When the Falklands War broke out, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office was Sir Michael Palliser. He was not disposed to blame his department for the catastrophe. Unlike the Prime Minister, for whom the war was proof of Foreign Office incompetence if not perfidy, Sir Michael pleaded after the event that he had been, in a sense, let down. Ruminating at leisure to Michael Charlton, he recalls that his old department ‘has always had to accept a relatively low level of hope and expectation, because it has never been very easy to persuade ministers and cabinets to pay much attention, either to Argentina or to the Falklands’. He might have added that his expectations of the public, the voters who put these ministers into office, were lower still. In the era of modern communications, the Falklands War was the first war in which the vast majority of citizens of the victorious power began with no idea even of the whereabouts of the territory in dispute. These post-colonial specks in the South Atlantic were, supremely, a diplomat’s preoccupation.
Yet not the smallest virtue of Mr Charlton’s important book is the evidence it summons up which shows that the Palliser thesis is only half-right. For decades, the people may have been ignorant, but the politicians were not. This Falklands retrospective was commissioned by BBC Radio, and the interviews it prints with many of the major participants on both sides contain much material that could not be broadcast, the first import of which is to recall how often the Falklands did intrude into the corridors of power. We are reminded that, within the sweaty confines of the Foreign Office and assorted Cabinet Committees, they were repeatedly on the politicians’ and not merely the officials’ agenda. Many figures from the past turn out to have immersed themselves in this apparently insignificant end of empire, to varied and sometimes unexpected effect. George Brown, briefly Foreign Secretary in the 1966 Labour Government, thought British sovereignty should be tidily ceded to the eager Argentinians. Michael Stewart, his successor, was more cagey. But he did draft a concessionary agreement, only to be driven by the ferocious scorn of the House of Commons to coin the phrase which dogged all his successors: that in any negotiations the Falklanders’ wishes, rather than their interests, should be ‘paramount’. The Fabian Stewart, therefore, was the ministerial father of the Falklanders’ veto over British foreign policy. Of similarly piquant interest is the discovery that the man pushing hardest for the opposite course was Stewart’s junior at the FO, Lord Chalfont. Chalfont was the first British minister ever to visit the Falklands. Later the friend of shahs and sultans and other unliberated tyrants, he then favoured a pragmatic sell-out of the Falklands if such could be arranged. He also wrote that ‘unless sovereignty is seriously negotiated and ceded, in the long term we are likely to end up in a state of armed conflict with Argentina.’
That was in 1968. Episodically through the Seventies, ministers continued to address themselves to the problem. Again it was almost entirely on the quiet, but it hardly bears out Palliser’s picture of a diplomatic service eager to resolve the Falklands anomaly and frustrated by politicians who would not pay attention. A steady succession of ministers engaged with the issue, sometimes against what might have been thought their natural judgment. In the Heath Government we find the old imperialist, Julian Amery, emerging as an advocate of joint sovereignty with Argentina. Two years later, Jim Callaghan, the new Foreign Secretary, is countermanding this, and for Charlton he recalls the minute he sagely wrote: ‘Leave this poisoned chalice alone.’ When Callaghan becomes prime minister, Tony Crosland is recollected by his officials devoting serious time to the South Atlantic, and depicted by one of them as the man who might have solved the problem. Within months of David Owen taking over on Crosland’s early death, yet another solution – cession of sovereignty followed by leaseback – is being trotted round Whitehall. The ‘Hong Kong solution’, as this was termed in the late Seventies, sounds a less winning designation in 1989. But it was the product of what had become, albeit concealed from the public, deepening political anxiety.
Where the Palliser version acquires more credence is with the arrival in power of the future victor in the Falklands War. As these witnesses plot the story, the Thatcher Government consciously chose to neglect the obscurely festering problem. Settling Rhodesia became not only the prime objective of post-colonial diplomacy but the only front on which ministers dared offend the colonialist wing of the Tory Party. Knowing, also, that before long there would have to be a negotiation over the expiring Hong Kong lease, they chose simply to hope that Argentina would be in too much of a mess itself to cause trouble in the Malvinas. Nicholas Ridley, in his first job as a junior Foreign Office minister, saw the FO’s leaseback proposition to its end, visiting the Falklands to test its possibilities and then being torn to pieces by the all-party Falklands lobby in the House of Commons. Thereafter, from December 1980 until March 1982, the Falklands were never discussed in government outside the Foreign Office. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, the only major domestic player not to contribute to Michael Charlton’s study, let it get buried. The Defence Secretary, John Nott, here speaks for the collective. ‘The Falkland Islands did not interest me,’ he tells Charlton. ‘I don’t think I would have really spent a lot of time mugging up my brief on matters surrounding the Falklands. I did not consider it to be of any importance in my life.’
Such unguarded honesty is a rare thing to find from a participant in such recent history. But then Charlton’s is a rare book. It may be common enough in Washington for recent insiders to conduct public post-mortems on the casualties of their time in office: and Caspar Weinberger, Alexander Haig and Jeane Kirkpatrick parade candidly before the microphone. British officials are congenitally more reticent, yet a large team of the lately retired from the Foreign Office and the military also made themselves available. Together with the Franks Report, The Little Platoon makes the prehistory of the Falklands War, and to a lesser extent its conduct, by far the most thoroughly exposed episode in any corner of government activity of the last two decades. The 30-year rule, which is supposed to silence all insider revelation, might not have been invented. It is as if their fascination with the absurdity of what happened – the horror of it, the sheer damnable incompetence on all sides – has compelled these politicians and officials to behave in a way which a lifetime’s training had schooled them not to do.
