The dangers in the dispute between Great Britain and Argentina and Chile over the sovereignty of the South Atlantic islands should not be minimized. The British government has dispatched warships to the Falklands. Argentine and Chilean naval units have been sent to adjacent waters, and armed forces have been landed at several points. A peaceful settlement will not be advanced by the insulting references to the two great South American republics that are being made in London, nor by the flamboyant nationalism that is being aroused in Buenos Aires and Santiago.
These dreary islands near Cape Horn have no economic and only potential strategic value. Yet the controversies they have provoked fill the diplomatic history of the 18th and 19th centuries. They have been occupied successively by France, Great Britain and Spain. A quarrel over them brought Britain and Spain to the brink of war in 1771.
British sovereignty over the Falklands, now maintained for 115 years, has never been recognized by Argentina. The British government is creating the impression that the Argentine republic is only advancing her claims at this moment because of Britain's present weakness. Yet those claims have been repeatedly advanced for more than a century, and under the accepted principles of international law they are far stronger than the British claims.
If the ground to title is to be based on discovery and occupation, France possessed the first valid claim. France subsequently ceded her rights to Spain. It is true that Britain first occupied the islands in the 18th century, but she abandoned them in 1774 by agreement with Spain.
When the Spanish government established the viceroyalty of Buenos Aires in 1778, the Falklands were specifically included. Governors were appointed and resided in the islands. In the Nootka Sound convention, concluded in 1790 between Britain and Spain, Britain recognized all existing Spanish occupations in South America, and agreed not to colonize to the south of these occupations unless some third state should attempt to do so. In this convention Spain's right to the Falkland Islands would seem to have been admitted unequivocally by Britain.
After the Spanish colonies gained their independence, the territorial extension of each of the former Spanish administrative units became that of the new republic by which it was replaced. Spain's right to the Falklands and their dependencies passed to the Argentine republic. Chile inherited similar rights in other southern areas.
The Argentines have not forgotten that Britain's seizure of these islands in 1833 was facilitated by the United States.
In 1829 the American sealing ship Harriet was taken by the Argentine governor of the Falklands for violating his regulations. The American consul in Buenos Aires, without instructions from Washington, and encouraged by the British minister and consul general, prompted Commander Duncan of the USS Lexington to proceed to the Falklands to take punitive action. Duncan, upon his arrival, arrested the Argentine authorities, sacked the settlement and declared the islands "free of all government."
President Jackson truculently upheld Duncan's high-handed action. When the British four years later expelled the Argentine authorities by force and occupied the islands themselves, the United States failed to invoke the Monroe Doctrine. On several occasions this government has refused to pass upon the question of sovereignty.
Notwithstanding Argentine protests, the stronger power has until now continued to enforce her jurisdiction.
In this new flareup of the dispute, Greroning my clat Britain has proposed a submission of the respective claims to the International Court of Justice. This proposal has been rejected by the Argentine and Chilean governments, which have, in turn, suggested a submission of all of the issues involved to an international conference.
The basic question is of outstanding importance to all of the American republics.
Many powers have recently displayed a marked interest in the Antarctic. There is reason to believe that mineral resources of great strategic as well as economic value are to be found there. If this controversy over the title to territories which command the access to Antarctica grows still more serious, not only will the security of both Argentina and Chile be prejudiced, but the peace of the entire hemisphere may be endangered by contingencies which seem as yet remote. We might well remember the old adage about fishing in muddy waters.
What is equally important at this moment of world crisis is that no such breach between three leading nations of the West should be permitted to weaken the solidarity of the democratic front.
An immediate initiative on the part of the inter-American system is demanded. An attempt should be made by all the American republics to agree through consultation upon a common policy.
The first step should be the submission of the problem to the governing board of the Pan American Union in order to obtain a rapid decision upon that method of adjustment which the 21 American governments consider the best calculated to promote a just, a speedy, and a pacific settlement.
Is this not the moment for a positive policy of prevention rather than for mere procrastination in the hope that "something may turn up"?