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Reagan Administration Officials on How the Falklands War Affected America’s Reputation

Argentine prisoners of war - Port Stanley.

Argentine prisoners of war at Port Stanley, June 17, 1982. By Griffiths911. PD.

This week marks the 31st anniversary of Falklands War. On April 2, 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland-Malvinas Islands, as part of a protracted historical dispute over the sovereignty of the islands. Argentina claims that the islands have been part of the country since the 19th century and Britain lays claim to islands based on colonial negotiations with Spain in 1770. The 74-day war cost 649 Argentine and 255 British lives.

The Reagan administration played a key role shuttling between the parties leading up to and during the war. In 2003, the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program conducted the "Falklands Roundtable" in conjunction with the Institute of Contemporary British History (ICBH).  The Falklands Roundtable was designed to capture the recollections of key participants from the Reagan administration who were involved in the Falklands crisis. Participants included former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger; Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; David Gompert, a key member of Alexander Haig's mediation team who served as the Deputy to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs; Lawrence Eagleburger; Harry Shlaudeman, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina; Edward Streator, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Court of St. James; General Paul Gorman, who was Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the Falklands crisis; Admiral Thomas Hayward, the Chief of Naval Operations from 1978-1982; and Admiral Harry Train, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command and the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The following excerpts from the "Falklands Roundtable" transcripts highlight the role of the United States in the conflict and how the conflict influenced America’s reputation in the region.

The Falklands War tested the "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain, and in particular it strained the partnership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Although the official position of the United States was that it was “friends” with both Britain and Argentina, Secretary of Defense Weinberger commented on President Reagan’s position and how his relationship with Margaret Thatcher influenced America’s stance: 

I never had any doubts as to where the President stood. I had one or two general conversations with him about it and he was very sympathetic to Great Britain at that time. He’d made films over there; he’d visited many times. He had great admiration for Mrs. Thatcher, so I never had any doubt as to where he actually stood. I understood that he had to be publicly viewed as supporting an attempt to get some kind of a non war-like solution, but I didn’t have any doubt as to where he would ultimately stand.

It is correct that I responded to British requests for military assistance, very specific sort of items, as quickly as we could. This was done from the beginning when it became quite apparent that the Argentinean arms were on the move and that there was going to be an invasion and that the matter was not going to be able to be settled if you took the statements of the Argentine leaders at face value…

I knew of the enormous admiration that Mr. Reagan had for Mrs. Thatcher, and the identity of views that they had on a great many subjects. I never really had any doubt that in the final analysis, in the absence of Britain accepting one of the mediation offers, that we would come down pretty solidly where we did…basically, there was a trust and a friendship, personal friendship as well as professional friendships, all the way along the line. Certainly, the admiration that President Reagan had for Mrs. Thatcher, I would have found it almost inconceivable that in the final analysis, he would not have supported Britain in this situation.

Several former Reagan administration officials also commented on how the role the U.S. played in the conflict affected America’s reputation in the region and its relationship with other countries in the region and throughout the world.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kirkpatrick:

I believe Britain emerged from the Falklands war stronger, her reputation enhanced. The U.S. emerged from the Falklands war weakened in the hemisphere and no stronger in Europe. And that is my judgment, even today. I came away from the experience convinced that we Americans are not very good at thinking and acting coolly in support of our interests in the way that the British and the French regularly do. That is also my opinion.

U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Shlaudeman:

As a general proposition, I would say that the Falklands-Malvinas crisis, what happened, was consumed by the debt crisis in Latin America. People forget that this was an enormous problem, a terrific blow to countries like Argentina. All these other questions seemed to disappear in this intense concentration on how they were going to get out of this thing. I wrote at the time that in all my years, it was the worst period. I guess in some ways, and certainly in Argentina, it’s even worse now. It’s the same problem. But that would be my reaction to it. Jeane [Kirkpatrick] is absolutely right. The issue really is the hemisphere issue. One of the strange things, I noticed in reading back over some of this, that some of the Latin American leaders, I think Herrera Campíns is among them, said that we were not upholding the Monroe Doctrine. Of course, the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America is regarded as an imperialistic big stick. So all of a sudden they switched sides.

Deputy to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Gompert took a more optimistic view:

We did an analysis in the State Department after the war of what the impact, lasting impact, would be in terms of our interests in Latin America and what, if anything, we should do about it. I was involved in that analysis and the recommendations. It was done within weeks of the end of the war. But even by then we felt that the dust was really settling, because as Harry points out, there were bigger fish to fry in Latin America. There were for the United States certainly in Central America. And the problems we were having with Cuba at the time, because we were really in a confrontational mode vis-a-vis Cuba.

I think that the actual impact on our interests in Latin America, while certainly not favorable, were not as catastrophic as some might have felt. But I’ve seen time and time again, in the midst of a crisis, where the United States needs to take a position or action, the arguments are always a bit exaggerated. You know, if you deploy those Pershing missiles to Europe, the cold war is going to turn hot. If you expand NATO, the Russians are going to put the pressure on Ukraine. I mean, every time, it always sounds worse than it turns out to be. I’m not a Latin Americanist; I don’t think the consequences of our policies in Latin America were really so bad or so lasting, but given a lot of other things that were going on, it’s just my impression.

Read the full transcript of the “Falklands Roundtable” here and a timeline of the conflict, beginning with its origins in 1764, here.

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