Whose fault was the Falklands war? (With update 7 May 07)

The 25th anniversary on 2 April of the Argentine occupation of the Falklands in 1982 has predictably, but tiresomely, prompted the exhumation and public brandishing of the old myth about Lord Carrington and his junior Foreign Office ministers having nobly and selflessly resigned over the Falklands, despite being personally blameless, but accepting principled responsibility for the failures of their effete and incompetent officials.  Liam Fox, Tory shadow defence minister, worked it into his indictment of the real Defence Secretary, Des Browne — not for the MOD's failure adequately to equip and supply our troops fighting hopeless wars in Iraq and Afghanista, nor even for the government's failure to bring them home without further delay, but for his initial endorsement of a decision to let the fifteen captured sailors and marines sell their 'stories' to the media.   (Thus do trivia edge out catastrophe in parliament and the press.)

The 'noble Falklands resignations' myth was also paraded before our wondering eyes by Richard Luce (as he now isn't), one of the junior FCO ministers who resigned with Carrington, in an indignant letter to the Spectator magazine — not apparently available on its website — in reckless reply to an earlier Spectator article by Simon Jenkins in the issue of 31 March.  

An essential ingedient in the noble resignation myth is the assertion that officials of the FCO and the JIC failed to warn ministers of the probability of an impending Argentine invasion until immediately before it took place, far too late for ministers to take action to deter and prevent it.  According to this account, officials either didn't know about the likely invasion through their own slothfulness and the failures of British intelligence to spot it, or else they knew but didn't bother to tell ministers.  Thus Margaret Thatcher (as she too now isn't) in her memoirs

Nothing remains more vividly in my mind, looking back on my years in 10 Downing Street, than the eleven weeks in the spring of 1982 when Britain fought and won the Falklands War. … The war was very sudden. No one predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance, though many predicted it in retrospect. [Emphasis added]

Contrast this with a few selected items in the Falklands timeline for 1982:

24th January 1982 Junta's plans to capture Islands revealed in a series of articles in La Prensa newspaper
26th March Argentine government says it will give all necessary protection to the workmen on South Georgia;
British intelligence source in Buenos Aires warns that an Argentine invasion of the Islands is imminent but the British government dismisses the warning;
29th March Joint Intelligence Committee reports an invasion seems imminent
31st March British intelligence source warns that the Argentine fleet is at sea heading towards the Islands;
2nd April Argentine special forces land at Mullet Creek at 4.30am, more troops land at York Bay at 5.30am, and by 6am are engaged in battle with the Royal Marines – 3 Argentines are killed; main Argentine landing force begins disembarking at Stanley at 8am; Governor Hunt orders the surrender at 9.15am
5 April – Lord Carrington, Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce resign.

Simon Jenkins's Spectator article recalled that: 

The JIC in July 1981 was told by the Foreign Office that if Britain failed to negotiate sovereignty in good faith and agree some compromise, ‘Argentina might occupy one of the uninhabited dependencies …and might establish a military presence on the Falkland Islands themselves.’ By the start of 1982 this same message was communicated to London by the British ambassador in Buenos Aires Anthony Williams, by his defence attaché Stephen Love, by the captain of HMS Endurance Nick Barker, and by South American desk staff in the Foreign Office. In the two weeks of naval activity while Lombardo was bringing his plan forward — when submarines might have been sent south and public ultimatums issued to Buenos Aires — the messages (now on record) became a flood.

They were blocked because they were messages the system did not want to hear, implying costly ship movements. Love told me he felt like murdering the defence ministry section which buried his warnings. The foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, did not want to risk infuriating Thatcher with talk of compromise on sovereignty. The JIC was brainwashed by the culture of defence cuts. Falklands alarmists were regarded as slightly bonkers — until it was too late. …

The Falklands invasion was a classic of the intelligence phenomenon known as ‘cognitive dissonance’, where the recipient hears only what he wants to believe is the case. Not until Thatcher saw her career about to collapse about her ears did she and those around her wonder why they had not been warned. She was vastly relieved to be told by Franks that, in effect, there was nothing to warn — though for four months a foreign power had been planning to attack her in the belief that she would not resist.

