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Fraser and the Falklands

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17 March 2010 08:10

Margaret Simons is co-author of Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs. Below, she responds to my post from 3 March, which questioned an anecdote Mr Fraser related in an interview, about the influence he had on the Reagan Administration's policy on the Falklands War. 

Fraser claimed that, during a pre-dinner meeting in Canberra, he convinced Vice-President Bush that the US should back Britain. According to Fraser, Bush then excused himself so that he could phone Washington, to address a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). He got NSC's agreement to back the UK, despite one faction, led by UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, wanting to invoke the Monroe Doctrine. Bush then returned to dinner to tell Fraser that 'if you hadn’t keyed yourself into that meeting, Jeane would have won that argument in ten minutes.'

When Fraser first told me about his conversation with Bush Snr, I was sceptical, not least because the timing seemed wrong. When I told Fraser that his story would mean that the NSC would have met in the early hours of the morning, he held firm to his memory, but we agreed I should do all possible checking before we used the anecdote in the book.

First, I checked that Bush was indeed in Canberra on the day in question. He was. He addressed the National Press Club on 30 April. Fraser's diary reveals that he did have dinner with him that night; 30 April was also the day US Secretary of State Alexander Haig held a media conference after an 'emergency meeting' (The Age) of the NSC. This very basic confluence of dates was itself some corroboration of Fraser's memory.

Now, I know that in his interview with Mark Colvin, Fraser said that the conversation with Bush took place at around 7pm – which would make it 5am in Washington. When he first mentioned it to me, he did not put a precise hour on the conversation, but recalled that Bush's making the call to the NSC disrupted the dinner, and also that Bush was out of the room making the phone call for about an hour and a half.

Fraser's diary is not specific enough to say when this would be, but a couple of things make me think that dinner was probably later than 7pm – more like between 8pm and 10pm, or between 6am-8am in Washington. In any case, at the outside we can say that the Bush phone call to Washington must have been between 5-8am Washington time. It is also possible of course that the call began before the NSC meeting, and that Bush spoke to people before the meeting got underway. But that is just speculation.

So then I tried to find out what time the NSC meeting was held. This was unexpectedly difficult to pin down, however a few matters make it clear that it was  an early meeting, and an emergency meeting.

First, Haig's media conference announcing the shift in US attitude was after the 'emergency meeting' but before lunch, because by the time Reagan had lunch later that day, the news was already well and truly out, and had been absorbed by the press pack. I attach two news reports, both published 1 May but datelined 30 April, that report Haig's media conference and events surrounding it. One is from the NY Times, and is footnoted in the book. The other is from The Age.

Also see this transcript of Reagan talking to newsmen at 12.59 on the 30th of April, in which Haig's announcement is referred to as having happened 'this morning'. The NY Times on the same day published a transcript of Haig’s remarks, datelined 30 April, which it describes as having been made 'this morning'.

Again, it has proved very hard to determine exactly what time in the morning this was, but the standard White House press briefings at that time were usually at 9.30am.

So, it seems that by at the latest mid-morning of 30 April, the key decision to support Britain had not only been made, but Haig had a prepared statement which he read out, in which both the substance and detail of the decision to suspend all military exports to Argentina, and other sanctions, and to 'respond positively' to requests for materiel support from Britain, was all laid out. This supports the idea that the decision itself was made relatively early in the morning.

I also found in the Thatcher archives a dinner-time speech which she gave in Britain on 30 April, in which she says:

Nor, as we learn especially today, this evening, has our friendship with the United States changed. It is once more in full bloom again (hear, hear) (applause). We are very grateful indeed to Mr Haig for his strenuous efforts to seek peace. But you know it is not always easy between a dictatorship which stands for subjugation of the people and a democracy which only flourishes by the wishes of the people.

Washington is five hours behind Britain. If Thatcher was making a dinner-time speech in which she mentions the shift in the US attitude, this corroborates the other evidence that Haig's statement was made early in the day – in time to be absorbed and commented on by lunchtime, Washington time, and evening in the UK.

Finally, there is the amazing Jim Rentschler's diary, available here on the Thatcher Archives website. Rentschler was the White House official responsible for handling the Falklands, and he accompanied Haig on his shuttle diplomacy leading up to 30 April. 

