Falkland Islands War
Falkland Islands War
The Falkland Islands conflict took place between April 2 and June 20, 1982, and is of interest as an episode of non-superpower military crisis and war. The dispute centered upon the sovereignty of the South Atlantic archipelago, with both Britain and Argentina claiming first discovery and possession. The competing claims were bolstered on the British side by the islanders’ wish to remain a crown colony, and on the Argentinean side by the geographic proximity of the islands to the Argentinean mainland.
Prior to the conflict, successive British governments were prepared to reach a negotiated settlement of the sovereignty issue, but the islanders’ protests as to their Britishness and their opposition to living under Argentinean rule made a resolution difficult. British policy had therefore assumed a status quo character, involving slow-moving negotiations with Argentina in order to avoid matters coming to a head and to keep the issue off the British domestic political agenda. Little attempt was made to effectively defend the islands. A token garrison on land was supplemented by the lightly armed patrol vessel, HMS Endurance, at sea.
Two developments disturbed the status quo and led to fighting. First, a military junta headed by General Leopoldo Galtieri (1926–2003) came to power in Argentina. The junta recognized that capturing the islands would represent a huge domestic political coup. Secondly, cuts in the British defense budget meant that the Endurance was publicly slated for withdrawal from Falklands duty, seemingly indicating that British commitment to the islands had waned even further.
Consequently, when an adventurous scrap-metal merchant, Constantino Davidoff, landed on the island of South Georgia and raised the Argentinean flag on March 19, the junta took note of the desultory British response and launched a full-scale invasion. To the junta’s surprise, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not prepared to accept the fait accompli. A naval task force was quickly constituted to recapture the islands.
Given the 8,000-mile distance of the islands from the United Kingdom, the task force would take three weeks to reach its destination. The delay gave ample opportunity for diplomatic maneuvers, although the evidence is that Thatcher personally did not believe the matter could be resolved without the use of force. The United States, alarmed at the prospect of fighting between its European and Latin American allies, attempted to broker a compromise through the good offices of Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Haig, a protégé of Henry Kissinger, sought to repeat the latter’s “shuttle diplomacy,” but succeeded only in irritating Thatcher and misunderstanding the confusing signals emanating from the junta. His efforts came to naught.
When the fighting began it was episodic but fierce. The Argentinean air force, equipped with a limited number of French Super Etendard fighters and the dangerous Exocet missile, succeeded in sinking the British destroyer Sheffield on May 4, and HMS Coventry and the supply ship Atlantic Conveyor on May 25. The heaviest losses sustained by the British came on June 8, when the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were hit with the loss of two hundred men. However, the Argentineans failed in their primary mission of damaging the task force’s two aircraft carriers, Hermes and Invincible, upon which the success of the British effort depended. The losses the Argentinean forces sustained in trying were heavy. The single costliest action was the sinking by the British submarine Conqueror of the Argentinean heavy cruiser General Belgrano on May 4, with the loss of over three hundred men. This episode would later become controversial, as it emerged that a peace plan, sponsored by the government of Peru, was in the process of consideration by the junta when the decision to sink the Belgrano, which was sailing away from the British fleet and outside of its declared “exclusion zone,” was taken. Participants on the British side have always maintained that they were unaware of the plan and could not have accepted its terms in any case.
The fighting on land, beginning on May 21, pitted the British landing force against numerically superior but demoralized and poorly trained Argentinean defenders. The prospects for Argentinean military success had rested upon establishing superiority over the British naval force, and when this could not be achieved the Argentinean surrender, which came after several sharp engagements including the May 28 Battle of Goose Green, was inevitable.
In the years following the war, the British reinforced the islands through the so-called Fortress Falklands policy. Having failed to achieve the coup of recapturing the islands, the Argentinean junta fell shortly after the end of the conflict. The investment involved in the Fortress Falklands policy, including the influx of a sizable contingent of British troops, revitalized the islands’ economy and, ironically, led to greater trade with the Argentinean mainland. Diplomatic relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom were restored in 1990, and in August 2001 Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first British leader to visit Argentina since the war.
SEE ALSO Diplomacy; Thatcher, Margaret
Freedman, Lawrence. 2005. The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. London: Routledge.
Hastings, Max, and Simon Jenkins. 1983. The Battle for the Falklands. London: Norton.