“Don’t go wobbly on us, George.” For many Americans, these were the words that most readily jumped to mind when they heard of the death of Margaret (Baroness) Thatcher earlier this month.
Prime Minister Thatcher was addressing the elder President Bush shortly after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. There is some question about the specific words that Prime Minister Thatcher used, as well as the precise occasion for their utterance. In an oral history with PBS, Thatcher associated it with an incident in late August, when a decision had to be made about how to deal with an Iraqi tanker suspected of carrying oil in violation of the United Nations embargo. The prime minister thought that the ship should be boarded; the president, according to her recollection, merely wanted the ship to be followed for the time being. “The first time you actually go to the use of force is quite a decision for the person who has to authorize it,” Thatcher explained to her interviewer. “And so you do tend to say, ‘well look let’s just see if there’s anything else we can do.’ And so this was the reason why I said, ‘look George, this is no time to go wobbly, we’ll do it this time, but we can’t fall at the first fence, just this time.'”
Thatcher made it clear that she had a reference point for that lonely decision about the use of force: “I knew and recognized what I’d had to cope with earlier, in the Falklands.”
Thatcher’s role in Britain’s victory over Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War was noted in her obituaries and memorials, but decidedly as a minor theme, at least on this side of the pond. That conflict has largely dropped out of the American memory. If anything, it seems something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, a quaint exercise in colonial nostalgia. Much more attention was paid—enthusiastically or grudgingly, depending on one’s political persuasion—to the Iron Lady’s role (along with that of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II) in the defeat of Communism. In contrast, the recovery of some worthless rocks in the far South Atlantic from a tin-horn Latin American dictator seems rather small potatoes. For Thatcher, however, the Falklands War was a critical, albeit unplanned, moral and strategic step in the recovery of Britain and the West from the deadly malaise into which they had fallen. It served as an abject lesson to all the dictators and would-be aggressors who seemed to be on the ascendency at the beginning of the 1980s, just as the First Gulf War later sent a message to post-Cold War despots. “We fought to show that aggression does not pay and that the robber cannot be allowed to get away with his swag.”
This message was not universally accepted, then or now, as a fixed guide to strategy. Not a few of American and British national security experts, including those who thought of themselves as conservative, at first believed that Thatcher’s War was a strategic misstep, if not worse.
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First, a sketch of the problem. The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles off the coast of Argentina (and 8,000 miles from Britain). They have far more sheep than people (roughly 3,000). Various nations have claimed sovereignty by right of original discovery or colonization. In 1833, Britain established, or reestablished, its rule. Argentina, which refers to the islands as the Malvinas, disputed that claim at the time and unsuccessfully approached the United States to invoke the Monroe Doctrine on its behalf. The Jackson Administration declined to do so.
The dispute over sovereignty continued on and off for over a century. In late 1981, a newly-established Argentine military junta led by General Leopoldo Galtieri ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure against Britain as a means to shore up its unpopular rule and to resolve its own internal factional problems. In early April 1982, an Argentine invasion force sailed for the island and other British possessions in the South Atlantic. The British obtained a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Argentina to withdraw its forces and for both sides to seek a diplomatic solution. The Thatcher Government dispatched an expeditionary force to recover the islands in the event that diplomacy failed. Thatcher believed that diplomacy was virtually certain to fail because Galtieri would use it as a device to stall for time while the Argentine forces dug in and waited for international opinion to turn against London. She also knew that Galtieri’s regime could not survive politically if it retreated.
The only acceptable solution for Thatcher was one in which the Argentine forces withdrew from the islands and British sovereignty and administration was fully restored. The islanders would be given the right of self-determination—and the result of any vote of allegiance was not in doubt, as most of the population was of British descent and had no desire to link their fates with that of Argentina. Thus, for Thatcher, the situation could only be resolved through the use of force, to remove the invader and deny the aggressor his swag.
