Former British Diplomat Nicholas Henderson Dies at 89

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nicholas Henderson, 89, a British diplomat who served as ambassador to the United States during the 1982 Falkland Islands war and played a role engineering U.S. support for the British military operation that regained control of the islands from Argentina, died March 16 at his home in London. No cause of death was reported.

"Nicko" Henderson, as he had been called since his school days, was an urbane Oxford graduate who cultivated a look of studied rumpledness. He managed to look unkempt even in Savile Row tailoring. His appearance belied one of the savviest minds of the British diplomatic service, and he had ambassadorships from 1969 to 1979 in some of the decisive outposts of the Cold War: Poland, West Germany and France.

While in Bonn and Paris, he became increasingly alarmed at the faltering British economy under a Labor government and its impact on foreign relations. He blasted to international attention in 1979 when his retirement speech -- criticizing British economic policy in harsh terms -- was leaked to the Economist news magazine.

It came as a shock to Mr. Henderson to have been pulled immediately from retirement to the most prestigious diplomatic post in British foreign office -- Washington -- at the request of the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative.

Mr. Henderson spent the next three years in Washington, culminating in the bloody British-Argentine war over the Falklands from April to June 1982.

He became a frequent presence on the evening news, explaining his government's role in repelling the Argentine invasion of a British territory in an effort to get public opinion behind Thatcher. He worked to sell the British military operation as a strategic battle for control of the South Atlantic waterway and of upholding a long tradition of Anglo-American friendship.

This was an important approach at a time when the Reagan administration was strengthening political ties in Latin America with far-right dictatorships such as those in Chile and Argentina.

The Americans agreed to help the British with logistical and intelligence support in the Falklands. Mr. Henderson later noted that the use of U.S.-made Sidewinder missiles proved a crucial addition to the British arsenal and made a difference in the victory over Argentina.

John Nicholas Henderson was born April 1, 1919, and graduated from Hertford College at Oxford University, where he became president of the Oxford Union debating society. A tubercular child, he was exempted from military service during World War II and instead entered diplomatic service. Late in the war, he was assistant private secretary to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, a future prime minister.

In 1951, Mr. Henderson married Mary Cawadias Barber. She died in 2004. Survivors include a daughter, Alexandra, and three grandchildren.

In his post-diplomatic career, Mr. Henderson worked to develop the tunnel linking France and England and wrote witty reminiscences of diplomatic life. He revealed that one Christmas in Washington he offered a case of good claret to anyone willing to render the Gettysburg Address as if it had been written in Secretary of State Al Haig's "idiosyncratic and convoluted manner of speech."

Many of the submissions were fantastic, he said, but he worried the winner would be leaked to The Washington Post and lead Haig, his friend, to "think that the British embassy, particularly the ambassador, could well devote their energy and talents to other less tactless pursuits."

His solution, which proved successful, was to declare everyone a winner and confiscate all texts.

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