In the Name of Capitalism: The American Response to the Falkland Crisis

In 1960, the United Nations, the supranational organisation that promotes international security and peace, issued a declaration of condemnation against holding former colonial possessions. In its ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’, the UN pushed for the ‘end of colonialism in all its manifestations’ among its member countries.

Yet, among the nations that would soon gain their independence, the issue of state sovereignty remained severely controversial over the territory of the Falkland Islands. The United Kingdom has laid claim to the archipelago since its days of imperialistic exploration in the seventeenth century, and again with a formal declaration in 1833. John O’Sullivan described British action in the region as a ‘final spasm of Victorian jingoism’. Current Prime Minister, David Cameron, asserted that the citizens of the territory have a right to self-determination; as TIME reports, in 2013, all but three of the Falkland Islanders voted to remain a British overseas territory. As Kenneth Privratsky notes, with a population mostly comprised of American and British citizens, the results of the referendum were of no surprise. While the focal point of the war lies in the conflict between the British and Argentine claims, understanding the response of other nations, namely the United States, is key to analysing the complex balance of power that escalated in the South Atlantic.

As TR Bromund notes, by 1982, the British Ministry of Defence had announced its plan to cut aggregate military spending, and much of the limited budget would be directed towards protecting the North Sea from Soviet ships. As a result of the redistribution of capital, the HMS Endurance, which was stationed at the Falklands, withdrew from its regular patrol. Yachtsman Sir Peter Scott ascertained, in his letter to the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, that the evacuation ‘should not be seen as in any way foreshadowing the abandonment of [British] interests in this important region’. Argentina had a different interpretation. Believing the British were uninterested in protecting a small archipelago, Argentine forces moved into the territory three days later. Led by the military junta under President Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentine military annexed the territory, certain that the British would neither engage in a war after their plans for defence redistribution, nor would they cross nearly 13,000 kilometres to reach the island chain. The British did respond with an enormous Task Force, however, instigating an armed conflict for territorial rights. 

As Bluth notes, it was only at the British military arrival when the Argentine government realised the severity of the situation. In the eight-week war, nearly 1000 casualties and 2500 injuries were suffered in aggregate, along with the major sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, and the British destroyer, the HMS Sheffield. In a heated speech in the House of Commons, Thatcher strongly condemned the actions of ‘this unprovoked aggression by the government of Argentina against British territory. It has not a shred of justification and not a scrap of legality’. On 14 June, the Argentine military surrendered at Port Stanley. Throughout the campaign, the United States was hesitant to engage in direct fighting, but still played a significant role in attempting to mediate between its two allies. 

The United States of America initially looked to a historical lens to answer the question of sovereignty over the region. The Falklands were originally part of the Viceroyalty of Buenos Aires, but an alleged secret agreement had ceded the territory to the British. As WM Reisman notes, no such treaty could be found and thus, the US chose not to impose the Monroe Doctrine. As described by Feldman, this issue caused Argentina to question the value of a recently proposed ‘Inter-American system’ that would promote transparency and dialogue between nations of the Americas. Such a system would promote the end-goal of ‘political harmony’ post-World War II. Throughout the conflict, the US attempted to end the conflict in the South Atlantic by negotiating for peace talks. After Argentina refused negotiation proposals, Washington ended all sales of weapons and ammunition to the Latin American nation. They were also afraid that Argentina would defect to Soviet Russia for assistance against its capitalist enemies. In their attempts to promote peace, the US faced a ‘Catch-22’ conflict between promoting its capitalist goals and ensuring the safety of the Falkland Islands.

Argentina was ruled by a military junta, who led its people into a deep economic crisis, and thus greatly benefited from the popular morale boost of nationalistic warfare. As LS Gustafson notes, Galtieri's proclamation of the seizure of the islands was met with fanfare and admiration by the local population. However, it was the American response to the Falklands War that was instrumental in heightening tension over the coveted territory. By not only declaring neutrality but also acting in a non-neutral manner, the US contributed to the conflict, antagonising both the British and the Argentinians. Louise Richardson points out that the British government was taken aback that their once-apparent allies would ‘claim neutrality in a dispute between its closest ally and a fascist dictatorship’.

American self-interest in the Falklands was driven by the evident threat of communist influence in the region. The Argentinian stronghold was more than just an ally, but rather a buffer state in Latin America. According to Thornton, Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State, feared that a terrorising reign of left-wing regimes could befall the entire continental region if Argentina were to successfully obtain aid from Russia. Haig also warned that if the British injected too much military force in the region, Argentine leader Galtieri would begin ‘flirting with the Soviet Union’ for aid. However, as DL Feldman discusses, Galtieri was an outspoken anti-communist, and in previous visits to Washington had previously committed to align Argentina in the ‘ideological war’ against the Soviet Union. This statement would have delegitimised the US ‘tilt’ towards Britain, if they had no reason to fear a left-wing uprising by Peronist supporters. Regardless of the outcome, Perkins outlines that the US sought pushed for enough action to maintain their own interest of stopping the spread of communist threats.

