Britain Versus The South Atlantic: The Causes of the Falklands/Malvinas War

By Lucas Abeledo Vilarino

Following the Second World War, the British Empire, once described as the Empire where ‘the sun never sets’, faced a series of freedom movements in which Britain’s colonised nations saw a rise in anti-colonialist sentiment. Partly due to the large expenses of keeping up such a large territorial reach, the Empire began dismantling little by little; wherein-key territories such as India and South Africa gained independence. This wave of decolonization was important to world events in the late 20th century, was widely supported by most UN member states, in particular the United States, due to their anti-colonial roots. Many of the territories which found independence during this wave of decolonisation had been fighting for liberation for hundreds of years, some dating back to the seventeenth century. The dispute between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), is an example of one such conflict. Consequently, the United Nations drew up resolution 2065 on the 16th December 1965 which invited the Governments of Argentina and Britain to “proceed without delay the negotiations recommended by the Special Council” and to “find a peaceful solution to the sovereignty problem”. [1]It is therefore intriguing for the historian as to why these nations engaged in an open conflict over the territory seventeen years later, in 1982 and in order to gage a better understanding the question “What were the causes of the Falklands/Malvinas War?” will be assessed. Through the analysis of events such as Argentine motivations, along with the consequences relating to the illegal South Georgia landing, British motivations and U.S. involvement, this essay aims to provide a balanced discussion of the Falklands/ Malvinas dispute.

Examining the issue of the Falklands/Malvinas War is of relevance today because it was so recent and still affects families from both Argentina and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the war was a turning point in Argentine politics as it ended military rule shortly after. [2] Recent sovereignty claims made in 2013 by Argentine president Cristina Kirchner on the Falklands/Malvinas revived the memories of this war, and even suggested that tensions could remarkably escalate again.[3]

Throughout the eight years of Junta power, there were four shifts in leadership; the second and third Military Juntas were the most pertinent to the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. General Viola, the president of the second Military Junta, had initiated Project Alpha, a plan where the Junta would attempt to establish military presence in South Georgia under the cover of a commercial enterprise requested by Constantine Davidoff [4]. Davidoff had acquired the rights to the scrap metal of the abandoned whaling stations in South Georgia from the British company Christian Salvesens Co.[5] The same junta had executed a similar strategy in 1977, where military personnel, under the cover of being scientific researchers, attempted to establish a military presence in Southern Thule, to which the government in London at the time responded by sending a nuclear submarine to deter the Argentine presence.[6] When the Third Military Junta assumed power in 1981 through an internal coup, the new President, Leopoldo Galtieri decided that attempting to establish a military presence in South Georgia could potentially break the momentum for the already planned Falklands/Malvinas invasion of May 20th 1982 and therefore the Davidoff proposal would be postponed for the time being. General Viola, guided by revenge towards General Galtieri[7], secretly made sure that Project Alpha carried on. The 5,000-ton transport ship of the Argentine Navy ARA Bahía Buen Suceso set sail from Buenos Aires on the 11th of March and docked at Leith harbour on the 19th of March 1982 without fulfilling legal clearance at Grytviken.[8] Viola’s intention was to provoke the British in hope for the deployment of a nuclear submarine to the South Atlantic as had been done during the South Thule crisis in 1977, and further hoped to dethrone Galtieri.[9] By maintaining radio silence, not seeking legal clearance from appropriate authorities, informing the British Embassy about the expedition after the ship had set sail and finally by using undercover military personnel, Viola hoped to instigate an international crisis.


Argentine motivations


Numerous analysts have outlined the Argentine motivations for the war and why the Junta decided to initiate ‘Operación Rosario’, an amphibious attack on the Islands by Argentine forces. More compelling, however, are the domestic tensions that pushed the Junta to engage in the conflict. The common view among historians is that the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas was largely due to the state of the economy, national sentiment towards the offensive, as well as the desire of the Junta to remain in power[10].

