Archive (Rentschler MSS)

Falklands: Jim Rentschler diary (Haig shuttle back in London) [MT: "the fleet must steam on!"]

Document type: Declassified documents
Source: Thatcher Archive (copy of the text per the late Ambassador Rentschler)
Editorial comments: Jim Rentschler was the NSC official responsible for European matters, who handled the Falklands for the White House throughout the crisis. He gave a photocopy of the original diary to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation for publication in 2003. The full Falklands diary can be read here as single text.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2,541 words
Themes: Defence (Falklands), Foreign policy (USA)

Monday 12 April 1982

Make it now. We are climbing out of the aircraft into a crisp, clean London dawn, the kind of bracing climate where my tweeds feel good … We've got some working space in the PM's residence, the usual desultory hang-loose scene while the Secretary gets between the rock and the hard [fo.159 begins] place during his initial one-on-one with Mrs. Thatcher. He is moderately upbeat about the results thus far, though by the time we sit down to another working meal in the PM's dining room (Pym, Nott, Admiral of the Fleet Terry Lewin, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, and Private Secretary Clive Whitmore on the UK side, with Haig, Tom Enders, Dave Gompert, Dick Walters, and Ambassador John Louis on ours, along with your dear old Dad) the Secretarial mood has visibly darkened again. Our present session is not nearly so tense or dramatic as the earlier dinner at this table, at least until the moment when Haig is summoned away for his call to Costa Mendez. A New York Times report has triggered the necessity for this call; the piece appears to be based on official Argentine backgrounding in B.A. that, if accurate, would move the process directly back to square one - meaning Argie insistence on conditions that the Brits have already made clear are totally unacceptable (a priori conferral of sovereignty, etc). During Haig's absence there are some light-hearted and historically fascinating references to Neville Chamberlain (Terry Lewin concurs with a view that Dick Walters claims he heard from some Brit military colleagues, namely, that Chamberlain's appeasement policy at Munich was dictated by the Imperial Chiefs of Staff, who told the King's First Minister that they needed at least a year to rearm sufficiently and that Chamberlain had to buy that time at any price), but when Haig gets back in time for the cheese course the tone turns very much more somber. Costa Mendez has, in effect, confirmed the Argentine hard line, and this in turn merely stiffens Mrs. Thatcher in her own equally tough stance. "I am afraid that this news fully reinforces the correctness of the course on which we are now embarked," sez she - "the fleet must steam inexorably on …"

Following lunch there is a lot more "guard duty" and punchy quipping around in our Number Ten "work space" (lack of sleep is becoming a real problem in the American party; most of us are beginning to look like zombies, Al Haig very much included); a particularly agreeable companion for me at this stage of the proceedings is Scott Gudgeon, a young Legal Bureau lawyer who has put most of the juridicial flesh on the negotiating bones we keep rattling around in the way of a settlement framework, especially in connection with the establishment of an interim administrative arrange for the Falklands (the term for this device - not to mention its composition - will undergo an inordinate number of name changes before this shuttle is over, starting with the Consortium and moving on through Entity, Commission, and numerous other synonyms before the latest designation, which is now Special Authority). Scott has a delightful off-the-wall sense of humor which draws special inspiration from the sight of our sunburned Ambassador, John Louis (the same John Louis who offered me the PAOship in London some months ago and who probably still can't understand why I turned him down), the latter hanging around this location with absolutely nothing to do, and looking rather pathetic doing it - a fate which some in Haig's party consider richly deserved since this Chief of Mission could not be bothered to interrupt his Florida vacation when the Falklands crisis first broke...

Funny how the mind works, taking in so much information, processing the paltry and the ponderous on essentially the same level - indeed, so often assigning pride of place to the infinitely less important of competing subject matter. Present case in point: the uniformed footman whom I glimpse through two sets of windows in Number Ten while discussing the contingency talking ticks we have just crafted for a possible Haig press conference. I am standing here on an upstairs floor, and the footman is visible on the level below, seated at a guard post with a paperback book in hand, a long finger probing at length inside his prominent nose. With a kind of transfixed fascination I watch him as he withdraws his finger and stares intently at the booger he has just extracted, rolling it thoughtfully between finger and thumb. What amazes me in this performance is the fact that the footman sees me looking at him from this upstairs window across a small courtyard, but far from registering the least sign of embarrassment - or any other emotion whatsoever - he mechanically reinserts finger in nostril and begins an even more extensive probe. …

