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To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Malvinas-Falkland Islands War, Harper Collins has re-released a chapter of Margaret Thatcher’s biography “The Downing Street Years” entitled “Margaret Thatcher’s War. The Iron Lady on the Falklands”. What brings this item into the news is not only the 30th anniversary of the war, but a renewed diplomatic dispute over the sovereignty of the islands–claimed by the UK and Argentina–following the discovery of oil.
Here in Chile, one has to tread lighting when naming either of the two islands off the Argentine coast. The most distant of the islands, “South Georgia”, was the launching pad for the Argentinian military government’s attempt to retake the islands from Britain in 1982. South Georgia is far in the South Atlantic and has no native population. But a mere 250 miles off the Argentine coast lies “Las Malvinas” or “The Falklands”–depending on your creed–inhabited by 3,000 people, the majority British subjects. This week an opinion writer in the Chilean newspaper “El Mercurio” pointed out that LAN Airlines (from Chile) prefers to avoid the controversy altogether by calling their flight from Punta Arenas to the Malvinas-Falklands “Mount Pleasant” which is the name of the airport there. As you can see in the map above Google uses both names. Thus, in the spirit of being uncontroversial, we will do as the United Nations does, and call them the islands the “Malvinas-Falklands”.
This week the President of Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner emerged from the hospital after a thyroid biopsy to rejoin the debate over the Malvinas-Falklands. She blamed the Argentine invasion of the islands on the military dictatorship governing at that time–what Argentina wants now is to discuss what to them is still an unresolved territorial dispute the war with Britain notwithstanding. To put pressure on the island and the British the Casa Rosada has persuaded the MercoSur nations (Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, others) to not allow Falklands-flagged vessels to call on their ports. The government further has pressed the Chilean President to cancel the once weekly LAN airline flights there. (Piñera has not done that.). Just this week “El Mercurio” reported that Britain is moving ahead with an earlier plan to put an airport at Saint Helena on Ascension Island which would put Malvinas-Falklands 7 hours away from British territory. That is still a long way but would not leave the island completely cut off from air transport.
What would Margaret Thatcher say? Conservatives in the USA and the UK know Margaret Thatcher is a pugnacious street fighter who faced down the militant miners union in the British Isles earning her the nickname “Iron Lady”. Her ascendancy to power broke the back of the unions and foisted laissez-faire capitalism on a country that had grown increasingly socialist under Prime Minister Edward Heath. When Thatcher came to power in 1979 it was the same year that Ronald Reagan was elected on the heels of the failed presidency of the liberal Jimmy Carter. The two conservatives leaders grew to be friends and political allies. So when Argentina began making menacing gestures toward the Malvinas-Falklands in 1982 Reagan dispatched his Secretary of State Alexander Haig to negotiate. Where Thatcher stood on the issue of sovereignty is made clear in her book when she writes:
“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”. Alexander Haig began to shuttle between Washington, Buenos Aires, and London to offer a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but Thatcher refused to negotiate with what she called a disingenuous Argentine government. Thatcher said those failed negotiations and actions passed by the United Nations gave Britain political cover for the British could then call their military actions self-defense. (Chile supported the British. Thatcher wrote, “because of its long standing disputes with Argentina”.)
As background Thatcher writes that, “The first recorded landing on the Falklands was made in 1690 by British sailors who named the channel between the two principal island ‘Falkland’s Sound’ in honor of the Treasurer of the Navy, Viscount Falkland.” She says that Spain and France both established settlements on the islands, and that in 1770 the British prepared a fleet of ships to handle a quarrel with Spain over the islands but instead a diplomatic solution was found. She writes, “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 there was an important factor in the plotting of the Argentine Junta.”
What is the basis for the Argentine claim for dominion over the Malvinas-Islands? That is not easy to say and is perhaps one reason for the dispute. But suffice it to say that when Argentina declared independence from Spain in 1816 it also claimed the Malvinas-Falklands which as we just mentioned had been under dispute with the British only some 46 years prior.
For those looking for a thrilling account of the war Thatchers book is not that. Instead as head of state she writes from the point of view of one with the burden of government to bear and leader of the war council. Her preoccupations were the diplomatic struggles with the Argentinians and American position on the issue rather than the actual management of the war. Still, Thatcher does talk of specific battles in the war as she navigated how to inform the families of the fallen, managed communications with the House of Commons, and the war correspondents invited along for the 8,000 mile boat ride to Malvinas-Falklands.
Thatcher notes that diplomatic negotiations were still underway as the British fleet was getting closer to their destination. However, as the fleet got closer military concerns supplanted diplomatic ones as Thatcher and her cabinet worried about the Argentine navy and their submarines armed with French Exocet missiles. The French President Mitterand delayed the sale of Exocet missiles to Peru least they find their way across the Andes and into Buenos Aires itself.
These missles ultimately proved deadly. She writes, “On May 4 the destroyer HMS Sheffield was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile with devastating effects.”
On May 4 the British Nuclear submarine HMS Conquerer sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano–an escort ship to the Argentine aircraft carrier 5 de Mayo. Meanwhile the British landed a force on the Fortuna glacier on South Georgia Island but the 70 knot wind an exposed position was untenable and the British lost two helicopters in trying to rescue the soldiers until a third ultimately succeed. Later when Thatcher met the pilot he said he had never seen so many before aboard his craft.
When the fleet arrived, some rode aboard the QE2 cruise ship, the British battled their way ashore. Thatcher was under diplomatic pressure from friend and foe alike. She writes, “Somewhat to the dismay of the UN Secretary-General, we made it clear that having landed we were not prepared to negotiate. We were put under continual pressure from Washington to avoid the final military humiliation of Argentina, which they seemed to see as inevitable. I wish I could have been as confident. I knew as they could not how many risks and dangers still faced us in the campaign to recapture the islands.”
She says that the Argentines were dug into strong defense positions in Darwin and Goose Green towns. “As is well known, Colonel ‘H’ Jones, commander of 2 Para, lost his life in securing the way forward for his troops. His second-in-command took over the eventually surrender. At one point a white flag was waved from the Argentine trenches, but when two of our soldiers advanced in response they were shot and killed.
The British overran the Argentina positions and “At 10 P.M. I told them (the House of Commons) that it had been reported that there were white flags flying over port Stanley. The war was over. We all all felt the same and the cheers showed it. Right had prevailed.”
In all 649 Argentine military were killed along with 225 British and 3 residents of the Malvinas-Falklands themself. Another causality was the military regime of President Galtieri whose tenure came to an end in the election of October 1983 which restored democracy to Argentina.
Related Article: What is Argentina Doing now?