Falklands at 40

Antonian memories of the conflict

Celia Szusterman

2 April 1982: How global events changed the life of an Antonian

Celia Szusterman (DPhil, 1986) is a Senior Member of St Antony’s. She is Director of the Latin America Programme at the Institute for Statecraft; principal Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster; Associate Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London; and a trustee of the UK board of Pro-Mujer. Her publications include Frondizi and the Politics of Developmentalism in Argentina, 1955-62 (Macmillan/University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993), revised as Frondizi o la política del desconcierto (Emecé Argentina, 1996); and Que se Vayan Todos! The Struggle for Democratic Party Politics in Contemporary Argentina, in Paul Webb & Stephen White, eds., Party Politics in New Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2007)

On the evening of 2 April 1982, I received a phone call from a Spanish friend. Excitedly she said “Your government invaded Malvinas!” She was taken aback by my reaction: “What IDIOTS!” I had to explain what I would have to explain often at the time: it was not my government, it was an illegal and illegitimate bunch who had staged a coup against the blundering government of Peron’s widow, Isabel. Their uselessness in running the country had led the Junta to fantasise that a recovery (sic) of the Islands would bestow on them the popular fervour and enthusiasm shown by flag-waving masses in Plaza de Mayo in 1978. Celebrating winning the football World Cup, the joy of the crowd seemed to have erased the horrors of thousands of dead and disappeared. 

The square opposite Government House (the Casa Rosada) had seen the declaration of freedom from the Spanish Empire by the top-hatted crowds on 25 May 1810. In 1947 a very different crowd demanded the presence of Colonel Peron, whom his military colleagues in government had retained in prison. Since that day, 17 October, no political nor military leader could resist the lure of the full Plaza. Advised by some of the leaders of the Montonero urban guerrilla that they held prisoner (another story…), the representative of the Navy in the Junta in power convinced his colleagues that taking over the Malvinas would ensure their indefinite stay in power.

The fact that the Islands were under British sovereignty deeply offended the Argentine people at large. With little a relatively short history, with few heroic feats to unify the population, the Islands came to symbolise the one unifying factor in a country in search of an identity. The emotional attachment to islands 800 miles off the Argentine mainland was the greatest if not only, foreign policy challenge for Argentine governments of different hues. In contrast, pre-1982 the situation of the Islands was well down the list of foreign policy priorities of Her Majesty’s Government.

In Blinders, Blunders and War, David Gompert, Hans Binnendijk and Bonny Lin point out that strategic blunders can result from faulty intuition, egotism, arrogance, hubris, grand but flawed strategic ideas, and underestimating the enemy. Leaders' egos, intuitions, unwarranted self-confidence, and aversion to information that contradicted their views prevented them from correcting their cognitive models. The Argentine Foreign Minister, Nicanor Costa Mendez, an avowed Anglophile, was convinced that the British would not fight if the islands were seized. This resonated with the Junta’s need to capture the imagination and hearts of Argentines faced with a crumbling economy.

On 3 April 1982, the Plaza was duly filled with joyful people overtaken by the emotion of having “recovered” the Malvinas. It would have been impossible for General Galtieri (at the time the head of the Junta) to withdraw the troops from the Islands without provoking a popular uprising. So, all attempts at mediation by US Secretary of State Alexander Haig failed when confronted with “the hubris, underestimating the enemy and overconfidence in war plans, ignoring what could go wrong, stifling debate, shunning independent advice, and penalizing dissent…As strategic blunders go, history offers few if any that surpass [the invasion of the Falklands)—so bad that it took a rare brew of witless leaders, wilful advisors, and gross disregard for reality to produce it”. (Gompert et al). Idiots indeed.

My life was to take an unexpected course as a result. I had a plane ticket with British Caledonian to fly to Buenos Aires on Sunday 4 April for the Easter break. When I phoned my mother asking what I should do, she calmly said “My dear, others will make the decision for you”. Motherly wisdom.