Rentschler was at the NSC meeting in question. Sadly he does not give a time for the meeting, but he does give a detailed account, which I have copied below. So far as the degree of Bush and Fraser's influence is concerned, the diary entry is not enlightening, and might be read as going against the idea that Bush's intervention was influential. Rentschler describes the conversation as 'desultory, with future historians unlikely to extract any zingers'.

Rentschler describes, and gives a transcript of, the record of the resolutions that were announced by Haig later that morning:

If ever a ship was in the sand, Haig's "peace shuttle" is it. The moment of South Atlantic truth is upon us this morning, and while I derive some faint satisfaction that a Reagan-chaired NSC comes down on the policy option I favor, that feeling ain't gonna do much for our interests in the Hemisphere. The discussion in the Cabinet Room is desultory, with future historians unlikely to extract any zingers from the verbatim I prepared later in the day (with the possible exception of Jeane Kirkpatrick's half-assed idea that "The Argentines will do anything to avoid war, they don't want it, they'll slip out of it, I would even anticipate a UN démarche which will settle the issue this weekend"; to which the President responds "Wouldn't it be nice if, after all these years, the UN actually did something to promote peace?").

There are a number of specific actions which emerge from this morning's exchange, and are you ready for this? – there is even a decision to make them a matter of permanent record – surely an unprecedented move for this NSC! Hence the draft NSDD I do up for circulation to principals entitled "U.S. Actions In The South Atlantic Crisis": "Pursuant to the decisions reached at the meeting of the National Security Council of April 30, 1982, we are taking, effective immediately, the following actions in connection with the dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland Islands:

  • Issuance of an NSC-approved press statement which summarizes the U.S. position in the South Atlantic crisis and includes an explicit pro-UK tilt and the announcement of concrete steps underscoring US determination not to condone the use of unlawful force to resolve disputes.
  • The suspension of all military exports to Argentina. This action covers deliveries of all items in the pre-1977 – i.e., pre-Humphrey-Kennedy– FMS pipeline, primarily affecting spare parts in the amount of $3.9 million; it also covers the issuance of export licenses for Munitions List items (which will affect non-government as well as government end-users, thereby reaching a category not previously covered by Humphrey-Kennedy).
  • The withholding of certification of Argentine eligibility for military sales (which includes the US decision not to act on license requests for dual-use items and related COCOM-type material).
  • The suspension of new Export-Import Bank credits, insurance, and guarantees;
  • The suspension of Commodity Credit Corporation guarantees (which affects agricultural products worth approximately $2 million).
  • A private warning to Argentina that the measures announced do not encompass the full range of economic sanctions which the US has at its disposal and which could be applied depending on circumstances (note: under existing statutory proscriptions, third-country transfers of munitions and related items are already covered).

The other notable thing about the Rentschler diary (written shortly after the events described) is that, while it does not give a time for this meeting, the previous entries make it clear that it was not at all unusual for  key bodies and decision makers to meet at all hours of the day and night during this crisis. Indeed, he often comments on the lack of sleep, and the sense of urgency is palpable.

On the other hand, and against the idea that Fraser and Bush's intervention on 30 April was crucial, the possible damage to NATO from a US decision to back Argentina or remain neutral was clearly in Haig and Rentschler's mind from mid-April onwards, with Rentschler strongly favouring backing Britain.

In his entry of 16 April, Rentschler signals what the NSC meeting of 30 April will decide, and describes it as an endorsement of his own ideas of what should be done. But the attitude of Kirkpatrick, and the fact that Reagan's own mind was not made up, is also clear.

So, that is as far as I got. Fraser and I thought the record corroborated Fraser's memory sufficiently to include the anecdote. The extent to which his conversation with Bush, and Bush's call to the NSC, was decisive is more than I can say. Bush may have been flattering his host when he told Fraser that it had been decisive. Or Bush may have overstated or overestimated his own influence. Or the call may indeed have helped tip the balance between the competing considerations that Rentschler's diary identifies as preoccupying the Administration.

There is one way in which more information could be obtained. See this webpage, part of the Reagan archives. Under 'White House Staff and Office Files' there is Box 91284, which seems to be a record of the National Security Meeting in question. The budget for our book did not extent to a trip to the USA for me to go and see what's there.

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