Defeat punctures Argentine self-deception

What began as an emotional, patriotic binge to recover a forlorn collection of windswept South Atlantic islands has ended in ignominious capitulation for Argentina.

The white flags raised over Port Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, symbolize the miscalculations and national self-deception that characterized the 10-week adventure.

The Argentine generals who control the destinies of 28 million people never expected their April 2 seizure of the Falklands to cause more than a brief British hue and cry, certainly not the sending of a British armada.

Now, in the wake of the Falklands cease-fire, which high Argentine officials admit privately is a surrender, Argentines are asking what went wrong. The generals, who met in a long, late-night session Monday that some described as acrimonious, have also been assessing the situation and ''where we go from here, '' as one put it.

Already pressure is mounting for the resignation of the military government; and the disastrous state of the economy is beginning to sink in. (See Page 22).

Gloom is heavy over Buenos Aires. The sudden cold wave and gray, leaden skies do not help. The weather is a bone-chilling reminder of the cold, inhospitable climate of the Falklands landscape in which sheep are more at home than people.

It also focused much attention on the fate of the young conscripts who were sent to the Falklands to shiver, wait, and fight the British.

As they surrendered in droves to British troops Monday, and as others laid down arms Tuesday, no amount of rhetoric about British victory being made possible only because the United States threw in its military might can mask the defeat suffered by Argentina.

The Falklands adventure was the brainchild of Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, head of the military junta, and his boyhood friend, Rear Adm. Jorge Isaac Anaya.

General Galtieri, who exuded absolute confidence in the rightness of his course during the early days after seizing the Falklands, was taken aback by US reaction. He thought he knew the US well, talked of his close association with US generals, and saw the US siding with Argentina when the chips were down.

As Admiral Anaya's Navy transports were reaching Falkland waters April 1, however, Ronald Reagan called General Galtieri and tried to dissuade him from taking the islands. It was too late -- and Argentine-US relations have gone downhill ever since.

As the Argentine buildup on the Falklands began, Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez, who championed the islands seizure, kept counseling the generals that the world was on Argentina's side.

The generals believed the rhetoric. So did the Argentine public. Newspapers were full of the support for the Argentine cause from Latin America, Western Europe, and elsewhere. To read those papers, it seemed everyone was with Argentina, no one with Britain.

Not until recent days has it become apparent to the Argentine public that this verbal support was just that: words, not actions.

Some Argentines knew it all along. But their voices were drowned out.

The generals not only miscalculated worldwide reaction, but they miscalculated what a ''mere woman'' -- Margaret Thatcher -- would do. Perhaps because of this country's deeply ingrained macho tradition, they were surprised that the British nation would support her and her ideas the way it has.

They learned too late that Mrs. Thatcher was made of sterner stuff than perhaps even General Galtieri -- and that the British nation had a streak of determination unforeseen by Foreign Minister Costa Mendez, who was raised in British schools here in Argentina.

Having misjudged the US reaction, Argentines now blame the US for their defeat.

''We didn't realize that the United States would be a traitor to our just and right cause,'' a retired Army general commented on a morning radio news show. ''The US has behaved shabbily toward us, for they allied themselves with the enemy. . ..''

Not everyone in Argentina supported the seizure of the Falklands. Ironically, Air Force Brig. (Gen.) Basilio Ignacio Lami Dozo, whose jets had been the backbone of the Argentine response to the British task force, was never too enthusiastic about the seizure and war. Neither was Economy Minister Roberto Theodoro Alemann, whose efforts to put some order in the chaos of Argentina's economy were snuffed out by the war. But their voices were lost in a chorus of support for Galtieri's adventure -- a chorus now beginning to change its tune as it hunts for scapegoats.

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