Argentina invades the Falklands
[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp173-85]
Nothing remains more vividly in my mind, looking back on my years in 10 Downing Street, than the eleven weeks in the spring of 1982 when Britain fought and won the Falklands War. Much was at stake: what we were fighting for eight thousand miles away in the South Atlantic was not only the territory and the people of the Falklands, important though they were. We were defending our honour as a nation, and principles of fundamental importance to the whole world - above all, that aggressors should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force. The war was very sudden. No one predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance, though many predicted it in retrospect. When I became Prime Minister I never thought that I would have to order British troops into combat and I do not think I have ever lived so tensely or intensely as during the whole of that time.
The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain's self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat. The tacit assumption made by British and foreign governments alike was that our world role was doomed steadily to diminish. We had come to be seen by both friends and enemies as a nation which lacked the will and the capability to defend its interests in peace, let alone in war. Victory in the Falklands changed that. Everywhere I went after the war, Britain's name meant something more than it had. The war also had real importance in relations between East and West: years later I was told by a Russian general that the Soviets had been firmly convinced that we would not fight for the Falklands, and that if we did fight we would lose. We proved them wrong on both counts, and they did not forget the fact. ...
The Argentine invasion of the Falklands took place 149 years after the beginning of formal British rule there, and it seems that the imminence of the 150th anniversary was an important factor in the plotting of the Argentine Junta. Since 1833 there has been a continuous and peaceful British presence on the Islands. Britain's legal claim in the present day rests on that fact, and on the desire of the settled population - which is entirely of British stock - to remain British. The principle of "self-determination" has become a fundamental component of international law, and is enshrined in the UN Charter. British sovereignty has strong legal foundations, and the Argentinians know it. ...
Could they have been deterred? It must be remembered that in order to take action to deter Argentina militarily, given the vast distance between Britain and the Falklands, we would have had to have some three weeks notice. Further, to send down a force of insufficient size would have been to subject it to intolerable risk. Certainly, the presence of HMS Endurance - the lightly armed patrol vessel which was due to be withdrawn under the 1981 Defence Review proposals - was a military irrelevance. It would neither deter nor repel any planned invasion. (Indeed, when the invasion occurred I was very glad that the ship was at sea and not in Port Stanley: if she had been, she would have been captured or blown out of the water). Most important perhaps is that nothing would have more reliably precipitated a full scale invasion, if something less had been planned, than if we had started military preparations on the scale required to send an effective deterrent. Of course with the benefit of hindsight, we would always like to have acted differently. So would the Argentinians. The truth is that the invasion could not have been foreseen or prevented. This was the main conclusion of the Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Lord Franks , which we set up to examine the way we had handled the dispute in the run-up to the invasion. The Committee had unprecedented access to Government papers, including those of the intelligence services. Its report ends with the words: "we would not be justified in attaching any criticism or blame to the present Government for the Argentine Junta's decision to commit its act of unprovoked aggression in the invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982".
It all began with an incident on South Georgia. On 20th December 1981 there had been an unauthorised landing on the island at Leith harbour by what were described as Argentinian scrap metal dealers; we had given a firm but measured response. The Argentinians subsequently left and the Argentine government claimed to know nothing about it. The incident was disturbing, but not especially so. I was more alarmed when, after the Anglo-Argentine talks in New York, the Argentine Government broke the procedures agreed at the meeting by publishing a unilateral communiqué disclosing the details of discussion, while simultaneously the Argentinian press began to speculate on possible military action before the symbolically important date of January 1983. On 3rd March 1982 I minuted on a telegram from Buenos Aires: "we must make contingency plans" - though, in spite of my unease, I was not expecting anything like a full scale invasion, which indeed our most recent intelligence assessment of Argentinian intentions had discounted.
On 20th March we were informed that the previous day the Argentine scrap metal dealers had made a further unauthorised landing on South Georgia, again at Leith. The Argentinian flag had been raised and shots fired. Again in answer to our protests the Argentinian Government claimed to have no prior knowledge. We first decided that HMS Endurance should be instructed to remove the Argentinians, whoever they were. But we tried to negotiate with Argentina a way of resolving what still seemed to be an awkward incident rather than a precursor of conflict, so we subsequently withdrew our instructions to Endurance and ordered the ship to proceed instead to the British base at Grytviken, the main settlement on the island.
