Reflections on the Special Relationship

John F. Lehman Jr.

But while warm words capture the headlines—and often the public’s imagination—the special relationship rests on far more concrete foundations. Whether it’s on Wall Street, in academia, or in government, extensive networks facilitate American and British collaboration. I first experienced it when I studied at Cambridge as an undergraduate in the 1960s. Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government had decided to do away with Royal Navy conventional aircraft carriers as no longer relevant, a determination that cost many British lives in the Falklands. I remember debating the subject in the Cambridge Union, and later in the Oxford Union, with facts provided to me by certain Royal Navy officials.

When it comes to the U.S. military, the special relationship is nothing less than a functional reality. At every rank and at every level, British and American personnel are inextricably linked on an everyday basis. So when, for example, the Falklands crisis broke, the U.S. Navy already had 50 people on exchange duty at British military headquarters at Northwood. The British, meanwhile, had a substantial presence at Norfolk backed up by the naval staff at the British Embassy. 3 This heavily integrated arrangement that the United States shares with no other ally offers an infrastructure that permits extraordinarily close cooperation. This can be rapidly intensified during a conflict. And that is exactly what happened after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982.

The Reality of American Support

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion it was inevitable that the United States would attempt some form of mediation. The Reagan administration believed strongly in improved relations in the Southern Hemisphere, seeking to block the expansion of Cuban/Soviet influence. The CIA was warning that, should Argentina lose militarily, President Leopoldo Galtieri’s government would likely fall and might be replaced by “a highly nationalistic military regime which establishes military ties with the USSR.” 4 We took the threat of greater Soviet influence in South America very seriously. So for much of April, Secretary of State Alexander Haig assumed the mantle of public neutrality and traveled between London and Washington seeking a diplomatic solution. And yes, on occasion even President Ronald Reagan urged Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to accept compromises that she found unpalatable.

Yet throughout this period of diplomacy, we never lost sight of the bottom line established by the president in the early days of the crisis. As the record shows, Haig made this very clear to Thatcher when he arrived in London for the first round of his shuttle diplomacy on 8 April: “The Secretary said that he was certain the Prime Minister knew where the President stood. We are not impartial.” 5 Anyone who doubts our stance might heed the words of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, the administration’s strongest advocate for the Argentine position. Asked years later whether the United States would have accepted a British loss in the conflict,

Kirkpatrick replied that President Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, “would simply not have permitted that to happen . . . they made it clear right from the beginning.” 6 Kirkpatrick was right. Even today, the full extent of our support for the U.K. is not fully understood. One obvious reason is that for a long time we were very reluctant to talk about it. With Haig’s supposed neutral diplomacy under way, our early efforts had to take place in extreme secrecy.

In mid-April, news reports that we had been providing satellite intelligence and fuel to Britain forced Haig to issue a denial. But the words he used bear careful inspection. The United States, Haig declared on 14 April, had “not acceded to requests that would go beyond the scope of customary patterns of cooperation.” 7 Those last four words—“customary patterns of cooperation”—would have meant

very little when applied to many allies, but when applied to relations with Britain, they meant a great deal. Put simply, they were cover for a huge operation already under way.

‘The Pentagon’s Perspective’

From the Pentagon’s perspective, support for the U.K. was immediate, thorough, and decisive. We met British requests from Day One in a manner that would have been impossible with any other ally. What observers often miss is that our support was built from the bottom up rather than the top down. There was no need for a political decision to be taken from on high. The structure of the special relationship ensured that the day the crisis broke, personnel from both countries were already working closely together at all levels. There was, one might say, already water flowing through the pipes. Following the Argentine invasion, all we had to do was to open the spigot.

When much more significant requests began to come in, starting just a day or two after the invasion, I went straight to Weinberger. We agreed that he would tell the president we planned to handle all these requests routinely without going outside existing Navy channels. In other words, we would leave the State Department, except for Haig, out of it. The next day Weinberger told me that President Reagan had approved our proposal without hesitation. His instructions had been simple: “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it.” Of the unity of purpose—and the real affection—between the president and the prime minister there was no doubt.

Early requests ran the gamut from fuel and logistical assistance to intelligence and Stinger surface-to-air missiles. 8 Those were handled routinely until they involved assets outside the Navy, which then required bringing in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Weinberger made it clear to them that he not only wanted British desires granted, but he wanted it done in a timely manner. Requests that would usually have to suffer through several tiers of bureaucracy were granted in days, sometimes hours. And to avoid unnecessary strain on the British purse, we transferred equipment that might be needed to U.S. depots on Ascension Island.

