Do Unto Others: The 1982 South Atlantic Crisis
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first four 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; the Brighton Hotel conference that led the Thatcher government to step up its commitment to defending Britain’s claim on the Falklands; and the final collapse of the Galtieri regime. In this closing chapter of the series, we’ll look at the end of the South Atlantic crisis and how the crisis changed both Britain and Argentine in the years since.
Raul Alfonsin’s first order of business as the new Argentine head of state following the overthrow of the Galtieri junta was to restore calm in the streets; with all the other troubles facing him, the last thing he needed was to have yet another wave of riots wreaking havoc on Argentina’s cities. His second order of business was to meet with his top military and foreign policy aides to discuss what options were open to Buenos Aires for resolving the South Atlantic crisis. With few exceptions, those advisors largely agreed the wisdom of attempting a straight armed takeover of the Falkland Islands at that point was, at best, debatable; the British had had too much advance warning of such of an attack and their military presence in the South Atlantic region had swelled to the point where any landing attempt by the Argentines could expect to sustain heavy casualties.
And even if such an assault succeeded in establishing a foothold in the Falklands-- which wasn’t a given --the blunt fact was, in the view of General Rattenbach’s senior aides, that a military occupation of the Falklands would result mainly in exacerbating the already quite serious damage done to Argentina’s reputation overseas by the actions of the now-deposed Galtieri regime. The Argentine army’s new chief of staff told Alfonsin that any deployment of troops to the islands would spell disaster for Buenos Aires.
The Argentine president then asked what diplomatic options were open to him. Those options, said the new Argentine foreign minister, were very few indeed. And most of them were also somewhat unpalatable from the point of view of national pride. But at this point, Alfonsin responded, Argentina’s national pride had already taken some painful hits, so what were a few more?
The debate went on for nearly five hours. At times it seemed as if Alfonsin and his cabinet would be stuck at the conference table for the rest of their lives trying to thrash out a solution to the crisis which the defunct junta had created. But after a number of other ideas had been considered and rejected, Alfonsin’s cabinet finally reached a consensus that Argentina’s best hope for extricating itself from the hole Galtieri had dug for it vis-à-vis the Falklands lay in submitting the question of jurisdiction over the islands to a neutral party for arbitration.
Following the adjournment of the meeting, Alfonsin’s foreign minister phoned the Argentine UN mission in New York and directed them to present the arbitration proposal to UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar at the earliest possible opportunity. A few minutes later, the UN mission contacted the Argentine embassy in Washington and asked them to send a copy of the proposal to the US State Department. From there, the arbitration proposal was presented to Prime Minister Thatcher and her cabinet via the U.S. embassy in London. After several hours of intense consultations with her senior advisors and with the Queen, Mrs. Thatcher finally decided to accept the arbitration offer-- much to the relief of Alfonsin and his own cabinet.
On April 4th, UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar announced that the opening session of the United Nations Special Committee for the Resolution of Territorial Claims in the Falkland Islands would be convened near the end of May. The South Atlantic crisis was finally coming to an end.
But though the crisis may have been over, the Thunderbolt task force’s mission certainly wasn’t; most of its ships would remain on station near the Falklands throughout the duration of the Special Committee’s hearings into the territorial dispute over the islands. And some would remain deployed in the South Atlantic long after the committee had rendered its judgment; in one particularly famous example, the submarine HMS Conqueror continued patrolling in the waters off the islands until June of 1989, when she was finally recalled by the Royal Navy for reassignment to the Persian Gulf.1
The Special Committee was a nine-member panel whose members were chosen from nations who Secretary General de Cuellar believed could be relied on to maintain a balanced view when comparing Great Britain’s claim on the islands to Argentina’s. In fact, the only person on the committee who was a citizen of a major power was its chief translator, a Frenchman who was fluent in both English and Spanish and a graduate of the Sorbonne.
It would not be an exaggeration, or at any rate not much of one, to say that the Special Committee was one of the dominant news stories in the British press during the latter half of 1982 and the first half of 1983. The Manchester Guardian alone saw fit to print no less than twenty-eight articles on the Committee during the first week of hearings. BBC radio and TV news programs carried the Special Committee’s opening session at length; a transcript of that session sold 500,000 copies in two weeks when it came out in paperback. Even the hit soap opera Coronation Street got in on the act, reworking one of its subplots to revolve around the characters’ attitudes towards the Committee.