Yet as March drew to a close with the incident still unresolved we became increasingly concerned. On Sunday evening, 28th March, I rang Peter Carrington from Chequers to express my anxiety at the situation. He assured me that he had already made a first approach to Al Haig , the US Secretary of State, asking him to bring pressure to bear. The following morning Peter and I met at RAF Northolt on our way to the European Council at Brussels, and discussed what further steps we should take. We agreed to send a nuclear-powered submarine to reinforce HMS Endurance and to make preparations to send a second submarine. I was not too displeased when the following day news of the decision leaked. The submarine would take two weeks to get to the South Atlantic, but it could begin to influence events straight away. My instinct was that the time had come to show the Argentines that we meant business.
In the late afternoon of Tuesday 30th March I returned from Brussels. By that time Peter Carrington had already left on an official visit to Israel; his absence was unfortunate. The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence had been working to prepare up to date assessments and review the diplomatic and military options. The following day - Wednesday 31st March - I made my statement to the House reporting on the Brussels Summit, but my mind was focused on what the Argentinians were intending and on what our response should be. The advice we received from intelligence was that the Argentinian Government were exploring our reactions, but that they had not contrived the landing on South Georgia and that any escalation they might make would stop short of full-scale invasion. However, we knew that they were unpredictable and unstable, and that a dictatorship might not behave in ways we would consider rational. By now I was deeply uneasy. Yet still I do not think that any of us expected an immediate invasion of the Falklands themselves.
I shall not forget that Wednesday evening. I was working in my room at the House of Commons when I was told that John Nott wanted an immediate meeting to discuss the Falklands. I called people together. In Peter Carrington's absence Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce attended from the Foreign Office, with FCO and MOD officials. (The Chief of Defence Staff Sir Terence Lewin was also away, in New Zealand). John was alarmed. He had just received intelligence that the Argentinian Fleet, already at sea, looked as if they were going to invade the Islands on Friday 2nd April. There was no ground to question the intelligence. John gave the MOD's view that the Falklands could not be retaken once they were seized. This was terrible, and totally unacceptable. I could not believe it: these were our people, our islands. I said instantly: "if they are invaded, we have got to get them back".
At this dark moment comedy intervened. The Chief of the Naval Staff, Sir Henry Leach was in civilian dress, and on his way to the meeting had been detained by the police in the Central Lobby of the House of Commons. He had to be rescued by a whip. When he finally arrived, I asked him what we could do. He was quiet, calm and confident: "I can put together a Task Force of destroyers, frigates, landing craft, support vessels. It will be led by the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. It can be ready to leave in forty- eight hours". He believed such a force could retake the islands. All he needed was my authority to begin to assemble it. I gave it him, and he left immediately to set the work in hand. We reserved for Cabinet the decision as to whether and when the Task Force should sail.
Before this, I had been outraged and determined. Now my outrage and determination were matched by a sense of relief and confidence. Henry Leach had shown me that if it came to a fight the courage and professionalism of Britain's armed forces would win through. It was my job as Prime Minister to see that they got the political support they needed. But first we had to do everything possible to prevent the appalling tragedy, if it was still humanly possible to do so.
Our only hope now lay with the Americans - friends and allies, and people to whom Galtieri, if he was still behaving rationally, should listen. At the meeting we drafted and sent an urgent message to President Reagan asking him to press Galtieri to draw back from the brink. This the President immediately agreed to do.
At 9.30 on Thursday morning, 1st April, I held a Cabinet, earlier than usual so that a meeting of the Overseas and Defence Committee of the Cabinet (OD) could follow it before lunch. The latest assessment was that an Argentinian assault could be expected about midday our time on Friday. We thought that President Reagan might yet succeed. However, Galtieri refused altogether at first to take the President's call. He deigned to speak to the President only when it was too late to stop the invasion. I was told of this outcome in the early hours of Friday morning and I knew then that our last hope had now gone.
But how seriously did the Argentinians take American warnings anyway? On the evening of Friday 2nd April as the invasion was proceeding, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Mrs Kirkpatrick , was attending a gala dinner given by the Argentinian Ambassador in her honour. As Sir Nicholas Henderson our Ambassador later asked her: how would Americans have felt if he had dined at the Iranian Embassy the night that the American hostages were seized in Tehran? Unfortunately the attitudes of Mrs Kirkpatrick and some other members of the US Administration were at this point of considerable importance.
At 9.45 on Friday morning Cabinet met again. I reported that an Argentinian invasion was now imminent. We would meet later in the day to consider once more the question of sending a Task Force - though to my mind the issue by this stage was not so much whether we should act, but how.
