The Statesman’s Yearbook Online

edited by Dr Barry Turner



60 years on from the Suez Crisis, Barry Turner reflects on an episode that tested Anglo–American relations.

The special relationship between the United States and Britain has had an uneven history. Its high point was in the early months of the Second World War when President Roosevelt responded to Prime Minister Churchill’s appeal for aid by mobilizing the American economy as a life support for the British war effort. Less than 20 years on came the lowest point.

In 1956 Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. The ostensible justification was to protect the international status of the Suez Canal, a waterway of world significance not least for connecting Middle East oil to its European markets. Oil accounted for half the Canal’s traffic and met two-thirds of Europe’s demand.

In reality, the crisis was more abut the threat to Anglo–French interests and to the very existence of Israel posed by President Nasser of Egypt, the prime exponent of Arab nationalism. A populist of formidable talent, Nasser was intent on eradicating what he called ‘colonial’ influence in his country. In July 1956 he declared the Suez Canal, for generations under Anglo–French management, to be nationalized. In one swift, dramatic move he had proved himself a leader who could defy two big powers.

They resolved to strike back. With good reason to fear Nasser’s ascendancy, Israel joined an alliance that gave the excuse for a pre-emptive strike against a declared enemy.

In Washington, President Dwight Eisenhower watched the unfolding events with a growing sense of dismay and anger. To his advisers, Eisenhower spoke of his ‘double-crossing allies’ while in a sharp telephone conversation with Prime Minister Eden in London he skipped the usual preliminaries to get straight to the point. ‘I can only assume that you are out of your mind’ was his opening gambit. He spoke closer to the truth than he realized.

How did it get to this? At the heart of the crisis was the failure of European politicians to grasp that the days of Western imperialism were drawing rapidly to a close (Soviet imperialism was another matter) and that Europe itself had been marginalized in a Cold War that recognized only two world rivals—the USA and the USSR. With their history of empire building, the truth was particularly galling for France and Britain, both sensitive to whatever touched on their self-importance.

For almost a century, Britain had played a dominant role in Egyptian affairs. While the French had built the Suez Canal, it was the British who gave a much needed boost to Egyptian finances with the purchase of a 44 per cent holding in the enterprise. That was in 1875. By then, the Canal had gained significance as the gateway to India, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown. After putting down nationalist rebels, British forces stayed on in Egypt to create a protectorate—in effect a British colony by another name.

French interest, however, remained strong. It was not simply that the Suez Canal Company was managed from Paris or even that Egypt was imbued with French language and culture. What really concerned the Quai d’Orsay was the possibility of unrest in Egypt spreading to French-controlled Algeria and Tunisia.

After the Great War, the American ideal of self-government for subject peoples came adrift in the Middle East where Arab princes took power under the mandatory guidance of France and Britain. The setting of new boundaries, however neat and tidy on paper, was a recipe for tribal and ideological conflict. The biggest muddle of all was reserved for Palestine, selected by Britain as the setting for a Jewish homeland. From the first days of a British mandate, Palestine was marred by violence. Today we might ask: what has changed?

Egypt gained independence of a sort in 1923. While constitutional government was created, Britain held on to control of defence and security, rights that became all the more important in the build up to the Second World War when it was clear that Italy had designs on Egypt. Efforts to secure Egyptian loyalty led to the 1935 Anglo–Egyptian Treaty. The moving force was the young Anthony Eden, recently promoted to foreign secretary. Credited with a diplomatic triumph, he could not have guessed that the document he signed contained more than a hint of the finale to his political career. The period of entitlement of the British military to remain in the Canal Zone was to end in 1956.

As a loyal supporter of Winston Churchill in his opposition to the Hitler regime, Eden was highly regarded as foreign minister and as Churchill’s closest colleague. Assumed by all to be the heir apparent, he followed Churchill as premier in 1955. But by then, though only in his fifties, he was a spent force. In poor health and given to violent mood changes, his political thinking was rooted in the past. Britain without her empire was beyond his imagination.

‘The Empire’, as he put it, ‘is our life; without it we should be no more than an insignificant island off the coast of Europe.’ His conviction was echoed in the Quai d’Orsay. France ‘n’est rien sans les colonies.’ Nasser played on these fears. Having come to power after a military overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, he all but persuaded Washington that his political ambitions were in line with the best traditions of American democracy.

Britain and France were having none of that. The view from their side of the Atlantic was that Nasser was a Hitler in the making, a nationalist fanatic who planned a takeover of the entire Middle East while annihilating the recently created independent state of Israel.

Neither side had it right. Nasser was no democrat but his power to damage the Western alliance or to inflict pain on Israel was limited by territorial and political rivalries that were endemic to the Middle East. His mistake was to overplay his hand with Washington. Eisenhower favoured rational discussion over confrontation but he was no soft touch. When Nasser tried to hurry along an arms deal by threatening to transfer his allegiance to the Soviet Union, the warning sirens in Washington were loud and clear.

Relations between Egypt and the USA deteriorated further over the financing of the Aswan Dam. A worthy project to bring into cultivation two million acres of arid land came up against doubts that Egypt could guarantee a massive loan. When the USA pulled out of the deal, Nasser appealed to the Russians who were far more accommodating.

The fear of the Cold War spreading to the Middle East seemed to justify the stance of Britain and France. But US disillusionment with Nasser fell a long way short of securing Washington’s willingness to bring armed pressure to bear. In the naïve belief that Eisenhower would be compelled to follow their lead, the two European powers pushed ahead with their scheme to bring down Nasser.

The nationalization of the Suez Canal was the spark in the tinderbox. With France as Israel’s closest ally, a triple alliance took shape. The arch plotters were Eden and his opposite numbers in France and Israel—Guy Mollet and David Ben-Gurion.