When Galtieri assumed power, he inherited various economic problems that had been generated under the two previous presidencies. President Viola had intended to devalue the peso with the hope of making Argentine exports more competitive on the international market. This backfired and foreign reserves fell by U.S.$308 million US dollars in one day.[11] Galtieri in turn, introduced a policy of economic austerity, which aimed at cutting inflation and boosting exports and foreign investments. However, this did not work and the country still had ‘’triple-digit inflation’’ and ‘’rising unemployment figures “figure”.[12] Therefore, just as the 1978 Junta had successfully done with the World Cup championship[13][14], Galtieri aimed at deferring domestic attention away from the economic complications at home through focusing on achieving success in the international crisis – Argentine claims on the area, and the Falklands /Malvinas conflict provided this opportunity.

Consequently, by shifting domestic focus onto this specific conflict, Galtieri could benefit from the pre-existing national sentiment towards the topic which was embodied by the popular saying, ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas (‘The Falklands are Argentine’). Galtieri understood ‘’the psychology of mass appeal’’ and an invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas could provide a sense of national unity and solidarity.

Not only through exploiting domestic sentiment could Galtieri bring together the nation, but he would also secure his position as president. The instability of the Junta, demonstrated by the internal coup which placed Galtieri as president, outlined how a failure to drive the country forward and to ‘’reorganize the very basis of Argentine society’’ could end in another coup. Thus, Galtieri had to do anything within his power to drive the country forward and winning. In the Falklands could cement his invested, and prevent him from falling in a similar way to that which he had assumed power in the first place. Furthermore, by giving responsibility to important figures such as Jorge Anaya, the Navy Admiral of the Junta, over the Falklands/Malvinas question, Galtieri could prevent friction within the military factions and ensure his hold of power.



Illegal Presence in South Georgia


The contemporary sources all allude to the invasion of South Georgia as a major cause of the war, yet they do not elaborate extensively on the notion. In her memoirs, Thatcher acknowledges that ‘’it had all begun with an incident in South Georgia’’[15], yet .[16] Thatcher does not however bring depth into her claims, as seen by the fact that she excludeshas excluded from her memoirs the period of 20th-28th March 1982 thus limiting how much we can infer of her position as to whether the incident in South Georgia truly was the trigger cause for war.

The first aspect of the South Georgia crisis is the initial landing of Davidoff’s scrap metal workers. As outlined earlier, the illegal presence in South Georgia was due to the power struggles of the Junta. Therefrom, it’s possible to consider two key reasons why the South Georgia incident was the cause for the outbreak of the war. Firstly, this crisis should initially be considered as a cause for the war for the mere reason that it violated British sovereignty which is exacerbated by the fact that the supposed workers were undercover military personnel.  This is furthered by Britain’s response to the matter, in which they warned the Argentine Foreign Ministry that “the British government would have to take whatever action seemed necessary” to return to the status quo, and that the raising of the Argentine flag in South Georgia was an “absolute violation of British sovereignty”[17]. Consequently, it should be further considered as a cause for the war as when instructed by Argentine Foreign Minister Costa Mendez, to leave South Georgia and return to Argentina, ARA Bahía Buen Suceso, left behind the majority of its personnel as observed by the British Atlantic Survey.[18] This of course escalated the conflict since “the gravest of issues would arise, for it would confirm Argentine perfidy, requiring London to exercise strong measures”[19]. The continued presence in South Georgia was certainly not the intention of the Junta, and therefore leads us into the second aspect of the South Georgia crisis.

When the Argentines were presented with further British protest they were forced to take a decision they had never intended to.[20] In this case, they decided to escalate an international conflict and thus speed up the planned invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas. This was done through the further deployment of military personnel to outnumber the crew of the HMS Endurance, which the Junta feared the British would use for the extradition of the Argentines left in South Georgia. The Argentine men left over in South Georgia following English demands that they should return home triggered Operación Georgias which intended for the takeover of the South Georgia Islands. The second protest from British forces for Argentina to leave island further sped up Operación Rosario, in which the Argentine government accelerated the Falkland/Malvinas invasion. Therefore, the Junta’s response to English demands to leave South Georgia is arguably a trigger cause for the start of the Falklands War.