Communications with the Falklands were often interrupted due to atmospheric conditions. On Friday morning the Governor of the Falklands - Rex Hunt - sent a message telling us that the invasion had begun, but it never got through. (Indeed, the first contact I had with him after the invasion was when he reached Montevideo in Uruguay, where the Argentinians flew him and a number of other senior people, on Saturday morning). It was, in fact, the captain of a British Antarctic Survey vessel who intercepted a local Falkland Island ham radio broadcast and passed on the news to the Foreign Office. My private secretary brought me final confirmation while I was at an official lunch.
By now discussion was taking place all over Whitehall about every aspect of the campaign, including the application of economic and other sanctions against Argentina. Feverish military preparations were under way. The army was preparing its contribution. A naval Task Force was being formed, partly from ships currently at Gibraltar and partly from those in British ports. Queen Elizabeth II The Queen had already made it clear that Prince Andrew , who was serving with HMS Invincible, would be joining the Task Force: his grandfather, King George VI , had fought at the Battle of Jutland and then as now there could be no question of a member of the royal family being treated differently from other servicemen.
Cabinet met for the second time that day at 7.30 in the evening when the decision was made to send the Task Force. What concerned us most at this point was the time it would take to arrive in the Falklands. We believed, rightly, that the Argentinians would pile in men and material to make it as difficult as possible for us to dislodge them. And all the time the weather in the South Atlantic would be worsening as the bitter winds and violent storms of the southern winter approached.
More immediate and more manageable was the problem of how to deal with public opinion at home in the intervening period. Support for the despatch of the Task Force was likely to be strong, but would it fall away as time went on? In fact, we need not have worried too much about that. Ships were constantly being chartered and negotiations - above all Al Haig's shuttle diplomacy - continued. Our policy was one which people understood and endorsed. Public interest and commitment remained strong throughout.
One particular aspect of this problem, though, does rate a mention. We decided to allow defence correspondents on the ships who reported back during the long journey. Some of them behaved more professionally than others. There were several incidents of the BBC reporting particularly sensitive military matters in ways which put our forces at risk. I was also very unhappy at the attempted "even-handedness" of some of the comment, and the chilling use of the third-person - talk of "the British" and "the Argentinians" on our news programmes.
It was also on Friday 2nd April that I received advice from the Foreign Office which summed up the flexibility of principle characteristic of that Department. I was presented with the dangers of a backlash against the British expatriates in Argentina, problems about getting support in the UN Security Council, the lack of reliance we could place on the European Community or the United States, the risk of the Soviets becoming involved, the disadvantage of being looked at as a colonial power. All the considerations were fair enough. But when you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out with an iron will to overcome them. And anyway what was the alternative? That a common or garden dictator should rule over the Queen's subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was Prime Minister.
While military preparations were in train the focus now turned to public debate in the United Nations Security Council. At the beginning of April we had one short-term and several long-term diplomatic objectives. In the short term we needed to win our case against Argentina in the UN Security Council and to secure a resolution denouncing their aggression and demanding withdrawal. On the basis of such a resolution we would find it far easier to win the support of other nations for practical measures to pressurise Argentina. But in the longer term we knew that we had to try to keep our affairs out of the UN as much as possible. With the Cold War still under way, and given the anti-colonialist attitude of many nations at the UN, there was a real danger that the Security Council might attempt to force unsatisfactory terms upon us. If necessary we could veto such a resolution, but to do so would diminish international support for our position. This remained a vital consideration throughout the crisis. The second long-term goal was to ensure maximum support from our allies, principally the US, but also members of the EC, the Commonwealth and other important Western nations. This was a task undertaken at Head of Government level, but an enormous burden fell on the FCO and vast numbers of telegrams crossed my desk during those weeks. No country was ever better served than Britain by our two key diplomats at this time: Sir Anthony Parsons , Britain's UN Ambassador and Sir Nicholas (Nico) Henderson, our Ambassador in Washington, both possessed precisely those qualities of intelligence, toughness, style and eloquence that the situation required.
