The chance conversation that helped Thatcher win her war
History looks inevitable because we’ve lived it; we think it happened that way because it had to happen that way.
But history is really a series of hinge points, choices taken and not taken, each of which could have changed the future a little. Even the most insignificant can make a massive difference.
Everyone knows, for instance, that the First World War was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Fedinand at Sarajevo. What most people forget is that the killing only happened after the assassination attempt proper had failed; and that the gunman Gavrilo Princip only got his chance on his way home, because the Archduke’s driver took a wrong turn and stalled the car.
Malcolm Fraser told me a story the other day of a moment when he may have almost unwittingly changed history – a story which he hasn’t told before, but which does appear in his new memoirs.
It happened in 1982, the year of the Falklands War. Argentina had invaded the islands – which Argentines have always referred to as the Malvinas – and Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had reacted with determined fury by announcing that Britain would take them back by force.
I was one of the ABC’s London correspondents at the time, with the job of covering a conflict several thousand kilometres away, to be fought over a collection of what looked like fly-specks on the map of the frigid South Atlantic. It seemed massively unlikely that Britain, which had been in steady retreat as a colonial power for half a century or so, could either win a military victory or persuade the world of its right to do so.
History remembers Margaret Thatcher as The Iron Lady, the woman who dismantled Britain’s post-war political consensus, stared down Europe and negotiated with Gorbachev.
In 1982 she was none of those things. Elected in 1979, she had begun her assault on Britain’s nationalised industries, but no economic dividends were yet forthcoming; to the growing numbers of unemployed, it seemed quite the reverse. Mrs Thatcher was also deeply unpopular in sections of her own party, even her Cabinet.
Thatcher’s Ministers leaked constantly, down to little things like the public-schoolboy nicknames they gave her: “Matron”, “The Great She-Elephant”, “She Who Must Be Obeyed”, and “Tina” (for her favourite phrase in argument, “There Is No Alternative”).
An election was due in 1983, and despite the doddering appearance and inability to talk in soundbites of the elderly Labour leader, Michael Foot, she was thought fairly likely to lose the next election and become a one-term Prime Minister.
Argentina’s Falklands Invasion had every likelihood of sealing her fate. It had been, after all, a massive failure of political and diplomatic intelligence by her own government that had let the Argentine military dictatorship take an undefended territory. Her Foreign Secretary, the affable Lord Carrington, admitted as much by resigning (incidentally, probably the last occasion on record of a Minister voluntarily and speedily accepting the full consequences of the Westminster Doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility; others might take note).
So this was the situation when Malcolm Fraser’s story begins: Britain poised to despatch an air, sea and land force across two oceans to re-take the islands, but with little support from anyone else in the international community. The United States under Ronald Reagan, in particular, vacillating, with a powerful faction arguing that the Monroe Doctrine – a 150 year old policy by which U.S. policy opposes European colonisation of the Americas – should apply, and that Washington should side with Argentina.
Mr Fraser takes up the story:
“Vice-President Bush (George HW Bush, father of George W Bush) was here in Australia. He was coming around to the lodge for a small dinner, but he came earlier for a discussion, a private one with me ... Jeane Kirkpatrick, American Ambassador to the UN at the time, was very actively saying “Monroe Doctrine, we should support Argentina” – we being the United States. And obviously in the discussions with Vice-President Bush, I said, well, you know, at some point “How powerful is Jeane?”. “Oh, she has a lot of influence”. “Well, is she going to win the argument?” “She may”. “Well, have you thought how your most important NATO ally in Europe will react? If you support Argentina against Britain, do you think Margaret Thatcher will just sit down and take it? Or do you think she’ll condemn the United States for being an unreliable ally from one end of Europe to the next, and if she ever gets to Washington again, she’ll do it from the heart of Washington also. And there are many people around the world who would think that she has great justice on her side. And what will be left ,what will be left of NATO; will you still have NATO at the end of that argument?”
Fraser says Vice –President Bush’s reaction was instantaneous:
‘He understood implications, he understood international affairs. He just looked at his watch and he said “Oh Malcolm, I think I’m going to spoil your dinner party”. It was about four minutes to seven. He said “The National Security Council are sitting down at 7 o’clock our time to discuss this very issue”’.
Q. ‘He raced off to call?’
‘Well, he sat down in my office and I suppose he put himself through communications systems in the American Embassy to make sure it was a secure call, and he came out about an hour and a half later, thumbs up: “It’s all right Malcolm, we’re supporting Margaret. And if you hadn’t keyed yourself into that meeting, Jeane would have won that argument in ten minutes”’.
If Malcolm Fraser is right, that short pre-dinner conversation may have changed the course of a war and a great deal more. Britain needed, more than anything, the tacit approval of the United States; and above all Mrs Thatcher needed to know that the US would not be supplying arms or intelligence to the military dictatorship in Buenos Aires. As Mr Fraser says now, “It shows how large events sometimes hinge on very slender threads. If you like, a total accident of time and circumstance”.
We can see now that much more than the future of a few thousand Falkland Islanders hinged on this moment. Had Argentina won, the country’s brutal military dictatorship would probably not have been overthrown in 1983. Had Britain been defeated, I am convinced that Margaret Thatcher would have lost the 1983 General Election – either to the Labour Party, or possibly the centrist Labour breakaway party, the now-forgotten SDP. For Britain, that would mean that Thatcherism – with its credo that “There is no such thing as society”, and its drive towards what Mrs Thatcher called a “property-owning democracy” – would be a hiccup in history. And on the international stage, without her, the Reagan-Thatcher axis which dominated western diplomacy in the 1980s would never have developed. I think it is even arguable that the fall of the Soviet Union might have been delayed.
Historians call these sorts of ‘what-if’ conjecture “counterfactuals”. Where you stand on this one obviously depends on what you think of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But it’s proof that in history, sometimes the footnotes are as well worth reading as the main body of the text.
You can listen to Malcolm Fraser tell the story here. It’s about 14 minutes in to the long (web) version of the audio.
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