Jacob Heilbrunn

Refighting the Falklands War

A good case could be made that Margaret Thatcher was the greatest Western leader of the 1980s and 1990s. Her star has been steadily rising in recent years, partly as a result of her prescient opposition to British participation in the Euro. She got it right as well when she pushed George H.W. Bush not to go "wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein. Now newly released documents from the British National Archives are further burnishing her reputation and reigniting an old controversy about the Reagan administration's stance before the war over the Falkland Islands.

In 1982, confronted with the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine junta, led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Thatcher dispatched the British Navy to rescue the islanders from the malign embrace of the Argentines. She wrote a cable to the old thug Galtieri that said,

“In a few days the British flag will be flying over Port Stanley. In a few days also your eyes and mine will be reading the casualty lists,” she wrote in a previously unseen telegram that was ultimately left unsent to the Argentine leader General Galtieri. “On my side, grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."

The biggest obstacle to freeing the islanders seems to have come from the United States. The British were and remain apoplectic about the conduct of the Reagan administration, particularly its ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who made no secret of her sympathies for the Argentine regimeit was a "right-wing," not a "left-wing" dictatorship, and so fell under the rubric of her famous distinction between the two, with the latter supposedly being impervious to reform or collapse, which meant that the capital of the free world couldn't be too choosy about the reactionary, anti-communist dictatorships it chose to back. Kirkpatrick's behavior comes under particular censure from the British ambassador to Washington. Sir Nicholas Henderson concluded that she and State Department official Thomas Enders played an untoward role in helping to persuade the Argentine generals that that they could get away with occupying the Falklands. According to Sir Nicholas,

"Comparing Kirkpatrick with Enders, it is difficult to improve on the apophthegm going the rounds of the State Department that whereas the latter is more fascist then fool, Kirkpatick is more fool than fascist," he wrote.

"She appears to be one of America's most reliable own-goal scorers: tactless, wrong-headed, ineffective and a dubious tribute to the academic profession to which she expresses her allegiance."

Strong words. But Henderson was vindicated. The Reagan administration came around and the British triumphed, a triumph that was greeted rapturously in Great Britain where it signaled that aggression wouldn't go unchallenged, that the empire could and would strike back decisively. Now the British newspapers are engaging in a new round of schadenfreude, chortling over Kirkpatrick's missteps back in 1982, when she was outmanuevered by more pragmatic Reagan administration officials who saw that American loyalty to a vital ally trumped any concerns over backing the Argentine government. In short order the military men were ousted and Argentine became democratic within a year. The Falklands war proved the undoing of the regime. Thatcher won a smashing victory over both the Argentine junta and her doubters in the Reagan administration. It was not Kirkpatrick's finest hour, and it is one that the British are only too glad to relive decades later.