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  • The US & the Falklands War (1): the US ’tilt’ towards Britain (30 Apr 1982)

    On 2 Apr 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands. This wholly unexpected event, the seizure by force of British people and territory, generated a crisis of great intensity in the UK, one almost existential in character.

    margaretthatcher.org has already published many documents relating to the war from a range of sources, particularly the US, and we continue that process with the most significant to date: the newly-released record of the National Security Council meeting on 30 Apr 1982 that terminated the ‘Haig shuttle’ – explicit US mediation between the two sides – and decided on a ’tilt’ in US policy towards the UK

    The key British files on the war are due for release at the end of 2012

    Minutes of 30 Apr 1982 NSC meeting

    The US Government was as surprised by the invasion as anyone else. But even though it had for years taken a position of neutrality on the question of Falklands sovereignty, it had neither the option nor the inclination to play the bystander.

    For one thing it had long-standing and exceptionally close military, intelligence and political ties to the UK, a front-line ally in the Cold War. On the other, the new Administation had cultivated good relations with the Galtieri junta in Argentina, hoping it might prove an important friend in the battle against Soviet influence in central America – a major concern for the new administration from the very first – and fearing that its fall might bring the return of a left-wing, Peronist government. The US also had significant interests in Argentina, financial and personal. As much as one fifth of US banking capital was exposed if Argentina defaulted on its debt and there were as many as 16,000 Americans resident in the country. And there was considerable US sensitivity to Latin American charges of “Yankee imperialism”, on right as well as left. Indeed during Ronald Reagan’s first meeting with MT as President he had talked of pursuing “a new approach to bring the [North and South American] continents together” and of fixing the southern perception of the US as “the Colossus of the north”. This stress seems to have surprised his visitors. The British Ambassador, Nico Henderson, professed not to understand what he meant and for once even MT was a little under-prepared: when it became apparent the President wanted to talk in detail about El Salvador more briefing had to be sent her. At this stage US policy in the region must have seemed rather remote from British interests.

    On the flip side, US Embassy telegrams from London, available on this site, show no great understanding of the depth of the crisis the invasion had provoked in Britain. Symbolically enough the US Ambassador to Britain, J.J. Louis, was on a golfing holiday in Florida at the time of the invasion and saw no reason to return early. Preliminary analysis from the State Department assumed Britain’s imperial legacy lay at the heart of the issue. Although Secretary of State Al Haig swiftly grasped that the British saw the self-determination of the islanders as a make-or-break principle, he was quietly sceptical that this really applied in the case of the Falklands. In a closed session briefing to Congressmen, he said that while the principle was “very laudable and supportable, they [the British] have created conditions on the Islands which make free choice by the population less than balanced”. The Falklands were a ‘cocoon’, he said, because “the Argentinians cannot get in”, leaving the islands perpetually “the land of the Brits”. And he made a nasty joke about the islanders, which drew a laugh from his audience, but was particularly tasteless in the circumstances. (It is along the lines of, “too few women, too many sheep”.) It is hard to believe he felt much sympathy for their plight.

    Many in Britain at the time and since have argued that there was a significant pro-Argentinian bias on the part of some in the Administration. The evidence does not really bear this out. Despite the above, such a charge can hardly be made against Haig, who was understandably exasperated by the junta and concluded that they were incapable of reaching a decision on any of the peace plans he put to them. His purpose throughout the Falklands crisis seems to have been to avoid an unnecessary war, as he saw it, and also to demonstrate his effectiveness as Secretary of State, something increasingly questioned, not least by the White House. In truth, his time was almost played out: less than a fortnight after the Argentinian defeat he had resigned and George Shultz had taken his place.