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The United States saw things differently. There were a diversity of opinions within the Reagan Administration—ranging from Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (decidedly pro-British) to Foreign Policy Advisor Jeanne Kirkpatrick (if not pro-Argentine, then certainly opposed to supporting London on this matter). For our purposes, we can generalize the official American reaction—represented by Secretary of State Alexander Haig—as follows: Mrs. Thatcher was making one of the basic mistakes of strategy, taking her eye off the ball and becoming distracted by peripheral matters. The “ball” was the Soviet Union and the threat of Communist aggression and coercion. One of the central fronts in the conflict with Soviet Communism was in the Western Hemisphere, where the Kremlin and its surrogate, Cuba, were actively engaged in subversion and military aggression (in, for example, Nicaragua and El Salvador). There were proto-Communist parties in South America masquerading as populists and seeking to gain power through elections. For the Reagan Administration, the geopolitical tide could be turned only if the non-Communist world came together diplomatically and rearmed itself sufficiently to halt and eventually reverse Soviet gains.
Thatcher’s determination to recover the Falkland Islands by military force if necessary did not fit into this neat American strategic template. To be sure, Washington recognized that the Galtieri regime had initiated the crisis by invading the islands. But in Haig’s opinion, what was now required was diplomatic sophistication and forbearance by London. Galtieri, to borrow a colorful expression attributed variously to Frankin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, might be an SOB but he was our SOB, a leader who would line up with us in the overarching East-West conflict. Galtieri signaled to Washington that if the United States supported the British, he might turn to the Soviets for assistance—and even if he did not, Washington concluded, a successor regime, embittered further by the machinations of the Anglo-Saxon powers, might well do so. The other Latin American states would overcome their historic suspicions of Argentina and line up behind Buenos Aires, making it much more difficult for the United States to construct a united, anti-Communist front in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the former European colonies around the world, whose allegiance would help determine the outcome of the Cold War, would be reminded of the resentments they felt at the hands of their former Western masters.
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This dark scenario was expected if Britain actually succeeded in recovering the islands. In the judgment of many defense experts, however, it was more likely that Britain simply lacked the means to do so, after years of military decline as a world power. Her defeat would further undermine the military reputation of the West, already at low ebb after the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage rescue debacle. Every British ship, aircraft, and soldier lost thousands of miles from Europe—or tied up in a long-term campaign in the Falklands—was one fewer that could be tallied in the East-West balance.
In short, Haig and others in the Reagan Administration argued that the West needed to pick its fights carefully. Thatcher herself, when taking office as prime minister, had identified three critical challenges-long-term economic decline, the debilitating effects of socialism, and the growing Soviet threat. Many of Britain’s friends in the United States pointed out that war in the South Atlantic served none of these purposes. American policy therefore set out to extricate both sides from a pointless conflict by assuming the role of mediator. Surely there was a face-saving solution, involving a joint international force, temporary U.N. governance, or some such contrivance.
Thatcher thought that the Americans were looking at the crisis through the wrong end of the (strategic) telescope. The Falklands may have been a small, distant object in material terms, but the essence of the affair went to the moral heart of the great conflict between the democracies and the dictatorships. That matter was self-determination, rightly understood, and the imperative to resist aggression. Dictators, whether in the form of imperious trade union leaders, Communist general secretaries, or army generals, are bullies. Bullies take what they can from the weak, those who cannot resist of their own resources. The ultimate success of bullies, however, depends on cowing those who have the power to act but who hesitate to do so because they do not perceive an immediate interest of their own at stake. Bullies seek to build on the momentum of their success, and the successes of their kind, to demoralize and divide their opponents.
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Galtieri may have been a right-wing dictator but, in using force to seize territory in violation of international law, he was riding the wave of Communist-led aggression and intimidation that had been building for well over a decade. The Falklands, in Thatcher’s view, was a place where that wave could begin to be broken—an honorable cause for Britain on its own merits, but with larger ramifications for international security.
Stated thusly, we might say that Thatcher was making the classic case against appeasement; that she was applying the Munich analogy to the Falkland Islands crisis. (Intellectual sophisticates typically decry the broad application of the “lessons of Munich” to foreign policy—at best, they say, the 1930s were a one-off situation, and that the present world is much more complicated.) Although Thatcher clearly had the 1930s in mind, however, she often made the point that she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, and for her (and for Britain as a whole) it was the “lessons of Suez” that loomed large. The defeat of the Suez expedition in 1956 was an enormous psychological blow to the national psyche. In Thatcher’s opinion, Suez had entered the British soul and left a distorted perspective on its place in the world. British leaders, having previously exaggerated the nation’s power, now exaggerated its impotence. They were determined to think of Britain as much weaker and more contemptible than was in fact the case, and they rejected all evidence to the contrary. British foreign policy began a long, seemingly inexorable retreat. Britain was seen by both friends and enemies as a nation that lacked the will and the capability to defend its interests in peace, much less in war.
