What Caused The Falklands War History Essay

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For less than two centuries the Falklands/Malvinas has been the setting for one of the British Empires most fraught political tug o’ wars. The set of islands are an archipelago 8,000 miles from Britain and less than 300 miles east of the coast of Argentina, yet it continues to operate under British rule. It has a land area of 4,700 square miles of flat and mountainous terrain. Before Argentina invasion by Leopoldo Galtieri’s troops in early April 1982, the steadfast British continued to point, defiantly, to the continuing preference of the islands’ residents for British occupation to remain. The aim of this essay is to understand what caused the Falkland’s war by highlight some of the themes, the political motives, the historical and psychological torments of the country, of its consciousness.


150 years before those events of the early 1980s, the pride of Argentina suffered its first blow to a British raid. The reminder of an intrepid British sea captain, one John James Onslow, re-establishing sovereignty over the islands in 1833 is another poetically mutilating memory the Argentine consciousness has had to afford. In that day, in early January 1833, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Maria Pinedo of the United Provinces at the frontier of risk, submitted to the will of his British enemy and watched on as the flag was cut down and replaced with British red, white and blue.

Admiral Tryon, a serving naval protector who wrote to the Administrator of the Government on the 25th June 1886, offers a valuable account of the strategic importance placed on the Falkland Islands by the British, confessing,

When contemplating the possible exchange of this group of islands for islands in the Western Pacific, it is my obvious duty, being entrusted with the guarding of floating interests within those seas, to look beyond this station, and to note carefully and to bear in mind the great lines of trade and commerce during a time of peace, in order that I may, as far as in me lies, properly and usefully employ Her Majesty’s ships to guard British interests and to maintain them. [1] 

It was true that the Falkland Islands offered an excellent and easily defended harbour. This fact had been an obvious attraction since the sixteenth-century claims of the Spanish and Portuguese – and, of course, the British. It was what Tryon recognised and mediated to the motherland, along with some of its other notable resources, when considering parting with the Falklands: he noted its grazing potential, how well the land was situated and its ownership to British residents, canal and trade routes, and the passage to Australasia. The letter was essentially a musing reflection whether to trade the islands for a Pacific equivalent. We can appreciate by the end of the letter just how important the Falkland Islands were when placed in the context of war,

My duty, when considering such an exchange as appears to be contemplated by some persons, consists in weighing their relative strategic value. No position within the Pacific Islands as referred to has strategic value when placed when compared with that possessed by the Falkland Islands. Their value must be assessed by their value as a possession – as a piece of national property for the use of our race and no more. [2] 

As a turning point in history, that British flag raised in 1833 was, by all intents and purpose, the proclamation of sovereignty by a foreign land over a group of islands, which, as Onslow forthrightly acknowledged, was res nullius, translating as ‘belonging to no one’. This has been a contentious claim ever since the flag was raised. It is a claim that Britain continues to bear; citing a So 1982, the year of Argentina’s brief foray into reclaiming a land thought rightfully theirs, was to be the only time that the Union Jack would be lowered. The next two decades were to be a time of great tension.

Below lists the brief chronology of the conflict over those few months:


18 March Argentinian metal workers land at South Georgia, a British military base.

2-3 April Argentinian troops and marines invade Falklands/Malvinas.

British task force swiftly assembled and dispatched by Margaret Thatcher.

25 April Argentines on South Georgia surrender to invading British forces.

1-4 May Major battle period: Argentinian General Belgrano sunk by HMS Conqueror whilst steaming away, over 300 dead, over 1,000 wounded. HMS Sheffield targeted from the air, casualties and lost vessel.