The preliminaries to the Iraq war were uncannily inverse. Once Tony Blair had decided to go to war in Iraq with America — at the Crawford summit in March 2002 — intelligence about Iraq ceased being a guide to policy and became its cheerleader. As in 1982, the Cabinet was impervious to shifts in intelligence assessment (assuming there were any). Intelligence that Saddam lacked weapons of mass destruction and posed no threat to the West was doctored, even though it was the only legal basis for attacking him. Such raw material as was available was described in the Hutton and Butler reports as variously ‘not great’, ‘dodgy’, ‘pretty meagre’ and ‘a total horlicks’. It had constantly to be re-engineered by Downing Street to support the case for war. In this it was fiercely reinforced by cognitive dissonance in Washington.

Having studied both cases, I am inclined to the sanguine conclusion that far too much is expected of intelligence as an aid to policy. All the brains in the world will never overcome cognitive dissonance. An intelligence genius is always trumped by an idiot politician. In both the Falklands and Iraq, the Foreign Office and intelligence sources were feeding the machine with sensible material, but it was material that it suited nobody to hear. In both cases the ‘clear bell of warning’ was muffled… [B]oth these failures to hear intelligence aright led to the two bloodiest wars fought by Britain in my lifetime. [Emphasis added]

In case anyone feels inclined to argue that these warnings might not have been brought to the attention of ministers, the answer (like the computer nerd's exasperated "RTFM") is: Read the Franks Report.  Thanks to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the full text  of this report on the  lead-up to the war is available on the Web (PDF file).  The report's conclusions in its final chapter ("The government's discharge of their responsibilities") exonerate on almost every count both ministers and the FCO from any blame for failure to foresee or to take action to forestall the invasion — and this chapter was issued to the media in advance of the rest of the report, which in consequence few media commentators at the time ever got round to reading.  The preceding chapters, however, contain ample evidence that there were numerous intelligence assessments and FCO papers containing warnings that the Argentinians might well occupy the islands if they once became convinced that the British government was not negotiating on sovereignty in good faith.  These assessments and papers would inevitably have been submitted to ministers, as anyone familiar with FCO and general Whitehall procedures at the time will confirm.  In any case, Franks documents several key decisions in the run-up to the invasion that were taken by Lord Carrington personally, including his decision to reject official advice that the government should launch a campaign to 'educate' the islanders and parliamentary opinion in the realities of the situation and the desirability of reaching an accommodation with Argentina over the islands' future, and also his decision to reject FCO officials' advice, several months before the conflict, to call a meeting of the Cabinet Defence Committee to consider the situation and a contingency planning paper to be prepared by officials:

291. …Officials in both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence were looking to Ministers to review the outcome of the contingency planning they had done in view of a potentially more aggressive posture by Argentina. In the event, Government policy towards Argentina and the Falkland Islands was never formally discussed outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after January 1981. Thereafter, the time was never judged to be ripe although we were told in oral evidence that, subject to the availability of Ministers, a Defence Committee meeting could have been held at any time, if necessary at short notice. There was no meeting of the Defence Committee to discuss the Falklands until 1 April 1982; and there was no reference to the Falklands in Cabinet, even after the New York talks of 26 and 27 February, until Lord Carrington reported on events in South Georgia on 25 March 1982.

292. We cannot say what the outcome of a meeting of the Defence Committee might have been, or whether the course of events would have been altered if it had met in September 1981; but, in our view, it could have been advantageous, and fully in line with Whitehall practice, for Ministers to have reviewed collectively at that time, or in the months immediately ahead, the current negotiating position; the implications of the conflict between the attitudes of the Islanders and the aims of the Junta; and the longer-term policy options in relation to the dispute. [Franks report, Cmnd 8787, paras 291-292]

In February 1996 a Guardian article by Richard Shepherd MP about the need for ministers to accept responsibility for the actions of their departments, even if they had not been personally informed of them, quoted the resignations of Lord Carrington and his FCO ministerial colleagues over the Falklands as examples of blameless ministers accepting their responsibility for the failures of their officials and accordingly honourably resigning.  On 24 February 1996, the Guardian published my letter challenging this account of those famous resignations:  

I ADMIRE Richard Shepherd's courageous article (The rusty sword, February 21) asserting ministers' responsibility for their own and their departments' actions. But his account of Lord Carrington's (and his ministerial colleagues') resignation over the Falklands does less than justice to the Foreign Office.

