The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
33. The Falklands War

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
British troops on the march in the Falklands
In 1982 two nations went to war over the ownership of an archipelago 300 miles from the southernmost tip of South America -- and the United States was caught in the middle. The Falklands -- two main islands and 200 islets with a total land area the size of Connecticut -- had been claimed for Britain in 1594 by Sir Richard Hawkins, and named in 1690 for the First Lord of the Admiralty. But the Spanish insisted that the 1492 Papal Line of Demarcation gave the islands to them, and when Argentina declared its independence from Spain in 1816 it claimed sovereignty over the islands, which Argentines called Las Malvinas. In 1833 the British colonized the uninhabited islands; the Royal Falklands Island Company transplanted Cheviot and Southdown sheep as well as Irish, Scottish and Welsh descendants of the 1,800 Falklanders who lived on the islands in 1982. For a century and a half Argentina protested. When the three-man military junta led by Leopoldo Galtieri launched a surprise attack on the islands, overpowering a small garrison of Royal Marines, the British public clamored for action, with a clear majority favoring the recapture of the Falklands by force.
The U.S. government disappointed the British by initially attempting to remain neutral. Though aware of Argentina's poor human rights record, there were some in the Reagan administration, most prominently UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who viewed the anticommunist Argentine government as a potential ally in the struggle to resist the spread of Marxism in Latin America. London did not fail to note that Kirkpatrick was guest of honor at a dinner held by Argentine's ambassador to Washington on the very day that 2,500 Argentine troops stormed Port Stanley on East Falkland Island. While the European Common Market's ten nations banned Argentine imports in a show of support for Britain, the tepid U.S. response threatened the stability of the NATO alliance.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig embarked on twelve days of shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires in search of a negotiated settlement based on a joint Argentine-British-American administration of the islands. But Britain refused to discuss the future of the Falklands until the Argentine forces were removed, and Galtieri would not budge from his position that Argentina's sovereignty over the Falklands be accepted before negotiations took place. Many observers believed that the invasion was designed to defuse growing unrest among the Argentine people, who were weary of triple digit inflation and double digit unemployment, not to mention six years of repression under a military dictatorship. If this was Galtieri's goal, he succeeded -- Argentines rallied behind the junta. Resurgent national pride tinged with war fever led thousands to enlist in the military.The full-scale Argentine invasion occurred on April 2; on that same day the UN Security Council's Resolution 502, condemning the act and calling for an immediate withdrawal of Argentine troops from the Falklands, was introduced. On April 7 a British armada of 45 ships including the carriers Invincible and Hermes began a 7,800 mile journey to the Falklands, carrying a 2,000-man Royal Marine assault force, Harrier attack planes, and Sea King helicopters. (The British task force would eventually include 28,000 men and over 100 ships.)
Aboard HMS Invincible was 22-year-old Prince Andrew, second in line to the British throne and serving as a helicopter pilot. Meanwhile, British nuclear-powered submarines patrolled a 200-mile "exclusion zone" around the Falklands, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned that any Argentine ship that tried to run the blockade would be sunk. Argentine flew in elements of its 9th Infantry Brigade to Port Stanley to augment its military presence there and put its air force, which included 21 Mirage III interceptors and 82 American-made A-4P and A-4Q Skyhawk fighter bombers, on alert. Argentina's foreign minister, Nicanor Costa Mendez, considered invoking the Treaty of Rio de Janeiro, which would challenge the U.S. to honor its 1947 pledge to come to the aid of his country in the event of war. But on April 30, after the Haig diplomatic mission had failed, President Reagan allied the U.S. with Britain, leveling economic sanctions against Argentina and offering military supplies to the British.
At first it seemed the British intended to use an air and naval blockade to starve the 9,000 Argentine troops on the islands into surrender, in the belief that an amphibious assault would be too costly. On May 1, a British Vulcan bomber followed by Sea Harrier jets braved intense anti-aircraft fire to strike the Port Stanley airfield in an attempt to curtail Argentine air supply operations. (The British even considered air strikes against mainland bases to further offset Argentine air superiority.) Several Argentine fighter jets were shot down in an attack on the Royal Navy task force. Meanwhile, the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano set sail to engage the British ships. The Belgrano, formerly the USS Phoenix, was sunk by a pair of Tigerfish torpedoes fired by the British submarine Conquerer. Two days later an Argentine fighter-bomber fired an Exocet missile at HMS Sheffield, sinking the British destroyer.
This, the first full-scale naval engagement since World War II, coupled with the damage its support of Britain had done to U.S. relations with Latin American countries (which had rallied to Argentina's cause in the spirit of "Hispanidad," or Latin American solidarity), prompted the Reagan administration to broker a ceasefire through Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry. As before, the British insisted that any peace plan had to guarantee the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the Falklands, while Argentina demanded that its sovereignty over the islands be recognized. The war went on. While 3,500 Welsh and Scots Guards, accompanied by a Gurkha regiment, sailed for the South Atlantic aboard the requisitioned Queen Elizabeth 2, British SAS commandos conducted a night raid to blow up an Argentine ammunition dump and destroy 11 enemy planes; 18 of the commandos drowned when an albatross flew into the engine of the helicopter carrying them back to HMS Hermes, causing the aircraft to crash into the sea.
On May 21 the British invasion began. Casualties were high on both sides as a beachhead was established near Port San Carlos on East Falkland, 50 miles from Port Stanley. The Argentines launched a fierce air attack on the invasion fleet, sinking the British frigate Ardent and damaging four other ships, losing 16 warplanes in the process. The British plan was to isolate the Argentine main force at Port Stanley from garrisons at Goose Green and Fox Bay. In the first major land battle of the war, the British 2nd Parachute Battalion seized Goose Green, defeating a large but discouraged Argentine force. "Their weakness," said Major Chris Keeble, 2nd Para's second-in-command, "was that they did not really want to fight." To the north, Royal Marines equipped with Scorpion tanks marched on Port Stanley. As the noose tightened around the main Argentine force, the British suffered a sharp setback as Argentine Skyhawks and Mirages sank two British landing ships packed with Welsh guards. The 7,500 Argentine troops besieged at Port Stanley were mercilessly pounded by land-based artillery fire, the guns of Royal Navy frigates, and Harrier jets dropping cluster bombs. When the British commander, Major General John Jeremy Moore, ordered the final assault, bitter hand-to-hand fighting occurred. Argentine commander General Mario Menendez surrendered after his men suddenly broke and ran. Over 250 British men and three times as many Argentine troops were killed during the course of the war.
In Buenos Aires, news of the defeat enraged the public; 5,000 angry and humiliated Argentines demonstrated at the presidential palace, prompting Galtieri to resign. In London, Margaret Thatcher saw her public approval rating soar. "We have ceased to be a nation in retreat," she announced, articulating a renewed national pride. The "Iron Lady" promised self-government for the Falklanders and favored  making the islands a British protectorate. The "Falklands factor" contributed significantly to Thatcher's Tory government victory in the 1983 general elections. The United States was confronted with the task of repairing its relations with Latin America. Argentina blamed its defeat on American military assistance to Britain. In fact, such assistance was minimal; the Reagan administration even refused to loan the British an AWACS aircraft that could have alerted the Royal Navy task force to surprise air attacks. According to Secretary of State Haig, the lesson of the conflict was obvious in a decade riven by war. "The mixture of history, passion, miscalculation, national pride, and personal egotism that produced a 'little' war that everyone knew was senseless and avoidable also contains the ingredients for a much larger conflict." Caught in the middle, the United States found the Falklands War to be a no-win diplomatic situation.