I get bored cooling my heels in this area with the other straphangers - particularly [fo.160 begins] since my drooping eyelids rule out further reading of Simone de Beauvoir - and on a hunch slip into Haig's private office on the adjacent landing, where he has retreated while Mrs. Thatcher confers alone with her Cabinet colleagues. Big Tom joins us, and when the restricted talks in the downstairs Cabinet Room reconvene a few minutes later, I simply follow Haig into the area and join the top of the batting order. He needs what he can get! - along with Dick Walters and Dave Gompert who have also straggled in - five US together - we are facing no fewer than 12 on the UK side, including some of those whey-faced FCO types who dealt with us during our previous trip here. Ever get that hemmed-in feeling? - in the middle of the Brit team the Iron Maiden is really toughening up her already robust talk, especially on the question of the fleet standing off: "Unthinkable, that is our only leverage, I cannot possibly give it up at this point, one simply doesn't trust burglars who have tried once to steal your property! No, Al, no, absolutely not, the fleet must steam on!"

In this gutsy recital she is getting vigorous support from her Defense Minister, John Nott, who believes the Brits have already gone too far down Haig's diplomatic track. "I wouldn't do it, Prime Minister, I'm against it, we've really conceded too much as it is." Thanks, John, you're a great help - particularly now that you've got poor old Pym wringing his hands in anguish, the only British peace party we seem to have in this room! The spark of optimism which may have been generated earlier in the day looks pretty well snuffed in this session, and even the air temperature confirms it: despite the bright shafts of sunlight shining through it, a wintry chill now fills this historic space, blowing from a partially opened window at the end of it. This increasingly shivery mood is evident in the faces of our British friends as well: Nott, steely-jawed and defiant; Willie Whitelaw, beef-featured Home Secretary whose Falstaffian joviality has been replaced by obsessive nail-biting; the PM herself, staring down at the table and raising her head only to roll her eyes in a great mugging grimace (incidentally, why, just when she is voicing her most forceful and/or sceptical observations, does she stare so fixedly at me????). While the texts of our draft agreement are being retyped, the PM orders drinks brought around, and as comic relief would have it, these are delivered by the same nose-picking footman I saw earlier this afternoon, who enters with his try he as Willie Whitelaw blows loudly into a handkerchief (which he then unfolds to its full-length, peering closely at the blood-boogers splashed across it, all of them easily visible from where I sit at the opposite end of the table).

Next moves? Good question. A mood of enormous uncertainty now settles over the SecState's delegation. It is nine p.m. by the time we leave Number Ten, Haig and the PM having already agreed on a common press line for the jostling crowd of newsies who have stamped around all day in the cold waiting for us to appear (agreeing to "look grim" for the benefit of the Argentine junta, Haig has no need to strain: the catatonia which grips our whole delegation has etched his forceful face in deep fault-lines of fatigue, and the countenance staring into the cameras from beneath that Irish tweed cap looks not merely grim but downright mortuary!). The cable links and the phone circuits are now in "crash" condition, with the Secretary and his party attempting to determine whether there is enough of a basis on which to proceed back to Buenos Aires tonight (BYOU-ness EYE-rees as the Brits keep pronouncing it), or go home. Or remain in London. Or what. Or where. Or when. The most wearying aspect of any detail like this is the wait factor - hanging around, trying to hang loose, unable to leave the hotel, or for that matter the corridor, for fear of missing a critical move. Rumors churn in and out of the Secretariat, but the fact is, nobody knows what's going to happen because Haig himself is as yet undecided. In the meantime, the S/S types had already collected the delegation's luggage and carted it out to the aircraft in anticipation of a ten p.m., then 11 p.m., then midnight departure . [fo.161 begins] Now the word has finally filtered down from Haig's suite that we will overnight in London. And travel on somewhere tomorrow sometime (tough luck for the guys whose baggage went out to the plane: it is all locked up in the hold and can't be brought back in until tomorrow).