On 3 April amongst the shock and speculation as to what would happen, I read in The Times that should there be a formal declaration of war, all foreign aliens would have to be interned. That afternoon I received a phone call from the Warden at St Antony’s. Raymond Carr reassured me: there would be no war, and if there was, I should not worry because I would be sent somewhere in Scotland. And he would come to visit me and bring cigarettes. “But Warden I do not smoke”. “Oh well, apples then”. Reassured that I would not starve thanks to the Warden’s apples, my student visa situation was solved by my then-boyfriend: “You will have to marry me”. Reader, I did.

Malcolm Deas

Malcolm Deas’ Memories of the Falklands War

Malcolm Deas is an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College. He was one of the original staff of the Latin American Centre, and since its inception in 1974, he has managed the Andres Bello Visiting Fellowship at St Antony’s, endowed by the Banco Central de Venezuela. This has, without a break, brought mid-career scholars in the social sciences and the humanities for a year of writing and research in Oxford. He has at times contributed to The New Statesman, The Listener, The Spectator, The London Review of Books and The Times, for which last he wrote the leaders on Latin America for five years from the end of the Falklands War. He also gave evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the origins of the dispute. He served for a decade as Managing Editor of the Cambridge University Press monographs on Latin America, during which time the majority of the titles in that series appeared. (Ten years of dealing with authors he felt was enough.) From 1990 to 1994 he was an advisor in Colombia to President Csar Gavirias Consejera de Seguridad y Defensa, which worked to design policies to reduce Colombia's high levels of violence. For this, he was awarded Colombia's Cruz de Boyac, and an O.B.E. . He is also a member of the Orden Andres Bello (Venezuela) and the Orden de Mrito (Ecuador). He has an Honorary Doctorate from the Universidad de los Andes, Bogot. He was the University of Oxford’s Senior Proctor, 1986-1987.

I have never been an expert on Argentina. Nonetheless, I have had a number of close Argentine friends, mostly from St Antony’s College, and I spent a couple of months in Buenos Aires in 1979, as the guest of the Instituto di Tella.

In 1982, the train of events began that led to the war.  I remember that I was asked to visit the FCO. They asked me if I knew why they had invited me, and I replied perhaps to talk about the Falklands, as I knew Niconar Costa Mendez (Argentine diplomat, and in the 60s Foreign Minister). He, man about town, and about international relations, expressed an interest in a short stay in Oxford, and I fixed him up for a fortnight or so in I think 1981.

They were surprised – the reason was to ask me to witness the elections in El Salvador. I later declined – I think now wrongly, but that is beside the point. The point is that they appeared more concerned with El Salvador than with the Falklands.

About a week before the Argentine invasion, I realised that it was going to take place and that there was nothing much Mrs Thatcher could do to stop it. I remember the moment: I was stuck in a traffic jam listening to the radio. I remember too feeling rather depressed.  The community – if that is the right word – of British scholars on Latin America was almost completely silent. I consequently felt under an obligation to study the dispute, and began to read it up. I spent some weeks, months, doing so.

Yale University Press promptly republished Julius Goebel’s The Struggle for the Falkland Islands, a monograph first published in 1929. It is still the best introduction to the dispute, though by no means the last word – in this sort of argument nobody ever has the last word. Oxford University Press predictably, stuffily, despite Adam Roberts’s suggestion, declined to republish V.F. Boyson’s The Falkland Islands, 1924, the most important history of the island in English, and it remains out of print (second-hand copies go for several hundred pounds).

I read on. I discovered the international law of the acquisition of territory, and the singular beauty of the Falklands dispute as an example of its evolution over the last five centuries. The British, because of our long history among the top nations, are remarkably ignorant of, and indifferent to, international law, in comparison with inhabitants of less powerful countries. I benefited from a couple of free tutorials with the great late Ian Brownlie, Chichele Professor of International Law at All Souls. Ian gave me several whiskies, explained that he was retained by sixteen countries some of which had disputes analogous, so he could not be quoted on anything, and then generously told me that he thought I had the main outline more or less right. He also told me that in his opinion the best introduction ever written to international law was Andres Bello’s Derecho de Gentes.  And the leading later nineteenth-century authority was the Argentine Carlos Calvo, whose many treatises contain chapters on the Malvinas not much to the taste of British readers. Ian Brownlie’s own Introduction to Public International Law I found most extraordinarily readable and helpful.  I also read the Spanish scholarship on the eighteenth-century confrontations, with Samuel Johnson’s Thoughts on the Late Transactions Relating to Falklands Island, which he was paid to write to help get the British Government out of the difficulties it carelessly had itself into. Money very well spent.

