suggests that the Junta’s move was premeditated but failed to anticipate the British response. Instead of these theories the authors use prospect theory to argue that the Junta embarked on a military adventure with a high chance of failure in an effort to address a long-term sense of national decline and anxiety.

For historians of the conflict the analysis of the Rattenbach materials is interesting and adds to our knowledge of the thinking of the military Junta when it decided on the invasion.  Although they do little to trace its origins in Argentine history and culture, the authors demonstrate that there was a prevailing, nationalistic mind-set at the highest reaches of the Argentine military, which was then in charge in Buenos Aires.  The group that came together to form the new Junta in late 1981 saw a transitory opportunity to restore both lost territories along with lost international and regional standing.  This was not just reflected in a desire to retrieve the Falklands but also islands in the Beagle Channel, which they believed had been unfairly assigned to Chile in arbitration. 

The idea that shifting power balances can cause a lurch to war is not new.  It is still associated with Thucydides.  Nor is there any reason to question the assumption that anxiety about national decline was a consideration in play in 1982.  But this cannot by itself explain the decision to invade.  Argentina had been declining for some time, for reasons that had a lot to do with economic mismanagement.  Seizing lost territory was not going to address the country’s economic problems.  At most it might in some way compensate for them.  Even if the Junta was convinced of the justice of the cause and the ripeness of the conditions, there was nothing inevitable about the action.  The Junta kept the decision-making to themselves, excluding intelligence agencies and civilians, and so awkward potential warnings about the consequences of military action, from their deliberations.  Moreover, the Junta, in one form or another, had been around since the mid-1970s.  As the authors note, the issue of seizing the islands had come up before, and then the Junta was split on the issue and decided against action.  Only the vagaries of the weather had prevented a move in December 1978 to seize the islands disputed with Chile, which presumably would still have kept the country busy with one big international crisis before taking on another (44).

What made the difference in 1982?  There were two factors, one of which is not mentioned in this article and the other which is referred to only briefly.  The first is the exhaustion of negotiations.  Argentina and the UK had been discussing the status of the islands on and off since 1968 (when the UK effectively gave the islanders a veto over any change of status).  In 1980 there was an apparent breakthrough in secret discussions between Foreign Office ministers but they did not survive islander and parliamentary scrutiny in the UK. This left London with no option other than continued procrastination, a point that was not lost on Buenos Aires.  The Junta’s schedule for 1982 was bound up with a new round of talks with the UK (which took place in New York in February).  Assuming they got nowhere, there was to be a denunciation of the UK position at the United Nations General Assembly later in the year.  That would be the cue for an invasion.  The second factor was the episode in South Georgia in the middle of March when a contract to pick up scrap metal was used by the Argentine Navy to establish a presence on disputed territory.  They had already done this on another island, South Thule.  This presence was discovered, leading to a crisis which escalated quickly.  The Junta feared that the UK might use it to reinforce its position in the South Atlantic, which would seriously complicate its plans for an invasion.  So they brought the invasion forward.

This is the conclusion I came to as a historian of the conflict.  It combines the long-term factors, which created a disposition to seize the islands, with the shorter-term factors which actually led them to do so.[2] It fits in with neither of the alternative hypotheses put up by the authors to be knocked down. The “diversionary thesis,” soon crumbles away on close examination.  As the authors note, it is unsupported by the evidence.  It is true that there was unrest in Argentina just before the invasion, but the decision on the Falklands/Malvinas had been taken before it reached the streets.  It is largely of interest because a version of this theory influenced the findings of the official British inquiry into the war, chaired by Lord Franks.[3] The advantage of this theory to the British government and intelligence community was that if it were true then it would have been impossible to have predicted the Argentine invasion and therefore UK actions leading up to the war were largely irrelevant. To dismiss the domestic appeal of a bold military adventure as a motive, however, is not to dismiss the initial popular reactions to the invasion as irrelevant.  The invasion was popular and this limited the Junta’s room for manoeuvre when it came to discussions of a political settlement that would have required their troops being withdrawn.

