Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Morning Herald column for 1 January 2013

I concluded 2012 reading Margaret Thatcher’s secret evidence given on October 25, 1982 to the Falkland Islands Review Committee – which has just been released by the National Archives in London. The former British prime minister’s testimony is compelling and gives a rare insight into the complexity of representative government.

Thatcher’s testimony reveals her inordinate strength in refusing to acquiesce in the action taken by the Argentine military dictatorship to invade the Falkland Islands, a British territory. She admitted to considering the “terrifying” possibility that the British force sent to liberate the islanders might fail in its task. After all, Port Stanley is a very long way from London and Argentina had a well equipped air force and navy.

Moreover, Thatcher’s account acknowledges her fallibility. It was only on the evening of March 31, 1982 that she realised that an invasion was likely. Earlier, Thatcher had “never, never expected the Argentines to invade the Falklands head-on”, considering such action to be “stupid”. The account also documents her somewhat terse relationship with President Ronald Reagan over the United States’ initial reluctance to support its traditional ally Britain against its relatively new ally Argentina.

Britain went to war with Argentina on April 2, 1982 and the conflict ended with Argentina’s total surrender on June 14, 1982. In the war, in which missiles played a key role, around 250 British military personnel died along with some 650 Argentines. Thirty years ago, Thatcher recalled that this “was the worst moment of my life”.

The Falklands War most recently made news in Australia in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs (MUP, 2010) which was co-authored by the former prime minister and Margaret Simons, the director of the Centre of Advanced Journalism at Melbourne University. There was a large taxpayer contribution to this biography. Simons received a research fellowship from the Australian Prime Ministers’ Centre and the authors won two prizes in the 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

In the July 2010 issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly, I documented the numerous historical errors in this book. Neither Fraser nor Simons have attempted to acknowledge or correct the howlers and Simons will not enter into correspondence on the matter. This is unexpected behaviour from an academic who lectures media students on journalistic standards, including the need for accuracy in reporting.

The only “big story” in Fraser’s memoirs turned on the claim that he persuaded George H W Bush, the then US vice-president, to ensure that the US backed Britain in the Falklands conflict. In the event, the Reagan administration provided intelligence and material support to the Thatcher government.

In a sense, this was very much a recovered memory on Fraser’s part, which Simons subsequently endorsed. Fraser had never mentioned this matter in the almost three decades which passed between the Falklands War and the publication of his memoirs. There is no reference in Philip Ayers’ Malcolm Fraser: A Biography (Heinemann, 1987), despite the fact that Fraser co-operated generously with the author. And Fraser did not mention the matter in his 2002 book Common Ground (Viking)

According to Fraser/Simons, Fraser instructed Bush that the US must support Britain since a failure to do so would lead to the collapse of the NATO Alliance. The advice was communicated to Bush at a dinner at the Lodge on April 30, 1982, when the vice-president was visiting Canberra. Having seen the light, as proclaimed by Fraser, Bush left the dinner party and made a lengthy phone call to the National Security Council, which was about to commence meeting in Washington.

Bush returned to the dinner and (allegedly) indicated that he had got the message through and that he had prevailed over the neutrality position advanced by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador to the United Nations.

There are numerous problems with this story. One of which is that Fraser times his conversation with Bush as concluding at 7pm on April 30 – which would be 5am Washington time the same day. In an interview with Mark Colvin on PM in 2010, Fraser conceded that this would be “an odd time for the NSC to be sitting”. Yet he stuck to his account.

Writing in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter on March 17, 2010, Simons acknowledged some problems with the story but endorsed Fraser’s recall. She revised Fraser’s timing and suggested that the phone call had been made “more like between 6am – 8am in Washington”. Simons wrote that there is a file in the Ronald Reagan Library “which seems to be a record of the NSC meeting in question” but declared “the budget for our book did not extend to a trip to the USA”.

In fact, documents located at the Ronald Reagan Library are available on request for a modest fee to cover costs. I have a copy of the NSC meeting held on April 30, 1982. It commenced at 9.30 am (or 11.30pm Canberra time). Clearly Fraser has a memory of an event which never happened.

What’s more, the NSC minutes make no mention of any Bush phone call but record support for Britain by Reagan himself and his senior officials Alexander Haig and Caspar Weinberger. They did not need Fraser to tell them about the importance of Britain to the US.

In the end, Thatcher’s courage and insistence was such that Kirkpatrick’s position collapsed within the Reagan administration. “Fraser saves NATO” is a great story, to be sure. Pity about the facts.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute