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Falklands-Malvinas war 1982: Thatcher's War Of Saving Face
TWENTY YEARS ago in 1982, British imperialism's war with Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas islands burst out like a sudden storm.
This minor war between two fading second or third division powers, cynically described as "two bald men fighting over a comb", only lasted ten weeks. But it killed 255 British servicemen and some 800 Argentineans.
The US State Department called the Falklands/Malvinas - isolated rocks (population 1,800 of British extraction) thousands of miles from Britain - a 150 year old "pimple on the ass". British imperialism obtained them in the 1830s and settled them as a colonial outpost to command the sea routes through the South Atlantic.
Our paper, Militant, predecessor of The Socialist, opposed Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher's war, which was fought overwhelmingly to defend British prestige and power.
A military dictatorship had seized power in Argentina in 1976. This military junta conducted a "dirty war" against the working class, creating tens of thousands of "disappeared" people who became victims of torture and murder.
Fifty years of working-class gains were largely wiped out, real wages being slashed as Milton Friedman's monetarist policies were tested out in the interests of finance capital.
But by 1982 the Argentinean junta was forcing the lid down on a head of steam. A series of general strikes had broken out. On 30 March, just three days before the attack on the Falklands/Malvinas, tens of thousands of young people and workers had defied the military in protests against unemployment, growing poverty and attacks on trade union and democratic rights.
To cut across this revolutionary class movement, junta leader Galtieri invaded the islands on 2 April whipping up support under the nationalist slogan "reclaim the Malvinas". Galtieri's plans worked for a while - 200,000 celebrated in Buenos Aires that April.
In response Thatcher immediately despatched a naval task force to oppose this. Her government knew of the junta's invasion plans 11 days before it happened. Galtieri had been rattling sabres for months with no response from the Foreign Office.
Who armed the junta
THATCHER CAME to power in Britain in 1979 with similar "neo-liberal" policies to the junta, devastating manufacturing industry and attacking its powerful and militant workforce. Thatcher and the junta were then in sympathy.
Capitalist governments in USA and Europe pushed money into civil projects such as oil exploration. They saw dictatorships in Argentina and Chile as bulwarks of capitalist stability against "subversion".
British firms sold the junta arms from day one - against the wishes of many British trade unionists. British soldiers were coming under fire from Argentinean forces firing ammunition and steering ships and planes supplied by British firms amongst others.
Thatcher stepped up these sales right up to ten days before the invasion and built trade links with the dictatorship. Arms manufacturers' shares rose rapidly with military equipment and electronic stocks doing particularly well. But Thatcher also banged the nationalist drum when Galtieri invaded.
We opposed the junta's invasion, done in the interests of financiers and capitalists who wanted control of oil and other resources and also to head off a revolutionary movement against Galtieri's regime.
But we also opposed Thatcher's task force, preparing for a war to avenge British imperialism's enormous loss of face.
Despite the 'company island' nature of the Falklands (see box), the Tories invoked the islanders as a reason for fighting. Socialists couldn't ignore the islanders' fate - the islands were being run by a veteran of the dirty war in Argentina.
"The Falkland Islanders were quite understandably opposed to Argentine sovereignty if that meant the same 'rights' for them that it meant for ordinary workers in Argentina itself", we recognised as the Task Force set sail.
But Militant commented: "Workers can give no support whatsoever to the lunatic adventure now being prepared by the Thatcher government. The trade unions could stop Thatcher dead in her tracks."
In those days, well before Blair transformed Labour into an openly capitalist party, the Left in the party was large. We said: "Labour must demand a general election in order that a Labour government can support and encourage workers' opposition in Argentina."
We opposed Thatcher's war, waged to keep up the prestige of a moth-eaten former "great power", British capitalism. The working class, whether in Britain or in Argentina, would win nothing. We opposed the Labour front bench's class collaboration - they supported Thatcher and her war against Argentina.
As an alternative to Thatcher's war, we called for international class action against the junta such as trade union blacking of trade.
AS THE war developed, there were many horrific incidents. The Argentinean cruiser Belgrano was sailing away from the islands when it was sunk by British guns. This was followed by the sinking of HMS Sheffield by Argentinean forces.
Thatcher refused all offers of mediation in the dispute. British capitalism needed to show that it was still a world power, with the military might to dominate at least minor forces.
Tory propaganda echoed Churchill's speeches during the blitz. Her talk about defending democracy against dictatorship was totally hypocritical. Thatcher's war with Argentina sent her closer to Latin America's other major dictator - Pinochet of Chile who had his own quarrels with the Argentine junta.
The technical superiority of the British forces defeated the junta. Thatcher, the most hated prime minister in Britain's history with huge job losses and service cuts, gained tremendously from what was seen as a successful conflict.
The mass unemployment and destruction of capital had led to rioting the previous year. Yet, from a terrible position in the polls, the Tories swept to a landslide victory in the 1983 general election.
US imperialism under right-wing president Reagan saw this war as a fight between two "allies" - both declining economic powers. Reagan only sided with Britain reluctantly as Britain was a more central part of US imperialism's worldwide plans rather than just in their plans for Latin America. They were afraid though what effect the war would have on Argentina.
When Argentina's forces surrendered and left the islands on 15 June, Galtieri went two days later and within a few months, a fragile 'democracy' was restored.
Yet, as we argued at the time, if one of Britain's aircraft carriers had been sunk during the task force's manoeuvres around the islands, the war could have been a lot longer and far bloodier. That could have made Thatcher extremely unpopular.
As it turned out Thatcher lasted another eight years in office when she over-reached herself trying to 'do another Falklands' and impose the poll tax (see The Socialist 5 April).
In The Socialist 3 May 2002: