How the U.S. Almost Betrayed Britain

How the U.S. Almost Betrayed Britain

Alexander Haig wanted Reagan to side with the Argentines over the Falklands, newly released papers show

 

By JOHN O’SULLIVAN

[FALKLANDS] Sygma/Corbis

British soldiers leave Southampton aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 for the Falkland Islands, May 12, 1982.

Thirty years ago this Monday, Argentine marines invaded the Falkland Islands, killed or captured its British defenders and declared the islands to be Argentine territory: Les Malvinas. Britain dispatched a naval “task force” to regain them less than a week later. The Falklands War had begun.

According to newly released documents from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., the U.S. almost took sides against its most important ally, driven by the diplomatic maneuvering of Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

It’s already a matter of record that, at first, Washington ostentatiously refused to take sides. Secretary Haig embarked on energetic shuttle diplomacy between Buenos Aires and London to craft a settlement. One month after the landing, the military junta governing Argentina rejected his compromise. The National Security Council met to determine the next stage of U.S. policy.

Among the vast cache of documents just released from the Reagan Library are the minutes of an NSC meeting on April 30, 1982. The release is the result of a 2002 request by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, which will post the minutes on its website on Monday. These records are an as-it-happened chronicle of decision-making in the White House. No part has been redacted, despite significant intelligence content.

The most striking revelation from the meeting is the degree to which Haig’s compromise favored the Argentines. The minutes are quite clear on this point: Haig “then described the elements of the American plan which in effect would give ultimate sovereignty to Argentina but under evolutionary conditions which the Islanders could ultimately accept.”

It’s far from clear, however, that the islanders could or would accept Argentine sovereignty, nor that Haig was really solicitous of their interests. He had recently told U.S. congressmen that the principle of “self-determination” did not really apply to them. And an off-color joke of his about their sexual practices underlined his lack of sympathy.

But Haig was baffled and frustrated by the reaction of the junta: “Our proposals, in fact, are a camouflaged transfer of sovereignty, and the Argentine foreign minister knows this, but the junta will not accept it.” This seemingly confirms some Brits’ long-standing suspicion that the U.S. was “tilting” toward Buenos Aires throughout the war. But the minutes contradict this in two ways.

First, the NSC was meeting to discuss and, in the event, to decide on a “tilt” toward the British. At this stage the tilt was more symbolic than practical; a White House statement blamed Buenos Aires for the breakdown of negotiations—which, anyway, were to resume shortly with the Peruvian foreign minister offering a rehash of Haig’s ideas (“Haig in a poncho” to the Brits).

Second, Haig’s main supporter in the meeting was U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, usually his nemesis. More powerful players—Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Central Intelligence Agency chief Bobby Inman—favored a sharper alignment on the British side. But since things were going their way, they said little.

President Reagan presided over this discussion with a kind of calm detachment. He had outlined a fairly clear U.S. position from the start of the crisis: neutrality over which country had sovereignty over the Falklands but strong opposition to settling the question by military aggression. He stuck to it thereafter.

The British would have preferred U.S. support on both points, but what they got was substantial—American endorsement of a principle that allowed Washington to give them strong material support for a military campaign that faced steep uphill odds even then.

Having established this broad principle, Reagan then allowed his cabinet secretaries large leeway in interpreting it. Indeed, Weinberger and Haig left this NSC meeting with its approval of further installments both of military aid and of shuttle diplomacy.

Three weeks later, however, British troops would land at San Carlos Bay. The modest and largely public U.S. “tilt” toward Britain at this meeting became more pronounced in practice as diplomacy faded and the soldiers decided the outcome on the ground. Military aid became Washington’s most significant contribution to the war.

Thatcher’s combination of judgment and steel nerves stood the test. Twice she accepted compromise proposals along lines that would have ended her career if the junta had accepted them. But she calculated (or gambled) throughout that the junta would never agree to the interim measure of withdrawing its troops from the islands. She proved to be right—and Britain won.

Though only some at the NSC that day wanted a British victory, almost everyone gained from it. The junta fell, free elections were held in 1983 and Argentina embarked on a rare period of political and economic stability that lasted almost two decades. None of the consequences feared at the NSC meeting actually materialized.

Not least among the beneficiaries were Reagan and Thatcher. She achieved dominance over the British political scene that lasted until the month of her dramatic downfall. Reagan had his main overseas partner in the Cold War sustained and strengthened for the long struggle ahead. The wisdom of the tilt to Britain looks obvious only in retrospect—which is why Weinberger and Inman deserve our respect for seeing it at the time.

—Mr. O’Sullivan is the author of “The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.”

A version of this article appeared Mar. 31, 2012, on page C3 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How the U.S. Almost Betrayed Britain.

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