Back in Argentina the deposed Leopoldo Galtieri, on trial for human rights violations committed during his rule as the country’s dictator and his career as an officer in the Argentine army, wrote a letter to a Mexico City newspaper in which he derided the Special Committee as "ridiculous" and "irrelevant". During his time in prison Galtieri had spent many hours brooding about the new government’s handling of the Falklands territorial dispute; he was convinced the Committee was a British front and said as much in his letter, calling on the army to restore him to power and arrest Alfonsin.
But few of Galtieri’s fellow Argentines were in a mood to listen to the general at this point. Many, in fact, wanted to hang him in the Plaza de Mayo, so bitter was their anger toward him and his peers in the late military junta. The army of which he’d once been unquestioned leader now considered him a joke at best and a disgrace to its uniform at worst; shortly after his arrest, in fact, he’d been stripped of his rank and the charges against him amended to include conduct unbecoming an officer.
Galtieri’s trial was televised live throughout Argentina, and excerpts of the TV coverage were shown at length in other countries, giving the outside world a heretofore unavailable first-hand look into the thinking of one of South America’s most notorious dictators. Not since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II had a court case against a deposed head of state captured the attention of so many people. At least two major motion pictures and a best-selling paperback thriller would be inspired by the Galtieri trial, and a documentary about the trial titled El General would net a surprise Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 1991.2
The prosecution of Galtieri lasted nearly six weeks, during which time what was left of his mystique was shattered once and for all. The trial exposed him for the petty, vindictive, egocentric tyrant that he truly was and alienated him from most of his few remaining defenders; one Argentine army colonel who’d been an admirer of Galtieri prior to the South Atlantic crisis and kept a portrait of the deposed dictator on his desk even after Galtieri was toppled became so disgusted with his former idol that at the end of the trial’s third week, he took the portrait off his desk and threw it in the trash.
Newspaper cartoonists throughout the world had a field day mocking the disgraced ex-dictator; none were mere consistent in doing so, or more vitriolic, than those who plied their trade in the post-Galtieri Argentine press. Freed from the crippling restrictions that had been placed on them by the deposed junta and from the constant harassment on its secret police, Argentine cartoonists trashed Galtieri every chance they got. One Buenos Aires cartoonist was particularly cruel in satirizing the general; in a cartoon printed during the final week of the trial, he even went so far as to suggest that Galtieri’s behavior during the South Atlantic crisis was caused by sexual impotence.
The world seemed to be holding its breath on the day the tribunal in the Galtieri announced its was ready to render its verdict. Would Galtieri somehow manage to dredge up a fraction of his old charisma and escape with the proverbial "slap on the wrist", or would the full wrath of the tribunal come down on him like a ton of bricks? In either case, Buenos Aires police were ready; riot squads were on standby and a van was waiting to take the ousted general to prison if he was found guilty on the charges against him.
He was. Of the sixteen criminal counts leveled at his original indictment, he was convicted on every one and sentenced to life in prison without hope of parole.3 The once supremely arrogant general was so stunned by the verdict that he had collapsed in a dead faint by the time the last "Guilty" was read out by the tribunal. He was in a near-catatonic trance when his guards escorted him to the waiting prison van; psychologically shattered by his fall from grace, Galtieri would commit suicide less than six weeks after he was incarcerated. There were few mourners at his funeral, a reflection of the seething hatred most of his fellow Argentinians had come to feel towards him during the short time he’d been in power.4
By contrast, his onetime main foreign adversary Margaret Thatcher was on the upswing since the end of the South Atlantic crisis. She had won re-election as Britain’s prime minister by a fairly comfortable margin, and her tough stance against the fallen Galtieri junta during the crisis had enhanced her prestige among Britain’s NATO allies. One man in particular lauded Thatcher’s decisiveness: US President Ronald Reagan, who in the fall of 1983 would follow her example when faced by his own island crisis after American medical students were trapped in Grenada after that country’s government collapsed. Shortly before he made the decision to launch Operation Urgent Fury, the rescue mission which would eventually topple Grenada’s Marxist regime and restore the rightful government to power, he phoned Prime Minister Thatcher to get her input on how best to make the operation work.
On the domestic front, Thatcher followed up her success in thwarting Galtieri’s attempt to seize the Falklands with a victory over National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill when he attempted to organize a strike of Yorkshire miners to prevent the closing of coal fields in that region. Underestimating Thatcher’s resolve and overestimating his own power, Scargill made a series of misjudgments that not only rendered his own union impotent but also set the entire British labor movement back at least two decades. He would pay dearly for his mistakes; in 1985 dissident NUM members engineered his resignation as general secretary.
