A crisis in the War Cabinet and the recapture of South Georgia
[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp205-09]
Saturday 24th April was to be one of the most crucial days in the Falklands story and a critical one for me personally. Early that morning Francis [Francis Pym, Foreign Secretary] came to my study in No.10 to tell me the results of his efforts [negotiating with the US Secretary of State, Al Haig, in Washington]. I can only describe the document which he brought back as conditional surrender. Al Haig was a powerful persuader and anyone on the other side of the table had to stand up to him, not give ground. Mr Haig had clearly played upon the imminence of hostilities and the risk that Britain would lose international support if fighting broke out. I told Francis that the terms were totally unacceptable. They would rob the Falklanders of their freedom and Britain of her honour and respect. Francis disagreed. He thought that we should accept what was in the document. We were at loggerheads.
A meeting of the War Cabinet had been arranged for that evening and I spent the rest of that day comparing in detail all the different proposals which had been made up to that point in the diplomacy. The closer I looked the clearer it was that our position was being abandoned and the Falklanders betrayed. I asked for the Attorney-GeneralSir Michael Havers to come to No.10 and go through them with me. But the message went astray and instead he went to the Foreign Office. Less than an hour before the War Cabinet, he at last received the message and came to see me, only to confirm all my worst fears.
It is important to understand that what might appear at first glance to the untutored eye as minor variations in language between diplomatic texts can be of vital significance, as they were in this case. There were four main texts to compare. There were the proposals which Al Haig discussed with us and took to Argentina on 12th April. Our own attitude towards these had been left deliberately vague: though he had discussed them in detail with us, we had not committed ourselves to accept them. Then there were the totally impossible proposals brought back by Mr Haig after his visit to Buenos Aires on 19th April. On 22nd April we amended those proposals in ways acceptable to us and it was on this basis that Francis Pym had been instructed to negotiate. Finally, there was the latest draft brought back by Francis from the United States, which now confronted me. The differences between the texts of 22nd and 24th April went to the heart of why we were prepared to fight a war for the Falklands.
First, there was the question of how far and fast would our forces withdraw. Under the text Francis Pym had brought back our Task Force would have had to stand off even further than in the Buenos Aires proposals. Worse still, all of our forces, including the submarines, would have to leave the defined zones within seven days, depriving us of any effective military leverage over the withdrawal process. What if the Argentinians went back on the deal? Also the Task Force would have to disperse altogether after 15 days. Nor was there any way of ensuring that Argentine troops kept to the provision that they be "at less than 7 days' readiness to invade again" (whatever that meant).
Second, sanctions against Argentina were to be abandoned the moment the agreement was signed, rather than as in our counter-proposals on completion of withdrawal. Thus we lost the only other means we had to ensure that Argentinian withdrawal actually took place.
Third, as regards the Special Interim Authority the text reverted to the Buenos Aires proposal for two representatives of the Argentine Government on the Islands' Councils, as well as at least one representative of the local Argentine population. Moreover, there was a return to the wording relating to Argentine residence and property which would effectively have allowed them to swamp the existing population with Argentines.
Equally important was the wording relating to the long-term negotiations after Argentine withdrawal. Like the Buenos Aires document, Francis Pym's ruled out the possibility of a return to the situation enjoyed by the Islanders before the invasion. We would have gone against our commitment to the principle that the Islanders' wishes were paramount and would have abandoned all possibility of their staying with us. Did Francis realise how much he had signed away?
Despite my clear views expressed that morning, Francis put in a paper to the War Cabinet recommending acceptance of these terms. Shortly before 6 o'clock that evening Ministers and civil servants began assembling outside the Cabinet Room. Francis was there, busy lobbying for their support. I asked Willie Whitelaw to come upstairs to my study. I told him that I could not accept these terms and gave him my reasons. As always on crucial occasions he backed my judgment.
The meeting began and Francis Pym introduced his paper, recommending that we concur in the plan. But five hours of preparation on my part had not been wasted. I went through the text clause by clause. What did each point actually mean? How come that we had now accepted what had previously been rejected? Why had we not insisted as a minimum on self-determination? Why had we accepted almost unlimited Argentine immigration and acquisition of property on an equal basis with the existing Falkland Islanders? The rest of the Committee were with me.
It was John Nott [Defence Secretary] who found the procedural way forward. He proposed that we should make no comment on the draft but ask Mr Haig to put it to the Argentinians first. If they accepted it we should undoubtedly be in difficulties: but we could then put the matter to Parliament in the light of their acceptance. If the Argentinians rejected it - and we thought that they would, because it is almost impossible for any military Junta to withdraw - we could then urge the Americans to come down firmly on our side, as Al Haig had indicated they would as long as we did not break off the negotiations. This is what was decided. I sent a message to Mr Haig:
This whole business started with an Argentine aggression. Since then our purpose together has been to ensure the early withdrawal by the Argentines in accordance with the Security Council Resolution. We think therefore that the next step should be for you to put your latest ideas to them. I hope that you will seek the Argentine government's view of them tomorrow and establish urgently whether they can accept them. Knowledge of their attitude will be important to the British Cabinet's consideration of your ideas.
And so a great crisis passed. I could not have stayed as Prime Minister had the War Cabinet accepted Francis Pym's proposals. I would have resigned.