Reagan On The Falkland/Malvinas: «Give Maggie enough to carry on…»
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 374
Edited by Carlos Osorio, Sarah Christiano and Erin Maskell
With the collaboration of Anne Morel and Marcos Novaro
For more information contact:
Carlos Osorio – 202/994-7061
Washington, D.C., April 1, 2012 — The United States secretly supported the United Kingdom during the early days of the Falklands/Malvinas Island war of 1982, while publicly adopting a neutral stance and acting as a disinterested mediator in the conflict, according to recently declassified U.S. documents posted today by the National Security Archive.
On the 30th anniversary of the war, the Archive published a series of memoranda of conversation, intelligence reports, and cables revealing the secret communications between the United States and Britain, and the United States and Argentina during the conflict.
At a meeting in London on April 8, 1982, shortly after the war began, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed concern to U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig about President Ronald Reagan’s recent public statements of impartiality. In response, according to a previously secret memorandum of the conversation, «The Secretary said that he was certain the Prime Minister knew where the President stood. We are not impartial.»
On April 2, 1982, Argentine forces under de facto President Leopoldo Galtieri seized the Falkland/Malvinas Islands militarily from the U.K. The U.S. launched a major shuttle diplomacy mission, sending Secretary Haig numerous times to London and Buenos Aires to de-escalate the conflict. Though the U.S. did not formally announce support for the U.K. until April 30, newly released documents show that Washington sided with the British from the beginning, providing substantial logistical and intelligence support. In a conversation with British officials at the end of March, Haig declared that the U.S. diplomatic effort «will of course, have a greater chance of influencing Argentine behavior if we appear to them not to favor one side or the other.»
At the same time, the White House recognized that British intransigence would create problems for the U.S. in its dealings with Latin America. President Reagan, reacting to Haig’s secret reports on the British position, wrote to the secretary: «[Your report] makes clear how difficult it will be to foster a compromise that gives Maggie enough to carry on and at the same time meets the test of ‘equity’ with our Latin neighbors.»
Under Thatcher’s leadership, the U.K. launched a large-scale military expedition that proved a logistical, communications, and intelligence challenge for the British Air Force and Navy. It would take the task force almost a month to traverse the 8,000 miles between England and the Falklands and prepare for combat around the South Atlantic islands. For the British, the expedition would not be justified without retaking the Falkland Islands and returning to the status quo ante. An analysis from the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research predicted on April 6 that «the effectiveness of the fleet, far from its maintenance bases, will rapidly deteriorate after its arrival on station. [Thatcher’s] damaged leadership could not survive a futile ‘voyage to nowhere.'»
«The Prime Minister has the bit in her teeth,» Haig reported to President Reagan on April 9, after the Argentine attack on the islands. «She is clearly prepared to use force. Though she admits her 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.»
Haig’s report continued: «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.»
The documents reveal that initial covert U.S. support for Britain was discussed quite openly between the two nations. During the first meeting with Haig on April 8, «[Thatcher] expressed appreciation for U.S. cooperation in intelligence matters and in the use of [the U.S. military base at] Ascension Island.» A series of CIA aerial photography analyses showed the level of detail of U.S. surveillance of Argentine forces on the ground: «Vessels present include the 25 de Mayo aircraft carrier with no aircraft on the flight-deck,» reads one; «at the airfield [redacted] were parked in the maintenance area [….] 707 is on a parking apron with its side cargo door open,» reads another.
With Argentina mired in economic stagnation, Galtieri’s military campaign tried to rally support from large sectors of Argentine society. But U.S. observers foresaw serious problems for him ahead. A top secret State Department intelligence analysis reported: «[Galtieri] wants to hold on to the Army’s top slot through 1984 and perhaps the presidency through 1987. The Argentine leader may have been excessively shortsighted, however. The popular emotion that welcomed the invasion will subside.»
A White House cable stated, «Galtieri’s problem is that he has so excited the Argentine people that he has left himself little room for maneuver. He must show something for the invasion. or else he will be swept aside in ignominy.»
This collection of 46 documents was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and extensive archival research. It offers a previously unavailable history of the exchanges between key British, American, and Argentine officials in a conflict that pitted traditional Cold War alliances against important U.S. regional relationships.
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