Presidential Phone Chats & Reagan’s Falklands Error
There’s been extensive coverage of publicized transcripts of Donald Trump’s phone calls with Mexican & Australian leaders. The recent 35th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War recalls a key phone call Ronald Reagan had with Argentina’s ruling general that failed to prevent Argentina’s invasion of Britain’s South Atlantic islands.
Argentina’s military junta needed a distraction from growing domestic unrest and opposition. Seizing British governed islands that Argentina had long claimed as the Malvinas would arouse nationalist support for their regime, the generals and admirals hoped. Knowing an invasion was imminent, and with minimal British forces in the distant Falklands, Margaret Thatcher asked Reagan to phone General Leopoldo Galtieri to dissuade him from military action.
Reagan did so on April 1, 1982. At first Galtieri refused the call but then accepted it four hours later, by which time the invasion force was already in route. Reagan thought the General was drunk and had delayed the call so as to regain some sobriety. Galtieri was unresponsive to Reagan’s pleas.
Apparently there is no transcript of the 40 minute conversation. But Reagan was given talking points that reportedly he followed:
—I am calling you on an extremely serious matter that threatens the peace of this hemisphere.
—I want you to know of my personal concern about your dispute with the United Kingdom regarding the Malvinas and South Georgia Islands.
—I have very disturbing intelligence that Argentina is prepared to invade the Malvinas Islands by early tomorrow morning—0600 to be exact.
—Another concern of mine is this. I know Prime Minister Thatcher very well. Maggie is a very determined woman. When she knows she’s right as in the case of Gibraltar and Northern Ireland, she will not give in. The use of force by anyone will be met by force on her part. I am convinced of that. There should be no illusions about it.
—I know this is a matter of longstanding and great sensitivity to all Argentines.
—As you know, both you and the British are close friends of this country. And you know that with our traditional friendship with Great Britain, I am determined as I laid out in my February 24 OAS speech to help build a lasting positive relationship with all the nations of this hemisphere.
—Long before I became President I advocated renewed good relations with the countries of this Hemisphere, especially the major ones—Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. I was and am determined to reverse the course set by my predecessor. And as you know better than I there have been a number of bad moments in our relations. I want to end that forever and build a lasting partnership.
—Together we can do so much. Argentines and Americans are working together now more closely than at any time in our history.
—But a conflict in this hemisphere would be a heavy blow to these hopes.
—Furthermore, I must tell you in all candor that if Argentina initiates the use of force against the Malvinas Islands, it will wreck our relationship. The American people and the Congress will see it as an act of Argentine aggression. And as President, so will I.
—I am therefore asking you not to invade the Malvinas Islands or start any conflict with the United Kingdom.
—I am further prepared to act on our longstanding position of seeking peaceful bilateral negotiations in this matter which I understand is of great importance to you and all Argentines.
—I usually do not talk this way, but I must have, now, your absolute assurance that there will be no landing on the Falkland Islands tomorrow morning.
IF THE ARGENTINE PRESIDENT REFUSES TO AGREE
—I am prepared to dispatch Vice President Bush/Amb. Kirkpatrick immediately and insist that you withhold action until you have met with him/her.
A U.S. State Department cable to U.S. embassies in London and Buenos Aires described the Argentine general’s response:
Galtieri replied that he appreciated the President’s concern, but the UK had refused to relinquish sovereignty for 149 years and time had run out. He went on to refuse President’s offer of good offices and said the US appeal had been simply overtaken by events.
When President pressed Galtieri whether GOA intended to use force, Galtieri replied that Argentina feels free to use whatever resources are at its disposal, unless HMG that very night recognized full Argentine sovereignty over all of the Islands and agreed to provi- sions for turning over control within next few months. When pressed whether Argentine military would take action in the morning, Galtieri stated that GOA had full freedom to use force at the moment it judges opportune.
Here’s how Reagan described the conversation to Thatcher:
I have just talked at length with General Galtieri about the situation in the Falklands. I conveyed to him my personal concern about the possibility of an Argentine invasion. I told him that initiating military operations against the Falkland Islands would seriously compromise relations between the United States and Argentina and I urged him to refrain from offensive action. I offered our good offices and my readiness to send a personal representative to assist in resolving the issues between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
The General heard my message, but gave me no commitment that he would comply with it. Indeed, he spoke in terms of ultimatums and left me with the clear impression that he has embarked on a course of armed conflict. We will continue to cooperate with your government in the effort to resolve this dispute, both in attempting to avert hostilities and to stop them if they should break out. While we have a policy of neutrality on the sovereignty issue, we will not be neutral on the issue of Argentine use of military force.