14 June Argentinian General Mario Menendez surrenders Argentine forces in both East and West Falkland.

12 July Conflict known to have ended.

Dr Stephen Badsey offers his thoughts on Argentina’s final push, and their thinking on potential consequences, or more likely – lack of – in engaging on Britain in that most conflicted of islands,

British defence planning at the time viewed the world in Cold War terms and finite resources were inevitably focused squarely upon NATO, the central front and the threat posed by the Warsaw Pact. By the Spring of 1982, in line with these commitments, the last vestiges of a British capability to conduct such operations were in the process of being withdrawn. [3] 

Viewed in retrospect, the conflict has become something of an anachronism in Western military warfare. He goes on to provide the compelling theory that, crucially, “surprise” played a part in both camps in the lead-up to, and during, the war; notably the initial invasion, and then the counter-invasion by the British. The Argentinians, he claims, despite their pre-emptive handling of military force from South Georgia into the islands they so desired, would have considered its enemy in much the same way she is viewed now: a former superpower in decline; its empire broken at its feet. So that it could use NATO and the UN as two recent, fatherly forces defusing combat in the world as something of a neutral guard, as, simply, protection. The Cold War stand-off two decades earlier between the U.S. and the Soviets also would have played a part in indicating that naval combat involving a superpower was a thing of the past. Cold War tactics dictated a different rulebook for modern warfare, or so it was thought.

So, it was probably with great surprise that Thatcher’s Britain responded at all over a seemingly small piece of land thousands of miles from its shores. Similarly, British occupation in the Falklands had endured a stately rule since their flag was raised all that time ago in 1833, fighting since that time only with words, the accusations of bitter Argentines growing more vociferous in their independence from colonial Spain. With this in mind, a sudden invasion by Galtieri’s forces in early April of Britain’s Falkland Islands.

With diplomacy at last failing in the ’60s after Argentine delegates sought to exploit the creation of the UN and summarily pursue its claim to the islands, nostrils began to flare in the South Atlantic. A threat of Argentine action became more real after an early 1976 coup where a military junta was established by Leopoldo Galtieri Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional. Such office is always liable to base their foreign policy upon a fever – of sorts – a nationalistic rite where the masses are stirred by a unifying emotion. What more than justice, or more delicately, revenge, can be used to fever a nation. In this sense, the country’s repressed torment of a submission, of a castration earlier alluded too, become a pivotal point with which the junta could rest its ambitions. An office sweeping in with gun-toting glee are always to prioritise their policies, and strengthen them, with modes of patriotic sentiment. And The National Reorganisation Process – the curiously formal name used by its leaders – was no different. They harnessed the half-a-millennia old claim that, as a former colony of Spain, known to be the Falkland’s original discoverers in 1497, the possession would pass and become bequeathed into Argentine hands. Their time in power was studded with the typical early actions of a military office; with kidnappings, illegal arrests, unresolved disappearances, media censorship. Their human rights and crippling economic issues were raising their profile worldwide for the wrong reasons. But one great weapon, and a global touchstone in their march to kindling a national fever, was the 1978 soccer World Cup, more so, hosting and winning it. This event portrayed to Galtieri and, more importantly, the Admiral Jorge Anaya (credited with being the catalyst in the Junta’s invasion), just how priceless the mobilisation of a country-fervour could be. The wheels, thus, quickly began to turn toward a movement – that movement, at first poetically resembled with a group of scrap-metal Argentine workers hoisting their country’s flag on 19 March 1982 turned into something far more enduring in the world’s consciousness.

Being adjacent to Argentina, yet 8,000 miles from Britain, oil and oil exploration inevitably became a catalyst for war in 1982. With today’s oil rush, and a barrel-count around the Falklands estimated to be in the billions, it is clear that for Thatcher’s Britain, oil was clearly if not more of a justification for war than protecting the self-determination of the islanders that had been claimed. This can be proven by the fact Britain considered selling off the islands to Argentina in the ’70s due to its diminishing power, particularly the growing absence of trade routes. The opening of the Panama Canal allowed transit to flow through the Americas instead of all the way south, below the Horn, passing the Falklands. However, this deal was sharply revised when the potential of natural resources became evidently knowledgeable.

Modern aspirations of a Gulf-like state in the South Atlantic moistened the lips of British leaders who were not, a decade later, about to relinquish such a carrot to a military government. Oil, of course, was at that time becoming a hot topic. The British energy company Coalite Ltd already owned 50% of the island, including its bank, most of its houses, cottages, stores. The islands, it seemed, were ready made to welcome a company operation of oil drilling.

