Do Unto Others: The 1982 South Atlantic Crisis
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first three installments of this series, we recalled the beginnings of the 1982 South Atlantic crisis; how it nearly escalated into full-scale war after the March 9th air attack on the the Operation Thunderbolt naval task force; the domestic political turmoil which engulfed the Galtieri junta after the air strike; and the Brighton Hotel conference that led the Thatcher government to increase its commitment to defending Britain’s claim on the Falkland Islands. In this segment, we’ll look back at the final collapse of the Galtieri regime.
April 2nd, 1982 was the day the chickens came home to roost for Leopoldo Galtieri. From the moment he’d first overthrown the civilian government of president Roberto Viola nearly four months earlier, he had ruled Argentina through a combination of bullying, deception, and bribery; he had ruthlessly crushed all internal opposition and sought to gain the upper hand over foreign adversaries-- Britain above all -- by whatever means were available to him. Now, as popular outrage over the junta’s repressive domestic policies and its failure to tell the full truth about the March 9th air strike approached critical mass, he would find his power base crumbling right out from underneath him at the worst possible time.
By now even some of the Argentine military senior officers who had previously supported Galtieri were beginning to call for him to step down as head of the government; just before the Escuela Nacional de Nautica mutiny, a rumor had started to circulate that Benjamin Rattenbach might be called out of retirement to replace Galtieri as head of the armed forces. While Rattenbach had no public comments to make about this rumor, privately he confided to some of his friends he was becoming more and more convinced each day some kind of fundamental overhaul at the top echelons of the Buenos Aires government was needed to keep Argentina from erupting into civil war.
It was a clear, sunny Friday morning in Buenos Aires-- weather that provided a stark contrast to the increasingly dark mood of the Argentine masses. The night before, bands of university and high school students had risked the Galtieri regime’s wrath to start a sit- in vigil outside the offices of the Argentine defense ministry; their aim was to force the ministry to disclose all the facts concerning the March 9th air strike, and despite the government security forces’ most diligent efforts to break up the vigil the students would not give up their protests. In fact, some of the very security personnel assigned to squelch the vigil ended up joining it instead-- such was the extent of their disgust with the junta in general and Galtieri specifically.
Meanwhile, a group of mutinous Argentine army officers was getting ready to take matters into its own hands. Later known as "the Cordoba Six" because they’d originally met in the industrial city of Cordoba, they intended to have Galtieri arrested and removed not only from his office as head of state but also from his post as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. They tapped Raul Alfonsin, a lawyer and prominent legislator as well as a vocal critic of Galtieri’s stance on the South Atlantic crisis, to take over the leadership of the government; late on the evening of April 1st, at least two of the Cordoba Six telephoned Benjamin Rattenbach and asked him if he would agree to serve as head of Argentina’s armed forces in a post-Galtieri administration. After a conservation lasting almost two hours, Rattenbach said he’d consider their proposal and give them an answer no later than 5:30 AM the next morning.
In truth, though, Rattenbach’s mind had already been made up the minute he first picked up the phone. If Galtieri stayed in office one more day, Rattenbach thought, civil war in Argentina wasn’t merely a possibility-- it was practically inevitable. Even before Rattenbach had started to get up to answer his phone, riots were erupting in half of Argentina’s major cities as confrontations between pro-junta and anti-junta factions became increasingly violent; two of the country’s leading Catholic priests had been assassinated after making statements critical of the Galtieri regime. There had even been some disturbing instances of anti-Semitism as members of Argentina’s Jewish community who spoke out against Galtieri were roughed up either by agents of the junta’s security forces or by local street toughs.1
At around 4:15 AM on the morning of April 2nd, Lieutenant General Rattenbach phoned the Cordoba Six and informed them he would take them up on their offer. From that moment on, Galtieri’s fate was sealed: within hours he would go from being the most powerful man in Argentina to being under house arrest. And once he was incarcerated, it wouldn’t take long for the junta he led to disintegrate.
It was just after 7:00 AM Buenos Aires time on the morning of April 2nd when the Cordoba Six implemented the first phase of their plan to oust Galtieri from power. Under the pretext of securing the Argentine interior ministry against a supposed terrorist threat, troops from the Argentine army’s 4th Parachute Brigade were dispatched to take control of the ministry offices and detain ministry officials either known or suspected to be sympathetic to the junta. An hour later, an Argentine air force transport jet brought Benjamin Rattenbach to Buenos Aires to await the second phase: the takeover of the Argentine defense ministry headquarters.
The capture of the defense and interior ministries was a work of art in terms of co-ordination and operational security. The guards whose job it was to prevent just such an occupation from taking place had almost no idea what was going on until anti-Galtieri forces were in complete control of both buildings; some of them even mistakenly believed at first that the takeovers were part of a move by the regime to protect itself against attempts by its opponents to overthrow it. It wasn’t until 10:04 AM, over two and a half hours after the Cordoba Six had first launched their plan, that Galtieri even began to suspect something was amiss-- and by then, the die was cast.
At 10:32 AM TV viewers in Buenos Aires who tuned in expecting to see the usual light fare of talk shows, telenovela soap operas, and children’s cartoons instead found themselves watching Raul Alfonsin standing in front of a microphone reading a prepared statement which announced that he was replacing Leopoldo Galtieri as head of state for Argentina’s government. Twenty minutes later Benjamin Rattenbach was ushered into the offices of the defense ministry to formally take over Galtieri’s post as commander-in-chief of the Argentine armed forces. Galtieri himself, outraged at what he deemed an unforgivable betrayal by Rattenbach and Alfonsin, tried to phone his secret police chief to have both men arrested only to discover that the presidential palace’s phone lines had been cut.
In a desperate final attempt to elude justice, Galtieri tried to flee the palace in his personal limousine only to be intercepted by a squad of Argentine marine troops deployed on Rattenbach’s instructions to forestall just such an escape attempt. By 1:45 PM that afternoon, Galtieri had been escorted back to his home under armed guard and was being detained there under house arrest. Realizing that the jig was up for them, the rest of the junta surrendered themselves to Rattenbach’s troops just after 2:10 PM. 45 minutes later, amid airtight security, Raul Alfonsin officially took the oath of office as the new Argentine president. Six years of military rule in Argentina had been ended in a surprisingly bloodless fashion.
In London the staff of Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher’s then-Foreign Secretary, followed the events in Buenos Aires with a wary but interested eye. They couldn’t be sure what the overthrow of Galtieri’s regime meant in the long run, but in the short term it was abundantly clear that the rules of the game were changing as far as the Falklands were concerned. Shortly after the BBC broadcast the news of Alfonsin’s inauguration as the new Argentine head of state, Carrington telephoned Thatcher at 10 Downing Street and arranged a meeting with the prime minister to debrief on the possible consequences for Britain’s policy regarding the South Atlantic crisis...
To Be Continued
 One such incident led to the arrest of a fugitive Nazi war criminal who’d been sought by West German authorities since escaping from prison thirty years earlier; he was deported back to West Germany and an additional twenty years tacked on to the life sentence he’d already been serving. He would commit suicide in 1993.