Do Unto Others: The 1982 South Atlantic Crisis
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two installments of this series, we recalled the beginnings of the 1982 South Atlantic crisis and how that crisis nearly escalated into full-scale war after the March 9th air attack on the Operation Thunderbolt naval task force. In this chapter weíll look back on the domestic turmoil that engulfed Argentina after the March 9th air strike and the British effort to bulk up the islandsí defenses against the Argentine threat as the South Atlantic crisis approached its climax.
If disputes between nations were boxing matches, the protest rallies held in Buenos Aires on the evening of March 9th, 1982 would have been scored as a body blow to the Galtieri regime. Anger at the Galtieri junta, which had been simmering for a long time even before the South Atlantic crisis, hit the boiling point when it became clear that the regime wasnít telling the truth about the results of the air strike on the Operation Thunderbolt task force. "Quieramos el historia verdad!"(We want the true story!) was the demonstratorsí rallying cry as they marched up from Plaza Centenario towards the Plaza de Mayo to voice their outrage at the Argentine governmentís transparent attempts to gloss over the massive casualties the air strike had incurred.
But not all of the demonstrators were civilian; some of the marchers making their way toward Plaza de Mayo were Argentine air force personnel upset they werenít being given a full account of what had happened to their comrades-in-arms in the ill-fated attempt to take out the British task force in the South Atlantic. "Di la verdad!" (Tell the truth!) the airmen chanted, echoing the civilian protestorsí cries of "Quieramos el historia verdad!". Hard as it was for Galtieri to stomach civilians speaking out against him, the sight of members of his own armed forces participating in such actions was in his eyes an intolerable insult and he vowed to avenge the slight at any cost.
Accordingly, just after 2:00 AM local time on the morning of March 10th, Argentine security forces deployed along the outer edges of Plaza de Mayo with orders to detain or shoot the demonstrators if they did not immediately end their protests. Foreign journalists covering the demonstrations braced themselves for the worst, knowing that internal political disputes in Argentina could(and all too often did) lead to violence. Sure enough, within minutes the security forces were tear-gassing the demonstrators and Argentine air force MPs were moving in with machine guns to shoot airmen who resisted arrest; the protestors, civilian and air force alike, reacted by throwing rocks, bottles, and anything else they could get their hands on. During the confrontation, a Belgian TV cameraman was fatally wounded by a stray bullet.
By 5:30 AM at least twenty demonstrators and five bystanders had been killed; dozens of other protestors were either jailed or in the hospital and two police officers were recovering from gunshot wounds. At 6:15 the Galtieri junta declared martial law in Buenos Aires and its suburbs, and before the clock struck 9:00 a number of prominent Galtieri critics had either been arrested or fled across the border to seek asylum in Brazil. The last demonstrators were evicted from Plaza de Mayo just before 11:30.
At 2:00 PM on the afternoon of March 10th Galtieri made a televised speech defending his governmentís actions in dealing with the Plaza de Mayo demonstrators. He darkly hinted that next time the junta might be even harsher in snuffing out opposition to its rule; this was no idle threat, given the incredibly brutal actions he and his predecessors had already taken to date in what was called the "dirty war" against left-wing critics of military rule in Argentina. In fact, even before the Plaza Centenario demonstration started operatives of the infamous Batallůn de Inteligencia 601(a special Argentine army intelligence unit that served as the "tip of the spear" in the juntaís campaign to crush dissent) had firebombed the offices of a student newspaper that had printed a number of editorials critical of the regime in general and the regimeís handling of the South Atlantic crisis in particular.
But Galtieriís attempt to intimidate his domestic opponents would backfire just as badly as his efforts to bully his foreign foe Britain had done. Far from intimidating his critics, Galtieriís threats ended up galvanizing them to speak out more boldly than ever against him; even some people who had supported the junta in the past started to question whether Galtieri should remain in power. On March 14th, two major Argentine newspapers-- one of whom had long been staunchly pro-Galtieri --published editorials condemning his decision to use force to break up the Plaza de Mayo rally. That same day a retired Argentine army lieutenant general, Benjamin Rattenbach, drafted a top secret memo known as "the Rattenbach report" that warned Argentina was in danger of being plunged into civil war if the government continued to resort to violence in dealing with its internal critics.