The truth of the matter, in Thatcher’s judgment, was that Britain, although now a middle-ranking power, still retained unusual influence in international relations by virtue of its historical distinction, skilled diplomacy and versatile military forces. Britain’s post-Suez psychological inhibitions in applying that influence had an undeniable material cause: severe economic weakness caused substantially, in Thatcher’s view, by socialist economic policies, which Conservative governments had done little to reverse. The Suez fiasco was emblematic of this: the Eden Government had withdrawn a victorious force from the Canal Zone in response to a “run on the pound” encouraged by the U.S. government, not because the Soviets had threatened nuclear war.
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Thatcher observed that many other Western and non-Communist nations, for their own particular reasons, were going through similar crises of confidence and economic troubles during the 1960s and 1970s. This included the United States, whose “Vietnam Syndrome” was possibly even more debilitating than its Suez counterpart. Much of the American establishment embraced that syndrome because it rendered the United States incapable of foreign intervention—such American interventions being contrary to morality, inimical to the world’s poor, and hostile to the revolutionary tides of history. So the “lessons of Vietnam” supposedly taught.
To compound the crisis of the democratic and non-Communist world, many in the West clung to the illusion that an internationalism superseding the nation-state was the best way to obtain security. They looked to entities such as the United Nations or some sort of transnational European Union rather than to nation-based alliances such as NATO. In fact, Thatcher argued, an effective internationalism could only be built by strong nations able to call upon the loyalty of their citizens to defend and enforce civilized rules of international conduct. Very few people are prepared to make genuine sacrifices for internationalist principles outside of their particular regime.
It was because of the Western nations’ declinism and defeatism, Thatcher contended, that the Soviet Union and its surrogates had expanded their power and influence in Afghanistan, southern Africa, and Central America, through subversion and direct military invasion. In Europe, the Soviets deployed offensive missiles in the eastern satellites, built their conventional forces to levels far in excess of NATO equivalents, and constructed a navy that would give them global reach. “My concern in 1979 was that the resistance of NATO to the latest Soviet threat was less adequate than I would have liked precisely because national morale in most NATO countries, including Britain, was so depressed,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs. “To resist the Soviet Union effectively it would be necessary to restore our own self-confidence (and, of course, our military strength) beforehand.”
Thatcher thought that the revival of the democracies must begin at home, one nation at time, while reinforcing each other’s efforts through nation-based alliances such as NATO. She focused on Britain’s economic revival as the first step in turning around her nation’s psychological as well as material weaknesses. (Reagan made the same judgment in the United States.) Economic revival also laid the groundwork for rearmament and for a more assertive international role commensurate with Britain’s true strengths.
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There were bound to be international challenges and resistance to the recovery of Britain and the West. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) crisis in Europe—essentially, whether Soviet pressure would cause NATO to fold its hand over the deployment of nuclear systems that would countervail the Soviet buildup—was certainly one of them. Thatcher believed that if these rather predictable challenges could be overcome, the psychological tide would begin to turn and British confidence would begin to be restored (as would that of her allies, each in turn).
There were bound to be unpredictable challenges as well, some of them requiring the use of force. The Argentine invasion of the Falklands was a challenge of this sort, almost completely out of the blue, one neither desired nor relished but one that had to be met. Thatcher, based on assurances by the Royal Navy, was prepared to bet the farm that the British retained the military resources and skill to pull it off (initially, the ministry of defence expressed strong doubts, to say the least). Defeat, she realized, would mean not only the humiliation of Britain but also offer yet another illustration to the Soviets and other aggressors of the West’s incompetence on the battlefield. It would surely mean the fall of her government and its replacement by a Labour government then committed to nuclear disarmament and inclined strongly towards neutralism. With Britain no longer backing a firm line on NATO INF deployments, the narrow margin of support on the continent for a tough stance against the Soviets would undoubtedly vanish.