The Franks report somewhat resembled the Scott report[1] in producing a good deal of largely inculpatory evidence, while half-fudging its verdict on ministers' responsibility. Franks expressly acquitted the FCO of pursuing a policy of its own. He made it clear that it was the ministers of successive governments who chose the policy of seeking a negotiated settlement, and that it was FCO ministers who decided not to pursue a policy of public education in favour of the "lease-back" proposal because of noisy opposition to it in Parliament and the initial opposition of the Falklanders; and it was FCO ministers who decided to postpone the tabling of a paper on the Falklands situation, as advocated by FCO officials, at the meeting of the Cabinet Defence Committee on March 16, 1982, arguably the last moment action might have been taken to deter invasion.

Franks's evidence does not support Shepherd's suggestion that Lord Carrington was carrying the can for "a significant error of policy" by the FCO.

I declare an indirect interest: I was a member of HM Diplomatic Service at the relevant time, serving in the FCO for some of it, though not personally involved.

Brian Barder

[1] Scott report on the scandal over the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, 1996 (!)

After this letter had been published, I received a personal letter, strongly endorsing what I had written, from a senior FCO official who had been intimately involved in every aspect of the events preceding the Falklands war, as well as the war itself. 

Lord CarringtonI was and remain a whole-hearted admirer of Lord Carrington, one of the best ministers for whom I ever worked (never on any subject connected with the Falklands), and, incidentally, easily the (intentionally) funniest.  It was largely because of his courageous determination and realism that the intensely difficult and challenging problem of Southern Rhodesia was finally resolved, including the controversial but unquestionably right decision to accept the verdict of the Zimbabwe people at the elections won by Robert Mugabe.  But his relations with Mrs Thatcher were often difficult and, as Simon Jenkins says, this seems from the public record to have contributed to his reluctance to confront her with the bad news about the looming crisis in the south Atlantic.  With hindsight, as Franks recorded, mostly understandable misjudgements were made by most of those concerned, both officials and ministers.  But, pace Lord Luce (a likeable and honest minister for whom I also worked, on African questions), a careful reading of the early chapters of Franks, and an alert eye for the deadly implications of some of his comments on the government's record even in the final, generally exonerating, chapter, demonstrate beyond dispute that Lord Carrington bore personal responsibility for some at least of the mistakes that were made, and that in resigning he was not carrying the can for erring officials.

But the answer to my initial question: Whose fault was the Falklands war? — is neither Lord Carrington nor the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.  It was the fault of General Galtieri. 

Update (7 May 07):  Now also see a fascinating account of the naval and military events leading up to  the Falklands war, and their political consequences, by 'the Yorkshire Ranter' dated 5 May 2007.  Recommended for its own sake and not simply because of its graceful link to this post!


3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    No one predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance

    That's quite extraordinary, to put it as politely as I can. I remember visiting a friend on or soon after the 20th of March that year and hearing the news that the Argentinian flag had briefly been raised over South Georgia. Both my friend and I were inclined to laugh it off, but my friend's father – who had worked for the Foreign Office as a sovietologist – was seriously concerned at the news. (Rightly so, of course.)

    Brian writes:  No need to be polite about the 'quite extraordinary' assertion that no-one had more than a few hours' advance indication of the invasion:  it's from Margaret Thatcher's memoirs, not from me, and I doubt if the ageing Baroness reads the comments on posts in my blog!  'Quite extraordinary' is right.  You'd think the researchers and ghost writers who presumably wrote the memoirs, or her publishers' editor, would have deleted it on reading or re-reading. 

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    So, Carrington incompetently allowed his own territory to be invaded. And he went on to become Secretary-General of NATO. Hmm.

  3. The Franks Report was a fraud.  See "2 Para's Battle for Darwin Hill and Goose Green" for much more on this sad subject.

    David Kenney