Obama, Reagan and the Falklands

28 February 2010

A follow-up to this post: sure, excitable Conservatives in Britain and the United States see the Obama administration’s disinclination to take a position on the latest Falklands dispute as proof that the poor man really does dislike the United Kingdom and is quite happy to see the so-called Special Relationship consigned to the library of history, a splendid relic of a bygone age. Well, maybe. But since this is a bilateral dispute that doesn’t involve any country hostile to the US it is, as Daniel Larison says, hard to see why we demand a public declaration of American support when there’s no real need for this.

Meanwhile, it cannot be repeated too often that the Reagan administration was also not always on board. This goes beyond Jeane Kirkpatrick’s shilling for the Galtieri regime. Indeed, thanks are due to Reason’s Michael Moynihan for dredging up this reminder that Reagan pressed Thatcher for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement even as British troops marched and yomped across the islands on their way to Port Stanley:

The document shows Thatcher was determined to deliver a crushing victory to avenge British losses. Her response to the peace initiative left the president stammering on the transatlantic hotline. At one stage a clearly heated Thatcher demanded to know what Reagan would do if Alaska had been invaded and the United States had suffered casualties recapturing it.

“I wonder if anyone over there realises, I’d like to ask them. Just supposing Alaska was invaded …” asked Thatcher. “Now you’ve put all your people up there to retake it and someone suggested that a contact could coe in … you wouldn’t do it.”

“No, no, although, Margaret, I have to say I don’t quite think Alaska is a similar situation” said Reagan.

“More or less so,” snapped Thatcher. Reagan feared the pending rout of Argentine forces in the south Atlantic would destabilise the region, damaging Washington’s battle against left-wing regimes in Latin America.

But Thatcher, with barely concealed impatience, scotched the plan with a verbal explosion. Reagan could barely get a word in as the prime ministe gushed out a torrent of dismissal. “I didn’t lose some of my best ships and some of my finest lives, to leave quietly under a ceasefire without the Argentines withdrawing,” she said.

“Oh. Oh, Margaret, that is part of this, as I understand it …” stammered Reagan, trying to outline a Brazilian peace plan. It called for a ceasefire, Argentine withdrawal and a third-party peace-keeping force in the disputed islands. “Ron, I’m not handing over … I’m not handing over the island now,” insisted Thatcher. “I can’t lose the lives and blood of our soldiers to hand the islands over to a contact. It’s not possible.

“You are surely not asking me, Ron, after we’ve lost some of our finest young men, you are surely not saying, that after the Argentine withdrawal, that our forces, and our administration, become immediately idle? I had to go to immense distances and mobilise half my country. I just had to go.”

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Aye, that would be the Iron Lady we remember. Moynihan also cites another Falklands-related brouhaha as recalled in George Schults’s memoirs:

I had persuaded President Reagan that we should vote in favor of a balanced UN resolution on the Falklands. Although our consultations had let her know what was coming and our negotiations produced a resolution she could live with, Margaret Thatcher was furious. We voted with Argentina and the rest of the Western Hemisphere for a resolution that she opposed. Her ambassador, on instructions, read me off like a sergeant would a recruit in a Marine Corps boot camp. I felt Mrs Thatcher was wrong to oppose us for taking a reasonable position on a critical issue in our neighborhood. And Wright was wrong to lay it on so thick. I worried that President Reagan would be alarmed at Margaret Thatcher’s reaction, but I found that he, too, was getting a little fed up with her imperious attitude on this matter.

So, sure, the Pentagon might have backed Britain in 1982 but, in general terms, Obama’s policy is, whether we like it or not, simply a continuation of long-established American policy on the matter. We may not approve, we may indeed be irritated by it and think it wrong, but to use this tiny tempest as proof of transatlantic bad faith is only possible if you’re prepared to ignore or rewrite history. In other words, it’s not a partisan or party political matter because Obama’s State Department seems to take pretty much the same view – or perhaps, if anything, a more neutral position – than did the blessed Reagan.

That’s not, incidentally, a criticism of Reagan either since, from the perspective of America’s interest, their long-standing policy seems perfectly sensible. That it might be different from British views is hardly the point.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, may I heartily commend Norm’s brutal yet dignified and, above all, correct, destruction of St Simon Jenkins’ views on the Falklands and imperialism. Do read it all.

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Show comments
  • Paul White

    The majority of Americans carry English names, and whether Hussain Obama likes it or not, so do the majority of the towns and 100% of the founding fathers.

  • Ronnie

    Come now Rhoda, you really expect there to be a treaty? What do you think the Marshall Plan and Breton Woods were really all about? Britain was completely shagged at the end of the war, the Americans simply took advantage of it. Why didn’t they support us over Suez?

    It’s just business.

    By the way, the last time we showed any back bone was when Wilson said no to Vietnam. That’s a long time ago…

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Ronnie, the US did not join the war as part of a deal with the UK. Both Germany and Japan declared war on the US. Who signed the deal?

  • fifer

    Not sure I remember Obama illegally invading part of the Commonwealth (e.g. Grenada) yet either…

  • Ronnie

    Rhoda, it was all part of the deal.

    In return for US support in the war, Britain agreed to dismantle the empire and allow US companies access to our closed imperial markets and the natural resources therein.

    We didn’t really have much choice at the time and if we had refused, your name would now be Rhoda von Klapp, of the famous Austrian von Klapps (The Hills are Alive…, and so on).

  • Rhoda Klapp

    We have people in the field supporting their efforts. Why may we not expect a little in return?

    I recall that in 1945 the US were inclined to repay our support in the war by sabotaging the empire. Specifacally they intended to ‘return’ Hong Kong and the New Territories to Chiang Kai Shek’s bunch and were only foiled by prompt action on the part of a released civilian from the adminstration who restored British rule before the US could get a ship there, having refused permission to the RN to detach a vessel to liberate the colony.

    The US will never side with us over a colony. Time to bring the boys home?

  • Edward

    Not quite, Alex. This re-iteration of American policy on its ally’s territorial sovereignty is not proof of exceptional bad faith on the part of Obama, but it is a reminder that, as in the dark ages, fealty goes one way.

  • Ronnie

    Alex, we are entitled to expect American support as they takes our’s so much for granted.

    However, as ever, this is about oil. You may remember that Obama recently promised billions of development aid to Brazil’s national oil company and allowed his friend Soros to invest further billions BEFORE the announcement was made (yes, insider dealing).

    I doubt that the US government is going to bet against it’s own investment in oil exploration and extraction in the south Atlantic by supporting British claims in the same geological territory.

    We’ll have to tough this one out. I’m not optimistic.

  • Noa Zrk

    US interests come second to the UK’s as far as I’m concerned, and always will.
    The Falklands are British, end of story.

    Oh and if we want to keep access to the oil there we had best be prepared to fight for it.
    After all, US$7 Trillion worth might put a little backbone even in our spineless political crew, if not Matthew Parris.
    Who knows, keeping the cars running and the lights on in twenty years might even be worth the investment in those oh so unfashionable aircraft carriers and destroyers.

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