Thirty-five years ago, a cluster of islands off the coast of Argentina became the focus of a crisis that defined the political leadership of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. For ten weeks, from April 2 to June 14, 1982, Great Britain fought the Falklands War: a reassertion of British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands against an act of aggression by Argentina’s military junta.
Victory was by no means inevitable. Weakened by budget cuts and not having been seriously tested since the Second World War, the British military was unprepared to fight 8,000 miles from home. Indeed, the war created the most severe test of Thatcher’s leadership since she’d assumed office in 1979.
How Thatcher confronted and overcame these challenges offers a rebuke to defeatism and a model of statesmanship in an age of debased and dysfunctional leadership.
Thatcher’s personal assistant, Cynthia Crawford, was with her on the evening of Wednesday, March 31, when news came that Argentine ships were fast approaching the islands, home to approximately 1,500 inhabitants of British descent. She recalls that moment, vividly, as one of the “worst days” in Thatcher’s premiership.
Admiral and First Sea Lord Henry Leach finally spoke up. “I can put together a task force of destroyers, frigates, landing craft, support vessels. . . . It can be ready to leave in 48 hours,” he said.
Charles Moore, author of Thatcher’s authorized biography, notes that Leach, who had “turned up . . . in full uniform, pushed his way into the key meeting, and told her, ‘We can retake the islands — and we should.’”
Leach’s decisiveness was a tonic to Thatcher. As Thatcher recalled later: “Now my outrage and determination were matched by a sense of relief and confidence.”
Thatcher’s cabinet, however, lacked stability and direction going into the conflict. The House of Commons found the Foreign Office negligent in its failure to warn Prime Minister Thatcher and the cabinet of an imminent invasion. Senior-level resignations immediately followed news of Argentina’s aggression, forcing Thatcher to make hasty replacement appointments. MPs became skeptical of the government’s ability to manage the impending conflict and began a crusade for accountability; the War Cabinet came under intense scrutiny. Yet methodically, Thatcher assembled a team that — with one exception — served her well throughout the crisis.
Although Thatcher enjoyed a close relationship with President Ronald Reagan, American interests in Latin America clashed with Britain’s national-security priorities. The special relationship between the United States and Great Britain would be tested, almost to the breaking point.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig muddied the waters with a presumptuous and dogmatic diplomatic style. The window of negotiations, from the launch of the British Task Force to the time of its arrival just off the coast of South Georgia, was 21 days. The U.K. invited Haig to assist in this effort. Thatcher recalled his remit:
We made it quite clear to him — and he accepted that this was the line we would take — that he was not being received in London as a mediator but as a friend, and ally, here to discuss way in which the United States could most effectively support us in our efforts to secure Argentine withdrawal from the Falklands.
Crawford told me that although Thatcher maintained cordial relations with Haig, he “deeply annoyed her and their interactions were uneasy.” In fact, Haig seemed to have almost no regard for British interests and insisted that a compromise on the liberty and security of the islanders was the only solution to the conflict.
That, at least, is how it looked to Sir Mark Worthington, a former political secretary to Thatcher. He characterized Haig’s proposals as “equivocal” and lacking the precision and clarity Thatcher required. From Thatcher’s perspective, Worthington explained, “no peace plan would be acceptable unless Argentina fully got out.” Thatcher made it clear that she would not hesitate to use force — that a military response to unprovoked aggression was justified.
Haig’s final peace proposal arrived on Thatcher’s desk on April 24, four days after the War Cabinet gave the military task force approval to retake South Georgia. It flatly contradicted Britain’s goal of restoring sovereignty to the Falklands. Thatcher privately denounced Haig’s draft as “conditional surrender.”
Making matters worse, Francis Pym, Thatcher’s foreign secretary, came out in favor of Haig and against his own prime minister. Thatcher was aghast. “Did Francis realize how much he had signed away?” she asked. “Despite my clear view expressed that morning [of April 24], Francis put in a paper to the War Cabinet recommending acceptance of these terms.” Thatcher noted in her autobiography that her “five hours of preparation” and “clause by clause” exposure of Haig’s dangerously muddled language earned her the backing of the War Cabinet against Pym’s reservations.
American economic and political interests in Latin America, against the backdrop of Communist influence in the region, compelled Reagan to walk a difficult diplomatic line. As Crawford recalls, Thatcher was on the defensive with Reagan throughout the conflict. More than once, Crawford told me, Thatcher was “deeply disappointed and very fierce in conversation.”
Reagan pressed Thatcher to consider yet another round of proposals from Haig that he felt might be more appealing to Buenos Aires, with its military now fully engaged. In a recently declassified letter written — but never sent — to Reagan, Thatcher rejected the proposals outright and appealed to their shared democratic ideals:
Perhaps you will now see why I feel so deeply about this. That our traditional friendship, to which I still loyally adhere, should have brought me and those I represent into conflict with fundamental democratic principles sounds impossible while you are at the White House and I am at No.10. I too want a peaceful settlement but we really must put up a more formidable diplomatic fight for the Falklanders and for others who may be similarly treated if we fail.
Here is a shocking and poignant insight into Thatcher’s frame of mind: Her friendship with Reagan was at odds with her democratic principles!
Thatcher’s determination to check Argentine aggression, and Britain’s decisive military success, changed American minds about the war — including that of Ronald Reagan. A week before the war was over, with British victory virtually assured, Reagan spoke before the British parliament about the triumph of democracy over Communism, and he included the Falklands War as part of his brief for democracy’s advance.
“On distant islands in the South Atlantic young men are fighting for Britain,” he told those assembled. “They fight for a cause — for the belief that armed aggression must not be allowed to succeed, and the people must participate in the decisions of government, the decisions of government under the rule of law.”
As the white flags flew over Port Stanley 35 years ago today, the legacy of the Iron Lady took root.
Thatcher demonstrated her ability to lead in a crisis by balancing principle with prudence. As she approached the Falklands conflict, she adhered to a democratic moral vision: liberate the islands from tyranny and restore self-governance. At the same time, she was not a reckless ideologue. “She was level-headed throughout,” Worthington told me, “always assessing what could realistically be done.”
And she worked relentlessly. “She did not sleep, only taking short naps here and there,” Crawford said, “and she never changed out of business attire in order to be ready for any situation that should arise.” Like no other individual during the crisis, Crawford shared a friendship with Thatcher that gave her an intimate look at the pressures bearing down on the Prime Minister from all sides, for many days on end. Through all of it, she said, Thatcher “held her steel.”
As the white flags flew over Port Stanley 35 years ago today, signaling the defeat of Argentina, the legacy of the Iron Lady took root. In the midst of a morose political climate, young conservatives, especially young women, continue to be inspired by Thatcher — a stateswoman with a shrewd political mind and a sound moral compass, a leader who held her steel in a crisis all the way to victory.
— Katherine Thompson is a former scholar of the House of Margaret Thatcher at the King’s College in New York City.