Another clear motive, though many would not place too much aspectual emphasis on a leader famed for her stoical nature, her disregard for favour – was the popularity that could be garnered by a British victory. She would, with her shrill tone, her country’s stiff upper lip, its formal emotion, flood the national conscious with a Tory jingoism. Britannia would rule the waves yet again, reclaim what belonged to them. The smokescreen was an easy, ready-made mist where the true prize of an occupied oil territory would easily play second fiddle, at least while the war lasted, to the British sensibilities that were being caressed by a Lincolnshire lady’s bulldog spirit. Later, after the war, with the British sailing home in triumph, this value of victory was proved. ‘Falkland Factor’ swept through the country. The Tories electoral figures ballooned, steaming them through the next general elections in 1983. This, all at a time where unemployment had risen to a record high of over 3 million people. Lawrence Freedman gives us an idea of how delicate this position was for Britain’s leader,

Margaret Thatcher was not at this stage the formidable political force she later became (in part because of the Falklands) but presided over a Cabinet which was by no means wholly loyal. By upping the ante and deciding to take on Argentina, rather than accepting the loss of a piece of distant land of limited value, she was taking an enormous gamble. She had no military background herself, and could be presented as clutching at straws presented to her by self-serving admirals. If it all went badly and concluded with heavy casualties and the Falklands still in Argentine hands, her premiership would be over. [4] 

Galtieri, on the other hand, had far more immediate concerns on his mind than the potential of oil drilling. As the leader of a despotic regime whose order was beginning to unravel beneath a storm of mounting public opposition, the war had become to be seen more as a route to regaining some popularity and order – at length, to divert from its own crumbling office. What was to Britain an ulterior motive, was to the unstable Argentine a final, desperate means of survival.

The islanders themselves form a strong basis for Britain’s claim to the Falklands. Roughly 1,800 in number in the early ’80s, this melting-pot of British, Spanish, Japanese, and other South American peoples and descent, created a settler-population where loyalty seemed a strange and splintered stand. Clearly, British rule would gain a leaning vote, but for these islanders, the threat held a far more introspective consequence than what leader to answer too; this war highlighted the very frailty of their ‘identity’. For the most of them, their country was far away, a bloodline all that connected them. This war seemed to challenge their very right to stand in the land of their birth. For Britain, they were priceless. More than an ambassador could ever do, they signified an organic British presence in the Falklands.

Negotiations in the years leading up the conflict were finally dashed however, and attempts to call off Argentina’s invasion using the United States as a peacemaker soon after de facto President Leopoldo Galtieri’s invaders took Malvinas on April 2nd so too fell by the wayside. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was charged by some British ministers as failing to pledge his support to their cause. The U.S. had responded swiftly to the invasion, shuttling Secretary of State Alexander Haig between London and Buenos Aires. But after lengthy discussion without a breakthrough, and with Thatcher’s mind clearly already made up, its role diminished until combat commenced.

Throughout the nineteenth-century Britain continuously ignored the consternation of Argentines more bold in their pursuit with each passing decade of independence. However, this was becoming a very real threat. Before that she was probably comfortable with her position as occupier without ever having to worry about an uprising from another power, such was its stronghold. Freedman agrees and posits the reason for Britain’s sense of calm at that time, citing that by as late 1933, after a century of rule, ‘the centenary of British control, the length and peaceful nature of the exercise of British sovereignty began to offer a more impressive basis for it to continue than the means by which it had been obtained in the first place.’ Thus, that she could relax because she was doing such a splendid job.

Britain had strengthened its claim shortly before diplomacy stalled, with party-groups back in the motherland writing accusations that Argentina (now independent of Spain) was masquerading as a sub-imperialist power to gain the sympathy. When, they believed, in fact, (despite its dictatorial present) it was an advanced country: a country that should have been focused on defusing a civil war than an expansion in the South Atlantic.