To say that the plan was fantastical is to put it mildly. After a half-hearted attempt at conciliation, Israel was to attack Egypt; Britain and France would then intervene with an expeditionary force to separate the combatants and save the Canal. No account was taken of world opinion which, in the event, turned out to be almost uniformly hostile. Little account was taken of the United Nations; a fact even more remarkable given that Eden was one of its principal architects.

At 3.00 p.m. on 29 October 1956, the Israeli Air Force struck against Egyptian positions in Sinai. The next day, an ultimatum from France and Britain was addressed to the governments of Israel and Egypt. It called on them to stop hostilities, to withdraw their forces to a distance of ten miles from the Canal and to allow Anglo–French forces to occupy key positions.

The ultimatum, rejected by Egypt, set off a veritable hurricane of protest. It was led by the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who with a ‘heavy heart’ spoke before the UN General Assembly to discuss two of America’s oldest and closest allies. To add to his discomfort, the Soviet Union joined him in condemning the ‘aggressors’, a gesture of staggering hypocrisy in view of Moscow’s decision to send troops to Hungary to bring into line the liberal reformers who had taken over the government.

The USSR continued to bluster with contrived outrage. Nikita Khrushchev, the new strong man in Moscow, threatened rocket attacks to ‘curb aggression’ against Egypt. However much Eisenhower was opposed to the Suez adventure, Soviet involvement was not to be tolerated. ‘If those fellows start something’, he told his advisers, ‘we may have to hit ‘em—if necessary, with everything in the bucket.’

That the Suez War was a gigantic mistake destined to end in disaster became apparent to the British political elite at an early stage of the campaign. At least six members of Eden’s cabinet had severe doubts while the minister of defence, no less, came out openly against the use of force. He also recognized, along with others, that Eden—with his fragile temper and refusal to acknowledge reasoned argument that told against him—was close to a breakdown. Yet, there was only one resignation and that of a junior minister.

When eventually Anglo–French forces landed in Egypt, the conflict was short and sharp. An overwhelming majority in the UN in favour of an immediate ceasefire, together with an oil embargo against Britain and France, concentrated minds on finding an exit. But it was financial pressure from the USA that clinched the argument. Harold Macmillan, as finance minister in the Eden government, warned of fast disappearing gold reserves and threats from Washington to expose sterling to turmoil in the currency markets. A run on the pound was the last thing the precarious British economy needed.

Macmillan exaggerated. Britain’s financial plight was nowhere near as serious as he made out. Moreover, the US was not about to disrupt the world economy to score a point against Britain. As the Tory leader who took over when Eden was forced to resign, the suspicion is that Macmillan engineered his own succession. A more probable explanation is that he was convinced the government was in an impossible position. It was largely on his urging that Eden accepted a ceasefire.

What else was learned from the Suez debacle or, perhaps, what was not learned? It was many years before Britain and France recognized that imperialism was a lost cause. Independence for British colonies came slowly and often painfully while France bucked the trend with fruitless efforts to bind her overseas possessions ever closer to the motherland. It was only after a savage and demoralizing war that Algeria was surrendered to nationalists. It needed the exceptional prestige and presence of Charles de Gaulle to effect the change.

De Gaulle was less easily persuaded that on the world stage the USA was the undisputed leader of the Western democracies. France withdrew from NATO as the first move towards creating an independent nuclear deterrent. By contrast, Macmillan, who had succeeded Eden as prime minister at the start of 1957, moved quickly to repair and strengthen Anglo–American relations. When he met with Eisenhower in March 1957, the President reported ‘by far the most successful international meeting I have attended since the close of World War Two’. The special relationship was back on track.

In bowing to the White House, Britain accepted, though implicitly, that worldwide responsibilities could no longer be sustained on such a small economic base. A start was made on reducing the size of the military while making it fitter for a more limited purpose.

The biggest loser of the Suez War, though he was the last to realise it, was Abdul Nasser. After the ceasefire he proclaimed a great victory over the invaders. It was true that Egyptian control of the Canal was affirmed but that was a long way from concluding that the Egyptian armed forces had emerged from battle with much distinction. In reality they failed at almost every stage of the campaign, their few successes being more the result of luck than strategic judgment. The myth fostered by Nasser was that with advanced military technology, his forces were invincible. The bitter truth became apparent a decade later with the Egyptian defeat in the Six Day War. Soviet arms were to no avail. Israeli raids destroyed 286 of 340 Egyptian warplanes on the ground. The story went around of Marshal Zokharov, chief of the Soviet general staff, telephoning Nasser to let him know that his latest batch of aircraft was ready for delivery. ‘Or would it save time if we just blew them up now?’

As the true story of the Suez War began to emerge from the archives, Anthony Eden was cast as the undisputed villain of the piece. The real indictment against Eden was not so much that he was devious or dishonest but rather he did not understand the country he was governing. Over twenty years of world travel in the grand style, cavorting with diplomats and politicians who themselves had outmoded, or at best second-hand, impressions of what Britain represented, had left him with an exaggerated view of his country’s readiness or ability to fight for the values he held most dear. Eden had no feel for the better-educated and better-informed generation that was coming of age.

The rebellious spirit that was beginning to find its strength in the late fifties had its origins in America, where rising living standards and cash to spare had released teenagers from their parents’ purse string and freed them from traditional authority. The new radicalism soon spread to Europe, where young people were besotted with American culture popularized by sound and screen. The gap between old and new was widening at the time of Suez. Eden and his friends, mostly of pre-war vintage, failed to connect with the young; few even bothered to try. To many of military age in 1956, the Suez episode was a throwback—evidence that their elders had lost their grip.

Barry Turner

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