A quick history lesson: Falklands or Malvinas, it’s complicated

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.

21 replies »

  1. It’s actually not complicated at all. No one with any sense of logic or history can back Argentina’s silly claim or agenda (it’s why Argentina has always refused to bring it to the international court of justice …. it’s obvious that they’d lose). It’s hilarious how Kirchner (a first generation Argentine; and Timerman, a second generation Argentine) can refer to 8th generation Falkland Islanders as “implanted” when there was no indigenous population, and they were there before Argentina existed (and as of 2010, 98.51% of Argentina’s population is composed of immigrants and their descendants; as they slaughtered the indigenous population in the 1860’s & 1870’s). Argentina has the resources to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but they’ve been run as a two-peso banana republic forever. Can’t understand why the Islanders want nothing to do with them!! We just returned from the Falklands in February. They are a proud people and no one is ever going to push them around. The Argentina government is just using them (again) as a convenient jingoistic distraction for their ignorant, brain-washed population; like a parent jigging car keys to distract a baby. It’s really quite embarrassing.

    • Sorry, but this is total nonsense. Firstly, CFK isn’t a first generation Argentinian (WTF?) and Hector Timmerman is a first generation citizen of a full fledged independent Republic, not an insignificant overseas colony. Also, as much as half of all Kelpers are born in the UK. The numbers who are around 7th or 8th generation would be a minority, certainly much lower than 1000 people. That’s nothing particularly important anyway considering South America (including Argentina) is much older than several generations. Your claims about the demographics of Argentina is totally wrong and you’re exagerating the plight of the Indigenous to a ridiculous extent that is just disrespectful and insincere. Argentinians are a proud people too and we were never ‘tamed’ by the British like most of Africa and the Middle East unfortunately were. If your cheap propaganda is all you have as an argument (it’s the usual predictable British tabloid crap) I don’t believe you should be calling entire peoples ignorant and brainwashed. The Argentinian media is freer and more diverse than you’ll find in Fleet Street.

      • So why was Jorge Lanata subjected to such abuse for expressing an opinion about ‘Las Malvinas’ which didn’t conform to the party line? There are a variety of different views on this issue in Britain, some more extreme than others, but that’s a healthy sign of a democratic political culture. You don’t have to be a republic to have that, so the chest-beating over that is pointless.

        Actually, Argentina was nicknamed ‘the sixth dominion’, because Britain’s commercial empire was so extensive – http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,778724,00.html Who do you think introduced rugby to Argentina? Or football? Or railways – which still drive on the left? At least we didn’t impose our language on Argentina, the way the US did in the Philippines.

        If teaching five year-old children ‘Las Malvinas Son Argentinas’ isn’t brainwashing, I don’t know what is. The Germans are a proud people too, but you don’t hear Angela Merkel going on and on about how the west of Poland and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad belongs to Germany, and that the Polish and Russians living there are ‘planted populations’ who settled there after millions of Germans were expelled.

        You want your flag to fly in the Islands? Set up a consulate-general there. Even India had a consulate-general in Goa when it was trying to get Portugal to hand it over. Admiral Jorge Anaya had a plan to take over the Falklands called ‘Plan Goa’, thinking that Britain would be as much a pushover as Portugal.

  2. Britain claimed the Falklands in 1765 – Argentina did not inherit them from Spain. For long periods the islands were uninhabited. In 1833 the British returned and asked an illegal Argentine garrison to leave. The majority of the settlers chose to stay. Only 5 settlers chose to return to what is now present day Argentina. This, and proximity – 300 miles, forms the basis of Argentina’s weak sovereignty claim – weak because otherwise they would have taken their case to the Courts of International Justice long ago.

    In 2007, Nestor Kirchner voided a 1995 oil and gas exploration agreement with the UK. Argentine Foreign Minsister Timerman has been threatening to take legal action against British companies drilling in Falkland waters for the past 14 months with little success. This proves two points (I) The Falkland Islands are British and (II) Argentine politcians cannot be trusted.