The incompetence began with the Argentinians. Charlton spoke to several of them. At one level we find a certain sophistication. Dr Oscar Camilion, foreign minister in 1981, recalls how he had assessed Mrs Thatcher’s priorities as placing the Malvinas at the bottom of the list, after Rhodesia, Belize, Hong Kong and Gibraltar. But he took comfort from the Rhodesian disengagement, thinking that it demonstrated the British ‘meant business’ in his part of the world as well. His successor, Nicanor Costa Mendez, reveals a similarly professional, if over-schematic view of the world, confessing to the assumption, which all logic supported, that Britain saw itself now as a European power which Suez had purged of the desire for distant adventures. With honest hindsight, he tellingly encapsulates the mutual misperceptions: ‘I think Britain thought that we were moving exclusively for domestic reasons. And we thought that Britain would react only at international level, and for international reasons. But, much to our surprise, we realised afterwards that Britain was reacting mostly for domestic reasons.’
It is with the Argentinian military that the depths of such misunderstanding are plumbed. The strong man of the Galtieri junta, Admiral Anaya, does not supply direct testimony, but some of the most striking disclosures come from him. Americans who saw a lot of him during and after the war reveal a man of invincible obstinacy, getting both Washington and London completely wrong. Anaya misread all the signals. ‘The British are interested only in commerce,’ he told Haig. They would want to protect the oil under the Falklands by doing a deal. In no circumstances would they fight. Anaya would not be told otherwise, and nor would Galtieri. Haig’s aide, General Vernon Walters, describes trying to convince Galtieri that his conscripts would be no match for the British Army.
But he was absolutely, viscerally, convinced that the British would not fight. At one time he said to me: ‘That woman wouldn’t dare.’ I said: ‘Mr President, “that woman” has let a number of hunger strikers of her own basic ethnic origin starve themselves to death, without flickering an eyelash. I would not count on it if I were you.’
Nor was Buenos Aires any better at reading American intentions. It convinced itself with equal certitude that Washington would never back the British. On the Suez precedent it was bound to remain neutral, with a bias against conflict. So thought Anaya, whom we see, on the evidence of the American admiral who debriefed him, as the architect of the invasion. It turns out that he conducted this largely on the basis of a plan which, as a lower ranking naval staff officer, he had himself put on paper five years earlier. Such was the inextinguishable territorial imperative with which British ministers, more or less negligently, were trifling.
Britain’s contribution to this classic story of two governments’ incompetence has already been chronicled, with unique authority, in the Franks Report. Charlton’s witnesses nevertheless supply the tang of human testimony to set beside Franks’s survey of the documents. The most interesting part of this revolves around the Ministry of Defence, which its then Permanent Secretary, Sir Frank Cooper, disarmingly describes as tending always to take ‘a very short-term view of what their current interests are’. The triumph of one such short-term view, the saving of the Navy, is, from the Defence point of view, what the Falklands War was all about. With little difficulty, Mr Charlton persuaded the admirals, notably Terence Lewin and Henry Leach, to plant their stilettos in John Nott’s back, as the man whose Defence Review would have decimated their service.
We see two entirely different casts of mind at work, whose mutual recrimination supplies a sub-text to the war and offers, perhaps, a more enduring moral. Here, on the one hand, are the admirals, complaining that the Defence Review had all been done in a terrible hurry. No proper consultation, says Lewin, especially over the plan to sell an aircraft-carrier, HMS Invincible. Judge the admirals’ horror when they discover that Nott has fixed it up on the back of an envelope with the Australian defence minister, a keen racing man who happens to be in London to go to the Derby. The fellow didn’t know what he was talking about, thought Leach. ‘Completely off the cuff ... a most ad hoc way ... I never knew ... I could never get any explanation ...’ Here, on the other hand, is the minister. Yes, he says, it was done in rather a hurry. But the admirals had absolutely no idea about the long-term financial realities facing the country. The politicians had made up their mind. ‘There came a point in time where I could not go on having meetings with people who did not agree with the conclusions ... The thing had to be announced. We had to conclude it.’ As history tells, and as Leach scarcely forbears to gloat, the Falklands permitted the admirals to overturn it, and to put off for seven years (with more to come) a necessary strategic choice. And yet it is Nott who has the last suggestive crack, which unfortunately he does not elaborate. ‘When I was there,’ he reminisces about his time at the MoD, ‘I sometimes wondered to myself whether the Royal Navy was not almost a subsidiary company of the American Navy.’
These are cheerless reflections. Except for the British admirals, and some of the Americans, they consist of public persons in both countries trying to account for a catalogue of folly which concluded in futile slaughter, with the casus belli no nearer permanent solution. Most of the participants bring to the task a surprisingly clinical detachment. An entire school of British controversy, for example, is wiped out by the Argentinian assessment of the sinking of the Belgrano. Anaya had no complaint about it, he told his American debriefer. Admiral Gualter Allara, under whose command the Belgrano sailed, says: ‘From a strictly professional point of view, I cannot criticise that action. She was a ship carrying out a war mission.’ Still mesmerised by the breakdown among nations which is here displayed, the participants have been driven to candour. The result is a fine justification for the art of oral history.