Note that Reagan made no threats to Galtieri. He appealed as a neutral broker. His administration had sought improved ties with Argentina after Carter era critique of human rights abuses by the junta, which was anti-communist and helping the anti-Marxist Contra rebels in Nicaragua. After the invasion the morning following his unsuccessful chat with Galtieri, Reagan instructed Secretary of State Haig to conduct shuttle diplomacy between London and Buenos Aires to avoid war, which failed.
Meanwhile Thatcher dispatched a British naval task force 8000 miles towards the Falklands. Quietly the U.S. supplied intelligence and weapons to the British, much of it channeled to the U.S. base leased from the British on remote Ascension Island in the Atlantic. The U.S. rightly would not permit its NATO ally to fail in its rollback of Argentine aggression.
Worried about media reports claiming USA military support for the British, Galtieri, apparently now more sober, phoned Reagan on April 15 for reassurances. Here’s how Reagan’s National Security Advisor summarized the 30 minute call in his report to the Secretary of State, to whom he also provided a full transcript:
Galtieri did not raise much that was new nor did he bring up specific negotiating points. He did underline his obvious concern about the approaching British fleet. Galtieri also suggested unnamed nations might be exacerbating the conflict, and that U.S. media disclosures were unhelpful. The Argentine President ended with a rousingly Argentine version of Western Hemisphere history and implied that the Argentines and North Americans share a common heritage of struggle against (British) colonialism.
President Reagan reiterated our search for a peaceful solution resolution of the dispute and called on the parties to be flexible and restrained in the comings days and weeks. The President also expressed his personal support for your mission.>
I might add we read Galtieri as a worried man, but one not yet ready to retreat from previously established positions.
Again, Reagan made no threats to Galtieri. Instead he assured him of a continued “neutral attitude,” stressing:
I am committed wholeheartedly to a peaceful resolution of this dispute. I agree that a war in this hemisphere between two Western nations, both friendly to the United States, is unthinkable. It would be a tragedy and disaster for the Western world, and a bitter legacy for future generations of Argentines, Britons, and Americans. The only one who could profit from such a war would be the Soviet Union and its slave state allies, and it would be a common misfortune for all the rest of us. So I hope that we can work out a solution to this.
Reagan even flattered Galtieri, telling him “you and the British Prime Minister are leaders of courage, principle and determination and we’re going to need all of that in these days ahead.”
Galtieri of course was an unprincipled fool. He had gambled the British would not and could not conduct a distant war over a small island chain. He also believed America would remain neutral, valuing his quixotic junta as much as a close NATO democratic ally with whom it had a longtime special friendship. The British quickly defeated Argentine forces in the Falklands, whose defensive operations had been inept. Galtieri and his regime were humiliated and quickly overthrown, as Argentina returned to democratic governance. He served several years in prison and later lived as a disgraced recluse.
Could Reagan, in his phone chats with Galtieri, especially the first, have prevented the war by disabusing him of his severe misunderstandings? What if Reagan, instead of exuding respectful neutrality, had sternly warned Galtieri that America would help ensure Britain’s decisive victory, resulting in his disgrace and political ruin? Surely it would at least have given the Argentine pause.
Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Reagan and Thatcher lured the Argentine junta into a disastrous trap. Their imaginations go too far. But the ultimate outcome, besides the tragic deaths of 1000, three quarters of them hapless Argentine forces, was providential.
Aggression was decisively and instructively defeated before a watching world. A dictatorship fell in favor of democracy. Thatcher was elevated to world leadership and twice reelected, allowing her to be the key strategic partner with Reagan in the Cold War’s final decisive, victorious years. The Anglo-American special partnership surged forward.
But there’s a warning embedded in the Falklands success story. Presidents should at the start sternly, if often quietly, warn aspiring aggressors of the dire consequences of their aggressions. Reagan’s phone calls with Galtieri are an important teaching tool for all future American leaders.