The Significant ‘Little War’
Declassified documents show that the Falklands War really did matter.


John O’Sullivan

‘Miles and miles of bugger all” was the succinct judgment of Sir Denis Thatcher on the Falkland Islands, delivered during his first and only visit there. It was also the conventional wisdom 30 years ago when, on April 2, 1982, Argentinean special forces landed at Port Stanley, defeated its British marine defenders — wounding one NCO for the loss of three Argentinean lives — and inflicted a deep political humiliation on the British, notably on Sir Denis’s wife, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 1982, very few people believed that the Atlantic around the islands had substantial economic value, let alone major energy reserves. The British Foreign Office had been trying hard to persuade the islanders to accept a gradual transfer of sovereignty to Argentina for more than a decade. And a recent British defense review had withdrawn the icebreaker, HMS Endurance, from the islands, indicating that London had a low estimate of their strategic importance.

Yet only three days after Argentina seized the islands by military force, the Thatcher government dispatched a small armada of warships, planes, and troops south in order to retake them.

It was this discrepancy between the small importance of the prize and the strenuous effort needed to win it that shaped the early American (and European) reactions to the Falklands War. Columnists compared it to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or cast it as a final spasm of Victorian jingoism. Jorge Luis Borges, the distinguished Argentinean writer, famously put this thought best: The dispute was “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

Thirty years later, the war looks very different — and much more significant. As the archives disgorge their information treasure, we can see more clearly both its real significance and how shrewdly and quickly policy-makers grasped this and responded to it. A vast tranche of documents from the Reagan administration has recently been declassified. As I reported three weeks ago, the Margaret Thatcher Foundation in Cambridge has posted a selection of these documents about Anglo-American relations in full with no intelligence redacted on its website. Today it has put up a further series of such documents relating to the Falklands War, including a confidential briefing to congressmen on the war by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, military assessments of both sides by the Central Intelligence Agency, and a Top Secret account of a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by Reagan to determine whether and how to “tilt” U.S. policy one month into the war.

My overall take on the significance and outcome of what these documents reveal, especially about the NSC meeting, is available in an article I wrote for last Saturday’s weekend Wall Street Journal. In brief, however:

  1. Reagan stuck to a distinction between sovereignty over the Falklands (on which Washington was neutral) and armed aggression to settle the question (on which Washington sided with Britain);
  2. Within that distinction he allowed his Cabinet secretaries considerable leeway to pursue their own interpretations of U.S. policy;
  3. Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger and CIA Deputy Director Bobby Inman used that leeway to push military and intelligence aid to Britain, and Secretary of State Haig used it to push Britain toward diplomatic concessions that amounted, in his own account to the NSC, to “camouflaged transfer of sovereignty.”