I became familiar with The British Yearbook of International Law, with its strange reverence for “established authorities”, the institutionalized back-scratching of this inbred profession. The international lawyers remained on the whole silent during these months, with the occasional servile utterance on either side, the British and the Argentine. They are not distinguished by their forthrightness, understandable as most of them are for the most part employed by their own governments.  

The result of these efforts was principally an article ‘Falklands Title Deeds’ that appeared in The London Review of Books, at that time not under the sway as regards Latin America of the lefties Richard Gott, Tariq Ali and Co. I outlined the history of the dispute, showing that the Argentines had a case – I should have made a bit more of the Nootka Sound Convention - but was careful to argue that you could not conclude from that what Mrs Thatcher had to do.  Mrs Thatcher’s critics were always weak on that – see for example Anthony Barnett’s Iron Britannia, a criticism of her that fails to face the question of what she ought to have done at any point in its pages.

Of other scholarly writers of the time, the most important contributions were from Peter Beck of what was then Kingston Polytechnic. He was not a Latin Americanist but a student of international relations, who had for some time been studying the Falklands dispute as an example, if I remember rightly, of “confrontational collaboration”, or some such paradox. He wrote some very interesting articles, and was familiar with the doubts the FO had entertained since the early twentieth century.

Harry Ferns, I quoted at the end of my LR of B piece, on the combined pig-headedness of both sides, but during the war I remember only that he thought that it was all a matter of power and that those who argued like Goebel and Co were merely naïve. (“If the problem of the Falklands Malvinas Islands leads to tragedy, the disaster will be the prime instance of the effects of non-communication all round: of a national dilemma rendered lethal by separate and total ignorance from which the political neuroses of the parties prevent escape. The combination of ignorance, patriotism and devotion to the dogma of self-determination on the part of the British is perhaps more dangerous than Argentine legal pedantry and nationalist zealotry, because the British government is too frightened or complacent to give the British public a lead. And yet it could.” From his Argentina, 1968. Harry Ferns was Canadian.)

A sub-section of academia particularly active at this time, with their supporters in public life, were the so-called “icemen”, based on the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, who regarded the Falklands as the Gateway, or Key to the Gateway, of Antarctica. Scott, Shackleton – names to conjure with: Lord Shackleton’s heir enjoyed an autumn of prominence, a brief hereditary authority.  The icemen did well out of the war.

And what of our diplomats and academia?  The old FCO – and perhaps also the new FCO – was with few exceptions not much interested in academics, whom most diplomats regarded as amateurs best kept at a distance. (Exceptions I can remember included Hugh Carless, who had I think been Chargé in Buenos Aires, and who was aware of the potential damage the Falklands could do to our relations with Latin America.)

And the politicians?

At one early point as the Task Force sailed south, I thought that a possible though perhaps not probable way to avoid fighting was to get a South American coalition, led by Brazil, to put pressure on Buenos Aires, rather than us relying on pressure from the USA. I approached Lord Hugh Thomas, who invited me to lunch in the House of Lords and listened, and said that he would suggest it to Mrs Thatcher, though he was rightly sceptical.  I was subsequently invited to a Conservative Party meeting by Hugh, and introduced to Mrs Thatcher, who told me that if I had any further ideas I could communicate with her through him. I did not have any more ideas.

Or if I did, they were directed at the media. I wrote a letter to The Times, after it published a particularly ignorant and naïve editorial about enlisting the help of our supposed friends in Latin America, telling the editor that he had not a clue. The letter was referred to there as “the exocet”, and the editor Charles Douglas Hume invited me to lunch and asked me to stop writing letters and write instead the editorials on Latin America, which after the war I did until I stopped in 1986.

