The Shrug That May Have Launched A Thousand British and Argentine Ships: General Vernon Walters’ Purported Epocal Role in Triggering the Conflict
Even after the U.K.’s victory over Argentina in the Falkland War of 1982, the jurisdictional status of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands continues to be ardently debated. Since the discovery of the islands in the 1500s by English navigator John Davis, a number of countries, including England, Spain, France and Argentina, have claimed them. The Falklands lie 300 miles off the Argentine coast and are 8,000 miles from Great Britain. Their population of 2,000 is outnumbered by the islands’ 500,000 sheep.
Who Owns the Falklands?
Argentina and Britain have wrangled over the ownership of the islands for over two centuries and most recently, in 1982, engaged in the war which cost over 800 lives; still, the sovereignty issue remains a gnawing presence. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Falkland War, which the British Throne has just commemorated with a ceremony at Buckingham Palace and Argentine authorities at La Casa Rosada. To the British, the territory is tenaciously known as the Falkland Islands, but to Argentines, they are defiantly known as las Islas Malvinas; calling them the Falkland Islands only legitimizes Argentina’s perhaps self-serving charge that the U.K.’s swindled seizure of the islands from the Argentine nation. The issue currently being addressed is whether the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas should fly the Argentine flag, the Union Jack, or be a sovereign entity in its own name. Another issue that needs to be addressed is whether the conflict was inevitable and what role, if any, did General Vernon Walters play-intended or inadvertently-in bringing it about.
The Walters Factor
The Argentine military had seized power in 1976 and rather than devote itself to recycling the control of the government to another civilian political faction other then the just-ousted Peronista Party, the armed forces decided to grab authority in their own name and then proceeded to rule the country until the early 1980s, when the military was humiliated by its defeat in the Falkland War, forcing it to abdicate power. The military led the nation into war in the first place because it was seeking to distract the Argentine people from the corruption, economic fiasco, human rights violations and brutality that had characterized its rule.
The generals had become convinced that what was needed was a splendid little war with faraway Britain, hoping to achieve a great patriotic victory by diverting the attention of Argentina’s population away from the country’s plight, including the junta’s massive murder of tens of thousands of innocent civilian political dissidents. The Argentine military has insisted up to now that London was unjustly holding the Falklands/Islas Malvinas and that Argentine forces had been justified in optimistically trying to reclaim the territory by force.
General Walters had originally been sent to Argentina in April as a personal representative of President Ronald Reagan. Walters, an accomplished linguist and consummate right-winger, was visiting Latin American capitals to reassure the rightist military regimes then in power in the region that the Reagan White House intended to normalize relations with like-minded governments in the region. Walters was in Argentina at the time that the Argentina military junta had secretly decided to launch an attack on the Malvinas. At a reception given in his honor by the military junta in Buenos Aires, Walters was informed that the Argentine military was preparing to move against the Falkland Islands. Walters, a renowned friend of Latin American dictatorships, and profoundly respected by the region’s military establishments, was hoping to reestablish close working ties with military regimes in the region which had been ostracized in democratic circles as a result of President Carter’s human rights policies. At the reception for Walters offered by senior command of the armed forces on the eve of the invasion, Walters was guardedly apprised of Argentina’s plans. Walter’s response to this information was to give an equivocal shrug, a sign that theArgentines generals immediately seized upon as an affirmation that the U.S. would favorably look in the other direction if Buenos Aires moved on the islands. If the American’s response had not been so vague, or if Argentina had not interpreted that the lack of a definite response was a tacit acceptance of the Argentine plans to forcibly land on the islands, then there is no doubt that the Argentine attack and subsequent war over the islands might have been forestalled, if not averted.
A Troubled History
In 1690, an English sailor named John Strong, navigated the passage between the islands and named the route the Falkland Channel after the financial backer of the voyage, Anthony Cary, fifth Viscount of Falkland. In 1764, the island was first settled after being named Port Saint Louis by French navigator and military commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville. A year later, British sailor John Byron claimed the same area for Great Britain. Then, in 1766, Spain acquired the French colony of Port Saint Louis, later subordinating it to Argentine jurisdiction upon the dissolution of the Spanish Viceroyalty.
