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'Not Right, but British'

(The Superpower Role in the Falklands War)

by Daniel Ford

The Soviet Union played almost no part in the 1982 Falklands conflict, while the US role was central: ‘it is difficult to exaggerate the difference that America’s support made to the military outcome’.[1] In neither case did the superpower position have much to do with the Cold War.

The role of the Soviet Union

During the runup to the war, Argentine warships ‘arrested’ several vessels in Falkland waters; almost all were Soviet-bloc.[2]  Even without that irritant, Moscow would have been wary of a junta despised by leftists in Latin America and elsewhere: ‘third world support for Argentina was hardly overwhelming, a critical criterion for Soviet foreign policy’.[3]  Then too, the Iran-Iraq war and its involvement in Afghanistan no doubt discouraged Moscow from a South American adventure. 

Nor did the Argentines actively seek allies. ‘No advance contacts or overtures were made toward countries that could have used their veto power ... [or that] looked favorably on Buenos Aires’s intent, whether for reasons of affinity or because their ideology or policies were at odds with London’s’.[4] The British, by contrast, introduced Resolution 502 at the UN Security Council, calling for an Argentine withdrawal; it passed almost without debate, with the Soviet Union and China abstaining. ‘It could hardly have been a worse setback for Argentina’.[5]

Russian ships and aircraft monitored the British task force as it sailed south, ‘causing serious concern’ that the information would reach Buenos Aires.[6] However, the Soviets evidently collected intelligence for their own use and did not share it with Argentina.[7]

The USSR did offer arms, to be delivered through a proxy such as Libya. In return it expected support in the UN on such issues as US withdrawal from Central America, a price ‘considered too high’ by the Argentines. The only Russian equipment Argentina received during the crisis was a scrambler for the Argentine foreign minister to use while in the US.[8]

Toward the end, the USSR had an unintended influence on American actions. With the final battle looming, the US urged Britain to give the Argentines a face-saving way out of the conflict, for ‘fear that Argentina might turn to the Cubans and the Soviets as a last hope of avoiding total humiliation.’[9]

The role of the United States

The Reagan administration divided into ‘Europeanists’ and ‘Latinos’. The most important ‘Latino’ was UN delegate Jeane Kirkpatrick, who ‘had an embarrassingly soft spot for Argentina’s General Galtieri’; on the day of the invasion, she attended a dinner in her honor by the Argentine ambassador.[10] This faction argued that the junta supported US policy in Central America; a tilt toward Britain would pose ‘great opportunities for Soviet mischief-making, either directly, or through their Cuban proxies, in Argentina’.[11]

Europeanist arguments included the historical ties between the US and Britain, lingering embarrassment over the US role in the Suez Crisis, and American plans to introduce cruise missiles into Western Europe, a proposal vigorously supported by Prime Minster Thatcher.[12]

The US Secretary of State affected neutrality in this debate, to the ‘ill-concealed fury’ of Downing Street.[13] Privately, however, he assured the British ambassador that ‘America could not ... be even-handed in anything involving its closest ally’.[14]

Without waiting for the civilians to decide, the US military rushed materiel to the task force moving toward the Falklands. The British profited from ‘the deep bureaucratic structures of the Anglo-American relationship’, including their military mission in Washington and the close ties between the two militaries.[15] Secretary of Defense Weinberger was ‘unabashedly pro-British’, as an Argentine officer complained; ‘his actions ... proved to be lethal for Argentine attempts at self-defense against the task force’.[16]

The US cornucopia included 12.5 million gallons of aviation fuel, a water purification plant, 4,700 tons of airfield matting, and—’the single most decisive weapon of the campaign’[17]—a new generation of air-to-air missiles. ‘More than 90 percent of all our aircraft losses’, wrote an Argentine air force officer, ‘were caused by Harriers firing the American-made AIM-9L Sidewinder’.[18]

The materiel went direct to Ascension Island, halfway between London and the Falklands. This ‘rugged, remote island ... became briefly the busiest airport in the world’.[19] Indeed, Ascension itself was a US contribution: though a British dependency, its airfield had been acquired by the US during World War 2. Without it, the RAF couldn’t have prosecuted a war against Argentina. ‘If Resolution 502 represented the key to the war in political terms, the use of the facilities at Ascension Island was the key to war in operational terms’.[20] The US was also persuaded ‘to move a military satellite from its Soviet-watching orbit over the northern hemisphere to cover the Falklands area’, using up fuel and thereby shortening its useful life.[21]

