Archive (Rentschler MSS)

Falklands: Jim Rentschler diary (Haig in Buenos Aires again) [Haig: "a charade ... a f***ing charade - these guys are diddling me"]

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: 2,137 words
Themes: Defence (Falklands), Foreign policy (USA)

Friday 16 April 1982

What a wonderful difference a good night's sleep can make! It also helps to travel in daylight, and to arrive in essentially the same time zones from which we started (there are only two hours difference between B.A. and EST). But while the time zones may not have significantly changed, the season has: summer still lingered in the Southern Hemisphere when I was last here a few days ago, but there is now an autumnal nip in the air. Lead-colored layers of cloud lie over the River Plate as I look out above the Torre Iglesa from the same Sheraton Hotel room I had here before. …

We're back in the Palácio de San Martín long about now [sic] - horse-holding, spear-carrying, guard-dutying, doing all those things a loyal staff does in the hang-around mode. Haig's discussions with the Argentine leadership tend to be much more hermetic than our sessions with the Brits, and that fact, together with my credentials as a West Europe and NATO "expert" rather than a specialist in Hemispheric affairs, will mean a less direct Rentschlerian role than was the case in London. It's o.k. with me. I never move without my notebook and my [fo.168 begins] Simone de Beauvoir, de sorte que le temps ne risque point de me peser. ["so that time never weighs on me": Rentschler was deeply Francophil] I can even indulge one of my favourite pastimes in this location, la chasse aux symbols: the Argies have planted Haig's party in one of the most ornate parts of this baroque building, a vast conference space all marble busts, hanging tapestries, and polished parquet flooring above which glows in delicate pastels of light blue and pink an allegorical ceiling. My interpretation of the Renoir-like female girded in vegetal garments and greeting a group of sailing vessels moored near a misty shore? - Mrs. Thatcher and the British fleet about to reassert the UK presence on the Falklands, natch. Outside the building, with its front-balcony views over the little park jammed with camera crews, a ragged knot of bystanders have gathered, the same badauds ['rubbernecks'] who will chant AR-GEN-TINA AR-GEN-TINA when we spill out of here hours from now. In the meantime, I can only sip the good little cups of coffee which the Ministerial flunkies schlep in (the only Argentine "hospitality" we will get from these folks) and put the polishing touches to a private piece for Judge Clark which grows out of my mounting pessimism over the course this caper is now taking. Here is what I pen:

SUBJECT: The Guns of April? - Where We Now Stand With Argentina, the UK, and Ourselves

The likely suspension of our peace shuttle and the imminence of armed conflict between the UK and Argentina require a very hard look at our next moves. Amidst the dispiriting frustrations of Buenos Aires, I offer the following personal thoughts:

  • We promised both parties our best shot at assisting them to find a peaceful settlement; we gave them that shot, and for the time being, at least, there is nothing more to give.
  • Implicit and explicit in our promise was the determination to practice "even-handedness" so long as the process continued; that stage is now ending.
  • Tilting toward either of the parties at this moment will undoubtedly damage out relations with the non-tiltee; yet tilting toward neither - i.e., attempting to prolong an appearance of neutrality, or even worse, passivity - could put larger U.S. strategic interests at risk.
  • The greatest of all such risks may lie in the psychology of leadership: at what point does the US no longer appear "constructively concerned" but instead is perceived by the British and our own public as irresolute, ungrateful, and evasive?
  • The bilateral question for us thus boils down, in both policy terms and public perceptions, to pro-UK or pro-Argentina; the larger strategic question boils down to Pan-America vs. NATO.

There will be arguments that the choices set out above are, in reality, neither so stark nor simplistic, and that a US policy course which is both prudent and proper will aim to preserve the best of both worlds. I believe that such a course will prove illusory. It is a circle that cannot be squared; both sides of the conflict have too much invested in emotional, geopolitical, and historical capital to allow us a safe passage between them. More important, the moves we make - or fail to make - with respect to one or the other disputant will have a long-term ripple effect throughout our national security environment.

We need, therefore, to decide - on an extremely urgent basis - in which set of relationships (Hemispheric or Atlantic) we are prepared to sustain the most immediate (but perhaps less costly) casualties, recognising that we cannot escape some significant damage in either case, and could well incur far worse.

This is properly the subject of an early NSC which would carefully weigh a detailed set [fo.169 begins] of options and the consequences likely to flow from each. Meanwhile, in a spirit of total prejudice and partiality, I advance these views:

  • It is essential to back Britain, and for reasons which transcend the already compelling ties of language, bloodlines, and formal alliance.
  • Our strategic imperatives in the East-West context and the stakes we have in asserting the primacy of our Western leadership require it.
  • Enforcement and credibility of the U.N. system - particularly our principled backing for UNSC 502 - justify it.
  • Moreover, our support for the UK must be seen as convincingly generous and resolute (this means something far beyond rhetoric in both the military supply and economic sanctions areas).
  • Failure to back our most important and forthcoming ally at this critical juncture - to re-enact, in effect, a 1980s version of Suez or Skybolt - will have a profoundly adverse impact on an already shaky alliance and at a time when we can least afford such turbulence (we must understand that an Anglo-Argentine war will be bad for NATO and our own East-West interests, but that this unhappy state of affairs will be infinitely worse should we alienate Britain into the bargain).