Virginia Gamba lays blame for failed diplomacy firmly at the feet of both countries, calling it a ‘communication gap in the spring of 1982’. [5] That there were a series of inevitable collisions stifling any hope of diplomacy between a former Empire state and a military dictatorship high on violence and smoke-kindling patriotism. Consequence, history, political unrest – these are the inevitable collisions occurring in the psyche: first, of the castrated nation, youthful, independent with a part of itself lost as a colonial enclave to an older, grand country similar in its size and empire to its own former coloniser, Spain; and second, a motherland nation built on the prestige of its expansion over centuries, and used to the subjugation of others.

During the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War, that tension that has so defined colonial sensitivity in the modern era is still very apparent. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has only recently been labelled a “colonialist” by Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner – a term that is inherently barbed in the twenty-first century. Arguing before global assemblies, that Britain – a “colonial power in decline” – continues to retain an imperialist mindset. Naturally, there was a counter from Britain, who claimed that these are merely attempts of “hyperbole” and “propaganda”. But, with Britain’s latest manoeuvre a decision to deploy one if its Trafalgar-class submarines to patrol the seas around the Falklands – a decision met with a bombardment of Argentinian accusations of a “militarisation” taking place in the South Atlantic – is the threat far more serious than the immunity it seems to display. In the twenty-first century, is the theme of decolonisation a very real threat to Britain losing its jewel not through naval invasions, but through the courts?

It appears that the echoes are still very much the same. Some decades on, even centuries when we consider earlier quarrels, Argentina continues to mount a heated, emotional claim, billed even with A-list celebrities. It uses the same nationalist fanfare to alter domestic political fortune. Particularly with figures for an upcoming referendum indicating an overwhelming opposition to Argentine rule on the Falkland/Malvinas islands. Britain urges the Argentinian leadership to respect the will of the 3,000 residents on the islands. David Cameron marked the event with an echo of Margaret Thatcher’s in promoting the liberty of the Islanders above all colonial wrangling. This is just as much a trick in hiding the value they place on the region’s economic prospects than Argentina’s is in hyping up the rhetoric and internationalising the issue to affect domestic political direction.

Both nations made it a point to honour their dead on the thirtieth anniversary, as well as the opposed victims of the war. Argentina’s latest move, of the decision to explore for oil in waters in and around the Falklands, worked in antagonising Britain into denying any chance of that possibility occurring. This, too, coincided with the anniversary. In a more vigorous response, Britain then announced a $1bn deal for Premier Oil to begin developing oil reserves in the region as early as 2017. Argentina have since threatened legal action against the company in the seas it maintains belong to the Malvinas.


It remains clear, that from these recent events, the fractious political relationship between these two countries hasn’t really changed. The different temporal circumstances, of claims, pleas, propaganda becoming filed through the courts, has obviously evolved – but not wholly changed. It is unlikely that such an event as that which took place in the spring of 1982 would occur yet again. Britain, as it did thirty years ago, maintains a rather formal guard when posed with questions about the Falklands. But what remains interesting is how the debate that rages today resonates with the causes of the Falklands War. In the background, what is there? For Argentina there remains national fervour, an unstable support for the government, envy of potential natural reserves gaining value – the same as thirty years ago. For Britain, a stiff upper lipped resolve, a claim of protecting the liberty of the islanders, the source of oil, a sense of conservation in the history of its empire which is all but gone – the same as thirty years ago. It is difficult to map out the future of this conflicted terrain in the South Atlantic archipelago, other than to realise that its implications remain, in many ways, a faithful reflection of the events leading up to 1982 war. Relations have strained over the last few years, an understandable outcome when the emotion of a thirty year anniversary, and all the indelible memories that come loaded with it, is considered. Much depends on external factors, and clearly, with the world currently suffering beneath an age of austerity, of depression, what could be more priceless than the reserves that the regions offers, and perhaps more priceless, a national fervour. These were two undeniable factors in the lead-up to the first conflict and could, within reason, be the implications for another conflict on the horizon.

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