The Spanish attack that year sparked centuries of strife over ownership of the islands. In 1790, the UK ceded control of them to the Spanish and renounced all colonial ambitions. The Nootka Convention stated that Spain, Britain and the U.S. would have equal rights to fish in any of the areas, including in the Falkland Islands. The Spanish controlled the islands under the name “Islas Malvinas” and had put the area under the control of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata (present day Argentina). In 1816, Argentina declared its independence from Spain and laid claim to surrounding areas that had been under the administrative jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata; these actions inevitably would lead to the Falkland War 105years later. British forces returned to the area in January 1833, took control of the islands, forcibly repatriated the remainder of the Argentine settlement back to the Argentine mainland and repopulated the Falkland Islands with British nationals.
The Falkland War
The Falkland War began on April 2, 1982 when Argentina invaded Las Islas Malvinas and other British-held disputed territories. While war was never officially declared, Argentina considered the invasion to be mainly a lawful reoccupation of its land. The first Argentine attack against the small British detachments guarding the island was on Government House, where an Argentine commando unit fought larger British forces until the facility surrendered to Argentine forces. During this period, the Argentine ruling military junta had been dealing with a devastating domestic economic crisis along with large-scale civil unrest due to the harsh nature of the regime then in power at the time, which was notorious for its violence, incompetence and venality.
Argentina and Britain engaged in land, air and sea battles all over the Falklands. On May 21, 1982, Britain launched its land assault and targeted Port San Carlos, on a bay that lies among the Falkland Islands. The British forces preceded the main attack by launching points in other areas as a means of distracting Argentine forces, including moves at Port Louis, Fox Bay and Goose Green. On May 25, Argentine Independence Day, the Argentines sank a key British vessel carrying vital military supplies as well as 10 helicopters. On June 12, the British launched a decisive attack on Port Stanley, starting with a parachute jump at Mount Longdon. After the last of Argentina’s beach heads were captured (Tumbledown Mountain, Sapper Hill and Mount Williams) on June 14, Argentine military commander, General Menéndez, concluding that the British would only get stronger, surrendered unconditionally to Major General Moore, who headed the British forces, formally ending the conflict.
British Colonial Ambitions in the 21st Century?
Unlike Argentina, Britain does not claim to directly control the islands. In the short term, Whitehall has little hope for a resolution of the dispute because of Argentina’s adamant stance on the sovereignty issue. The British and the Falkland Islanders have made it clear that they will only discuss the concept of self-determination with the Argentines.
The Falkland Islands are to a large extent an economically self-sufficient territory, but they still rely on a small British garrison based near Port Stanley to discourage any Argentine to an ill-advised call to arms. An ideal relationship between the Falkland Islands and the British would be one of cooperation in “the protection of fish and the eco-system of the southwest Atlantic Ocean,” says Mike Summers, a member of the Legislative Council, an the Falkland Islands government. To the British, Argentina only wants to talk about sovereignty, which, it insists, goes against the United Nation’s principle of self-determination. According to the Buenos Aires’ Bureau of Las Malvinas and South Atlantic Territories of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is believed that there can be a resolution achieved between Argentina and the United Kingdom, but this has failed to come to pass because the UK refuses “to resume negotiations to find a fair, peaceful and lasting solution to the sovereignty dispute in accordance with the many appeals from the international community.”
The ideal outcome for the British would be for Argentina to drop its intensely nationalistic view and look to what is best for the Falkland Islanders. If Argentina would do that, then Britain and the Falkland Islands might be inspired to work together to jointly protect and exploit the area. According to the French 24-hour international news channel, Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana blames London for “its repeated refusal to comply with an international mandate on beginning talks” over the Falklands. But, with the British physical presence on the islands, the Falklanders would first have to vote for British forces, by means of a referendum, to withdraw, which has yet to occur. With the majority of the Falkland Islanders being of British descent, they are fiercely pro-Crown. “The people of the Falkland Islands, like the people of any other nation, should be left to live under a government of its choosing,” says Summers.