Only when the British actually drew a certain item from the U.S. store did they have to pay for it. 9 For those of us with experience in the usual trials and tribulations of defense procurement, this experience was nothing short of miraculous. The newest Royal Navy destroyer had not yet qualified its missile-firing capability, so we quietly invited her crew to stop by our missile-test range in Puerto Rico on its way south to help the ship qualify.

Secrecy, of course, was paramount both to avoid alienating Argentina and providing an opening for Moscow to urge its own assistance on Buenos Aires. We at the Pentagon were also conscious that not everyone in the administration shared our determination to help Britain. Consequently, I can say with some certainty that many high-level officials, including Kirkpatrick, had no idea of the scale of the effort under way. More disturbing, so tightly held was news of our assistance, it soon emerged that some in the British government were still in the dark.

On 3 May I arrived in London for a long-scheduled official visit. As fate had it, the very next day HMS Sheffield suffered an Exocet missile attack, and Britain lost its first ship of the conflict. That evening the British government hosted a dinner in my honor, which proved an understandably sober and emotional affair. By this stage my Royal Navy counterparts had made clear how grateful they were for everything we were doing. Indeed, I was recently gratified to read, in Lawrence Freedman’s authorized history of the Falklands, that the British Defence Staff in Washington had privately branded U.S. cooperation “truly marvelous.” 10 However, as I sat down in the grand surroundings of Lancaster House, I soon discovered little awareness of this in the higher echelons of the Ministry of Defence.

At dinner I was seated opposite Sir Frank Cooper, the permanent secretary at the ministry. He spent much of the evening sullen and silent. After the wine had loosened tongues, he began lamenting to his neighbor, in a voice intended for me to hear, that the Americans were “weaseling” and “as usual, were fair-weather friends, deserting Britain in her hour of need.” Before challenging him to a duel, it suddenly dawned on me that Cooper and other senior officials, perhaps including Prime Minister Thatcher herself, had no idea what the United States was really doing. When he found out some weeks later, he apologized.

With the collapse of the Haig shuttle effort and the administration’s public tilt in favor of the U.K., on 30 April the pace of our support only increased. Requests now came in for big-ticket items, including two Vulcan/Phalanx guns for HMS Illustrious and some 300 AIM 9L Sidewinder missiles. The latter were particularly important, because unlike their predecessors, they could be fired head-on at a target, an essential maneuver when defending against incoming Argentine planes. Other requests granted included 4,700 tons of airstrip matting, advanced communication systems, helicopter engines, and 20,000 sonobouys together with 200 Mk-46 torpedoes for use against Argentina’s one remaining operational submarine. 11

This lopsided ratio reflected just how important it was to protect the task force from submarine attack. Despite Britain’s launch of some 50 of the Mk-46 torpedoes, the Argentine sub evaded detection even though she was in among the Royal Navy fleet. 12 Marine life may not have been so lucky. It was, one might say, not a good time to be a whale in the South Atlantic. But no matter, because certain activities conducted by British intelligence prevented the Argentine sub from firing a single shot.

So extensive was American assistance that in mid-May we faced a near rebellion from the Joint Chiefs. In a memo to Secretary Weinberger, they expressed concern over “the long-term impact on our relations within the Hemisphere resulting from the changing nature and greater degree of assistance requested” by the British. 13 They feared the U.K. was receiving so much help that the Soviets might find easy takers for their own military matériel. Yet these concerns had little impact. President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger remained determined to provide the Brits with virtually anything they asked for. So great was the commitment to the cause that I was authorized to prepare a U.S. helicopter carrier, the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), for use by the Royal Navy should HMS Invincible or Hermes be lost. In the end, the voices dissenting from our all-out support were merely tactical ones having no effect, and virtually all the senior American officials understood the deep strategic value of the special relationship, reflected in overwhelming public support for the British effort.

Prime Minister Thatcher herself has written that without the skill and courage of the British Harriers “using the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile supplied by Caspar Weinberger, we could not have retaken the Falklands.” 14 When one considers that the Sidewinders were just one part of a massive program of U.S. assistance, the significance of this support is beyond doubt.

