Thatcher fury over Reagan’s Falklands peace bid

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Ronald Reagan issued a last-ditch appeal to Margaret Thatcher to abandon the 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 under the 30-year rule show that as British troops closed in on final victory, the US president called Mrs Thatcher urging her not to completely humiliate the Argentines.

His request fell on deaf ears as a defiant Prime Minister insisted that she had not sent the British Task Force across the globe just “to hand over the Queen’s islands to a contact group”.

Mr Reagan’s call on May 31, 1982, as British forces began the battle for the Falklands capital Port Stanley, suggested the 
time had come to show magnanimity.

The best chance for peace was before complete Argentine humiliation, he told her. “As the UK now has the upper hand militarily, it should strike a deal now.”

But Mrs Thatcher, whose relationship with the president was famously close, said the UK could not contemplate a ceasefire without Argentinian withdrawal.

According to the official No 10 note, she told him: “As Britain had has to go into the islands alone, with no outside help, she cannot now let the invader gain from his aggression.”

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 Argentines to withdraw, before ending the conversation with a familiar refrain: “There is no alternative.”

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

On April 21, US Secretary of State Al Haig told the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Nicholas Henderson, he intended to inform the Argentinian junta that UK troops would be landing on South Georgia, the first of the islands to be seized by the Argentines, insisting it was the only way he could keep alive an initiative to prevent all-out conflict.

Sir Nicholas was appalled. He told Mr Haig, who backed down, that 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.

Papers also reveal how fears France could allow Argentina to acquire deadly Exocet missiles at the height of the conflict strained Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with president Francois Mitterrand.

The missile threat was dramatically exposed on May 4 when an Exocet hit the Type-42 destroyer, HMS Sheffield, crippling the ship and killing 20 crew.

Three weeks later, the Atlantic Conveyor, which was carrying vital supplies, was hit with the loss of 12 lives amid fears the campaign could be fatally undermined if either of the Task Force’s two aircraft carriers were hit.

The reaction in Whitehall was something close to panic. Initially the French were reluctant to reveal even how many of Exocets they had supplied to Argentina – although they eventually admitted they had sent five and promised not to complete the order.

It was thought up to 35 missiles could be available for sale on the international market, prompting MI6 to launch an elaborate and successful deception operation designed to convince the Argentines they were buying Exocets on their behalf, when the real aim was to ensure no missiles ever reached Buenos Aires.

But concern was growing the French could supply missiles to Peru despite intelligence warnings they would go to Argentina.

Mr Mitterrand demanded to know when he could safely supply the weapons, triggering a furious reaction from Mrs Thatcher.

In a blistering telegram, she said: “If it became known, as it certainly would, that France was now releasing weapons to Peru that would certainly be passed on to Argentina for use against us, France’s ally, this would have a devastating effect on the relationship between our two countries.

“Indeed, it would have a disastrous effect on the alliance (Nato) as a whole.”

The files also reveal how a plot by Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to supply arms to the Argentinians was dramatically unmasked by British agents.

An alert British air attaché discovered the Argentines were using an airport at Recife in Brazil as a staging post for shipping weapons from Libya into neighbouring Argentina.

In a cable on May 31, George Harding, the British ambassador to Brasilia, cautioned against what he called “direct action” on the ground in Brazil or while aircraft were in flight.

Instead it was decided to embarrass the Brazilians into halting the flights by leaking details through a third country

An intelligence report to Mrs Thatcher also warned that Israel was supplying 20 Mirage III fighters to the junta.

“There is no doubt that the contract for this deal was signed after the invasion of the Falklands, after the aircraft were inspected by Argentine officers visiting Israel,” the report stated.