Reagan, Thatcher, and the ‘Tilt’

The British election has decided in favor of no one in particular. The possibilities seem confined to a Conservative minority Government or a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition one. With so much going wrong for Britain (just look at the accidental disenfranchisement), the last priority of whatever the new British Government is will be their friend across the pond.

At the same time, Rockhopper has claimed to have discovered oil in the area of the Falkland Islands, reversing the disappointment felt by Desire Petroleum earlier this year. With these two events in mind, it seems like a perfect moment to look back at the last time the special relationship really came to the fore, while the Falklands were in the news.


The Falkland Islands

One of the last vestiges of British empire, the likelihood that the Falkland Islands would ever become a household name – let alone the site of a major twentieth century conflict – seemed slim at best. Yet when the military government of Argentina dared to invade in April of 1982, the successful British retaking of the Falklands entered into the realm of legend and revitalized both Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government and Great Britain as a whole.

The extent to which American assistance was a crucial part of the British war effort is still debated. Paul Sharp claims that “Britain’s success in the Falklands War…would not have been possible without US support.”[1]Then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger downplayed the role of American aid, characterizing himself as a mere “assistant supply sergeant, or an assistant quartermaster.” He placed the glory of victory solely with the British:

Some said later that the British could not have succeeded if we had not helped. This is not so – I think the decisive factor was Mrs. Thatcher’s firm and immediate decision to retake the Islands, despite the impressive military and other advice to the effect that such an action could not succeed.[2]

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's cabinets meet at the White House, 1981.

While the revival of the wartime Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ did not necessarily ensure a British victory, the effects that American support had on British and Argentinian morale and indeed, world opinion, were significant. As Sharp explains, “had the Americans decided to oppose Britain’s recovery of the Islands, then the war would have been impossible and Thatcher’s political demise all but assured.”[3]

The sophisticated weaponry supplied by the Pentagon, such as the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missile, helped to minimize British casualties. Especially crucial was US intelligence. That support was all the more surprising as it constituted a near-complete reversal of the centuries-old Monroe Doctrine demarcating the western hemisphere as an entirely American preserve.

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