War papers reveal Thatcher’s fighting talk over Ascension

Newly-released secret papers have revealed how Margaret Thatcher had to stand her ground over Britain’s right to use Ascension Island as an air base during the Falklands War.

America’s senior diplomat planned to tell Argentina that UK use of the South Atlantic island had been “restricted” by the United States.

But the tough-speaking Prime Minister firmly insisted: “It’s our island.”

The US built one of the world’s longest runways on Ascension during World War Two, and in the late 1950s negotiated a lease to use the island as an American base.

The newly-disclosed British papers – released under a 30-year rule – record American negotiations with Argentina before and after the invasion of the Falklands in April, 1982.

Even as the British task force sailed to re-take the islands, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig flew back and forth across the Atlantic as a go-between, trying to avert a full-on military conflict.

Those talks depended on America appearing to be treating both sides equally. But press reports revealed how the US was supporting Britain behind the scenes, invoking fury in Buenos Airies.

Haig telephoned Thatcher to read a proposed statement designed to rescue the talks – with a specific reference to Ascension Island, which was then officially a dependency of St Helena.

A BBC radio programme, UK Confidential, used actors to show how Thatcher browbeat Mr Haig. The dialogue – recorded at the time – ran:

HAIG: “Now what we have done is put together a statement…”

THATCHER: “Yes, go ahead, read it to me.”

HAIG: “I would say that since the onset of the crisis, the US has not acceded to requests that would go beyond the scope of our customary patterns of co-operation. British use of US facilities on the United Kingdom island of Ascension has been restricted accordingly.”

THATCHER: “Oh, now that’s a bit devastating – ”

HAIG: “Now, we have looked very carefully at our agreement on this and we feel that that statement has been and remains justified -”

THATCHER: “Part of your statement would have an extremely adverse reaction here. It’s been said in the House of Commons, quite rightly, that I have done everything possible to   support President Reagan and the US government, on every single occasion that they have asked for help; and the moment we need your help you aren’t there. We just don’t receive it. I don’t like phrase, ‘you have not acceded to requests beyond the scope of the customary pattern’ … because it looks as if we have made them and you have turned them down.”

HAIG: “I told them that if they asked, we would turn them down; if you asked while this negotiation was under way, we would have to refrain as well.”

THATCHER: “…the suggestion that we are to be treated in the same way as a military junta… with a very bad record of human rights, I think will cause problems here. It will make it extremely difficult to continue the good relations that have hitherto existed.”

HAIG: “Well, I certainly understand that concern and that’s why I read this to you -”

THATCHER: “Well, let’s get Ascension out of it altogether, because it’s our island. I made myself clear, did I?”

HAIG: “Yes.”

Ascension was subsequently used as a major staging post for ships, troops and equipment en route to the conflict zone, as one point becoming the world’s busiest airport.

St Helenians who were based on the island at the time recall aircraft being parked up on every available piece of ground.

LISTEN: UK Confidential – BBC Radio 4 (available to UK listeners until 3 January 2012)

LINK: National Archives: newly-released Falklands papers

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