    The charge of bias could be made with far greater justice against Mrs Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador to the UN and a Cabinet Member, but the salient point is that she was an isolated figure within the Administration. It is true that she was close to the President, who rated her highly and several times thought of her as a possible National Security Adviser. But she was blocked decisively by his powerful kitchen cabinet, who distrusted her influence and pegged her down; for that reason it is not quite clear how much she had the President’s ear, in the sense of ready access. Over the Falklands she was completely at odds with the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, and scarcely less so with the CIA. And her relationship with the State Department was very poor. Although her name is often linked to that Tom Enders, the Assistant Secretary of State, as if they constituted a kind of Argentinian faction in the Administration, this is far from convincing. Enders was responsible for “Inter-American Affairs” and to that degree shared her concerns, but the two fell well short of a shared outlook. Indeed, Kirkpatrick’s relationship was Enders was so bad that he was summarily dismissed by the President the following year for undermining her on a visit to Central America. The State Department’s complaint against her was one of amateurism as much as anything else. During the war itself Al Haig seems to have demanded that she be fired for making public statements at odds with declared policy, raising the issue again in his final interview with the President when he resigned on 25 June. Perhaps the most notorious of her off-beam statements was made on CBS’s Face the Nation when she appeared to question that the Argentine invasion constituted “armed aggression”:

    The Argentines, of course, have claimed for two hundred years that they own these islands. Now, if the Argentines own the islands, then moving troops into them is not armed aggression.

    Although the President refused Haig’s demand that Kirkpatrick should go, it is entirely plain that he did not share her views on this point, which bordered on the bizarre and might almost be called definitively un-Reaganite. He knew armed aggression when he saw it, publicly and unequivocally describing the invasion in those terms himself, most notably on 30 April:

    we must remember that the aggression was on the part of Argentina in this dispute over the sovereignty of that little ice-cold bunch of land down there, and they finally just resorted to armed aggression, and there was bloodshed. And I think the principle that all of us must abide by is, armed aggression of that kind must not be allowed to succeed.

    It is perhaps a measure of heightened British sensitivities at the time that this statement is remembered in the UK for the “little ice-cold bunch of land” reference – unfairly treated as an attempt to belittle the issue – rather than the point of substance, which could hardly have been more forcefully or helpfully put by the President.

    That said, it mattered that anyone in the Administration spoke as Mrs Kirkpatrick did, particularly in Argentine eyes. A key question here is how Buenos Aires analysed the US position in advance of the war. It is certainly plausible that US neutrality as to sovereignty, along with who-knows-what friendly remarks in private from Mrs Kirkpatrick and lesser figures, led the junta to think a swift military takeover of the islands would not trouble Washington too much. At the very beginning of the crisis, on the eve of the invasion, the President wrote to MT saying that he had had no success in persuading Galtieri to hold off. Comfortingly he continued: “While we have a policy of neutrality on the sovereignty issue, we will not be neutral on the issue involving Argentine use of military force”.

    But there was a problem: the Argentinians seem not to have got that message. Wishful thinkers can be hard of hearing. Would there have been an invasion if Washington had spoken louder, or at least with a single voice?
    7-29 Apr 1982: the haig shuttle & its failure

    The Administration decided at a hurried White House meeting on 7 April that Haig would make an attempt at mediation between the two sides. The “Haig shuttle” occupied the diplomatic space for the following three weeks while the British Task Force sailed south, in which respect if nothing else it was probably helpful from the British point of view, since far less attractive mediators would surely have emerged if the US had not already been in the frame. But in almost every other way London found it an uncomfortable experience.

    Haig’s proposals went through many variations, but essentially focussed on three things:
    arrangements for Argentine withdrawal and a winding down of the military presence, British included
    the creation of some form of international “interim administration” for the islands following Argentine withdrawal, to operate while
    long-term sovereignty was negotiated.

    The inner nature of the proposals was always obscure, deliberately so. Who would end up owning the islands? The British side contended that self-determination should apply. The Argentinians of course rejected it. Haig and his people crafted clever and complicated bridging formulas, designed to save honour and face.

    Haig diligently shuttled back and forth between London, Buenos Aires and Washington, selling his scheme in best Kissinger-style, but never achieved a solid commitment from the Argentinian side to any part of it, the junta developing a habit of withdrawing concessions at the last moment and generally operating in a chaotic way. Haig put it neatly himself: “A charade … a f***ing charade, these guys are diddling me”. Even second level commanders had an effective veto, it seemed, meaning as many as 40 or 50 senior officers needed to be squared.

    Had the Argentinians been prepared to accept Haig’s proposals in some form, Britain would have been under huge pressure from the US and others to do so as well, no matter how large the concessions required of us. One of the messages Haig sent to President Reagan during his long shuttle referred to a “possible personal intervention by you with Mrs Thatcher”, as if it had been agreed between them in advance that Haig could trigger one if he felt the need. That would surely have been the mechanism.

