Thirty years after the Falklands War, the islands where the sheep to people ratio is 200:1 are back in the news. First, 99% of the voters in the March 12 referendum voted to remain a British territory. Second, many of Margaret Thatcher’s papers relating to the war were released on March 22. It seems that some in her party didn’t believe that the islands were worth a war.
Most Americans probably don’t remember much about the war and know even less about why it was fought. It certainly doesn’t seem to have enough significance today to warrant the recent headlines. But this is one of those stories that reminds us about the serious consequences of decisions that seem unimportant.
The Falkland Islands are about 300 miles off the southern coast of Argentina. They were probably first spotted by the Dutch, but the British and French made independent claims to the islands by the mid 1700s (most of the landings seem to have been made by accident when ships encountered the horrible sailing conditions near the tip of South America). The French lost their claim to the Spanish and everyone seems to have quit the islands by the early 1800s, leaving the equivalent of ball markers in their place, just in case they decided to return. Well, the Brits returned first–part of that whole “Sun never sets on the British Empire” push in the mid-19th Century. Such way stations were important for provisioning ships bound for China or elsewhere in the days before the great canals.
Colonialism and imperialism being what they were, Britain’s Falkland claim was secure for most of a century, until after the World Wars and the rise of self-determination. Then it seemed more important for Argentina to claim the islands off its coast. By the 1960s, Argentina had become adamant, though strictly vocal in its demands. Argentina’s government veered between military coups and the Peronistas (who rose from a coup in 1943). Juan Peron’s third wife, Isabel, who modeled her appearance after the iconic Evita, became president after her husband’s death. She was overthrown in 1976 by a junta that ruled until 1983, the period of the “Dirty War.”
At some point before 1982, an Argentine actress donned an evening gown, piled her hair up a la Evita, and hired a helicopter to fly her to the Falklands. There, brandishing a machine gun, she climbed off the helicopter and claimed the Falklands for Argentina. It was all captured on film. Great publicity stunt, ineffective invasion.
Finally, in 1982, Argentina acted in earnest. After six years in power, the junta was facing discontent. Inflation hit triple digits, brutal repression was meeting resistance, and there were calls for reform. In March, the military acted to restore Argentina’s territorial sovereignty by invading the Falklands.
The conventional story goes that Argentina invaded, Britain determined to defend the islands, and, after a brief period of attempted neutrality, Ronald Reagan sided with his ally and friend, Margaret Thatcher. Except that there was more to the story.
To begin with, according to the just-released Thatcher papers, the Tories were split over the Falklands. Some advisors even backed buying out the inhabitants and offering them full citizenship to move elsewhere. But the more hawkish elements of the cabinet won out and an expeditionary force was launched in April to retake the islands. The sticking point, early on, was gaining the support of the United States.
At first, Ronald Reagan tried to remain neutral and even offered to mediate a peace settlement. This was not what Thatcher was expecting from one of the closest and most reliable allies of the UK. She drafted a note to Reagan expressing her displeasure, but was eventually convinced to tone down the original language:
“Throughout my administration I have tried to stay loyal to the United States as our great ally,” she wrote. “In your message you say that your suggestions are faithful to the basic principles we must protect. I wish they were, but alas they are not.”
There were a number of factors in play in the US response. It’s not clear how many were known by the Prime Minister. Some members of the Reagan Administration, particularly Secretary of State Alexander Haig, doubted Britain’s and Thatcher’s ability to pull off the Falklands mission. They also were concerned about how long the Tories would remain in office. But there were also larger issues.
The Reagan Doctrine in Latin America was a manifestation of the Cold War that built on the Monroe Doctrine (i.e., the Western Hemisphere is closed to European colonization) and the Roosevelt Corollary (i.e., the US will act as policeman to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, if necessary). In Cold War terms, this meant that the Americas were closed to economic or political movements that were considered unfriendly to the US. Consequently, the US maintained the Cuban Embargo and opposed the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In keeping with the theory “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US supported Pinochet in Chile and right-wing military governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Argentina.
By 1982, the Reagan Administration was already involved in covert activities in Central America, centered on overthrowing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The US backed the guerrilla opponents of the Sandinistas, known as the Contras, with aid and weapons. The US also needed to provide them with training, but doing that openly in a covert operation was impossible, so we needed to outsource that operation to someone with a strong military, who knew the language, and was somewhat beholden to the US. According to my late graduate advisor, who spent decades on the subject, our covert partner was Argentina. It’s not known if Margaret Thatcher knew about that arrangement. Or if she cared about putting Reagan between the proverbial rock and hard place. She probably did not earn the “Iron Lady” nickname for having a magnetic personality.
One other thing to consider—for which we also don’t know the answer. Did our reliance on the Argentinian junta encourage them with regard to the Falklands? They certainly would not have been the first—or last—country to mistake “utility” for “license.” In any case, after they rejected Reagan’s offer to negotiate a peace, the Argentines learned just how much we valued them—Reagan publicly supported the Thatcher government diplomatically and militarily.
It has to be assumed that Argentinian training for the Contras ended abruptly—leaving the US with a big hole to fill in a hurry. The CIA had to find another country with a strong military, who owed the US for its support, and who could keep a secret. Our second choice, the story goes, was Israel.
This explains the rather puzzling news reports that started surfacing over the next year or so: the Sandinistas were using military advisors from the Palestine Liberation Organization. Huh? Why import military advisors from the Middle East? Unless, perhaps, they were familiar with the tactics—and the tacticians—being used by their opponents.
The British military force arrived in the Falklands through the end of April. By the end of June, Argentina was defeated. Of course, they left behind nearly 20,000 landmines as their legacy—which has probably continued to endear them to the Falkland Islanders. The military junta was discredited in Argentina, so much so that they allowed elections to take place the following year and relinquished power. Margaret Thatcher went on to serve as prime minister until 1990, outlasting her ally Ronald Reagan in office.
Nicaragua continued to be a thorn in the side of the US. Oliver North and company came up with their “neat idea” to defy Congress by mixing illegal support for the Contras with illegal arms sales to Iran. It all came to light as the Iran-Contra scandal. After that, the most powerful legal weapon in the US arsenal was to economically cripple Nicaragua and hope that the Sandinistas would eventually fall (which is mostly what happened).
Since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the War on Terror, the US has gone back to mostly ignoring Latin America, except for complaining about their sending the US too many illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants. Not surprisingly, the relationship with Argentina has never been particularly close.
One coda to this story. In 1988, in my first year of grad school, I enrolled in a graduate program for about two weeks during winter break. We spent a few days in Costa Rica and then flew to Nicaragua for the remainder of our studies. The flight from San José to Managua involved a plane that I was assured was older than I was. We circled repeatedly, trying to gain enough altitude to get over the mountains and then descend into Nicaragua. It was on that flight that I discovered, painfully, that I had sinuses, when my head suddenly threatened to split in half. I must have made a loud noise, because I startled the person in the seat to my right, who asked if I was okay. We had a short conversation while my pain subsided with the altitude. Where are you from? Me: United States. Him: Palestine. I did not ask questions.