Early on April 2, 1982, Argentine military forces landed on the Falkland Islands (Spanish: Islas Malvinas) in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Argentina had maintained a claim to the islands dating to its independence from Spain in 1816; beginning in 1833, however, the United Kingdom had established a presence on the islands and developed them as a British colony. The islands’ future sovereignty had been the subject of intermittent and inconclusive negotiations between the two countries since the 1960s. Within hours of the invasion, the Argentines overwhelmed the small British garrison, forcing its surrender.
In subsequent days, the military junta led by General Leopoldo Galtieri formalized Argentine control over the territory (as well as over other British South Atlantic possessions in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands) expelled the British administration. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher condemned the landings as an act of aggression against the islands’ wishes, who, she argued, favored overwhelmingly continued association with the United Kingdom. She ordered the deployment of a naval task force to the region.
Amidst a situation that initially struck some U.S. policymakers as an anachronistic “Gilbert and Sullivan battle,” this crisis presented the Ronald Reagan administration with a formidable foreign policy dilemma. Although the United States had proclaimed its neutrality on the islands’ sovereignty since the mid-nineteenth century, the clash between Argentina and the United Kingdom created conflicts among Reagan’s foreign policy team.