History Under Attack

Demonstrating the perils of relying too heavily on written archives, the long-accepted history of the Falklands conflict is under attack. As President Reagan’s secretary of the Navy I played a small role in the unlikely drama that unfolded in the South Atlantic. As I think back on my experiences, I find myself troubled by recent interpretations of the crisis. Here, I have tried to offer my own perspective, which I hope might go some way toward redressing the historical balance.

The Falklands conflict I remember was a textbook case of the special relationship in action. It was an example of Britain and America working side-by-side, epitomized by the close bond between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Britain took a stand on principle, and the United States provided the help expected of a close ally. That support led The Times of London to declare the United States “a friend indeed.” Or, as The Sun newspaper put it, in its own inimitable way, “Yanks a Million!” 15

But this view of the conflict, for years the settled consensus, is now being called into question. It has become increasingly fashionable to denigrate the relationship between President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. The personal warmth that seemed so obvious at the time was, we are now told, something of a charade. This view is in ready supply in a new book by Richard Aldous, a professor of British history and literature at Bard College, New York. Aldous has titled his book Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship . Drawing on a slew of recently declassified documents, he argues that efforts to put a positive public spin on the relationship “masked the reality of a complex, even fractious alliance.” 16

Aldous portrays the Reagan administration, desperate to preserve ties to Latin America, as deeply perturbed by the British approach to the Falklands conflict. This account fashions a new President Reagan, who, far from being supportive, looked on at Mrs. Thatcher with “anger and bafflement.” 17 And if one senior British minister is to be believed, the feeling was mutual. John Nott, the British Defence secretary during the conflict, has criticized the “incredible pressure” the United States exerted on Britain. “In so many ways,” Nott concludes, “[President of France FranÇois] Mitterrand and the French were our greatest allies” during the Falklands conflict. 18

Perhaps some lunatic stole Nott’s stationery. As he knew at the time, recently declassified documents confirm the French government did nothing to remove a team of French technicians, who remained in place with Argentine forces after the conflict began. 19 Those technicians enabled the Argentines to adapt and fire otherwise inoperable Exocet missiles, the weapon that ultimately killed so many brave British sailors.

Finally, the entire legacy of the Falklands conflict has been called into question. Nothing illustrates this better than comments from Sir Max Hastings. A journalist and historian, Hastings was embedded with British forces during the conflict. He has written extensively on the war, but more recently turned critic. Highlighting the £5 billion cost of defending the islands since 1982, Hastings has questioned the broader legacy. His conclusion? “30 years on, the war looks to me like a last imperial hurrah.” The new revisionism of Nott, Aldous, and others might be best characterized by a term much in favor when I lived in England, but now disappeared: a load of old codswollop.

Costs and Benefits

The conflict over the Falklands had many costs, both economically and lives lost. The direct price paid by the participants is well known; 255 British service personnel, 649 Argentines, and 3 Falkland Islanders died in the conflict.20 The United States, of course, suffered no such losses, but support for Britain did not prove cost-free. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, we had to grapple with considerable resentment in Latin America, although that did not last as long as some in the administration had feared. In one area, however, there was a more tangible and enduring effect. That was Nicaragua.

Ever since President Reagan came to office, his administration had set a high priority on countering Soviet and Cuban support of Marxist revolution in Latin America, including their principal cat’s-paw: the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. That Marxist group had seized power in 1979 and begun a military buildup we feared would be used to spread revolution beyond Nicaragua’s borders. In early 1982, President Reagan authorized the CIA to recruit and support the Contras, the rebel groups seeking to overthrow the Sandinista junta. 20 But we recognized that our assistance alone would not be enough. At this time we also urged Argentina to provide training to the Contras, which they agreed to do. The program was just getting under way when the Falklands crisis began.

The moment our support became public, Argentina’s assistance to the Contras stopped. It never restarted, and no other country chose to pick up the slack. Three years later, in 1985, Congress cut off funding for the Contras, placing their very survival in question. Desperate to keep the administration’s policy alive, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and others began to look for funding elsewhere, and the Iran-Contra scandal was born. For all this, I believe the broader legacy was a hugely positive one, both for those involved and the Western alliance as a whole.