Argentina’s Attempt to Reclaim its “Lost” Land
The Argentine claim to Las Islas Malvinas certainly seems to be solidly based on history. When Spain was a colonial empire, it put Argentina and the Falklands under the jurisdiction of the viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. When Argentina decided to break from Spain, it seemed only logical that the other territories embraced by Rio de la Plata would follow in the same conduct. Like Spain and Britain had done, conquering countries placed their emissaries on their new lands to act as the official representative of the crown, or in this case, the Argentine Republic.
When Argentina declared its independence in the early 1800s, it took Las Islas Malvinas as a part of its patrimony. Toward the end of the 1990s, former Argentine Foreign Minister Dr. Guido di Tella acknowledged that the Falkland Islanders themselves had become part of the problem (of Argentina declaring sovereignty over the islands) and their stake would have to be acknowledged if the situation was to be resolved. Dr. Joan Supplee of Baylor University says, “in the Argentine version, the British illegally occupied the islands in the 1830s and the two sides have not given up fighting over them ever since.” Britain’s initial reason for developing the islands the need to build coaling stations there, but, as is acknowledged by both sides, that factor is no longer relevant.
Argentina seems unwilling to compromise on Las Islas Malvinas and refuses to acknowledge that the islanders have any right to choose which status they prefer. Klaus Dodds, in his article, Towards Rapprochement? Anglo-Argentine and the Falklands/Malvinas in the Late 1990s, states that “recent Argentine pronouncements on the Falklands/Malvinas have explicitly recognized that the islands are populated rather than simply treating the question as a sovereignty dispute over uninhabited territory. As di Tella acknowledged in February 1996, ‘we recognize that the people are part of the problem and that they are necessary to a solution.’” While the statement reflected that Argentina, at this point had decided to act in accordance with existing UN regulations, it also contradicts the country’s unyielding actions when it comes to relating to a methodology aimed at curing the multiple sovereignty problems that Las Islas Malvinas have generated.
The Reality of the Situation
In the 21st century, the thought of colonial aspirations is anachronistic and has been replaced by ideals of self-determination and respect of sovereignty. Argentina and Great Britain are fighting over the titles to islands where there are more sheep than people. Yet both countries are asking that their claims be viewed with the utmost seriousness and are using history to buttress their legitimacy.
According to J.M. Taylor’s article, Argentina and the “Islas Malvinas,” the Falkland Islands are a direct reflection of Argentina’s relationship with the rest of the world. Argentina had been colonized and dominated by powerful countries and in return is trying to dominate a weaker power, something it once was. Similar to Britain, Argentina tried to project its position among world powers, through its claim to the Falklands. The difference is that today countries gain power and obtain recognition through their inter-state relations, trade and economics, rather than with the simply size of their empire.
Argentina claims the islands because they were under the same jurisdiction as Argentina when that colony declared its independence from Spain, but the Falkland Islands never claimed to be independent nor have they ever indicated that they were interested in being a dependent territory of Argentina. If countries could claim former territories to be theirs now, then all former colonial empires would be, if so minded, able to reconstitute themselves. For example, Spain could reclaim Argentina. As for the Argentines, they seem to forget to take into consideration the Falkland Islanders, many of whose roots can be traced as far back as the end of the 18th century. According to the Colby College history professor, “they see the Malvinas as a case of bruised national sovereignty as opposed to military adventures,” so in order to gain peace of mind, they would almost have to “re-conquer” their land. As Dr. Supplee sees it, “For the Argentines it is an issue of national pride. For the Argentine government, the only acceptable solution would be withdrawal of the British authorities and a return of the islands to Argentine sovereignty.”
Yet, unanswered questions remain. Spain did not regard the French release of the land as an act of secession at the time in 1767, and did not act accordingly. At a time when colonial ambitions solidified international aspirations, this dispute over colonial territories and the need to have the claim to be internationally recognized, would represent a valid strategy. But when countries have the choice to either remain dependent territories of more powerful countries, or gain their own independence, trying to possess another country against its will could appear to be both thankless and anachronistic.
Fate of a (Potential) Nation
The solution to the Falkland Islands conflict is not likely to be easily found in the near future. Until Argentina agrees to discuss other possible innovative options instead of only the reversion of sovereignty to its rule, Whitehall will not negotiate with the Argentine foreign ministry and will continue to ignore UN stipulations to the contrary, until the principle of self determination is recognized.