    The founding principle of the UN Charter and General Assembly resolution 1514(XV) states that, ‘All peoples have the right to self-determination. This right IS NOT QUALIFIED AND ATTEMPTS TO QUALIFY IT WITHIN THE UN HAVE BEEN REJECTED.

    What’s complicated?

  3. A most interesting article from Cat White, from which Argentina emerges in rather a favourable light. ! Coming on top of the recent release of Mrs. Thatcher’s private papers, it is a further indication that it was a mistake for Britain to fight Argentina in 1982. The lamentable war set back the UK’s and USA’s relations with Latin America for a generation. The Obama adminstation has now shown that it values its relationship with Argentina by conspicuously remaining silent on the result of the recent referendum on the islands and by declaring its neutrality in the dispute over sovereignty. The Foreign Office, meanwhile, which “seeks positive relations”, only manages to antagonize South America by its stubborn support for a phoney right of self-determination.

    • An Argentinian calling self-determination a phoney right sums up a lot of the situation.

      As for the U.S., it is still between a rock and a hard place, and while the Falklands sovereignty issue exists off the radar to most Americans, I think America’s final decision will give a picture to the international world of how the country has been shaped in a larger way than most would think.

      For decades now it has continued to walk the diplomatic line between Britain and Latin America over the islands, but has drawn ire from both sides for doing so. Sooner or later America will need to decide who to support.

      If it supports Britain, then the U.S. will show that its founding values of self-determination and the rights of man hold true, but in doing so will sacrifice influence and prestige with South America.

      If it supports Argentina, then the U.S. will send out a signal that it is aggressive in boosting its political and economic ties, and will likely benefit from increased influence and trade, but will do so with the message that founding principles and historical alliances do not matter quite as much to a modern America based around financial networking.

    • devolverislas

      Of course it was not a mistake for Britain to fight argentina..

      You see Mrs Thatcher believed that thievery, coercion, loss of liberty etc should not be tolerated.

      Argentina should have used the United nations International Court of Justice if it felt it had a complaint..

      “You know something..?

      Argentina has had umpteen opportunities to take its complaint to the United Nations International Court of Justice…
      But one has to ask the basic question – why hasn’t it done so..?

      This is a basic territorial dispute to argentina..

      So why not..?

      But it must be remembered that Great Britain offered argentina to settle its dispute regarding the South Georgia etc at the International Court of Justice – not once, not twice, but at least 5 times over a time period spanning from the latter 1940s to the latter 1950s..

      Click to access 2157.pdf

      Click to access 9065.pdf

      Can you imagine the implications for the United Kingdom if argentina had won that case at the ICJ…
      The ‘malvinas’ would have surely fallen and become argentine in a matter of days…

      It would appear that argentina, simply doesn’t have the balls to take its case there, 2which leads one to believe argentina has no case whatsoever..

      Kindest regards from the Falkland Islands

      • The United Kingdom recognized the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice only to disputes after 1977. Obviously the dispute over the Malvinas is earlier, has over 180 years. The Argentina not made ​​a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the Court, but if I did I could not sue the United Kingdom because of the time limit mentioned above. The Argentina can continue to insist on the bilateral and multilateral levels to which the UK fulfills its obligation to resolve the sovereignty dispute with one of the existing means of peaceful settlement, but it is true that, given that the UK has the right to veto in the Security Council has no other means available. In addition, all Argentinean democratic governments since 1983 have pledged to resolve the dispute only by peaceful means and in conformity with international law.

        • So if you truly believe that rubbish, about “1977”, then, what is stopping argentina from using the Permanent Court of Arbitration?

          Or come to that, any other of the 100s of other institutions that may be used for this purpose..?
          Perhaps it is because, the argentine claim would have to be fully examined and investigated?

          Also, kindly bear in mind that the PCA was formed in 1899, and argentina has been a full member since 1907.