During the war I had one contact with Nicanor Costa Mendez. When he became Foreign Minister, I thought then that I owed him at least a note of congratulation, and I sent him a post card. The choice of card was perhaps unfortunate: I picked out of a pile one reproducing a painting by Chirico, a map of some islands with arrows denoting some sort of military movements, the title of the painting being “Tristesse de départ” – sadness of departure. On this I wrote “Vamos todavía!”, what the punters cry at Argentine horse races when their horse is still in the running.  I got a reply from Nicanor, saying the message was a bit difficult to understand. With the OK of the FCO, I rang him at the behest of the wife of the journalist Simon Winchester, who had been imprisoned somewhere in Patagonia. He reassured me that Winchester would be well treated.

Port Stanley surrendered.

Sometime later the House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs decided to hold some hearings on the origins of the war, distinct from the better-known investigation of the run-up to it conducted by Lord Franks. 

I was summoned to give evidence to it by its Chairman Sir Anthony Kershaw. Why?

It happened that one of my friends was Roberto Wills, the only Colombian member of White’s. Roberto, an Anglo-Colombian complete clubman, un clubman acabado as they call such in Bogotá, was a friend of Kershaw’s and had invited us both to lunch somewhere behind the Ritz, and Kershaw thought it would be a good idea to have my evidence – we had hit it off at the lunch. He was a real gentleman, no side at all, a fine old Tory …and not without a sense of humour.

So I duly turned up to give my evidence in a House of Commons committee room. I was preceded by James Fawcett, an international lawyer whose evidence was exceedingly vague, and who disconcerted the committee by confessing half way through to not knowing much about the dispute at all (Boris Johnson’s maternal grandfather, he appeared to have his mind on other things). I was then called, and apologetically I told the members that the latest date I could start at without being entirely misleading was 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht. The Chairman was politely puzzled, but gracefully agreed to the committee being led through the eighteenth century, past the Nootka Sound Convention to the confusions of Argentine Independence, 1833 and the rest.  I was able to explain in outline why the dispute existed and why, whatever the rights and wrongs in it, it would not go away.

The next to be called was Sir Ian Sinclair, the chief legal eagle of the FCO. He appeared flanked by two bag carriers, somewhat unnecessary as he wasn’t going to say anything. He immediately demanded that the room be cleared of the general public and of the other witnesses. That was done, we were all ushered out into the corridor.  

I later learnt from a friend on the committee that Kershaw had opened by referring to Mr Deas’s interesting observations on the Nootka Sound Convention, which produced the immediate response from Sinclair that he was not prepared to say anything at all about the Nootka Sound Convention, and that was that.  The carried bags were not opened, and the rest of his evidence was in similar vein, that HMG had not the slightest doubt about our title….   One must concede that he was in an invidious and unusual position. He was the advocate of the Crown, and therefore could not reasonably be expected to say anything that was not in his client’s – Her Majesty’s – interest, even when quizzed by a committee of the House of Commons. On the face of it, a pretty constitutional pickle. 

That as far as I remember was the end of the day. I went to have a drink in the pub across the bridge from the Houses of Parliament.  I think I was followed by some agent or other, perhaps to check that I was not meeting a Buenos Aires paymaster.[1]

Soon after Mrs Thatcher did for the Committee’s enquiry by calling the general election. Its hearings were printed and can be consulted as far as they went.

I sent my LR of B piece to Lord Franks. When he came to St Antony’s to talk about his report, he took pains to seek me out, said he had much enjoyed the read, but that I would understand that it was all outside the scope of his remit. Of course, I understood, but it was kind of him to bother to pay me the compliment.

I returned to Buenos Aires quite soon after the war, while the military were still in the process of departing. Again with the OK of the FCO, I agreed to meet Ambassador Ortiz de Rozas at the Jockey Club, with some idea of initiating some academic contacts to help put the war behind us.  I took a taxi to the club. On the way the driver asked me if I was French, then if I was German, and finally I said I was English, and he stopped the car, got out, raised both arms in the air and shouted “Viva Margaret Thatcher!”. Disconcerting.  