The “miscalculation thesis” is more problematic because it is more about timing and preparation than motive.  Presumably if the Junta had got its calculations right the islands would have become - and would still be - part of Argentina.  So something went wrong in the calculus.  It is not a small step to go to war with a major military power.  The authors offer evidence against the proposition that the Junta had assumed that there would not be a British response to the occupation of sovereign territory.  They quote a number of actors saying to the Commission that they did indeed expect a British response.  It is entirely possible that these figures did not wish to be taken for fools, or else wanted it known that despite the confidence of others they always had their doubts on the wisdom of the enterprise.  All one can say is that there is little evidence that it influenced planning for the invasion.  If it had, this might have led to the despatch of a military commander with some serious fighting experience and a grasp of how to organise an active defence, and to the provision of the equipment with which to extend the air strip at the Falklands capital of Stanley so that it could accommodate Argentine fast jets. A number of decisions to strengthen the defences were only taken after the UK announced that it would be sending a task force.  Some measures, such as the despatch of extra troops, which imposed additional logistical burdens, gave the appearance of panic.

It is, however, extremely odd for the authors to insist that: “Argentina knew with precision what the British response would look like” (47).  Some might have recognised the possibility of a large-scale response, but that is not the same as a firm expectation.  The British certainly had no idea, and if asked to predict few even at the senior levels of government would have opted for the one that was adopted.  It would have been perfectly reasonable if imprudent for the Junta to assume no British military response.  Argentine planners were keenly aware of the June 1981 defence review which announced that HMS Endurance, the sole, occasional naval presence in the South Atlantic, would be withdrawn in 1982 and that the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible would be sold to Australia.  This was one of a number of indicators of a weakening British commitment to the long-term security of the Falklands.  When news came through on 31 March of an imminent Argentine invasion, the initial advice given to the Secretary of Defence was that there would be a little point in a military response.  It was only the personal intervention of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, that persuaded the government that a task force not only could be assembled but also that it could be sent in a matter of days.  This was only an option because much of the fleet was already at sea conducting exercises off Gibraltar and because the cuts had yet to take full effect.  Nor was a UK victory inevitable, as the authors have some Argentine figures acknowledging.  If one of the carriers had been sunk or if the British forces had been unable to make much headway against Argentine resistance one they had landed, then the outcome could have been very different.  This is why the UK was prepared to negotiate some sort of political deal while the task force was en route to the South Atlantic.  It is clear that in retrospect a deal would have been a real gain for the Junta, yet they rejected it because it did not guarantee an early transfer of sovereignty.  That can partly be explained by a reluctance to let down the popular, patriotic feeling in the country, but also some confidence that if it came to a fight they could prevail.

As it happens, none of these different explanations are exclusive of each other.  It is possible to have the disposition to attack, see the opportunity to take the steam out of domestic unrest, and then get the planning all wrong.  My view that the war arose out of frustration with the negotiations and the South Georgia episode is also consistent with a wider frustration with Argentine decline and miscalculation.  In the end, therefore, I fear that the quest to add to international relations theory may have resulted in the authors not making the most of the Rattenbach Commission material without providing us with much of a theory.  This is just one case with its own special features, and while it may illustrate how a declining power led by a military dictatorship might react to opportunities to address what they viewed as some great historic injustice, there are not many such cases with which this one can be compared.


Lawrence Freedman was Professor of War Studies at King’s College London from 1982 to 2014.  He was the official historian of the Falklands Campaign and a member of the official UK Inquiry into the Iraq War.  In addition to the Future of War: A History (PublicAffairs, 2017) he published Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press) in 2013.

©2020 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] The Commission was set up after the war with Lieutenant-General Benjamin Rattenbach as Chair.

[2] This is dealt with in the first volume of Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, (London:  Routledge 2005).  The literature the authors choose to cite is of course up to them.  They do not cite this and, more relevant, an earlier book I co-authored with Virginia Gamba, who knew many of the key figures on the Argentine side and the work of the Rattenbach Commission.  Freedman and Gamba, Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982 (London: Faber and Faber, 1990)

[3] Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors, Falkland Islands Review, January 1983, cmnd 878.