Reagan asked Thatcher to stop Falklands war
IAN GLOVER-JAMES, DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT
A SECRET transcript of a telephone conversation between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan has revealed how the former president tried to persuade the prime minister to stop the Falklands war as British troops were advancing on Port Stanley.
The document shows Thatcher was determined to deliver a crushing victory to avenge British losses. Her response to the peace initiative left the president stammering on the transatlantic hotline. At one stage a clearly heated Thatcher demanded to know what Reagan would do if Alaska had been invaded and the United States had suffered casualties recapturing it.
“I wonder if anyone over there realises, I'd like to ask them. Just supposing Alaska was invaded ...” asked Thatcher. “Now you've put all your people up there to retake it and someone suggested that a contact could come in ... you wouldn't do it.”
“No, no, although, Margaret, I have to say I don't quite think Alaska is a similar situation” said Reagan.
“More or less so,” snapped Thatcher. Reagan feared the pending rout of Argentine forces in the south Atlantic would destabilise the region, damaging Washington's battle against left-wing regimes in Latin America.
But Thatcher, with barely concealed impatience, scotched the plan with a verbal explosion. Reagan could barely get a word in as the prime ministe gushed out a torrent of dismissal. “I didn't lose some of my best ships and some of my finest lives, to leave quietly under a ceasefire without the Argentines withdrawing,” she said.
“Oh. Oh, Margaret, that is part of this, as I understand it ...” stammered Reagan, trying to outline a Brazilian peace plan. It called for a ceasefire, Argentine withdrawal and a third-party peace-keeping force in the disputed islands. “Ron, I'm not handing over ... I'm not handing over the island now,” insisted Thatcher. “I can't lose the lives and blood of our soldiers to hand the islands over to a contact. It's not possible.
“You are surely not asking me, Ron, after we've lost some of our finest young men, you are surely not saying, that after the Argentine withdrawal, that our forces, and our administration, become immediately idle? I had to go to immense distances and mobilise half my country. I just had to go.”
The conversation recorded in Washington took place on May 31, 1982, after paratroops had taken Goose Green and were poised with other troops for the final assault on Port Stanley. The State Department was worried that the British advance looked too much like American-backed “colonialism”. Reagan approached the subject carefully, employing some old-fashioned Hollywood charm. “Your impressive military advance could maybe change the diplomatic options ... Incidentally, I want to congratulate you on what you and your young men are doing down there. You've taken major risks and you've demonstrated to the whole world that unprovoked aggression does not pay.”
“Well, not yet, but we're halfway to that,” replied Thatcher, then corrected herself. “We're not yet halfway, but a third of the way.”
“Yes, yes you are,” said Reagan, moving on quickly to outline “... some of our ideas on how we might capitalise on the success you've had with a diplomatic initiative ... ” Argentina might turn it down, he conceded, but “I think an effort to show we're all still willing to seek a settlement ... would undercut the effort of ... the leftists in South America who are actively seeking to exploit the crisis. Now, I'm thinking about this plan ... ”
Reagan got no further. Thatcher stopped listening and butted in. “This is democracy and our island, and the very worst thing for democracy would be if we failed now,” she stated.
“Yes ... ” said Reagan. But Thatcher cut in again. A verbal broadside from Downing Street followed. His contribution to the debate became piecemeal.
“Margaret, but I thought that part of this proposal ... ”
“Margaret, I ... ”
“Yes, well ... ” Defeated, Reagan resorted to charm again. “Well, Margaret, I know that I've intruded and I know how ... ”
“You've not intruded at all, and I'm glad you telephoned,” replied Thatcher. Despite the clash, what shines through is a mutual regard it is “Margaret” and “Ron” from the first words and Thatcher's acute awareness of the losses.
Five British ships and more than 250 men perished in the conflict. The casualties and Britain's lone battle against Argentina ensured Thatcher had no interest in negotiations once the war had started: “The point is this, Ron, and you would understand it, we have borne the brunt of this alone ... we have some of our best ships lost because for seven weeks the Argentines refused to negotiate reasonable terms.”
In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagen referred to the conversation. “She told me too many lives had already been lost for Britain to withdraw without total victory, and she convinced me. I understood what she meant.” Until now there has been no detail of the exchange, which was unearthed from National Security Council files by researchers for the BBC2 documentary Timewatch, to be shown on Wednesday.