US seeks compromise as Britain debates whether to declare war over Falkland Islands

On High Streets, in shops, in homes, and in offices, British people are divided on the dispute that now also threatens to split the Atlantic Alliance -- whether it is right to go to war with Argentina to fly the British flag once again over the remote Falkland Islands.

One British fear is that the United States, which has not taken sides over the issue of sovereignty, will now urge the British to avoid any military action.

As a huge British naval task force set sail, and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington resigned under heavy criticism, a short, bearded taxicab driver in Surrey was definite:

''It's not worth losing a single British life over the Falkland Islands. We ought to negotiate. World opinion will condemn us if we start sinking Argentine ships.

''It's too late. They've jumped the gun on us. Those people are fed up with territorial wars. Let's not overreact.''

The proprietor of the bicycle shop in my village, and his wife, agreed: ''We thought the Falklands were in Scotland when we first heard the news.

''But they are at the other end of the world. What a shambles it all is. We would not want any child of ours dying out there. Why didn't the government have ships there long before now? We should negotiate.''

But a burly telephone lineman in a bright red hard hat and T-shirt disagreed. ''We have no choice.

''No one will ever listen to Britain again if we don't go in now. I hope we don't have to, but we must if necessary. Yes, people will be killed, but that's war, isn't it? We'll lose Gibraltar if we don't stand up to people who push us around.''

This is the kind of nationwide debate facing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her government needs public opinion behind it, and the support of opposition parties in the House of Commons, if it is to remain in power.

When Labour Party spokesman John Silkin said that the price of Labour support was the resignations of Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and Defense Secretary John Nott, Mrs. Thatcher reluctantly granted half of his demand.

She accepted Lord Carrington's resignation but rejected Mr. Nott's.

As task-force ships, headed by the 19,500-ton aircraft carrier Invincible, steamed out of Portsmouth Harbor April 5, the first flush of jingoistic emotion here was still strong among the Navy, Conservative backbenchers, large elements of the Fleet Street press, and Northern Ireland members of Parliament such as Enoch Powell, who see the Falkland Islanders in a position similar to Protestants in Northern Ireland. They all want to remain British.

The Navy is anxious to prove that recent heavy defense cuts in naval spending should be reversed. Backbenchers such as Julian Amery still speak the language of empire and demand that ''the stain be removed from Britain's honor.'' Mrs. Thatcher suddenly finds herself fighting for her own political credibility and political survival.

But sober realization of the immense difficulties ahead is breaking through in other places -- among parts of the Social Democratic Party, among ordinary citizens, and even among some people who have lived in the Falkland Islands themselves.

People are upset that Mrs. Thatcher did not see the Argentine invasion coming. They deplore what has happened, but they emphatically do not want British lives lost in a shooting war over 1,800 islanders 8,000 miles away. Some doubt that even the 36-ship task force from Portsmouth and Gibraltar can sustain an attack or a blockade long enough to persuade the Argentine junta, itself fighting for political survival, to withdraw.

''They're there, aren't they?'' said the bicycle shop owner. ''We were supposed to deter them, but we didn't. All we'll do now is kill the islanders themselves.''

After a tough speech in the House of Commons April 3, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, former Foreign Secretary David Owen, said April 5 that he regretted Lord Carrington's departure but thought it had been right.

He stressed the need for firm diplomacy now. ''The danger is that a wounded prime minister might make decisions on political grounds,'' he said.

''What we need now is a firm foreign minister who can stress the need for a diplomatic solution.

''There is no future, even if we succeed in holding a small garrison on the Falkland Islands, in a continual state of war with Argentina.''

The respected Financial Times newspaper in London headlined its editorial April 5, ''Jingoism is not the way.''

The editorial considered the ''hard facts'' of naval action and said that even if the task force was successful, ''the problem of the Falkland Islands would not disappear. Argentine determination to gain possession would be reinforced.''

The newspaper listed several diplomatic solutions suggested in the past. One solution offered Argentina sovereignty over the islands, while giving islanders a special status. Another possibility was Argentinian sovereignty over the islands; but this included leasing the Falklands back to Britain for a long period. The United Nations could also guarantee a ''statute of autonomy.''

Those sounding notes of caution stress that the Argentine junta has released a wellspring of national emotion throughout its country, has diverted attention from an inflation rate of 131 percent last year, and is hardly likely to evacuate the islands now.

Meanwhile a couple who lived in the Falkland Islands for years has written to the Guardian newspaper saying that any British military action would cause substantial loss of lives among their friends. Diane and Paul Charman urged the British government to negotiate a safe passage from the islands as soon as possible.

The British popular press is filled with accounts of how Royal Marines on the Falkland Islands and on South Georgia, a Falk-lands' dependency some 900 miles away, resisted Argentine invasion forces before being forced to surrender. The Daily Star attacks the idea of relying on diplomacy alone as ''a sickly smell of compromise'' and says, ''Let's get those islands back.''

The Times of London, owned by Australian Rupert Murdoch (who also controls the Star), published a long editorial April 5 headlined ''We are all Falklanders now.''

The Times sees ''the whole structure of this country's standing in the world, her credibility as an ally,'' at stake.

''When British territory is invaded, it is not just an invasion of our land, but of our whole spirit. We are all Falklanders now.''

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