The American support was kept secret from the press, and often enough was ‘concealed from senior members of both governments, to prevent embarrassment.’ Not even the British war cabinet, for example, knew that the US Navy was ready to turn USS Guam over to the Royal Navy if a British carrier were sunk.[22]

The tilt finally became public on May 1, when the National Security Council voted to join European nations in an arms embargo and economic sanctions on Argentina. In the Security Council, a ceasefire resolution received a majority vote, with only Britain and the US voting against. Britain’s veto would have sufficed, but the American ‘naye’ was vital for Britain’s reputation in the United Nations.[23]

Conclusion

Though influenced at the margins by Cold War considerations, US actions were based almost entirely on the historical relationship between the two countries. ‘I am for you’, a US Senator told Ambassador Henderson, ‘not because you’re right but simply because you’re British’.[24]

Poland's Daughter


[1] Henderson 1983

[2] Dillon 1989, pp. 10-15

[3] Freedman 2005

[4] Moro 1989, p. 39

[5] Middlebrook 2003, p. 46

[6] Hastings & Jenkins p.182

[7] Middlebrook 2003 p. 54; Freedman & Gamba-Stonehouse 1991, p. 401; Levie 75-76

[8] Freedman & Gamba-Stonehouse 1991, 400-401

[9] Freedman 2005, pp. 17-18; cf Henderson 1983

[10] ‘Jeane Kirkpatrick’ 2006; Dillon 1989, p. 142

[11] Freedman & Gamba-Stonehouse 1991, pp. 155-157

[12] Ibid

[13] ‘Relationship’1984

[14] Henderson 1983

[15] Dillon 1989, p. 147; cf Martin 1992

[16] Moro 1989, p. 80

[17] ‘Relationship’ 1984

[18] Gonzalez 2005, p. 80; cf Moro, 324-325

[19] Hore 2005, p. 215

[20] Moro 1989, p.43

[21] ‘Relationship’ 1984

[22] Ibid

[23] Claude 1983

[24] ‘Relationship’ 1984

Bibliography

Claude, Inis (1983), ‘UN Efforts at Settlement of the Falklands Islands Conflict’, in Alberto Coll and Anthony Arend, eds., The Falklands War: Lessons for Strategy, Diplomacy, and International Law (Boston: George Allen & Unwin)

Dillon, G. M. (1989), The Falklands, Politics and War (New York: St. Martin’s)

Freedman, Lawrence (2005), ‘The Impact of the Falklands Conflict on International Affairs’, in Stephen Badsey et al, eds., The Falklands Conflict Twenty Years On (London: Frank Cass)

Freedman, Lawrence, and Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse (1991), Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982 (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Gonzalez, Horacio (2005), ‘An Argentinian Airman in the South Atlantic’, in Stephen Badsey et al, eds., The Falklands Conflict Twenty Years On (London: Frank Cass)

Hastings, Max, and Simon Jenkins (1983), The Battle for the Falklands (New York: Norton)

Henderson, Nicholas (1983), ‘Case Study in the Behaviour of an Ally’, The Economist, 12 Nov 1983, pp. 49 et seq.

Hore, Peter (2005), ‘The “Logistics Miracle” of Ascension Island’, in Stephen Badsey et al, eds., The Falklands Conflict Twenty Years On (London: Frank Cass)

‘Jeane Kirkpatrick’ (2006), The Economist, Vol. 381, No. 8590, p. 127

Levie, Howard (1983), ‘The Falklands Crisis and the Laws of War’, in Alberto Coll and Anthony Arend, eds., The Falklands War: Lessons for Strategy, Diplomacy, and International Law (Boston: George Allen & Unwin)

Martin, Lisa (1992), ‘Institutions and Cooperation: Sanctions During the Falkland Islands Conflict’, International Security, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 143+

Middlebrook, Martin (2003), The Argentine Fight for the Falklands (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword) [originally The Fight for the ‘Malvinas’: The Argentine Forces in the Falklands War, 1989]

Moro, Ruben (1989) (Michael Valeur, tr.), The History of the South Atlantic Conflict: The War for the Malvinas (New York: Praeger), translation of La Guerra Inaudita: Historia del Conflicto del Atlantico Sur (Buenos Aires: Editorial Pleamar, 1985)

‘Relationship Sweet and Sour, A’ (1984), The Economist (3 Mar 1984), pp. 23+

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