In some aspects, America also betrayed Britain. Reports have shown that, amidst the neutrality declaration and informal support for British forces, some of the US forces were not so supportive. In act of defiance against Haig’s amicable letters to Thatcher, the Americans sided with Buenos Aires in matters of foreign aid. Some, such as Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, saw fault in both parties; Argentina was wrong in the invasion, Britain was wrong in their response. According to James Aitken, despite his close friendship with the Iron Lady, Reagan tried to remain non-committal in the wake of events. He felt that a revival of a dark colonial past would arise if British troops engaged in violent military warfare. However, the Reagan administration as a whole also feared that a neo-Peronist regime would seize power if the US did not intervene. The minutes from the 1962 National Security Council meeting highlight the apparent effects of picking the wrong side, and thus Americans sought to stay neutral formally; as long as the influence of communism did not rear its left-winged head, the American forces deemed they were in no obligation to act.

Naturally, the British felt let down by their once-strong allies across the Atlantic, who ignored their issue since it did not directly affect the American capitalist sphere of influence. Haig responded that ‘a landing on the Falklands would be very costly and would put the population in jeopardy’. Thatcher was displeased, and wanted greater actions from the Americans:For generations our two countries have cherished the same ideals. We've defended the same causes. We've valued the same friendships and together we've faced the same dangers.

Once the US decided to take a neutral stance, bitter antagonism developed. Once Reagan began to push for peaceful ends, his strong relationship with his British counterpart began to fracture. Although Reagan often cited British involvement as similar to colonialism, Thatcher rebutted with comments of how America would respond if Alaska were invaded.

The Reagan administration was cautious of drastic decisions, and heavily deliberated over the proper course of action. Their tactics were used to manipulate both sides in order to play into American self-interested doctrines. Although the US nominally declared neutrality, it had a slight bias towards British efforts shown through its strict Argentinian sanctions and frequent talks with the Thatcher government. It was clear that, in order to justify their own distant territories, the US had to support the legitimacy of the British Crown, despite holding true to a façade of neutrality. The Reagan administration in particular planned to remain impartial, at least in name, Richard Thornton asserts, for the duration of the conflict.

Choosing a side was more than just a personal matter; it was a decision of international security and self-interest: the US had to maintain its superpower status in the waking of rising Soviet ideologies, and had to uphold its ethical code of governance. Between Thatcher and Galtieri, only one party could receive American support, and taking a neutral stance would anger both. Although Reagan’s close relationship with Thatcher might have foreshadowed otherwise, the president took a ‘hands-off’ approach to this matter of foreign policy. Even within the Reagan cabinet, there were major divisions: Secretary of Defence, Casper Weinberger, and Under Secretary for European Affairs, Lawrence Eagleburger, stressed the importance of not damaging Anglo-American relations and promoting the capitalist ideology. The British themselves had highlighted the urgency of self-determination; others have challenged such an argument, Bluth notes, since there was no indigenous population to voice the concerns of the natives. Kirkpatrick remained one of the ardent supporters for neutrality. Through her justifications at the NSC meeting, she often found fault in both sides of the conflict. She denounced both the Argentine invasion of the islands, as well as the British effort to seize territory thousands of miles away. Ultimately, the crisis posed a ‘colonial issue’ whereby both parties unjustifiably attempted to seize land over which neither should have been able to lay claim, according to Kirkpatrick. The Falklands ordeal placed the US at the epicentre, for its superpower status meant that its affairs were of international interest. However, because of the quasi-interventionist stance the Americans took, it can be stated that the Reagan administration did not want to be involved due to moral reasons of choosing a side, but felt so compelled to act in accordance with their goal of stopping the spread of communism to Latin America.

As Jerome has noted, Anglo-American relations deteriorated as the British saw a neutral stance during the Falklands War as one that was intuitively anti-British. The tale of the Falklands War embodies a conflict that pits the United States against its allies and ultimately raises the issue of colonial rule. The Americans played the role of a mediator between the Argentine and the British conflict, yet were unable to gain full-fledged allied trust with either side. The ‘honest broker’ mentality forged sour relations with both allies that ultimately proved unfavourable in the long run. The US was also driven by the desire to prevent the further spread of communism into the western hemisphere. Whose territorial claim on the archipelago, whether British, Argentine, or neither, is a matter of highly subjective, postcolonial debate. Yet what is clear from the controversial events is that a threat to the self-interest of participating countries escalated the affair of a small island chain to one of international concern over the very nature of territorial claim and political sovereignty.

Image: Liam Quinn

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