    Such an event was a great threat to MT’s political survival: had the concessions been large enough, she might well have resigned rather than put her name to them. Some more tractable figure would perhaps have emerged as Prime Minister to do the deed. But that point never came. The junta wouldn’t – probably couldn’t – agree to anything.
    30 APR 1982: THE NSC MEETING

    Haig’s mission was finally terminated on 29 April. The President wrote to MT:

    I am sure you agree that it is essential now to make clear to the world that every effort was made to achieve a fair and peaceful solution, and that the Argentine Government was offered a choice between such a solution and further hostilities. We will therefore make public a general account of the efforts we have made. While we will describe the US proposal in broad terms, we will not release it because of the difficulty that might cause you. I recognize that while you see fundamental difficulties in the proposal, you have not rejected it. We will leave no doubt that Her Majesty’s Government worked with us in good faith and was left with no choice but to proceed with military action based on the right of self-defence.

    He had been privately doubtful about the shuttle for some time. In his diary for 19 April, after noting that the junta couldn’t make up its collective mind on Haig’s proposals, he wrote: “I don’t think Margaret Thatcher should be asked to concede any more”.

    A meeting of the NSC was called for 30 April to hear a report from Haig and to make decisions based on a paper from the State Department, “Next Steps on Falklands”, which we publish alongside the minutes. The paper set out a range of possible actions the US might take to sanction Argentina, all designed to “make clear our support for the UK”, but also (pointing the other way) to “preserve our ability to mediate”, “provide for the security of official and private Americans in Argentina” and “minimize adverse impact on our interests in Latin America”. It was acknowledged that none of the proposed steps – the main one was a suspension of arms sales – would have “significant material effect on Argentina”. In truth the most tangible element was the public declaration of a US ’tilt’, to be blamed on Argentinian intransigence. Some “high cost, high risk options” were also included – serious economic sanctions, movement of naval forces into the area – but plainly for form’s sake only.

    The meeting itself was opened by the deputy National Security Adviser, Bud McFarlane, the President always preferring to listen and observe debate among his principals, intervening to elucidate when needed and then to announce his decision. On McFarlane’s invitation the deputy director of the CIA, Admiral Bobby Inman, opened with a review of the military position, correctly predicting early action by the British in an attempt to close the runway at Port Stanley. Inman had sparred with Kirkpatrick at the earlier meeting on 7 April that authorised the Haig mediation: he was out of sympathy with the whole approach and thought ties of language, alliance, tradition, and strategic interest should side the US overwhelmingly with the UK. But on this occasion he was not in contentious mode. Policy was going his way. He drily described US intelligence that the Soviets had moved a spy satellite into an orbit which gave them the capacity tracking the Task Force, supplementing TU-95 reconnaissance aircraft based in Angola. The Cold War was never entirely out of the picture in the Reagan White House and hovered at the edge of the Falklands, potentially a decisive consideration if it obtruded significantly. There are some handwritten notes of the meeting alongside the typed minute in the file. In these Inman concludes his downbeat assessment with the words: “no happy news”.

    Haig then told the story of his mission. This was a meeting designed to tilt US policy towards the British, but he opened with an analogy that implied equivalence between Britain and Argentina – an equivalence in futulity – which anticipates Borges’s later remark that the Falklands War was like “a fight between two bald men over a comb”. It would have appalled the British had they heard it:

    He began by describing the situation as tragic with both sides, similar to a demented man on a ledge ready to jump, reaching for help but unable to grab our hand.

    Haig went on to explain the plan he had evolved in terms he could never have used in public or in the hearing of the British. If the Argentinians had accepted it, their flag would now be flying on the Malvinas. It is as simple as that:

    He then described the elements of the American plan which in effect would give ultimate sovereignty to Argentina but under evolutionary conditions which the Islanders could ultimately accept. Unfortunately, the Argentine government which is, in fact, made up of many moving and conflicting parts could not agree to the plan.

    How the islanders would be brought to accept such a transfer is not explained, but presumably because they had no alternative. We have seen already that he had no real use for the notion of Falklands self-determination. Haig characterises his plan even more frankly a little later:

    Our proposals, in fact, are a camouflaged transfer of sovereignty, and the Argentine foreign minister knows this, but the junta will not accept it.

