Through the decades, Argentina never renounced its claim to the Falklands, even coaxing the United Nations (UN) in 1965 to classify the islands as a colony of Great Britain. Sporadic negotiations between Britain and Argentina in the 1970s yielded some progress but no substantive agreement on the key issue, namely sovereignty over the islands.
The United States never played a major role in the Falklands controversy. The Argentine government attempted to entice the United States into backing its position by claiming that British possession of the Falklands violated the Monroe Doctrine; however, the United States rejected the application of the doctrine to the Falklands case, arguing that Britain had a claim that antedated its seizure of the islands in 1833. During much of the twentieth century, the United States maintained only a marginal interest in the controversy.
The United States played an even smaller role in the dispute in the 1970s as U.S.-Argentine relations deteriorated. Because of the Argentine military regime's continued violation of human rights, U.S. President Jimmy Carter publicly criticized Argentine leaders and cut aid to the nation. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Argentina had hoped for better relations with the United States. Reagan indicated that he was willing to improve U.S.-Argentine relations in return for Argentina's support of America's tougher anticommunist policies, particularly in Central America.
The dispute over the Falklands came to a head in 1982. Argentina had long expressed disenchantment with what it considered the slow pace of negotiations with Britain. The approach of the 150th anniversary of the British takeover also played a part in the Argentine decision to resort to force. Growing domestic opposition to military rule encouraged some in the military leadership to conclude that a move against the Falklands would help unite the country behind the regime. Military action would also be a distraction from the sorry state of the Argentine economy. The Argentine leadership doubted that Britain would move militarily to prevent seizure of the islands.
In late March 1982, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Argentine forces appeared to be preparing for an invasion of the islands, prompting a lengthy telephone conversation on 1 April between Reagan and the Argentine President, General Leopoldo Galtieri. Reagan warned Galtieri that an invasion would compromise U.S.-Argentine relations and provoke a military response by Britain. Nevertheless, Argentina invaded on 2 April, quickly subduing a small detachment of British Royal Marines.
Britain responded diplomatically and militarily. The British convinced the European Economic Community (EEC) to impose economic sanctions on Argentina and the UN Security Council to condemn the invasion and call for an Argentine withdrawal. Britain dispatched a large military contingent to retake the islands by force, if necessary.
The United States responded with a spurt of shuttle diplomacy led by U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Haig made the diplomatic rounds of London and Buenos Aires trying to broker an agreement based on a cease-fire, Argentine withdrawal, and a commitment to negotiate on the long-term status of the islands.
Argentina mounted its own diplomatic offensive, calling for a meeting of consultation under the provisions of the Rio Pact of 1947. The meeting produced only a tepid resolution criticizing the economic sanctions of the EEC and calling for an end to the fighting. During the meeting Haig characterized Argentina as the aggressor in the crisis.
Haig's shuttle diplomacy soon unraveled as the negotiations demonstrated America's pro-British position. American efforts at mediation ended on 30 April when the United States announced that it was imposing economic sanctions on Argentina and would provide military assistance to Britain, although there would be no direct U.S. military involvement.
British forces landed en masse in the Falklands on 21 May 1982, resulting in another meeting of consultation under the Rio Pact. The meeting passed a resolution—with the United States abstaining—that condemned Britain for its "unjust attack on Argentina" and called upon the United States to lift its economic sanctions on Argentina and end its assistance to Britain. With little substantive diplomatic action, the struggle for the Falklands would be determined by military action alone. The lopsided conflict came to a predictable conclusion with the surrender of Argentine forces on 14 June 1982. Argentina sustained 655 killed in action, while Great Britain suffered 236 killed in action.
The Falklands War was more a colonial war than a Cold War conflict, but it certainly had Cold War implications. First, the Reagan administration lost one of the strongest supporters of its anticommunist policies in Central America. Second, the crisis strengthened ties between Argentina and Cuba, which had prominently supported the Argentine position. Finally, the crisis produced widespread doubts about the role the United States played in mediation efforts, especially given the rapid U.S. switch from quasi-impartial mediator to supporter of Britain. Many Latin Americans were horrified at the prospect of the United States actively aiding a European country in an attack on a Latin American nation. In addition, in the wake of the war two of its most prominent players lost their positions. The Argentine military regime was humiliated, bringing a return to civilian rule in 1983 and the prompt resignation of President Galtieri. Secretary of State Haig resigned on 25 June 1982, partially as a result of his controversial role in the crisis. Only British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher benefited politically from the war, as it raised her sagging popularity and ultimately led to her success in upcoming elections.
Don M. Coerver
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Hastings, Max, and Simon Jenkins. The Battle for the Falklands. New York: Norton, 1983.; Pastor, Robert A. Whirlpool: U.S. Foreign Policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.