Politics & Policy

The Significant ‘Little War’

Declassified documents show that the Falklands War really did matter.

‘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 And a recent British defense review had withdrawn the icebreaker, HMS Endurance, from the islands, indicating that London had a low estimate of their strategic importance.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.” 

Haig’s proposals for British concessions were known at the time: withdrawal by both sides, some kind of interim international administration of the islands, and Anglo-Argentinean negotiations over sovereignty. What is surprising in the NSC document is the degree to which Haig realized this would amount to an Argentinean victory — and thus a victory for the armed aggression that Reagan had clearly condemned.

What explains this “tilt” toward Argentina on Haig’s part — especially since the NSC meeting was convened to arrange a tilt toward Britain after Argentina had turned down the first tranche of Haig’s proposals? And what explains the tilt towards Britain on the part of Weinberger and Inman?

This second question is relatively easy to answer: Weinberger and Inman plainly thought that the relationship with Britain — a NATO ally with extremely close military, diplomatic, intelligence, and (under Reagan and Thatcher) political ties — had advantages that outweighed any possible gain from showing favor to Argentina or any possible risk from showing disfavor. Under Weinberger, the Pentagon was already giving substantial military aid to British forces — and had been since the day the British task force headed south.

Inman’s most decisive intervention in the NSC debate (apart from an accurate military appreciation of the forces on both sides) was to warn against intelligence leaks on Falklands matters. The CIA took this very seriously indeed. Two months later, Inman’s boss, William Casey, sent out a stern letter to senior officials administration-wide to repeat Inman’s warning. But what leaks were they talking about? On April 15, 1982, the New York Times had published a piece headlined “U.S. Providing British with Wide Range of Intelligence.” Subsequently, the Argentineans had changed their codes, making it harder for the CIA to read their traffic. 

This falls short of proof that the U.S. was giving MI6 Argentina’s encrypted conversations. But it caused Haig to worry that his assurances to the contrary given to Buenos Aires might look hypocritical and dishonest. And, accurate or not, it might have thrown an unwelcome light (or inconvenient wrench) onto CIA-MI6 cooperation.

About Haig’s motives, we get a partial explanation in the NSC debate of why some modest tilt to Argentina might be necessary. Haig addressed — and was questioned on — three important points: Were there any risks to the lives of U.S. citizens in Argentina from the course of the war? Were there any risks of an Argentinean default that might damage U.S. banks, American investments, or the property of American expatriates? Was there a risk that the Argentinean junta might fall, and, if so, what kind of regime would replace it? A fourth point — what were the wider risks of the conflict to the U.S. throughout Latin America? — came up frequently elsewhere.

These were all reasonable anxieties, and there was a fair measure of agreement in the meeting on them. The first danger was taken most seriously. Rightly so: There were 16,000 Americans in Argentina, and the seizure of the Teheran embassy had taken place only three years earlier. Thus the Argentinean government was requested to protect expatriates (it readily agreed), and instructions were sent to the U.S. embassy to prepare evacuation plans for them.

A State Department briefing paper analyzing the economic and financial risks very thoroughly concluded, unsurprisingly, that the banks were unlikely to force Argentina into a default from which they would suffer most. Similarly it argued that almost all the available economic sanctions would damage Argentina only slightly and lose American companies market share. So modest economic measures, a suspension of U.S. arms sales to Argentina, and a White House statement blaming Buenos Aires for the breakdown of negotiations — all largely symbolic actions — were proposed by State and, later, adopted by the NSC meeting.

The main concern, rooted in traditional strategy, was the third: What would happen if the junta fell from power? This question was more important than it seemed (and, arguably, more important than it should have been) because the U.S. was getting discreet assistance from Argentina in its one of its major priorities: Central American policy. Haig argued that if the junta fell, it would probably be replaced by a left-wing, Perónist government hostile to U.S. policy across the board. That being so, the U.S. had an incentive to arrange concessions for the junta, if only to save its face.

Finally, both State and the CIA at different times studied the impact of U.S. policy toward the Falklands on Washington’s relations with the rest of Latin America. They concluded that provided that the U.S. was not seen to assist Britain militarily, the fallout would be modest.

Reading the briefing papers and other documents around the NSC meeting, however, one gets the impression that the foreign-policy bureaucracy in the Reagan administration wanted a conclusion to the Falklands War that punished Argentina for its armed aggression but also set in train a diplomatic process for gradually transferring Falklands sovereignty from London to Buenos Aires. This is nowhere stated clearly — except when Haig is speaking. The bureaucrats hint at their conclusions in Roman; Haig presents them to the NSC in bold italics.

There’s a reason: Haig is a man in a hurry. Power is slipping from his grasp. Reagan is not prepared to give him the dominance he demands over foreign policy. He cannot get the president even to fire unruly trespassers on his bureaucratic turf such as U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. He needs a victory and he needs it soon. If Haig can prevent a war by diplomatic mediation, he will be irremovable — and, maybe too, get the Nobel Prize!

But he can’t — and soon he is gone. 

This was probably inevitable. Haig’s (and the bureaucrats’) willingness to see a transfer of sovereignty, however camouflaged, was not really consistent with the distinction that Reagan articulated repeatedly as the basis of U.S. policy throughout the crisis: neutral on sovereignty but opposed to military aggression. If aggression leads to a transfer of sovereignty, then it has been not punished but rewarded. And if aggression is to be punished, then moral and material assistance to the British campaign to recover the islands was the logical outcome. That is what happened — and, of course, U.S. aid was a significant factor in the British victory.

What happened afterwards in Latin America contradicted the fears of Haig and those who wanted a pro-Argentina tilt more or less completely. The junta fell, but a reasonably stable and responsible Argentinean government replaced it. There were riots in Buenos Aires, but they targeted the junta rather than American citizens. There was no Argentinean default for another 19 years. The country’s return to democracy set an example that was followed over time by almost the whole of Latin America (including Nicaragua and El Salvador). 

Developments elsewhere tended to confirm the judgments of Weinberger, Inman, and those who thought that the U.S. had no real alternative but to support its closest ally. Britain received a boost from its victory — the so-called “Falklands Effect” — that translated into a wider revival of economic success and national self-confidence. It also had a stiffening effect on Western morale more generally: It showed retreat was not inevitable. Thatcher personally established a dominant position in British politics that lasted almost another decade. And Reagan had a grateful and reliable partner for the various foreign-policy struggles that lay ahead. In retrospect this particular tilt seems commonsense. 

Now the Falklands have discovered oil — which threatens to reignite the Anglo-Argentinean conflict.

These documents from 30 years ago are timely, and they suggest three lessons for current U.S. policy-makers from this “little war.” First, if you are going to be neutral on Falklands sovereignty, as the policy has been for many years, be absolutely clear that you are not neutral on the use of military force. Wishful thinkers in Buenos Aires can be hard of hearing.

Second, even little wars bring great grief. At the start, Washington saw it all as comic opera or jingoistic fantasy. By the end, the Falklands War was a vast diversion for the administration. It helped to bring down a secretary of state and it imposed on the U.S. a painful choice between different allies.

Third, decisions have consequences. If U.S. policy had tilted towards the wrong side on the Falklands, that tilt would almost certainly have aborted partnerships and policies that were later vital in winning the Cold War. Imagine that. 

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.


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