For Britain, the Falklands experience established a clear and important principle: armed aggression cannot pay. Britain would defend the rights of its citizens across the globe to lawful and democratic remedies. In so doing, the U.K. transformed its standing in the world. That demonstration of courage and determination abroad, together with the economic recovery already under way at home, banished the image of Britain as the “sick man of Europe” so prevalent in the 1970s. Painful though it was, the conflict also benefited Argentina through the demise of its junta, a horrific regime that tortured and murdered thousands of its own citizens. Rather than falling under Soviet influence, Argentina put itself on the path to democracy.

At the Pentagon, we studied the Falklands experience intensely. As the first truly naval confrontation since the Pacific battles in World War II, numerous lessons were to be learned. They included, above all, the crucial importance of training, intelligence, and effective logistics. We also learned much about the limited survivability of smaller ships and the importance of defense in depth. With the help of our British colleagues, we tested a variety of options for defending ships against Exocets and improved our countermeasures accordingly. The longer-term effect of all this was a boost to U.S. and NATO capability, vital to the continued credibility of Western forces in the Cold War.

Fundamentally, the Falklands experience helped win the Cold War. While rarely acknowledged, Britain’s actions in the South Atlantic, with support from the United States, made a major contribution to breaking the will of the Soviet Union. Prior to the Falklands episode, Moscow had considered Europe a paper tiger. In the event of a Cold War conflict, the Soviets had assumed the Europeans would have neither the will nor the stomach to fight. Much of their contingency planning proceeded from that assumption.

Moscow watched developments in the South Atlantic with great interest. And I can say, based on highly classified documents that came across my desk, that Margaret Thatcher’s decision to fight for the Falklands came as a real shock to the Soviet leadership. It forced them to rethink their assumptions for Western Europe and begin to take NATO forces far more seriously. So the Falklands conflict became the perfect complement to President Reagan’s broader strategy of standing up to the Soviets and seeking peace through strength. Far from a “last imperial hurrah,” the successful Falklands campaign stands alongside the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Europe in 1983, the pursuit of a 600-ship U.S. Navy, and the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative as a crucial factor in convincing the Soviets that they were on the losing side of history. And for this, both President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher deserve enormous credit.

As Lady Thatcher once said herself, “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot” but “not without a little help from his friends.” 21 In my mind, few things were more helpful than British courage and determination in the South Atlantic 30 years ago.

1. Roy Jenkins, Churchill (New York: Macmillan, 2002), 650.

2. Anthony Seldon, Blair (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 373.

3. John Lehman, Command of the Seas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989), 274.

4. “Monthly Warning Assessment: Latin America,” 30 April 1982, CIA Archives (presented by Margaret Thatcher Foundation).

5. “Memcon: Secretary’s Meeting with Prime Minister Thatcher April 8: Falkland Islands Crisis,” 10 April 1982, National Security Archive, Washington, DC.

6. Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Falklands Roundtable,” 17 May 2003, Miller Center, University of Virginia.

7. Statement by Alexander Haig (14 April 1982), cited in The New York Times , 15 April 1982.

8. Sir Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign , vol. 2, (London: Routledge, 2005), 380; Lehman, Command of the Seas , 275.

9. Fred Ikle to Caspar Weinberger, “Delivering and Financing Materiel Support to the UK,” 10 May 1982, Papers of Caspar Weinberger, Library of Congress.

10. Freedman, Official History , vol. 2, 71.

11. Freedman, Official History , vol. 2, 384; Hayward to SecDef, “Falklands Crisis,” 15 May 1982, Papers of Caspar Weinberger, Library of Congress.

12. “Lessons of the Falklands: Summary Report,” February 1983, Department of the Navy, 8; Lehman, Command of the Seas , 285.

13. Hayward to SecDef, “Falklands Crisis,” 15 May 1982, Papers of Caspar Weinberger, Library of Congress.

14. Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 226. Cited in Max Hastings & Simon Jenkins, The Battle for the Falklands (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1983), 142.

15. Richard Aldous, Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2012), 2.

16. Aldous, Reagan and Thatcher , 103.

17. John Nott, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Memoirs of an Errant Politician (London: Politico’s Publishing, 2002) 305.

18. See Document (BBC Radio 4), 5 March 2012.

19. There is some dispute over the number of Argentine deaths, but these are the figures most often cited. See, for example, Daily Telegraph , 02 March 2012.

20. See “National Security Decision Directive #17,” 4 January 1982, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

21. Cited by John O’Sullivan, “Margaret Thatcher: A Legacy of Freedom,” 9 May 2008, Hillsdale College.



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