    Here, of course, one comes up against a big problem. How could a “camouflaged transfer of sovereignty” be consistent with the President’s principled response to the invasion: “armed aggression of that kind must not be allowed to succeed?” Wouldn’t the transfer of sovereignty have been a success for aggression, a big success, camouflaged or not? Some in the room certainly felt that way, but there is no trace of an angry post mortem on the Haig proposals, very likely because from the critics’ point of view the outcome was the one they wanted. Haig, and the junta, had been given every chance.

    The disfunctionality and irrationality of the Argentine government shines through at this point (if such things can be said to shine). It was a government too divided and disorganized to recognize or accept what it was being given – almost, but not quite, its own worst enemy.

    Haig concluded:

    Argentina is the opposite of a pluralistic, democratic government where the lowest common denominator is consensus; in the Argentine case the lowest common denominator is extremism. The Navy holds the veto and is even more intransigent after losing South Georgia, whose Argentine garrison surrendered without firing a shot – a fact known to the Argentine government, but not to the Argentine people.

    Discussion then turned to the possibility that US nationals would need to be evacuated from Argentina. This might seem a far-fetched contingency, but in the aftermath of the Tehran embassy seizure it was taken seriously. Defense Secretary Weinberger took the lead role here. No one in the Administration was more favourable to the British than him, the President included. This was a man who had tried to join the RAF in 1940 when recruiters quietly turned up at a San Francisco hotel, only to be told he lacked depth perception. He attended Margaret Thatcher’s 80th birthday party in London in a wheelchair. Like Inman, he was content to let the meeting reach its preordained conclusion. Asked about British requests for military aid, he replied in low-key style: he thought “nothing was pending, but believed more fuel would be requested at Ascension”, surely an understatement. Later accounts of the war – for example by Nico Henderson – laid heavy stress on the helpfulness of the Pentagon. Interestingly the State Department likewise played down the British need for assistance in their covering paper for the meeting.

    The President made a contribution on this topic. He “interjected that he had no objection to giving materiel support but wondered it that would not significantly undercut any future role for the U.S. as a mediator”. In the typed minute Haig responds: “the Argentines have been told what we would do if they refused this offer”. In the handwritten notes a frustrated tone comes through: “Argentines have been told & told & told”.

    Inman had a further intervention to make. These newly-published minutes confirm something suspected since the war itself: the US had broken Argentine codes and was reading their military traffic. The press had leaked the fact, with inevitable results:

    Admiral Inman emphasized that one sour note had come out of recent developments, namely, press leaks about the US ability to read Argentine military communications, which in turn have led to a changing of the Argentine cipher. Admiral Inman hoped we would soon be able to regain our capability in that area, but the leaks had been damaging.

    Without admitting that the US had broken Argentine codes, Haig’s memoirs mention an unhelpful item on ABC Nightline which he had tried to stop (Caveat, p285) when Carl Bernstein had reported. A declassified CIA document points a finger in another direction: it includes an article from the New York Times from 15 April: “US Providing British a Wide Range of Intelligence”.

    Kirkpatrick also spoke, sketching the situation at the UN, to which diplomatic attention would now turn, and hazarding a characteristically out-of-step opinion as to the ultimate outcome. There would be no fighting she thought, a fix of some sort would undoubtedly be found. “The Argentines will find a way to avoid war through a face-saving device in some forum perhaps by the weekend”. Haig immediately contradicted her: “Unless Argentina softens on sovereignty, the British will go ahead and do some damage”. He proved the better judge. Thousands of miles to the south the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano – in earlier years the USS Phoenix, a veteran of Pearl Harbor – was already in the sights of the British nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror. Quite possibly Inman and Weinberger knew it.

    And with that the President wrapped up the meeting, approving the measures proposed and making a wry comment: “it would be nice if, after all these years, the U.N. could do accomplish something as constructive as averting war between the U.K. and Argentina”. His firm words on the subject of Argentinian armed aggression against the Falklands were delivered at a prescheduled event in the State Dining Room a couple of hours later.

    Find this story at January 2014

    Copyright © Margaret Thatcher Foundation 2014