Whoever wins the battle of the Falklands, the British have won an important round in the battle of the White Papers, those official documents that all governments publish on the eve of war or other crises. The British document is altogether persuasive. The heart of the matter is summed up in one strong sentence: "The Falkland islanders are used to enjoying free institutions." No amount of clever drafting at the U.N. could get around this proposition. No self-respecting British government could bargain away this right, and no American government could (or should) argue for a compromise of this principle. Indeed, given what is now known of the Argentine position, it is amazing that the British were willing to negotiae for so long.

The Argentine position, at least as described by the British, was almost farcical. It is highly doubtful that there was any serious Argentine intention of seeking a settlement. The Argentines demanded that the British forces withdraw to normal operating bases; once the Royal Navy returned to Portsmouth, of course, there would be no chance of its steaming back to the Falklands should the crisis break out again. The Argentine forces, still only a few hours away, would be free to invade the islands at their leisure. Brushing aside a United Nations administrator would pose no obstacle (consider what Nasser did to the U.N. in 1967.)

And even if there were some compromise similar to the British proposal for withdrawal to a line 150 miles removed, the Argentines undermined this by including the island of South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands in the definition of the agreed territory in dispute. This would, incidentally, have given Argentina complete command of the South Atlantic, something the United States ought to regard with considerable reservation.

Even if the sticky problem of withdrawal could have been solved, there remained the fate of the islanders. Argentina wanted to have the right of free access, including the right to settle Argentine nationals on the islands. One could easily imagine what would happen under this simple proposition. As the British White Paper put it: "It was evident that Argentina hoped to change the nature of Falkland society and its demographic makeup . . ."

No doubt there will be an Argentine document to rebut the British version. And we may eventually be able to study all of the other proposals. Given the American obsession with turning every crisis into a legal debate, the British will probably be blamed for being too hasty or too rigid. If there is a lesson from the crisis, it is not that the British should have compromised. The lesson is that moderation in this instance was no virtue. By stretching out the negotiations, the British allowed the issues to become much too fuzzy. By prolonging the talks, London probably encouraged the Argentines to believe that protracted negotiations and skillful public relations would eventually discourage military action. And the British tactic of "strangulation," etc., was dubious from the outset. The sinking of the Sheffield exposed the limits of the strategy. The British documents demonstrate that tightening the screw was never likely to dislodge the Argentines from the islands.

The American position looks better in retrospect. We had to try to arrange a negotiated settlement, not because of the ambivalent nature of the dispute, but because our own national interests dictated an effort to avoid any shooting war in the Western Hemisphere between a European power and a Latin country. And the British claim that they did in fact accept the Haig proposals, even though they presented some "real difficulties." American spokesmen are already hinting at another mediation effort. Maybe we should not be so quick to reassure Argentina. We are involved. And if the British document is an accurate reflection of the issues, we are clearly on the right side.