The Falklands War broke out in 1982 because the United Kingdom and Argentina claimed sovereignty over the islands. Neither country had an unambiguously legitimate claim to the territory, and the dispute was further complicated by the settlement of the islands by British people in the nineteenth century, whose descendants claimed the right to self-determination—a claim that was heard with increasing sympathy in British politics. United Nations Resolution 2065 of 1965 called for "self-determination of all peoples," but also for the end of colonization in all its forms, including the Falklands (for Argentina, the "Malvinas"). Attempts to resolve the dispute made little progress, even though the British were reluctant possessors of the Falklands, and in 1975 Argentina warned that its patience was not inexhaustible. British hopes that a compromise could be found by an arrangement whereby Britain would cede Argentina's sovereignty claim but lease back the islands for seventy years were frustrated in 1982 by the islanders.
In 1981 Britain conducted a defense review, concentrating its military and naval assets on the NATO area and withdrawing the HMS Endurance from its patrol of the Falklands. Argentina tested British resolve following the landing of some scrap dealers on 19 March 1982 on the British dependency of South Georgia. This incident was a catalyst. When the British ordered Argentina to remove the dealers, the Argentina Junta on 30 March decided to implement an invasion plan drawn up at the end of 1981. On 2 April Argentina seized the Falklands. The British Government led by Margaret Thatcher responded by preparing a Task Force, despite some doubts on the part of the Defense Secretary John Nott. They also asked U.S. President Ronald Reagan to mediate. The Task Force was ordered to sail on 5 April.
This was a risky enterprise. The Falklands were 8,000 miles away; the South Atlantic winter was near. The British were fortunate that the United States allowed the use of the airstrip on Ascension Island as a staging post. Other military assistance was given covertly. The European Union imposed economic sanctions on Argentina. Argentina had the advantage of occupying the islands, proximity to the mainland, and the possibility of spinning out negotiations. The British Task Force commander, Admiral John Forster "Sandy" Woodward, was aware that time was not on his side and that if he lost even one of his two aircraft carriers he might well lose the war. Air power would therefore play an essential role in the conflict, and the Argentine Air Force possessed Exocet missiles and skilled pilots. On 28 April the British imposed a total exclusion zone around the islands. On 2 May Woodward asked for a change to rules of engagement to enable the submarine HMS Conqueror to sink the Argentine warship ARA General Belgrano. This ended the Argentine navy's part in the war, though it cost the British some good opinions, and was followed by the sinking of HMS Sheffield. The war was now in earnest.
U.S. mediation failed, and it is difficult to see how these and subsequent mediations could have succeeded, since for both Argentina and Britain the bottom line was that their claim to sovereignty could not be compromised, though other items, such as the administration of the Falklands while a final settlement could be worked out, were negotiable. The diplomatic situation influenced the military and was influenced by it. When the British landed unopposed at San Carlos Bay on 21 May, and the second battalion Parachute Regiment won the hard-fought Battle of Goose Green on 28 May, it was tempting for the British government to envisage military victory and disentangle itself from negotiations. The superior professionalism of the British forces suggests that (in retrospect) a British victory was assured. But the British lost mobility when the Atlantic Conveyor, containing the bulk of the helicopter force, was sunk in San Carlos Bay. The British army had to march across rough terrain in harsh weather, and with an increasingly large logistical "tail." Not all Argentine forces fought with resolution, but many of them did, and had the advantage of standing on the defensive in prepared positions. A British military reverse might damage public support for the campaign, which was complicated by the continuing efforts by the United Nations to resolve the conflict by negotiation. As the British forces moved close to Stanley, where the Argentine army waited (increasingly cold and uncomfortable), such negotiations were of greater value to Argentina.
On 11 June British forces attacked the Argentine defensive positions around Stanley. A series of hard-fought battles on the hills and ridges, with the British attacking at night and engaging the Argentine forces in bitter close-quarter fighting, resulted in an Argentine surrender on 14 June. Argentina suffered 655 casualties; British losses were 255 (including two Falkland Islanders).
For Thatcher, the war marked the end of a "nation in retreat" and the beginning of a recovery of national confidence. For Argentina, it ended the rule of the military junta, ushered in democracy, and struck a blow at Argentine assumptions about its preeminence in South America—but not the end to Argentine claims to the Malvinas. The Falklands War was a small one, but remained the object of fascination. This is because it was a "regular" war, one fought by armies in uniform using a range of weapons, from the latest technology to trench warfare, and deploying land, sea, and air forces. In an age when the only conflict anticipated was one with the Warsaw Pact, the Falklands offered some kind of guide to modern war as a conflict that must hold lessons for the future. British and Argentine methods of directing the campaign, including the political control of the war, were likewise examined closely. The war turned out for the British to be a last one, in the sense that their forces would probably never again fight as a separate military machine, but would work with other European or American forces, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, and in the "War on Terror."
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D. George Boyce
The USA, anxious to retain good relations with both countries, tried to mediate through Secretary of State Alexander Haig but to no avail. On 25 April marines recaptured South Georgia. On 2 May the Argentine battleship General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine with large loss of life and two days later the British destroyer HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile and sunk.
British troops, under aerial attack, landed on the Falklands at San Carlos on 21 May and established a bridgehead. After fierce fighting the settlements at Darwin and Goose Green were retaken and the capital, Stanley, came under fire. On 14 June the Argentine garrisons surrendered. The war cost the lives of 236 British and 750 Argentine soldiers. It was the turning-point in the fortunes of the Thatcher Conservative government, but in Argentina, General Galtieri's military junta fell from power a year later.
Richard A. Smith