Argentine Strategic Errors


Another cause for the Falklands/Malvinas war was the Argentine assumption that the United States would adopt an arbitrating stance. In her memoirs, Thatcher addresses the matter by outlining that Argentine-American relations had strengthened because of Argentine involvement in the resistance of Cuban-based communist influence in Central/Southern America, and that the Argentinians had “gained a wildly exaggerated idea of their importance to the United States.[21]

Richard C. Thornton highlighted the importance of U.S Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Enders’, visit to Buenos Aires in March 1982. Before his arrival, Enders was briefed by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Richard Luce, on the situation and expressed his hope to advise the Argentines to “keep things cool”, and nothing “he said during his meeting could be construed as it was hoped he would express to the Argentinians to remain level-headed. However, as discouraging”.[22] According to the British Ambassador later expressed, Enders’ had ‘not taken the opportunity specifically to advise the Argentines to keep their temperament down’ as had been requested. [23] One must then assume that the Americans were reluctant to adopt a firm stance on the matter. A fact not discussed by the sources, which is a result of a 2012 leak of former top-secret files, brings even more value to this claim. Even after the war began, there were disagreements within the Reagan administration on which government to support in the South Atlantic Crisis. Former Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, attempted to persuade President Reagan to support the Argentines at a National Security Council meeting. Haig attempted to sway the council’s decision by pointing out that not only should they “work with Argentina and keep the American community in Argentina protected”[24], but also that if the dictatorship fell, “it may well be replaced by a left-wing Peronist regime”. [25]The Reagan administration did not, however, follow a completely neutral line. When Admiral Madero, chairman of Argentina’s National Atomic Energy commission publicly admitted that Argentina would “not promise to build a nuclear explosive for peaceful purposes”[26], the administration responded that the United States “does not differentiate between nuclear weapons and peaceful nuclear explosions”. [27] To this, the Argentine government did not deliver a response, possibly due to Enders’ suggestion that the warning was merely pro forma.



British Motivations


A fact often overlooked by historians regarding the causes of the Falklands/Malvinas war are the British motivations for participating in such a conflict. These motivations have been neglected by an emphasis on early Argentine stunts, such as the abrupt invasion of the islands and the South Georgia crisis. Through closer analysis, it is evident that the British government had political and economic motivations in the involvement of the crisis. Due to the declining economy of the Falklands/Malvinas, the British commissioned a “comprehensive, long-term economic survey of the possibilities for the development of the Falkland Islands”.[28] Such a survey was carried out by Lord Shackleton in 1975, and later published in 1976. The economic survey did not only provoke a hostile reaction in Argentina, as demonstrated by the firing of shots at the RRS Shackleton but it also highlighted the economic interests the British had in the islands. The report gave various recommendations, notably the notion of economic diversification towards a more centric economy which suggested that the British were not prepared to let go of the island’s economic potential. Amongst its discoveries, the Shackleton Report outlined the vast fishery possibilities, particularly of squid and fin-fish, where estimates pointed to a yield of about 4-5 million tons a year for the entire Patagonian Shelf’.’[29] Even more startling was the possibilities of oil in the Malvinas basin, brought into the picture by BP’s (British Petroleum) extensive surveying in 1979, which further confirms the prominence of British economic interests.[30]

Equally important are the political advantages that the Thatcher government could gain through becoming involved in a global conflict such as the Falklands/Malvinas War. Thatcher’s domestic economic policies had led to high unemployment and high interest rates meaning that her government was not in a favourable position. Furthermore, the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas by Argentina, a lesser power than Britain, was an “overwhelming blow to British pride and prestige”.[31] As remarked by Daniel K. Gibran, “the Falklands had awakened the warrior spirit of the British people”[32], and it was now up to the Thatcher government to uphold national pride. If Thatcher had not demonstrated an austere position of strength, then other larger powers such as Spain would have engaged in similar conflicts over claimed territories. Furthermore, the war gave Thatcher the opportunity to revive the Imperial patriotic spirit lost post-WW2. Former public relations executive Timothy Bell brings this into notice by outlining that Thatcher, unlike the former Labour Government, “never apologized for the Empire, because she was proud of it”.[33]

