Files reveal Thatcher vetoed late Reagan bid to halt Falklands War

President Ronald Reagan has a word in the ear of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Picture: AP
President Ronald Reagan has a word in the ear of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Picture: AP
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UNITED States president Ronald Reagan issued a last-ditch appeal to Margaret Thatcher to abandon her campaign to retake the Falklands and hand over the islands to international peacekeepers, according to official documents made public today.

Files released by the National Archives at Kew, under the 30-year rule, show that as British troops closed in on final victory, Mr Reagan made a late-night phone call to Mrs Thatcher urging her not to completely humiliate the Argentines.

However, his request fell on deaf ears, as a defiant prime minister insisted she had not sent a task force across the globe just “to hand over the Queen’s islands to a contact group”.

Mr Reagan made his call to Downing Street at 11:30pm UK time on 31 May, 1982, as British forces were beginning the battle for Falklands capital Port Stanley.

The Americans had already proposed sending a joint US-Brazilian peacekeeping mission, and the president suggested the time had come to show magnanimity. “The best chance for peace was before complete Argentine humiliation,” he said. “As the UK now had the upper hand militarily, it should strike a deal now.”

Mrs Thatcher was having none of it. The United Kingdom, she said, could not contemplate a ceasefire without Argentinian withdrawal.

According to an official No 10 note, she said: “Britain had not lost precious lives in battle and sent an enormous task force to hand over the Queen’s islands to a contact group.

“As Britain had had to go into the islands alone, with no outside help, she could not now let the invader gain from his aggression. The prime minister asked the president to put himself in her position. She had lost valuable British ships and invaluable British lives. She was sure that the president would act in the same way if Alaska had been similarly threatened.”

The prime minister said “the most sensible thing” would be for the Argentinians to withdraw, before ending the conversation with a familiar refrain: “There was no alternative.”

As the battle reached its climax, she drafted a telegram to the Argentinian leader General Galtieri – although it was never sent – demanding for a final time that he withdraw his forces. “In a few days, the British flag will be flying over Port Stanley. In a few days also your eyes and mine will be reading the casualty lists,” she wrote.

“On my side, grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question.”

It was not the only time during the conflict that Britain had problems with her closest ally.

On 21 April, as the British task force approached the islands, US secretary of state Al Haig told the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Nicholas Henderson, he intended to inform the Argentine junta that UK troops would be landing on South Georgia, the first of the islands to be seized by the Argentines.

Mr Haig, who had been trying to broker a settlement, insisted it was the only way he could keep his diplomatic initiative alive.

“If the Americans acted in this way, they would be able to show even-handedness to the Argentinians and this would enable them to continue their role as go-between,” he argued.

Sir Nicholas was appalled. He told Mr Haig he was going far beyond the obligations of a neutral negotiator and that the information could be used by the Argentines to mount a submarine or suicide air attack on the task force.

Reluctantly, Mr Haig promised to keep quiet.

Overall, however, Sir Nicholas concluded Britain had cause to be grateful to Mr Haig for ensuring a divided Reagan administration ultimately came down on the side of the UK.

It was support that manifested itself in access to the latest US weaponry, vital intelligence and – most crucially – use of the US base on Ascension Island, which provided a key staging post for the task force.

“The president did not give a strong lead and allowed the frictions in the decision-making process to continue,” Sir Nicholas later noted. “I am sure, though, that Mr Haig’s was the decisive influence throughout: he wanted us to win and would have been horrified if the Argentinians had got away with it.”

The files also include Mrs Thatcher’s hitherto unpublished testimony to the Franks Inquiry into the conflict.

In it, she described her horror when, at the end of March 1982, she became aware the Argentines were about to invade. “I just say it was the worst, I think, moment of my life,” she told the inquiry.

“I never, never expected the Argentines to invade the Falklands head-on. It was such a stupid thing to do, as events happened, such a stupid thing even to contemplate doing.”

Despite the costs, including the loss of 255 British lives and six ships, Sir Nicholas had no doubt that it had been worth it.

“For a long time Britain has been identified with decline in the American press and in the mind’s eye of many people here – a deterioration not just in industrial output but in national will,” he wrote. “Well, the Falklands have corrected that.”