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When news of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands reached London, Thatcher realized immediately that the attitude of the United States was going to be critical. Once again the “Suez syndrome” loomed large. Britain (and France) had backed down in 1956 under American economic pressure. The United States had then acted on the assumption that this policy would put the United States on the right side of the Arabs and the Third World in the competition with the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower believed that the British and French expedition was morally wrong as well as strategically inexpedient—that it was being conducted the spirit of neocolonialism rather than as a means to conduct the Cold War. Thatcher feared that the United States viewed the Falklands crisis the same way and that Washington would again diplomatically isolate Britain to curry favor with dubious allies elsewhere. This would leave London with no choice but to abandon the campaign to recover the islands, with terrible effects not only for Britain but for nations similarly dependent on the United States for their ultimate security. Thatcher thought that America’s attempt to appear even-handed worked in Argentina’s favor—if there was any prospect of avoiding war, she believed, only the United States had the means to do so, by applying economic pressure to bring the Galtieri regime to heel before the shooting actually began.
Thatcher tried to hammer this point home to the Americans and to get the Reagan Administration to see the larger picture, properly understood. She insisted to Haig that the issue was far wider than a dispute between Britain and Argentina. The use of force to seize disputed territory set a dangerous precedent. In that sense, the Falklands mattered to many countries—for instance, to West Germany and West Berlin. She wrote to Reagan: “The implications for other potential areas of tension and for small countries everywhere would be of extreme seriousness.” She noted with approval Reagan’s comments during a television interview, that if the aggressor were to win, some 50 other territories, affected by similar disputes, would be at risk. American concerns about hostile Soviet military action were misplaced, she told Reagan. The Kremlin was overextended already and in no position to intervene; their lack of power and influence in the matter would be noted elsewhere. She appealed to Reagan on strategic grounds (acknowledging that this was a bit of stretch)—the Falklands possessed several good harbors within 500 miles of Cape Horn. In the event that the Panama Canal was ever closed their significance would be considerable. (Reagan, Thatcher knew, had been a prominent opponent of Senate ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty.)
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American efforts to mediate the conflict remained a constant source of exasperation for Thatcher. Even on the verge of British victory in late May, Haig was still promoting some sort of cease-fire in order to prevent the complete humiliation of Galtieri. For Thatcher, the only redeeming benefit of American diplomacy was that it served to preempt even less acceptable initiatives by other parties. Thatcher took solace in the belief that Reagan’s worldview was ultimately the same as hers and that the Americans, as Winston Churchill said, would invariably do the right thing in the end, after exhausting all other possibilities. And in the end, the Americans did do the right thing. When forced to choose by Argentine intransigence, Reagan came down unmistakably on London’s side. The United States did not join the fight but it provided critical intelligence and logistical and military assistance (such as Sidewinder missiles) which, at the very least, eased Britain’s task and shortened the war—and quite possibly proved essential to victory. This came about because in 1982, unlike 1956, Britain was able and determined to exhaust all other possibilities besides the right one for the United States.
These tensions between Washington and London are important to remember because, in the glow of time, we think of Reagan and Thatcher working together in lock-step throughout their tenures in office. The special relationship was indeed special; but for it to work, Thatcher believed that Britain had to earn American’s respect if she was to restore her own self-respect, and thus become a true and effective ally. Or to put it differently, the Soviets were not the only ones whom Thatcher intended to impress with her toughness and with her nation’s importance. In a speech that Thatcher delivered shortly after the end of the war, reprinted in full below, she tried to sum up what she called the spirit of the Falklands:
We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence-born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8000 miles away…. And so today we can rejoice at our success in the Falklands and take pride in the achievement of the men and women of our Task Force. But we do so, not as at some last flickering of a flame which must soon be dead. No—we rejoice that Britain has rekindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before. Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.
Thatcher believed firmly that victory in the Falklands had changed the perception of Britain, and of much more besides. “Everywhere I went after the war, Britain’s name meant something more than it had,” she observed in her memoirs. “The war also had real importance in relations between East and West: years later I was told by a Russian general that the Soviets had been firmly convinced that we would not fight for the Falklands, and that if we did fight we would lose. We proved them wrong on both counts, and they did not forget the fact.”
We might leave the story here, with the Falklands serving as a case study of the importance of exceptional leadership and political courage. No one else then at a high level in British politics could have done, or would even have tried to do, what Thatcher attempted. But the student of strategy should go a bit further, to reflect on what other general lessons might be drawn.