Moreover, Britain, as a P5 nation in the Security Council, had the image of a “no-nonsense, law-observing, pluralist democracy”[34] which they wanted to uphold. When a dictatorship violated British sovereign territory, the British could place emphasis on their image as a democratic power fighting against a dictatorship and particular emphasis was placed on these democratic symbols by Britain at the time of the war. In her parliamentary speech on the 20th of May 1982, Thatcher used phrases such as “self-determination”, “sanctity of the British way of life” and mentioned that “aggression should not pay”[35] to create a democratic front.  The democratic pay’’.[36]The democracy versus dictatorship face adopted by Britain also helped to move away from the post-WW2 anti-colonialist era that was present at the time, and could thus in turn gain allies that had previously sided with Argentina due to anti-colonist sentiments. Subsequently, a global conflict such as the Falklands/Malvinas could benefit the British with American help at the height of the Cold War, where the Argentine dictatorship had begun a nuclear program to which the Americans were highly opposed.

Although the Junta followed an enthusiastic agenda for the takeover of the Falklands, it/Malvinas, this agenda was guided by factors such as survival, economic turmoil and domestic feelings towards the Malvinas/Falklands matter. He appointed Admiral Anaya as the main authority over the islands. This was a tactical gesture as only a representative of the Army could hold presidential position and therefore his role would not be contested. [37] Pursuing a risky Falklands agenda, which had the possibility of failing if Britain turned to the use of force, could also result in another factor contesting his presidency. An appeal to national sentiment to defer attention away from the economic turmoil does however provide a more concrete explanation for the agenda pursued by the Junta.

The unwanted illegal presence in South Georgia by military personnel forced the Junta to take decisions they had initially not intended to make.  The violation of British sovereignty had a toll on Anglo-Argentine relations. Moreover, when the Argentinians failed to comply with the British demands of removing the men from South Georgia, the British then lost any trust they had of Argentine promises. It must be important to outline that this was a direct result of internal power struggles.

The Reagan administration’s indecisiveness in the South Atlantic crisis, especially considering that this extended after the war began, confirms that the Argentinians were not wrong about their judgment on American arbitration, as they could not deduce anything negative from it. Although Washington did issue warnings, these were guided towards the increased nuclear threat. Furthermore, Enders claim on the ‘’warning’’ being pro forma, along with his inability to display a robust American policy during his visit in Buenos Aires, gave the Argentinians no room for a negative interpretation of the Washington approach. Therefore, it could be argued that the Argentinian government didn’t gain “a wildly exaggerated idea of their importance to the United States” but had rather assumed American arbitration from their inability to display a concrete stance. [38]

Finally, British motivations for the war were equally important as the Falklands/Malvinas represented both economic potential and political opportunity. Economically, there were possibilities of oil and fishes in the Falklands/Malvinas. Although an astonishing yield of squid was proposed by the fishing industry was thriving and when placed in the context of the recent Cod Wars with Iceland, this new economic venture can easily be a cause for the war.[39] Lastly, the war provided Thatcher with the opportunity to pursue a democratic versus dictatorship policy, which in turn shaped the way that other countries looked upon Britain in the post-WW2 decolonization era. It also issued a warning to other countries to not pursue aggressive policies over disputed territories. It must also be argued that it was opportunism rather than skillful planning, which Thatcher had successfully exploited.




