The Falklands War and the Concept of Escalation

  • Lawrence Freedman


In Signals of War, which I co-authored with Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse, we indicated that we had decided against drawing out the more general lessons that might be taken from our study.1 My aim in this chapter is to consider the relevance of this experience to theories of limited war and crisis management. In particular it will focus on a general set of concerns normally expressed through the concept of escalation. I also intend to touch upon a couple of aspects related to nuclear weapons in order to warn that even in the most self-evidently non-nuclear crisis they can never be wholly excluded.


Security Council Nuclear Weapon Crisis Management International Perspective Military Operation 
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  1. 1.
    Lawrence Freedman and Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse, Signals of War: The Falklands Conflict of 1982 (London: Faber, 1990) p. xxxvi.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a discussion of the concept of escalation see Lawrence Freedman, ‘On the Tiger’s back: The Development of the Concept of Escalation’, in Roman Kolkowicz (ed.) The Logic of Nuclear Terror (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987).Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    One of those responsible for collecting and interpreting this information attended a dinner party and expressed his horror that one-in-twenty Britons could take such a position. He was fixed with a frosty glare from an upper-class lady who informed the assembled company that ‘If we have to nuke Rio to regain the Falklands, we’ll do it’. Whether or not the lady was aware that Rio was not in Argentina, her point still held in that she saw no obvious limits to British action. The poll was conducted on 14 April 1982 and was based on 1018 adults aged 18+ interviewed across fifty-three constituency sampling points across Great Britain. The results were published in The Economist, 16 April 1988. In a book containing his posthumously published letters, David Tinker (on HMS Glamorgan) quotes a colleague in early April suggesting ‘Drop a big white job (Polaris) on them’. Tinker adds: ‘Thank goodness he’s not in command’. David Tinker, A Message from the Falklands (London: Junction Books, 1982) p. 158.Google Scholar
  4. One of our jobs out here is to transfer stores around and between ships and yesterday I walked into the hangar and found a nuclear bomb there. ... Of course, it turned out to be a drill round, full of concrete, that Fort Austin, now eventually going home, was taking back to England.Google Scholar
  5. Tinker, p. 198.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    George Quester, ‘The Nuclear Implications of the South Atlantic War’, in R.B. Byers (ed.), The Denuclearization of the Oceans (London: Croom Helm, 1986).Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    It remains a matter for debate as to whether the ‘Falklands factor’ was a major determinant of the sweeping Conservative victory in the General Election of May 1983. For a powerful argument to the effect that it was not see David Sanders et al., ‘Government popularity and the Falklands War: A reassessment’, British Journal of Political Science, 17 (1987), pp. 281–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 15.
    For a discussion of opinion poll evidence in Britain, see Lawrence Freedman, Britain and the Falklands War (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984) Ch. 8.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    See Alexander Haig, Caveat (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984). Mrs Thatcher’s method was to point out pictures of Nelson and Wellington to Haig as she took him round Downing Street; President Galtieri’s, to expose him to mass demonstrations.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Roger Perkins, Operation Paraquet: The Battle for South Georgia (Chippenham: Picton Publishing. 1986).Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    House of Commons, The Falklands Campaign: A Digest of Debates in the House of Commons 2 April to 15 June 1982, (London: HMSO, 1982).Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    Virginia Gamba, The Falklands/Malvinas War: A Model for North-South Crisis Prevention (London: Allen and Unwin, 1987).Google Scholar
  13. 26.
    See Desmond Rice and Arthur Gavshon, The Sinking of the Belgrano (London: Secker and Warburg, 1984).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Alex Danchev 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lawrence Freedman

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