At the UN Tony Parsons, on the eve of the invasion, was busy outmanoeuvring the Argentinians. Javier Perez de Cuellar The UN Secretary General had called on both sides to exercise restraint: we responded positively, but the Argentinians remained silent. On Saturday 3rd April, Tony Parsons managed a diplomatic triumph in persuading the Security Council to pass what became Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 502, demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal by the Argentinians from the Falklands. It had not been easy. The debate was bitter and complex. We knew that the old anti-colonialist bias of the UN would incline some Security Council members against us, were it not for the fact that there had been a flagrant act of aggression by the Argentinians. I was particularly grateful to President Mitterrand , who with the leaders of the Old Commonwealth, was among the staunchest of our friends and who telephoned me personally to pledge support on Saturday. (I was to have many disputes with President Mitterrand in later years, but I never forgot the debt we owed him for his personal support on this occasion and throughout the Falklands crisis). France used her influence in the UN to swing others in our favour. I myself made a last minute telephone call to King Hussein of Jordan, who also came down on our side. He is an old friend of Britain. I told him our difficulty; I did not have to go into lengthy explanations to persuade him to cast Jordan's vote on our side. He began the conversation by asking simply: "what can I do for you Prime Minister?" In the end we were delighted to have the votes we needed for the Resolution and to avoid a veto from the Soviet Union. But we knew that this was a fragile achievement, and we had no illusions as to who would be left to remove the aggressor when all the talking was done: it would be us.
The debate in the House of Commons that Saturday is another very powerful memory.
I opened the debate. It was the most difficult I ever had to face. The House was rightly angry that British territory had been invaded and occupied, and many Members were inclined to blame the Government for its alleged failure to foresee and forestall what had happened. My first task was to defend us against the charge of unpreparedness.
Far more difficult was my second task: convincing MPs that we would respond to Argentina's aggression forcefully and effectively.
I gave an explanation of what had happened and made very clear what we intended to do. I said:
I must tell the House that the Falkland Islands and their dependencies remain British territory. No aggression and no invasion can alter that simple fact. It is the Government's objective to see that the islands are freed from occupation and are returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment.
The people of the Falklands Islands, like the people of the United Kingdom, are an island race. ... They are few in number, but they have the right to live in peace, to choose their own way of life and to determine their own allegiance. Their way of life is British: their allegiance is to the Crown. It is the wish of the British people and the duty of Her Majesty's Government to do everything that we can to uphold that right. That will be our hope and our endeavour and, I believe, the resolve of every Member of the House.
My announcement that the Task Force was ready and about to sail was greeted with growls of approval. But I knew that not everybody was cheering the same thing. Some saw the Task Force as a purely diplomatic armada that would get the Argentinians back to the negotiating table. They never intended that it should actually fight. I needed their support for as long as possible, for we needed to demonstrate a united national will both to the enemy and to our allies. But I felt in my bones that the Argentinians would never withdraw without a fight and anything less than withdrawal was unacceptable to the country, and certainly to me.
Others shared my view that the Task Force would have to be used, but doubted the Government's will and stamina to do so. Enoch Powell expressed this sentiment most dramatically when he looked directly across the Chamber at me and declared sepulchrally:
The Prime Minister, shortly after she came into office, received a soubriquet as the ‘Iron Lady’. It arose in the context of remarks which she made about defence against the Soviet Union and its allies; but there was no reason to suppose that the Right Hon. Lady did not welcome and, indeed, take pride in that description. In the next week or two this House, the nation and the Right Hon. Lady herself will learn of what metal she is made.
[Footnote: Later, when the war was won, Enoch Powell returned to the subject in a Parliamentary Question: "Is the Right. Hon. Lady aware that the report has now been received from the public analyst on a certain substance recently subjected to analysis and that I have obtained a copy of the report? It shows that the substance under test consisted of ferrous matter of the highest quality, and that it is of exceptional tensile strength, is highly resistant to wear and tear and to stress, and may be used to advantage for all national purposes". Ian Gow had the two quotes printed and framed for me as a Christmas present in 1982; they hang still on my office wall.]
That morning in Parliament I could keep the support of both groups by sending the Task Force out and by setting down our objectives: that the islands would be freed from occupation and returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment. I obtained the almost unanimous but grudging support of a Commons that was anxious to support the Government's policy, while reserving judgment on the Government's performance.
But I realised that even this degree of backing was likely to be eroded as the campaign wore on. I knew, as most MPs could not, the full extent of the practical military problems. I foresaw that we would encounter setbacks that would cause even some of a hawkish disposition to question whether the game was worth the candle. And how long could a coalition of opinion survive that was composed of warriors, negotiators and even virtual pacifists? For the moment, however, it had survived. We received the agreement of the House of Commons for the strategy of sending the Task Force. And that was what mattered.
I left the House, satisfied with the day's results, prepared for more difficult debates in the future, and generally in a mood of solemnity. Indeed, from the moment I heard of the invasion, deep anxiety was ever present.