Mercopress correspondent Harold Briley knew Margaret Thatcher well, here reminiscing on fifty years of reporting her activities for half a century as a BBC Political, Latin America. Defence and East Europe Correspondent.
I first encountered Margaret Thatcher as a new Member of Parliament in 1959 when I was among the few people in the House of Commons, listening to her maiden speech which, ironically, in view of her later animosity towards the media, advocated wider access for the Press to report local authority meetings.
Our paths were to cross many times over the next 50 years as a political and defence correspondent, covering the Cold War in Eastern Europe and as Latin America Correspondent in Buenos Aires during the Argentine invasion, when my World Service broadcast of the invasion was a world scoop.
I accompanied her on her tenth anniversary visit to the Falklands in 1992 and interviewed her in the RAF flight south. She told me that “Despite being the Iron Lady, I am a compassionate woman. These were the most difficult years of my life and the worst decision I ever had to make was to send men to war knowing some of them would be killed”.
In Buenos Aires where I was on the day of the invasion, the Argentines were astonished by her response. The Foreign Minister, Costa Mendez, told me they never expected her to react as she did. “The war was a mistake”, he said. “We wanted only to force definitive talks for transfer of sovereignty”.
She had no idea where the Falklands were. Nor did Defence Secretary John Nott. They had to consult the Times Atlas to find out.
She famously said “The Lady is not for turning”. But she turned completely on her policy on the Falklands which, for years, for successive Conservative and Labour governments had been to transfer sovereignty through negotiations, which one of her favourite Ministers, Nicholas Ridley, almost brought off in clandestine talks with Argentina. But she made amends for this with her brave and risky decision to send a task force and her steely unwavering determination throughout the conflict. South Atlantic veterans told me they respected her for this even though she sent them into danger.
She claimed the invasion came as a complete surprise but in fact she had been warned in intelligence reports warnings that Argentina might resort to military force if they were frustrated by lack of progress on sovereignty talks.
The invasion left the British Government dismayed and in disarray. The pessimistic Defence Secretary, John Nott, advised her that the Islands could not be recaptured. But this was contradicted by the head of the Royal Navy, Sir Henry Leach, with experience of the Second World War. In full admiral’s uniform, he was the hero of the hour when he told her he could immediately despatch a task force. “Don’t pussyfoot about”, he told her. “Send every ship we have. What is the use of having the Royal Navy if you don’t use it”?
Fortunately he still had some of the vital aircraft carriers and the Endurance which John Nott, with Margaret Thatcher’s support, was in the process of getting rid of. Emboldened by the Admiral’s advice, her resolve hardened and she made a Churchillian speech to Parliament saying the repressive Argentine military dictators could not prevail. The Islands would be liberated. This brought about the downfall of the dictatorship, the very scenario they had tried to avoid by launching the invasion. It ended seven years of repression in Argentina in which the military abducted, tortured and killed thousands of their own people. Restoration of democracy in Argentina, thanks to the British victory, had a domino effect paving the way for the many military dictatorships in Latin America to progress to democratic government.
Margaret Thatcher’s influence on the whole of Latin America is often overlooked. Many present day leaders have expressed sadness at her death, and paid tribute to her as a courageous leader -- but in Argentina there is still bitterness over the sinking of the cruiser Belgrano with the loss of more than 360 lives.
This was the most controversial act of the war for which Argentina tried to have her prosecuted internationally as a “war criminal”. But even the Argentine admirals I interviewed told me it was “a legitimate act of war”. They confirmed that the Belgrano, a heavily armed cruiser, was part of a pincer movement to attack the British task force from the south and the north where another battle group led by the aircraft carrier, Veinticinco de Mayo, whose aircraft were about to take off to launch a fatal attack on the British aircraft carriers when the wind dropped preventing them from taking off from the carrier deck.
I interviewed both the captain of the submarine, Conqueror, which fired the fatal torpedoes and the captain of the Belgrano after his rescue so I heard both sides. Though the cruiser was heading away from the British-imposed exclusion zone around the Islands which intensified the controversy, the British Government had given prior warning that Argentine ships and aircraft would be attacked whether in the exclusion zone or not.
In Buenos Aires, I was frequently asked by the public whether the British intended to fight and I told them they should not under-estimate Margaret Thatcher’s strength of character and determination or the capability of the British armed forces as I had much experience of both. But when they expressed fears that Prime Minister Thatcher might order a nuclear attack on the Argentine mainland, I was able to assure them the British had no intention of using nuclear weapons.
Margaret Thatcher was caricatured by the Argentine media as a pirate complete with skull and crossbones headgear and a black eye patch. But even some of the military dictators in other Latin American countries at the time told me they admired her for her toughness as “the Iron Lady”.
I was partly responsible for her being called the Iron Lady by the Soviet Union, reacting to a despatch I wrote about a speech she made attacking the Soviet Union. She sent me the speech two hours in advance, so it could be translated and transmitted by the BBC Russian Service so the Soviet Union heard it first from the BBC even as she was speaking. The Russians reacted by calling her the “Iron Lady”. She was amused when I told her how this came about, but revelled for ever thereafter in the image it gave her, enhancing her reputation as a tough leader.
At the height of the Cold War, I interviewed her as Opposition Leader just before she ventured on her first visit to East Europe so I was not surprised by her close partnership with President Ronald Reagan in confronting Communism and the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.
Harold Briley, London