Did an Historical Analogy Lead Britain to Go to War in the Falklands?

tags: britain, Falklands Crisis

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum, Diplomacy Program, Tel Aviv University


Historical analogy is often used by decision-makers when faced with a new situation. As they shape foreign policy, decision-makers resort to history as a ready-made means to learn from it and/or as a tool to be deployed in diplomacy. Historical analogy helps them understand better a new event, although they might on occasion reach the wrong conclusions from it. That's why they also use it in attempting to elicit support: historical comparisons can be an effective tool in persuading both the domestic and foreign audiences of the rightness of their stance. Thus, historical analogy can be both a cognitive means to cope with a foreign policy crisis and a marketing device to elicit support.  

When the Falklands/Malvinas crisis erupted on the 2nd of April 1982, as a result of the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas islands, historical images played an important part in the shaping of Britain's response to it.

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister during the crisis, resorted to historical analogy in order to stress what she would not do. History represented a guide to her in order to avoid doing things her predecessors did.

Thus, she emphasized to Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State who served as mediator between Argentina and Britain, she would refuse to adopt a similar attitude to that of Neville Chamberlain, the architect of the policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. A different attitude would be displayed towards the Argentinean dictator in 1982 than towards the German dictator in 1938, she stressed. Thus, in this case, Thatcher both drew a lesson from this historical analogy and made use of it in order to emphasize her stance and persuade her interlocutor.  

No less pronounced was the image of the Suez Crisis of 1956 among the key British decision-makers.

The Suez Crisis cast a shadow in the background of the decision-making process. For Thatcher, it constituted a blot in British History that must be remedied and never repeated. For others in the War Cabinet, the Suez Crisis represented a warning sign: if the Task Force is sent to the Falklands Islands, and diplomacy fails, force must be used without hesitation so that the failure of Suez is not repeated in the South Atlantic.

The Suez Crisis was thus paradoxically both a call for caution and for will.

It's interesting to note, in this context, that historical analogy played an important part in the shaping of policy during the Suez Crisis as well.

As it did with Thatcher herself during the Falklands Crisis, the image of the policy of appeasement of the 1930s loomed largely among the key decision-makers, such as Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Having lived through the events of the 1930s and 1940s, British politicians were prone to draw on the events of those years to highlight the danger represented by then Egyptian President, Gammal Abdel Nasser. Indeed, the Labour opposition was no less explicit in its historical analogies with Nazi Germany than the Conservative Party then in power. Similarly to Thatcher, Eden found the analogy to the 1930s both intellectually instructive and diplomatically useful. He used it, for instance, in his correspondence with then US President Dwight Eisenhower.  

Decision-makers tend to make historical comparisons with events that either they or their parents have lived through. Thus, during the Falklands Crisis, the two main events drawing historical analogy from British ministers was the policy of appeasement of the 1930s and the Suez Crisis of 1956.

In a sense, it can be argued that the repercussions of the two analogies were different. Whereas the comparison with the appeasement policy in the 1930s entailed a decision to do things differently, the comparison with the Suez Crisis of 1956 implied not only a decision to do things differently, but also an expectation that a third party, i.e. the United States, should behave differently than it did during the Suez Crisis.

In other words, for the Suez Crisis not to be repeated, the United States, and not only Britain, would need to conduct itself differently than it did then.

In 1956, the United States said it agreed, in principle, with Britain's stance opposing the unilateral nationalization of the Suez Canal Company by Egypt. However, both in private and in public, the US Administration stressed it was equally opposed to the use of force aimed at reversing it. Such a stance did not help enhance the chances of success of the diplomacy then being conducted by the United States aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the crisis. After all, if Nasser knew that the US was opposed to the use of force, why should he concede?  

When Britain and France did resort to force, the United States came out vehemently against them, in a manner not seen among those allies either prior or since Suez. Ultimately, this led to the British deciding to quit before they had finished their military undertaking.

The Suez Crisis became a national trauma in the British collective conscience. Suez became a by-word for national humiliation. The British decision-makers in 1982 were determined not to repeat it. Winston Churchill is quoted as having said that he wasn't sure whether, had he been Prime Minister during the Suez Crisis, he would have ordered a military operation as his successor, Antony Eden, did. However, had he done so, Churchill added, he wouldn't have stopped it until it had finished. This was the lesson Thatcher and the War Cabinet learned from the Suez Crisis. If a decision was made to send the Task Force to the Falkland Islands, unless an acceptable diplomatic solution was reached, the military undertaking wouldn't be stopped until it was over.    

Britain and France had gone along with every diplomatic proposal advanced by the United States in 1956 so as to avoid a military confrontation. By doing so, they had agreed not to return to the status quo ante that prevailed prior to the unilateral nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser. However, by opposing the use of force under any circumstances, the United States left Britain and France essentially two options: to accept the fait accompli by Nasser or to resort to an independent course of action.    

During the Falklands Crisis, though US President Ronald Reagan did ask Thatcher to pledge she would foreswear the use of force, he did so privately and was careful not to put obstacles in the way of US mediation between the parties.

When the British Task Force began its military campaign, Reagan asked Thatcher to interrupt it and give diplomacy a further chance. Again, this was done behind the scenes, not in public.

When diplomacy failed, the US came out clearly in favor of Britain. This was in stark contrast to what had happened during the Suez Crisis. Then, following the failure of the diplomatic effort, with which Britain had fully collaborated, the United States never came out publicly in favor of the British stance as it did during the Falklands Crisis.

Certainly, it should be stressed that whereas the British were very open with their US ally during the Falklands Crisis, they were less than candid when deciding to resort to force during the Suez Crisis. Of course, the British could argue that US policy led them to act as they did in 1956. However one might interpret it, the fact remains that the US behaved differently in 1982 than it did in 1956; in a sense, so did Britain.

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