Thousands of miles away, the British government was having serious political problems of its own. While there were no major outbreaks of violence even close to the scale of what had happened when Galtieriís junta suppressed the Plaza de Mayo and Plaza Centenario demonstrators, the Thatcher government did find itself having to confront some minor instances of unrest as British critics of Margaret Thatcherís decision to send combat forces to the South Atlantic vented their outrage over the casualties the Operation Thunderbolt contingent had sustained in the March 9th Argentine air strike. In Hyde Park, close to ten thousand protestors-- some of them Thatcherís fellow Conservatives-- gathered for a rally demanding an independent inquiry into the chain of events leading up to and including the air strike.
The fallout from the Argentine air raid on the Thunderbolt task force was just the latest in a series of domestic and international problems which threatened to cost Prime Minister Thatcher her office. Thatcher had to cope not only with Argentine aggression and the threat posed by the Soviet presence in eastern Europe but also with mounting social unrest among Great Britainís ethnic minorities and militant labor agitators like Arthur Scargill. Many of Thatcherís senior aides and advisors were concerned that if the South Atlantic crisis wasnít satisfactorily resolved soon, the next casualty of the air strike just might be her government.
That was not a prospect the Conservative Party upper echelons relished; something had to be done to calm down the hornetís nest the March 9th air strike had stirred up. On March 15th, the day after the Rattenbach report was written, Thatcher and her top diplomatic and military advisors met at the Grand Hotel in Brighton for a conference on what should be done to handle the fallout from the Argentine raid. The conference lasted nine hours, during which at least one of Mrs. Thatcherís senior Ministry of Defence aides threatened to submit his resignation.
In the end, two very crucial decisions emerged from that tense meeting. The first was to step up the British governmentís military commitment to defend the Falklands against the Argentine threat; the second, and perhaps more important, was to give the green light for the establishment of an independent panel to investigate the chain of events leading up to and including the March 9th air strike.
While the panel was beginning its inquiry, Royal Army engineers were being dispatched to the Falklands to construct a bona fide runway at Port Stanleyís main airport. Their objective: to make the airport a suitable base for RAF fighters and tactical strike aircraft like the British Aerospace Buccaneer and the McDonnell-Douglas Phantom. They were part of a comprehensive overall effort to turn the islands into what one ITV news commentator would later dub "Fortress Falklands."
Another element of this effort was the transfer of a considerable number of RAF Harriers from their normal duties in other parts of the world to the South Atlantic theater; there was also a sharp increase in the number of SAM batteries in the area, and many of the new SAM emplacements were equipped with the lethally accurate Rapier missile.
It was the introduction of the Rapiers that particularly worriedthe Argentine general staff; they knew that the stronger British air defenses in the Falklands got, the slimmer the chances would be of the Argentine armed forces being able to mount a successful occupation of the islands. In modern warfare, no invasion can succeed without proper air support, and the augmentation of British SAM defenses meant that Argentine air strikes against the Falklands ran the risk of sustaining heavy casualties. A naval officer who was attached to the Argentine defense ministry headquarters in Buenos Aires at the time would later recall in an interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that it was right around this time when Galtieriís plans for armed takeover of the Falklands would begin to collapse once and for all.
In public the generals who ran the Galtieri junta continued to actas if ultimate Argentine triumph in the South Atlantic crisis were a foregone conclusion. Behind closed doors, however, their bravado was starting to evaporate like dew from the pampas grass on which cattle grazed at Argentinaís ranches. In spite of Galtieriís best efforts to intimidate her, Mrs. Thatcher had not backed down in her confrontation with him over the Falklands-- if anything, she seemed more determined than ever to defend Britainís claim to the islands.
Meanwhile, the domestic confrontation between the Galtieri juntaand its internal critics was continuing to escalate. On March 23rd, eight days after the Thatcher cabinetís Brighton Hotel conference, riot police and anti-junta protestors clashed outside the headquarters of the Argentine interior ministry; dozens of people were killed and dozens more injured in the clash. Four days after this melee, cadets at the Escuela Nacional de Nautica maritime academy staged a mutiny to protest the governmentís failure to disclose the complete truth either about the body count on the March 9th air strike or about its handling of the demonstrations at Plaza Centenario and Plaza de Mayo.
But the most dramatic developments were still to come. On themorning of April 2nd, 1982, a chain of events would unfold that would end Galtieriís reign as head of Argentinaís ruling junta-- and lay the groundwork for the collapse of the junta itself...
To Be Continued