Alexander Haig, the U.S. secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, had to be persuaded not to pass on U.K. military plans to Argentina during the Falklands War, newly released British documents show.
Haig was trying to broker a peace deal over the disputed islands in the South Atlantic. He told Nicholas Henderson, the British ambassador in Washington, he would have to inform the Argentines about U.K. plans to recapture the island of South Georgia if he was to maintain his position of “even-handedness,” according to files from 1982 released by the National Archives in London today.
“He therefore thought that he would have to give the Argentinian junta advance notice of our intended operation,” Henderson wrote in a note on April 21, four days before South Georgia was retaken. “I expressed strong objection.”
The documents also make clear the extent of U.S. support for the British during the crisis even as Haig was attempting to get the two sides to sign a peace deal. Ammunition and equipment were provided on a “use or return” basis, limpet mines were sent for sinking Argentine ships and the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was earmarked by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to provide a “mobile runway” in the South Atlantic.
Voice of America, the U.S. foreign broadcasting service, agreed to carry British versions of events in the Falklands after the Argentine military junta jammed the British Broadcasting Corp., and the U.S. sought to buy into Brazilian transmitters to strengthen VOA’s signal to Argentina.
“The U.S. have met in full virtually all our requests and have been very helpful in setting up arrangements for handling them quickly,” David Omand, an official at the Ministry of Defense, wrote in a note. “The clandestine nature of the assistance does pose difficult presentational problems for both the Americans and us.”
Haig was persuaded not to warn Argentina about Britain’s plans. “I am grateful to you for having averted what could have been a very dangerous development,” Foreign Secretary Francis Pym wrote in a cable to Henderson. “I find it amazing that it should have crossed the Americans’ mind that they ought to tell the Argentinians about our impending move.”
The U.S. was concerned about its relations with other countries in Latin America, though the files, released by the National Archives after being kept confidential for the prescribed 30 years, show that confusion over the U.S. stance stretched around the world.
A telegram from the British Embassy in Oman said the country’s sultan was “extremely disturbed” at the U.S.’s apparent lack of support for Britain.
“It made them wonder whether they could really rely on the Americans in a crisis,” according to a section highlighted in the margin by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “He thought the American government should have supported us right from the start.”
Thatcher thanked Reagan for “his magnificent support of the U.K.’s position,” according to notes of a meeting between the two leaders on June 9. “Her grief was that she could not specify in public the extent of that support.”
Israel and France also offered backing to the U.K. on the condition that it was not made public. The Israelis sent a message through Marcus Sieff, chairman of retailer Marks & Spencer, saying Prime Minister Menachem Begin had ordered arms exports to Argentina to be held up by bureaucracy, though he was “concerned that it should not be publicly known.”
Much British diplomatic and covert effort was devoted to preventing Argentina getting new supplies of French-built Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be used against the British naval task force in the South Atlantic. President Francois Mitterrand told Thatcher at a meeting in May that he wouldn’t allow a Peruvian order of Exocets to leave his country, out of concern they would be passed to Argentina. Fearing the damage that would be done to France’s arms business if his pledge became known, he requested “total confidence.”
In his memoirs, Defense Secretary John Nott hinted, without giving details, at even greater French cooperation, writing that British agents had identified Exocets for sale and “covertly rendered them inoperable, based on information provided by the French.”
After an Exocet attack on the British destroyer HMS Sheffield on May 4, which led to its sinking six days later, a director of Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. phoned the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.
The director apologized “that one of his products should be responsible for so much damage,” a telegram from the embassy ran. “He was certain an IAI product was responsible but would not respond to questions on mark or type.”
Thatcher told Reagan in a message on May 5 that she was ready to “go along” with Haig’s proposals for a cease-fire and an interim peace-keeping force on the islands to oversee an Argentine withdrawal if it would avoid bloodshed. She said she had “misgivings” about the vague language being used on the future of the islands, which Haig insisted was the only way of getting the Argentines to sign up.
“With so many young lives at risk -- British and Argentine -- I feel that we must make a supreme effort to prevent a major military clash,” Thatcher wrote in a message that also urged Reagan to increase economic pressure on Argentina.
Argentina refused to sign up to the peace deal, and after fierce battles that saw ships sunk on both sides and hand-to-hand fighting on the islands, Argentine forces surrendered on June 14. The death toll included 255 British soldiers, 649 Argentines and three women from the islands, killed accidentally by British fire.
Tensions over the islands have heightened again this year, with Argentina protesting the U.K.’s deployment of a modern warship to the region and British Prime Minister David Cameron describing Argentina’s claim to the islands as “like colonialism.” The islanders will hold a referendum next year on their allegiance to Britain, in an effort to show Argentina they’re happy with the status quo.