Certainly at the level of grand strategy, there is an interconnectedness of events and policies that transcends the purely material. The Falklands were a long way from NATO’s central front or the Persian Gulf, yet the British victory mattered there as well, in unexpected ways, and to friends as well as foes. (And a British defeat, by logical extension, would have had disproportionately negative effects.) Great statesmen appreciate and act upon these often intangible connections.
At the same time, not every place is equally important and not every crisis creates an opportunity to improve one’s strategic position. The risk—not high to be sure at the moment, but true nevertheless—is that a stated determination to resist any aggression everywhere (or, in the evolution of international law, to prevent mass violation of human rights everywhere) sooner or later degenerates into the morass of Wilsonian-style collective security. There typically needs to be a plausible national interest at stake for the parties involved to commit to action to deter or resist aggression, or otherwise to “demonstrate resolve.” That interest does not necessarily need to be material—for instance, access to a critical strategic location or a vital natural resource—but that obviously strengthens the case for action.
To be sure, interest is not everything, as we consider the additional Thucydidean factors of fear and honor. Particularly in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many nations were fearful and took some solace in the fact that Britain had demonstrated that aggression was not destined to succeed. Honor may not exactly be a moral virtue but establishing the moral high ground does matter, especially to assure domestic and international opinion that national leaders are not “wagging the dog”—resorting to war to solve domestic problems. Democracies, as we have recently reminded ourselves, are far more comfortable responding to rather than initiating military action.
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The case for the Falklands’ campaign was something of a stretch to make in the material sense—setting aside accusations that the British were really after oil and natural gas deposits supposedly near the islands. Thatcher made the connection to British interest on the ground of self-determination, rightly understood. Britain had voluntarily let most of its empire go based on that principle, and it had every right to insist that the principle be applied consistently to those parts of the empire that maintained some sort of connection with the mother country, including participation in the Commonwealth. Thatcher was certainly consistent on this point—she reacted angrily in 1983 when the United States invaded Marxist Grenada without prior consultation, because Grenada was still formally part of the Commonwealth.
The United States, then, was not wrong to raise serious questions about the wisdom and the capacity of the British efforts to recover the Falklands militarily; and to seek some sort of diplomatic resolution. When push came to shove, we properly recognized our overriding material interest in seeing that the British succeeded—that of ensuring that Britain continued to play its critical role as the Atlantic anchor of NATO—as well as the moral (and morale) factor involved in successfully resisting aggression. We certainly could not afford to see the British defeated. The tension between allies in working through divergent perspectives can be creative as well as destructive, however challenging it may be to deal with at the time. In this case it kept both London and Washington honest and helped establish the international legitimacy of Britain’s actions. Of course, keeping these tensions within manageable bounds required drawing on the deep reservoir of transatlantic good will that had built up over decades—a reservoir that must periodically be replenished.
As an aside: the “interested” case not to go wobbly against Saddam in 1990 was certainly much stronger and more persuasive to a broader coalition of partners than it had been in the Falklands’ campaign. It is worth noting, however, how Thatcher ordered things in her mind at that time (this taken from the PBS oral history):
[I]t was perfectly clear, aggression must be stopped. That is the lesson of this century. And if an aggressor gets away with it, others will want to get away with it too, so he must be stopped, and turned back. You cannot gain from your aggression.
There was a secondary factor there. That part is the oil center of the world. Oil is vital to the economy of the world. If you didn’t stop him, and didn’t turn him back, he would have gone over the border to Saudi Arabia, over to Bahrain, to Dubai…and right down the west side of the Gulf and in fact could have got access and control of 65% of the world’s oil reserves, from which he could have blackmailed every nation. So there were two things, aggressors must be stopped and turned back, and he must not get control of this enormously powerful economic weapon.
One final point: military competence matters greatly. The war was not only resolved successfully (all things being considered, such as the sinking of the HMS Sheffield) but also quickly, in just over two months. If the war had dragged on, the dire scenarios of international opposition and the collapse of British domestic support, which seem exaggerated in retrospect, might well have come to pass. We have learned from the First and Second Gulf Wars that quick victory does not necessarily equate to strategic success. But it at least creates opportunities for strategic success, one which democracies find especially difficult to achieve through long, protracted campaigns.