          Kindest regards from the best little country in the world..

          The Falkland islands..

    • The mistake wasn’t going to war to retain its territory – the UK won. The mistake was Argentina starting the war in the first place. They probably could have had the islands turned over to them by the UK within 5 years without ever firing a shot.

  4. I repeat: it’s complicated, at least to understand the implications. We (in the US, not involved in the government) can find simple answers. But we don’t have all the history or facts, but can be expected to take sides in this nonetheless.

    @ BritBob: I meant to say that Argentina inherited its claim from its Spanish settlers (will edit when I get back to a computer).

  5. @Sam. Given the options that you clearly lay out it is obvious that the USA will remain neutral on the question of sovereignty. Obama doesn’t have to support either the UK or Argentina.

    @ Cat White @Dean Street Two words of warning!

    1) The “falklandshistory ” listed is a one-sided version of the history of the islands, partial to the interests of the UK and the islanders.

    2) Dean Street’s Gallery of copies of Argentinian documents and photos notably excludes copies of documents relating to the period of Spanish/United Provinces/Argentine administration of the islands (1767 -1833). These, if included, would show Argentina’s legal title to the islands.

  6. Devolverislas

    One sided..?

    Perhaps you can give us documentary or photographic evidence that is one sided to argentina that proves the information contained in the links to be “partial to the interests of the UK and the islanders”. ..?

    I’ll bet you won’t be able to..

    Also, most of those documents are held in the argentine national archives in buenos aires – (one sided..?)
    The photos of HMS Dolphin’s log books, I confess are held in the UK Public Records Office – but they are still very much genuine..

    Also did you know that argentina actually gave up any claim it might have had to the Falkland Islands in in 1850..?
    Google the Arana/Southern treaty, otherwise known as the Convention of Settlement.

    At the time of signing that peace treaty, there was another peace treaty being signed by argentina with France, this one was called the Arana-Lepredour Treaty..

    Kindest regards from the Falkland Islands

  7. Devolverislas

    We are all still awaiting your documents and photographs that evens the one sided version of history…

    Or perhaps more to the point, there is only one side.

    Kindest regards from the Falkland Islands

  8. Great post, and not just for the Iron Lady/magnetism pun. Good example of how Byzantine international relations really are, with no such thing as friends (or foes,) simply arrangements of convenience. I always heard that part of this was Thatcher doing a morale boost for the UK a la Reagan and the ridiculous invasion of Grenada. True?

    • I’ve heard that, but the UK did have a presence that exceeded a couple hundred medical students.

  9. At the time of the Falkland’s war, I regret to say that I accepted the British explanation of protecting the rights of the Falkland Islanders, it was only much later that I recognized that the true explanation reflected much less credit on the UK.

    As the return of Hong Kong to China, loomed on the horizon, British governments, racist as always, became worried about a flood into Britain of Hong Kong Chinese who were at that time full UK citizens with right of residence in the UK. To get around this Britain invented the concept of British Overseas Citizenship and reclassified the Hong Kong Chinese as such, leaving them nominally UK citizens but stripping them of any right of refuge. The Falkland Islanders though ethnically angloceltic were also reclassified as British Overseas Citizens.

    The Argentine invasion presented Thatcher’s government with a dilemma, if it left the islanders to the mercy of Argentina it would incur electorally damaging criticism, but if the allowed the angloceltic Falklanders refuge in Britain it would set it up for claims of hypocrisy when Hong Kong Chinese with valid fears of China were refused refuge.

  10. Carlyle Moulton

    It is indeed an apparent crime committed by the United Kingdom which to be quite honest, I don’t really know much about.

    However if indeed it is an apparent wrong, then have you done anything to help put this right?

    Or will you simply say that we Falkland Islanders should be “thrown to the dogs” because of this misdeed by Britain in the Far East?

    Even though this time Britain might actually be 100% correct..?

    Kindest regards from the Falkland Islands