To the positive factors which dictate a pro-British tilt, I would add a number of negative observations based on our direct and highly unpleasant experience with the Argentines over the past few days (in connection with which I invite the views of Roger Fontaine, who is a far better informed student of the gaucho psychology than I):

  • The talks in Buenos Aires demonstrated, more than anything else, the emptiness of our bilateral "relationship" with the Argies (Ambassador Shlaudeman [US Ambassador to Buenos Aires] voiced this same view, heartily seconded by everyone of us who had to deal with them).
  • Even if we achieved a responsible agreement with the Argentines on a politically workable text, there is no assurance that the present junta - quite possibly an ephemeral expression of leadership - could or would deliver.
  • None of us ever had the certainty that the Argentine side was negotiating in good faith; indeed, the evidence indicated that we were being strung along (a risk we recognised and were willing to run in the larger interests of averting bloodshed).
  • We were deliberately treated to a series of petty but cumulatively significant, not to say contemptuous derogatives from simple courtesy (manipulated crowd boos, squalid "holding" conditions for delegation members in the Presidential Palace, excessive rudeness on the part of security and administrative personnel) which called into further question the seriousness and good faith of Argentine negotiating tacs.
  • On the larger question of what the South Atlantic crisis will do to the inter-American "system" I favor a realistic stance, believing as I do that those who are minded to back us would likely do so in any event, while traditional anti-gringo sentiment would line up a number of states against us no matter what role we played in the peace process (again, however, I would defer to Roger Fontaine).

The Argies with whom we dealt are not, in sum, nice people; in this sense Mrs. Thatcher and her colleagues may from the start have read Argentine intentions and operating style far more accurately than we. That fact simply reinforces my view that the time of even- [fo.170 begins] handedness, indispensable during a period when we were actively engaged in a peace-shuttling effort, may now be past. We must not lose sight of the assertions with which the President addressed his very first message to Mrs. Thatcher in this crisis: "I told Galtieri that initiating military action against the Falkland Islands would seriously compromise relations between the United States and Argentina" and "while we have a policy of neutrality on the sovereignty issue, we would not be neutral on the issue of Argentine use of force".

Just so. Secretary Haig has undertaken a gallant and gruelling marathon effort to make the Argentines see reason, an effort which I for one strongly supported. But the Argentines have not yet seen reason, and frankly, I do not think they ever will - they may, indeed, be incapable of reasonable compromise in the sense that we understand that concept.

Assuming that a miracle rabbit or two will not pop out of our hat, all of this argues for the earliest possible expression of support for the Brits in ways that are politically unambiguous for them. Unless such practical expression is soon forthcoming - and absent the kind of Argentine give which now seems unlikely - I can't imagine that the President would have a comfortable stay in Windsor Castle come June. Even less can I picture him happily riding with the Queen through Windsor's woods on that occasion..."

Oh yeah, Judge Clark will write "Good Memo" across your old Dad's words, and the policy recommendation which these embody will be duly adopted in an NSC of 30AP82, the Cabinet principals unanimously agreeing on a pro-UK tilt, but all of that can provide little comfort either then or now as these Argentine turkeys push recklessly forward on the one track guaranteed to produce catastrophe. .

But back to the crisis, and to a Secretary of State who is becoming increasingly pissed. Why? Because it is more and more apparent that these clowns in the Foreign Ministry, led by Costa Méndez - Nicky the Gimp - are jerking him around. He has engaged in god knows how many hours of good-faith talks, works hard on the language they propose, develops some kind of working consensus at their level - only to have the junta at the end of the day reject these mutually agreed positions and take us back to a point which is even tougher now than it was at the start. "A charade," sez the SecState, "a fucking charade - these guys are [fo.171 begins] diddling me." "Of course they are," chimes Shlaudeman, "they aren't hearing us, we can't negotiate with them, our relationship means nothing" - a line he was not giving us when we first arrived in these precincts! …

I think we are about to wrap it, boys. But the Secretary's idea is to have one last meeting with Galtieri tomorrow morning and possibly the whole junta as well, cable Francis Pym the key paragraphs in contention, and then head on back to D.C. Continues Haig: "We must tell these guys, and then we must tell our own public, one basic thing: it is unimaginable that a responsible democratic country could accept the position they have put forward. We can't reward the force of arms." Punto.

That leaves the evening free for our first outside meal on this whole damn shuttle. Hard by the Retiro railway station there is a well-lighted restaurant called La Mosca Blanca - "the white fly". Appetizing? In fact it is, particularly when they lay a bife de chorizo on me, the most awesomely obscene mound of rumpsteak I can ever remember being served. Tasty, too. I trough out on this oversized material in the company of six other colleagues, washing it down with deliciously cold Argentine beer. Just as the check is paid - it is a ridiculously low $12 per head - the walkie-talkie which Scott Gudgeon brought along summons us back to Haig's suite. Costa Méndez is on his way up with the latest reactions from the junta, which turn out to be as unyielding as we had expected and merely reconfirm the SecStates's instinct to break off his mission tomorrow. Meanwhile, there is a gang of drafting to do - Sincerely Al messages to all of his NATO counterparts, key ARA contacts, the OAS, and of course the President himself - and by two a.m. my part of the hired-pen chores are out of the way. I'll still get a good six hours of sleep tonight, however, and embark upon them with the mournful sound of train whistles blowing from the yards across the square …

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