In world affairs Thatcher became Reagan’s staunchest European ally in the final stages of the West’s Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union and his number one foreign backer in his tough stance against Middle Eastern terrorism. When the masterminds of the Achille Lauro hijacking were captured by a team of U.S. Navy SEALS during an attempt to flee to Tunisia, their capture was made possible partly through information about the hijackers’ movements passed on to the CIA through the defense attaché’s office at the British embassy in Washington. When Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya in 1986 after Libyan agents bombed a discotheque in Germany frequented by U.S. servicemen, those strikes were launched from bases on British soil and partially aided by RAF tanker planes which refueled the strike force in mid-flight. Thatcher heartily endorsed Reagan’s hard-line stance on arms control vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and was also one of the first NATO heads of state to congratulate him following his 1984 re- election and his historic "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin in 1987.
By the time Thatcher finally left office in 1990, Germany had reunified under a democratic government; the Warsaw Pact was on the verge of extinction; freely elected civilian governments were mainly the rule rather than the exception in Latin America; and Britain was joining forces with her onetime adversary Argentina as part of a vast U.S.-sponsored international coalition which had been organized to fight Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein after Saddam’s unprovoked attack on and occupation of his neighbor Kuwait.
The fall of the Galtieri regime and the return of civilian rule in Buenos Aires had opened the doors for Argentine lawmakers to enact sweeping reforms to their country’s political system which they hoped would prevent another junta-like dictatorship from seizing power. The last time, the legislators agreed, had been bad enough. In January of 1983 Argentina’s national legislature, the National Congress, held a special session to vote on a constitutional amendment which would ban actively serving members of the armed forces from holding any kind of political office; the amendment passed unanimously.
The session also approved tough new legislation requiring strict civilian oversight of the Argentine military. This measure was meant in part to keep generals from accumulating the kind of personal life- or-death power Galtieri and his predecessors had managed to accrue for themselves in the past, and for the most part it’s been successful in accomplishing that aim. Few if any people today can imagine anything remotely resembling a successful military coup happening in Argentina. The Argentine armed forces themselves instituted extensive measures to ensure that their generals didn’t make another attempt to grab power in the future; psychological screening procedures were tightened and the oath administered to newly commissioned officers was amended to include a pledge to "uphold and defend the sanctity of constitutional law"-- i.e., civilian government. And at Argentina’s major military academies, incoming cadets were required to take courses highlighting the abuses the Galtieri regime and its predecessors had committed in the years when the country was under junta rule.
Where Argentina’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen will fight the country’s next major war is open to question, but it is unlikely to be in the Falklands. In May of 1983, just over thirteen months after the Galtieri regime was overthrown, the UN Special Committee for the Resolution of Territorial Claims in the Falkland Islands issued its final ruling; by a narrow margin the Committee had decided in favor of Great Britain. There were some protest marches in Argentina over the decision, but the government chose not to contest the decision--having narrowly averted a potentially costly war with Britain once already and needing to finish getting Argentina’s economic house in order, the government in Buenos Aires was not about to push its luck. Indeed, many Argentines, particularly those on the far left of the political spectrum, had grown to the conclusion that trying to wrest the islands from Britain’s grasp would be more trouble than it was worth.
Nonetheless a sizable number of Argentine tourists still visit the islands each year to see what all the fuss was about and to pay their respects to the men lost in the unsuccessful March 9th, 1982 air strike on the Operation Thunderbolt task force. For that matter, some Thunderbolt veterans can be seen making visits to the islands; their most frequent destination is the granite cenotaph erected in Port Stanley in 1985 to honor the Royal Navy personnel killed in the air strike. Undoubtedly all these visitors must, at some point in their journey, contemplate how things might have been different over the last 28-odd years had the standoff between Mrs. Thatcher and General Galtieri over the Falklands escalated into a full-scale war...
 The Conqueror would subsequently see action in the Gulf War, drawing international headlines and earning commendations for her crew from Prime Minister Thatcher when she successfully attacked and sank an Iraqi guided missile ship just after the war began.
 It also got blockbuster cable TV ratings on HBO when it aired as a three-part miniseries a year later.
 The chief prosecutor at Galtieri’s trial had originally recommended a sentence of death by firing squad, but this recommendation was changed after concerns were expressed that such an execution might be used by right-wing extremists as justification for starting an uprising against the Alfonsin government.
 One Buenos Aires newspaper, in fact, headlined its obituary of the ousted general with the caption “Good riddance, you bastard”, demonstrating that sometimes people are not only willing but eager to speak ill of the dead.