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'Not Right, but British': The Superpower Role in the Falklands War

Daniel Ford

            The Soviet Union played almost no part in the 1982 Falklands conflict, while the US role was central: ‘it is difficult to exaggerate the difference that America’s support made to the military outcome’.[1] In neither case did the superpower position have much to do with the Cold War.

The role of the Soviet Union

            During the runup to the war, Argentine warships ‘arrested’ several vessels in Falkland waters; almost all were Soviet-bloc.[2]  Even without that irritant, Moscow would have been wary of a junta despised by leftists in Latin America and elsewhere: ‘third world support for Argentina was hardly overwhelming, a critical criterion for Soviet foreign policy’.[3]  Then too, the Iran-Iraq war and its involvement in Afghanistan no doubt discouraged Moscow from a South American adventure. 

            Nor did the Argentines actively seek allies. ‘No advance contacts or overtures were made toward countries that could have used their veto power ... [or that] looked favorably on Buenos Aires’s intent, whether for reasons of affinity or because their ideology or policies were at odds with London’s’.[4] The British, by contrast, introduced Resolution 502 at the UN Security Council, calling for an Argentine withdrawal; it passed almost without debate, with the Soviet Union and China abstaining. ‘It could hardly have been a worse setback for Argentina’.[5]

            Russian ships and aircraft monitored the British task force as it sailed south, ‘causing serious concern’ that the information would reach Buenos Aires.[6] However, the Soviets evidently collected intelligence for their own use and did not share it with Argentina.[7]

            The USSR did offer arms, to be delivered through a proxy such as Libya. In return it expected support in the UN on such issues as US withdrawal from Central America, a price ‘considered too high’ by the Argentines. The only Russian equipment Argentina received during the crisis was a scrambler for the Argentine foreign minister to use while in the US.[8]

            Toward the end, the USSR had an unintended influence on American actions. With the final battle looming, the US urged Britain to give the Argentines a face-saving way out of the conflict, for ‘fear that Argentina might turn to the Cubans and the Soviets as a last hope of avoiding total humiliation.’[9]

The role of the United States

            The Reagan administration divided into ‘Europeanists’ and ‘Latinos’. The most important ‘Latino’ was UN delegate Jeane Kirkpatrick, who ‘had an embarrassingly soft spot for Argentina’s General Galtieri’; on the day of the invasion, she attended a dinner in her honor by the Argentine ambassador.[10] This faction argued that the junta supported US policy in Central America; a tilt toward Britain would pose ‘great opportunities for Soviet mischief-making, either directly, or through their Cuban proxies, in Argentina’.[11]

            Europeanist arguments included the historical ties between the US and Britain, lingering embarrassment over the US role in the Suez Crisis, and American plans to introduce cruise missiles into Western Europe, a proposal vigorously supported by Prime Minster Thatcher.[12]

            The US Secretary of State affected neutrality in this debate, to the ‘ill-concealed fury’ of Downing Street.[13] Privately, however, he assured the British ambassador that ‘America could not ... be even-handed in anything involving its closest ally’.[14]

            Without waiting for the civilians to decide, the US military rushed materiel to the task force moving toward the Falklands. The British profited from ‘the deep bureaucratic structures of the Anglo-American relationship’, including their military mission in Washington and the close ties between the two militaries.[15] Secretary of Defense Weinberger was ‘unabashedly pro-British’, as an Argentine officer complained; ‘his actions ... proved to be lethal for Argentine attempts at self-defense against the task force’.[16]

            The US cornucopia included 12.5 million gallons of aviation fuel, a water purification plant, 4,700 tons of airfield matting, and—’the single most decisive weapon of the campaign’[17]—a new generation of air-to-air missiles. ‘More than 90 percent of all our aircraft losses’, wrote an Argentine air force officer, ‘were caused by Harriers firing the American-made AIM-9L Sidewinder’.[18]

continued in part 2


[1] Henderson 1983

[2] Dillon 1989, pp. 10-15

[3] Freedman 2005

[4] Moro 1989, p. 39

[5] Middlebrook 2003, p. 46

[6] Hastings & Jenkins p.182

[7] Middlebrook 2003 p. 54; Freedman & Gamba-Stonehouse 1991, p. 401; Levie 75-76

[8] Freedman & Gamba-Stonehouse 1991, 400-401

[9] Freedman 2005, pp. 17-18; cf Henderson 1983

[10] ‘Jeane Kirkpatrick’ 2006; Dillon 1989, p. 142

[11] Freedman & Gamba-Stonehouse 1991, pp. 155-157

[12] Ibid

[13] ‘Relationship’1984

[14] Henderson 1983

[15] Dillon 1989, p. 147; cf Martin 1992

[16] Moro 1989, p. 80

[17] ‘Relationship’ 1984

[18] Gonzalez 2005, p. 80; cf Moro, 324-325