Tomorrow is already today by the time I turn in, Haig having signed off on the reporting cable I drafted for him a few minutes ago:

[Editorial note: there is a slip here: the following telegram - now available at the Reagan Library - describes Haig's first meeting with the British and was sent in the early hours of Friday 9 April; internal evidence confirms this, because it mentions Haig's plan to arrive in Buenos Aires 'late Friday']

"The Prime Minister has the bit in her teeth, owing to the politics of a unified nation and an angry Parliament, as well as her own convictions about the principles at stake. She is clearly prepared to use force, though she admits a preference for a diplomatic solution. She is rigid in her insistence on a return to the status quo ante, and indeed seemingly determined that any solution involve some retribution.

"Her Defense Secretary is squarely behind her, though less ideological than she. He is confident of military success, based not on a strategy of landing on the islands but rather by a blockade which, he believes, will eventually make the Argentine presence untenable. Thus, the prospect of imminent hostilities appears less acute - if the Argentines keep their distance - though this does not fundamentally diminish the gravity and urgency of the crisis. Her Foreign Secretary does not share her position, and went surprisingly far in showing this in her presence. Whether this means he will have a restraining influence or instead that there will be a problem within the Government is impossible to say at this point.

"The British tried to avoid the question of the long-term consequences of using force, though they are concerned and, I believe, our discussions sobered them further. They agree with our assessment that the next 72 hours, before the fleet arrives, is crucial. The Prime Minister is convinced she will fall if she concedes on any of three basic points, to which she is committed to Parliament:

  • immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces;
  • restoration of British administration on the islands;
  • preservation of their position that the islanders must be able to exercise self-determination.

"We focused on three elements of a solution, which I argued would meet her needs:

  • withdrawal of Argentine forces;
  • an interim arrangement involving an international presence (e.g., U.S., Canada, and two Latin American countries) to provide an umbrella for the restoration of British administration.
  • swift resumption of negotiations.

"The main problems were with point B. She wants nothing that would impinge on British authority, she wants the British Governor back, and she bridled at the thought of any Argentine non-military presence even under an international umbrella. She does not insist that British sovereignty be accepted - she is finessing this by saying that British sovereignty is simply a fact that has not been affected by aggression - but she rules out anything that would be inconsistent with self-determination.

"All in all, we got no give in the basic British position, and only the glimmering of some possibilities, and that only after much effort by me with considerable help not appreciated by Mrs. Thatcher from Pym. (I spent five hours with her, one of them alone; our working dinner included Defense Minister Nott and senior officials; I also spent an hour [fo.162 begins] alone with Pym.) It is clear that they had not thought much about diplomatic possibilities. They will now, but whether they become more imaginative or instead recoil will depend on the political situation and what I hear in Argentina. I will arrive in Buenos Aires late Friday. I will convey a picture of total British resolve, and see what I can draw from the Argentines along lines we discussed in London, without giving any hint that the British are prepared for any give-and-take.

"If the Argentines give me something to work with, I plan to return to London over the weekend. It may then be necessary for me to ask you to apply unusual pressure on Thatcher. If the Argentines offer very little, I would plan to return to confer with you. In this case, it may be necessary to apply even greater pressure on the British if we are to head off hostilities. I cannot presently offer my optimism, even if I get enough in Buenos Aires to justify a return to London. This is clearly a very steep uphill struggle, but essential, given the enormous stakes.

"As you know I have excluded travelling US press from the plane. All I have said to the local press is that we want to be helpful and support U.N. Security Council Resolution 502, which calls for withdrawal and a diplomatic solution. For the benefit of Thatcher - and the Argentines - I also said I was impressed by the resolve of the British Government. We must be absolutely disciplined with the press during this critical stage, avoiding at all cost any suggestion that we are encouraged. There is, in fact, little basis for encouragement of any kind."

I'll get close to a normal night's sleep, since it is now 1:30 a.m. and our wake-up call is set for 8:30, with possible departure from the hotel at 9:15. Those seven hours of slumber will help, but gawd! - what a savaging of the human system. These tumor-like bumps have reappeared under my eyes, along with eruptions of acne, and I keep popping a prodigious quantity of aspirin by way of migraine prophylaxis. This may well prove to be the most tiring intercontinental travel I have ever had to take. …

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