I had also always wanted a proper nineteenth-century gaucho knife, and went to buy one in an antique shop in San Telmo. I found a nice plain one, silver hilt, cut-down bayonet blade. The owner of the shop was flattering: “Lo felicito, señor, por su gusto en cuchillos,  pero dígame, ¿de que país es vd.?” “De Inglaterra.” “No he tenido recientemente  muchos clientes ingleses.”

On another visit a bit later, I visited Nicanor Costa Mendez in his apartment. He was as usual dapper, but a bit subdued and I think not well. I asked him why the Argentines had not followed their initial invasion, carried out with a force large enough to induce our small marine garrison to surrender by then placing somewhere on the islands an entirely symbolic little garrison of their own, with strict orders to leave the islanders alone, and calling on the British government to engage in the serious talks which we had effectively postponed for a hundred and fifty years. Mrs Thatcher would not have been able to send against such a token occupation a task force of 120 ships – that would have been ridiculous and would have received no international support. If she had sent a lesser fleet, it would have been vulnerable to attack from the mainland, and sending an SAS force to be landed by submarine would not do either. In all these cases, prior to the Argentines landing their force of thousands on the islands, she would be accused of starting a war.

It would have been then game, set and match to Argentina. But they blew it by landing 12,000 not very effective soldiers, mostly recruits with hardly any training, and that enabled Mrs Thatcher to react in the way she did.

Nicanor’s answer was that the original plan was on those lines, Argentina asking the UN to replace the surrendered and deported marines with cascos azules, a small UN force. The plan was abandoned in the military and popular euphoria following the initial invasion, the civilians in the government overwhelmed by the generals. I have no idea if he was telling the truth, and have not read the Argentine publications which may or may not confirm this.

After the war, I had some participation in the South Atlantic Council, which exists to ensure that the Falklands lobby does not have a monopoly of lobbying. Among academics, Alaine Lowe made perhaps the most important contribution to its early work.

One last Falklands memory. In the early summer of 2002, I was invited to dinner for President-elect Alvaro Uribe at the Colombian Embassy in London. The residence is in Chester Square, and a near neighbour was Margaret Thatcher.  She was the guest of honour. (Her relations with Colombia were warm: at the time of the Falklands the “British Colombians” had been conspicuous in the region, along with the less conspicuous Chileans, for not supporting the Argentine invasion, and Mrs Thatcher had later given timely and effective support to the government of President Virgilio Barco in its fight with the Medellín drug cartel.)  She wore a gold lame evening dress, on it a large floral spray of diamonds and emeralds, on a finger a ruby “as big as a pigeon’s egg”, or so I remember. She shone like a lighthouse. Among the other guests was Tam Dalyell (he contested almost every British military intervention), “of Belgrano fame”. He was seated by her side at dinner, the main dish prominently printed on the menu being Argentine Beef.  They chatted away like the old friends they perhaps were, the evening was a great success and she did not leave to look after Denis until around midnight.

Footnotes: according to the late Hugh Thomas, Mrs Thatcher when told that there was someone in Oxford who had studied the history of the dispute, remarked “How nice to be Mr Deas and to have the time for such things.”  One feels like a footnote, it is a vain pleasant feeling.

Sir Keith Morris, former UK Ambassador in Bogotá and a fellow guest at the dinner for President-elect Uribe, told me afterwards that Tam Dalyell was so alarmed on his arrival at the sight of Mrs Thatcher that he left the Embassy drawing room, went downstairs and found a telephone, and rang his wife for instructions on what to do.

[1] Some months after the war was over I had a visit in Oxford from a Mr Hohler, either of the FCO or one of “our friends”, who said that he wished to talk about academic relations with Latin America. It was soon apparent that what he was really interested in was the extent of my relations with Costa Mendez before the war, and when challenged he frankly confessed as much. We had a very nice lunch in the Luna Caprese, and he paid the bill.