The purpose of this investigation was to explore the causes of the Falklands/Malvinas War. The evidence presented throughout the essay as examined derived to the conclusion that a number of factors caused the Falklands War. Notably, the war revealed the instability of the Junta and the strategic errors made by the Argentinian government. Meanwhile, British ambitions to retain the islands also accumulated to cause the war to break out in 1982. Both the illegal presence in South Carolina and the internal insecurity of Argentina paired with Galtieri’s attempt to retain presidency all influenced the Junta’s decision to pursue their claims to the Falklands/Malvinas. Moreover, Washington’s inability to follow a clear policy towards the Falklands/Malvinas matter, not only had influence on Argentina’s agenda, but also on Britain’s. Consequently, British motivations had significance in the unfolding of events that led to the war; although Thatcher was not pursuing an instigating agenda, it was Argentina’s challenge to British power and Thatcher’s desire to retain what was left of the Empire which resulted in the outbreak of war.



[1] United Nations Fourth Committee Resolution 2065 (16.12.65, A/RES/2065). available at (Last accessed: 30/9/15).

[2] Tristan Dugdale-Pointon, T., The Falklands War of 1982, (2006), available at (Last accessed: 30/9/15).

[3] Letter from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to British Prime Minister David Cameron, available at (Last accessed 30/9/15).

[4] South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are an accumulation of 8 Islands administered by Britain as an overseas territory just north of the Antarctic Treaty region, and are mostly used for scientific purposes, and formerly for whaling. Lawrence Freedman-Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse, Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982, p. 44.

[5] Richard C. Thornton, The Falklands Sting, p.22.

[6] Ben Fenton, 12.04.08, (Last accessed: 30/9/15)

Secret Falklands Task force assembled  Avaliable at (Date accessed 30/9/15).

[7] Richard C. Thornton, The Falklands Sting, p.75

[8] Ships entering South Georgia must first seek clearance at the main port of Grytviken, which Bahía Buen Suceso didn’t; Thornton, The Falklands Sting, p. 92.

[9] Freedman-Gamba, Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982, p. 48.

[10] Daniel K. Gibran, Britain Versus the Past in the South Atlantic, (e-book), Loc 913 of 2733

[11] Ibid, Loc 832 of 2733.

[12] Ibid, Loc 921 of 2733.

[13] Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Volume I: The Origins of the Falklands War, (e-book), p. 442 of 1189

[15] Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher’s War (e-book), p15

[16] Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher’s War: The Iron Lady on the Falklands  (e-book), p15.

[17] Richard C. Thornton, The Falklands Sting, p. 98

[18] Freedman-Gamba, Signals of War, pp. 87-88.

[19] Thornton, The Falklands Sting, p. 98.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Margaret Thatcher, Thatcher’s War (e-book), p. 12

[22] Thornton, The Falkands Sting, p. 90.

[23] Franks, Falklands Islands Review, para. 144

[24] Minutes of National Security Council meeting, April 30, 1982

[25] Peronism: a movement based on the legacy of former President Perón Minutes of National Security Council meeting, April 30, 1982.

[26] Richard C. Thornton, The Falkands Sting, p. 90

[27] Ibid. Richard C. Thornton, The Falkands Sting, p. 90.

[28] Falklands Islands Review, report of Jan. 1983, p. 9

[29] Daniel K. Gibran, Britain Versus the Past in the South Atlantic, (e-book version), Loc 1319 of 2733.

[30] Daniel K. Gibran, Britain Versus the Past in the South Atlantic, (e-book version),Ibid, Loc 1296 of 2733.

[31] Ibid., Loc 1485 of 2733.

[32] Daniel K. Gibran, Britain Versus the Past in the South Atlantic, (e-book version), Loc 1489 of 2733

[33] Timothy Bell, Right or Wrong (e-book version), p. 270 of 758

[34] Daniel K. Gibran, Britain Versus the Past in the South Atlantic, (e-book version), Loc 1491 of 2733

[35] Margaret Thatcher’s Parliamentary Speech on the 20th of May 1982

[36] Thatcher’s Parliamentary Speech, 20.05.82

[37] Pike, John ,07.01.15, available at (Last accessed: 1.10.15)

[38] Thatcher, Thatcher’s War (e-book), p. 12

[39]Unknown Author, Cabinet Papers, available at (Last accessed: 25/9/15)


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