The Road to Goose Green
Following the Argentine invasion of the Falklands on 2 April last year, the most significant factor determining the British response was the House of Commons debate the next day. Having gained strong support from most of the Labour Party, and especially its leader Michael Foot, the Thatcher Government was able to continue and enhance its plans for a military response, the first units of the task force sailing for the South Atlantic two days later. For the first two Weeks after the task force sailed, the great majority of people in Britain did not believe that the crisis would escalate to a shooting war. The almost universal opinion was that mediation, probably by Al Haig, would ensure some kind of compromise settlement before the task force got south of Ascension Island. But even in these early days it was becoming apparent that the Ministry of Defence was committing an extraordinarily large fleet of ships in order to end the crisis by military means. A high proportion of the modern fighting ships of the Royal Navy, almost the entire Royal Fleet Auxiliary and over fifty ships taken up from the Merchant Fleet, combined to give the Government not so much a task force as a navy, and a very substantial one at that – larger than any other West European navy with the exception of the French, and carrying a comprehensive range of armaments including nuclear weapons. Indeed, for the three months of the Falklands crisis, Britain’s normally large contribution of modern ships to Nato forces was virtually non-existent.
An effect of the decision to send such a massive military force was to escalate the crisis to the point where the United States felt compelled to mediate. This, in turn, meant that it had to adopt a neutral stance towards the protagonists, refusing to come into line with Britain’s other allies in support for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Argentina. Only after the end of the Haig mission on 30 April did the United States declare its support for Britain, and only by that time did Britain have comprehensive international support for ending the crisis by non-military means. Yet immediately those circumstances existed, at the end of April, Britain’s response was a rapid escalation to full military conflict.
Most of the attention of recent months has been focused on the Belgrano incident. While this is central to arguments that Britain sought war when peace was possible, it is essential to see the Belgrano incident in its full context. Precisely when circumstances permitted strong non-military pressure on Argentina, Britain commenced the ‘killing war’, killing 400 Argentinians within 48 hours, in a series of military actions of which the destruction of the Belgrano was just one Moreover, the reasons given by the Government for following this course of action, both at the time and since, are simply not tenable.
The results of the action and subsequent military operations may within Britain have given tremendous support to the Thatcher Government, but have left an expensive legacy in the form of Fortress Falklands, now known to be causing a general distortion of Britain’s defence policy. They have resulted in circumstances where Argentina seems likely to maintain its claims to the Malvinas at considerable cost to Britain. Thus a violent short-term response by Britain has now resulted in a continuing crisis with no solution in sight.
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[*] The campaign of questioning conducted by Dalyell is summarised in his Thatcher’s Torpedo – The Sinking of the ‘Belgrano’: Cecil Woolf, 80 pp., London, £5.50 and £1.95, 7 June, 0 900821 67 1.