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Remembering the Falklands-Malvinas War 40 Years Later

Argentine Military Cemetery, East Falkland

On the 2 April 1982, Argentinean forces invaded and captured the Falklands/ Malvinas Islands in the South Atlantic.

The international crisis that erupted as a result was part of a protracted international conflict between Argentina and Britain, which started in 1833 with the seizure of the Islands by British forces.

Since 1833 Argentina had claimed sovereignty over the Islands, arguing that they were an integral part of the Argentinean national territory and should therefore be returned to their rightful owners. Britain, for its part, claimed that the future of the Falkland Islands should be determined on the basis of its inhabitants’ wishes. The Argentinean case was founded upon the concept of territorial integrity and decolonization; the British one on the principle of self-determination.

The process of dialogue and negotiations between Argentina and Britain, difficult and haphazard at times, came to an end on 2 April 1982 when Argentinean forces invaded the Falklands/ Malvinas Islands. The decision by the military junta then ruling Argentina to launch a military invasion of the Islands constituted a strategic surprise to the British government which had assumed up until two days previously that the chances of an Argentinean invasion were low.

Nevertheless, the response of the British Government was swift and effective. At the initiative of Britain’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Anthony Parsons, a resolution was adopted by the United Nations Security Council on 3 April 1982, a mere twenty- four hours after the invasion. Resolution 502 called for an immediate withdrawal of Argentinean armed forces from the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and for negotiations between Argentina and Britain aimed at resolving the conflict over the sovereignty of the Islands.

The aforementioned resolution was seen as a diplomatic victory for Britain, which was thus able to operate within a convenient legal framework to try to secure a favorable outcome to the crisis.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the commission of enquiry set up in Argentina in the wake of the Falkland/Malvinas Crisis in order to investigate the decision-making process leading to and during the war, known as ‘El Informe Rattenbach’ (‘The Rattenbach Report’), from the last name of the person who presided in it, Benjamin Rattenbach, concluded that UN Security Council Resolution 502 was a triumph for British diplomacy. Although it was surprised by the Argentinean invasion, and thus had less time at its disposal than Argentina had to prepare for this eventuality, Britain managed to pass a resolution which laid the diplomatic and legal foundations for its subsequent actions during the crisis.

Moreover, immediately after the news of the Argentinean invasion had reached London, the British government proceeded to organize a large task force to be sent to the South Atlantic, which was dispatched on 5 April 1982. The objective behind it was to exert pressure on the Argentineans while diplomatic efforts were underway, and to respond militarily to the Argentinean invasion should those efforts ultimately fail.

Thus, Britain managed to turn its strategic surprise into a strategic surprise for Argentina, which did not expect such a rapid diplomatic response, let alone the deployment of a large task force to the South Atlantic. Indeed, according to the Rattenbach Report, Argentina’s military junta had assumed that Britain would not react to Argentina’s invasion militarily and that the United States would not support Britain. 

A historical analogy motivated and constrained the War Cabinet in Britain: the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 and the failure to complete the military mission to capture the Suez Canal amidst unprecedented US pressure. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was bent on overcoming the Suez Canal trauma in dealing with the Falkland-Malvinas Crisis.

To that end, and contrary to what had occurred during the Suez Canal Crisis, she ensured that Britain was fully transparent with the US and asked the US to be equally transparent with Britain. She was to request US support once it became clear that Argentina was to blame for the failure to secure a diplomatic solution. Also, contrary to what had happened in 1956, should diplomacy fail, Britain was to proceed with a military campaign until its objective was attained. 

The United States’ efforts to avert an all-out war between the two countries by sending Secretary of State Alexander Haig on a shuttle diplomatic mission, entailing a series of meeting in London and Buenos Aires, failed to produce an agreement. On 29 April, US President Ronald Reagan blamed Argentina for the failure of Haig’s diplomatic mediation and announced that thenceforward the United States would back Britain. To be sure, the United States had been helping Britain behind the scenes from the outset of the crisis.  

The British military operation that ensued following the failure of diplomacy ended on 14 June 1982, with the surrender of the Argentinean forces in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and the restoration of British rule. The casualties resulting from the war were 649 Argentinean, 255 British soldiers and 3 British civilians.

The Falkland-Malvinas Crisis of 1982 ended with a clear-cut military victory by Britain. However, it was no less a diplomatic triumph. British diplomacy outmaneuvered Argentinean diplomacy throughout the crisis. Having established the legal basis for an ongoing diplomatic and military campaign with UN Security Council Resolution 502, Britain proceeded to elicit the support of its European and Commonwealth friends within days of the Argentinean invasion. Further, British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Nicholas Henderson, carried out a successful diplomatic campaign which produced an unprecedented wave of political and public support for Britain in the United States.

Rather than concentrate on the contentious question which country should the Falkland-Malvinas Islands belong to, British diplomacy focused its attention specifically on the illegality of the Argentinean invasion. The contrast between its parliamentary democratic system and the military dictatorship in Argentina served to enhance its message to the international community.

The Falkland-Malvinas Crisis of 1982 is considered by some observers as a relic of a by-gone colonial era. It was not. The crisis was seen by an overwhelming majority in Britain, certainly as reflected in Parliament, as an attack on its sovereign territory and an affront to its national reputation. Contrary to a colonial crisis, the perception in this case was that a population that identified itself with Britain was being compelled to live under a foreign military regime. To be sure, the very act of military invasion had blurred Argentina’s anti-colonial case and enhanced Britain’s case that it was facing naked aggression.

The war would help enhance the political standing of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, which would lead the Conservative Party to a striking victory in the 1983 general elections. On the other hand, it would bring about the downfall of the military regime in Argentina and the restoration of democracy in 1983, which has endured to these days. 

The trauma of the Suez Crisis of 1956 was significantly over for Britain. The trauma of the Falkland-Malvinas Crisis of 1982 still lingers on in Argentina.