What the Newspapers Said
TULSA WORLD, 8 April 1982....."If OAS [IOrganization of American States] can be persuaded to condemn Argentina's illegal invasion of the Falklands, it would be helpful to the British. But at the first sign of a long balk by our Latin neighbors, the United States should politely walk out and take a firm stand for Britain and international law as opposed to Argentina and international hooliganism."
RICHMOND NEWS LEADER, 6 April 1982....."[T]he Falklands carry symbolic and moral value. Argentina is wrong. Britain must not countenance its aggression. It remains responsible for those who inhabit the Falklands. Indeed, the 1,800 persons who live there have persistently affirmed their allegiance to Britain. The Falklands also test British resolve. A British retreat in the southwestern Atlantic could invite similar mischief directed at, say, Hong Kong or Gibraltar."
The (Santa Ana, Calif.) Register, 9 April, 1982....."The comic-opera war may be going beyond the point of providing laugh lines for television comedians. Despite the superficially amusing aspects of the is becoming apparent that...both parties are presently taking the dispute rather seriously. We may chuckle, but if it comes to armed conflict the soldiers and civilians who are killed will be just as dead as if they had been engaged in a global conflict to make the world safe for democracy or to thwart the spread of communism."

The General Belgrano, lost at sea during the Falklands War


The Economist, 22 May 1982, 12 November 1983, 3 March 1984

Newsweek, 7 June, 1982

Time, 2 April 1982, 19 April 1982, 26 April 1982, 10 May 1982, 17 May 1982, 24 May 1982, 31 May 1982, 7 June 1982, 21 June 1982, 28 June 1982

U.S. News & World Report, 26 April 1982, 3 May 1982

Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy
Alexander M. Haig, Jr. (New York: MacMillan, 1984)

War in the Falklands: The Full Story
The Sunday Times of London Insight Team (London: Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1982)