Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis
'In trying to preserve the political conditions of international life, he allowed himself to become unscrupulous' - thirty years on Eden's coup de main against Nasser seems less untimely realpolitik and more moral dilemma.
Is it really 30 years since the 1956 Suez Crisis convulsed Britain, gravely imperilled the Anglo- American Alliance, brought the House of Commons to unparalleled and unrepeated chaos, and nearly brought down a British Government? No political event of modern times, with the possible exception of Munich, aroused such emotion, divided families, and ended friendships. Nor was there any clear Party political alignment. All one's experience at the time is borne out by what polling evidence there is – there were Conservatives who were against their Government, and Labour and Liberal supporters who applauded the operation, which had, if unconvincingly, majority support in the country. In the 1959 General Election Conservatives found that Suez was a factor in their favour, and harmful to Labour, and Labour MPs experienced difficulties with their traditional voters. The casualties on the Conservative side of those who had had the courage – and it required it – to stand against Suez were surprisingly few, given the passions of the time.These passions are reflected in much of the substantial literature, which is of very varying quality that Suez has generated. This is understandable, and in its way valuable, as it brings home to later generations how deeply people felt: the problem of these works as history is that too many were wholly condemnatory, and the case for Suez has been largely left to the participants, who did not, or could not, tell the full story, and whose accounts have tended to be dismissed as personal apologias. Now, thirty years later, it is possible to take, a cooler look at what actually happened, and why it happened.
Of all the many legends of the events of 1956, the most persistent is that of an overwrought, ill, almost hysterical Anthony Eden as Prime Minister. Eden was not ill, and although he had a notorious temper over minor irritations, was invariably calm on the big issues. It is very easy to be critical of his conduct of the crisis on several occasions, but he was also ill-served and often ill-advised. The blame for what went wrong can be shared by many others.
Fewer men have reached 10 Downing Street with greater expectations, at home and abroad, than Eden did in April '1955. First elected to Parliament in '1923 at he age of twenty-six, his rise in the early 1930s had been meteoric. In the drab and elderly MacDonald- Baldwin Government he was the rising star – photogenic, charming, hard-working and idealistic; even as a junior Minister at the League of Nations (then at its zenith of public attention and respect) Eden was recognised as the coming man, so that when he did not become Foreign Secretary in May 1935 there was general surprise. When he did, in December after the collapse of the Hoare-Laval Part and the downfall of Hoare, it was under lowering circumstances, which were to become infinitely worse. His rift with Neville Chamberlain was personal as well as on perceptions, but the latter became very considerable, and when Eden courageously resigned in February l938 in protest at Chamberlain's policies his public following was further increased.
Eden returned to office when war came and, first as War Secretary and then Foreign Secretary again, was Churchill's closest colleague, friend and designated heir. But for all his triumphs at the Foreign Office, the period of Crown Prince was to be tar longer than he or anyone else had expected. Churchill did not retire after the Conservative defeat in '1945; and, when he became Prime Minister again in 1951, he kept changing his mind about his retirement. Then, in 1953, Eden nearly died after a bungled operation. Churchill had a stroke but arrived on a shadow of the former Churchill. The prolonged farewell was exasperating, but at least it gave Eden an extraordinary year of diplomatic triumphs in 1954, the Garter, and a further escalation of his dizzying reputation, confirmed by the easy Conservative victory in the May 1955 General Election that he called immediately on taking over as Prime Minister. His poster simply contained the phrase 'Working For Peace', and his procession around the country was triumphal. Few British politicians have ever been so widely popular and respected, and the Labour Party, which esteemed him highly, could not challenge his outstanding record of public service; nor, to be fair to them, did they wish to. All seemed set fair.
The trouble with this record was that it did not contain one single period of office in a domestic Department, with the exception of a brief early experience as a Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretary that had bored him mightily. From his Oxford days he had decided to enter foreign affairs through Parliament, as George Curzon had done, and not through the Diplomatic Service. His friends had regularly urged him to widen his experience, but even if he had so wished Churchill would not have had it, and a wartime move to make him Viceroy of India was virtually vetoed by King George VI, so indispensable had Eden become to the Coalition in which he was invariably, and especially in the case of De Gaulle's turbulent relationship with Churchill and Roosevelt, the pacifier, as he was as a notably good Leader of the House of Commons. He had started so early, and immersed himself so thoroughly in his subject, that his knowledge of men, countries, and the negotiating arts was legendary and justified. His famous outbursts of temper were never over big matters, always over some trifling incident. His personal authority in the House of Commons was remarkable; if he was not a great speaker, he was a very great parliamentarian, in which he reflected his qualities of intelligence, sincerity, kindness and good manners. But the reality was that when he became Prime Minister he had never passed any legislation through Parliament and had no domestic ministerial experience whatever. He had his views, very strong ones, on how Britain should develop, but no actual on-the-job knowledge of the often hard practicalities that face ministers.
Eden had also made a major mistake in appointing Harold Macmillan as his successor. He had had personal experience as Foreign Secretary of a strong Prime Minister trying to run foreign policy from Downing Street; ironically, he was one himself. Macmillan was not a pliable, modest or unsure man devoid of ambition, and he greatly enjoyed being Foreign Secretary. The more Eden's eyes fell upon foreign affairs, which was always, the more he regretted the appointment, and in December 1955 he removed the indignant Macmillan to the Treasury, and appointed the considerably more amenable Selwyn Lloyd in his place. If Lloyd was not entirely a puppet, he was very close to being one.
The Eden Government ran into bad luck right from the beginning, and it never got better. And, while the situation at home deteriorated, that abroad became steadily worse, and especially in the Middle East, where Eden's vision of the Baghdad Pact, to be in his own phrase 'a Middle East NATO' involving the West with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey, was foundering on the new fact of Russian involvement in the area and the hostility of the Egyptian leader, President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Nasser has sometimes been depicted as a genial, if misguided, Third World leader standing up to Western imperialism. He was none of these things. From the time that he master-minded the removal first of King Farouk and then of his own notional leader, Neguib, Nasser could take his conspiratorial talents and ruthlessness onto a wider stage. He accelerated the conflict with Israel, set out to destroy the Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq, assisted the Algerians in their war with the French, and in every way, through propaganda, subversion, military and political intimidation, indulged in a prolonged and unscrupulous programme of destabilisation in the Middle East. The new leaders in the Soviet Union began to take a keen interest in these activities. Nasser became a respected and honoured visitor to Russia and Eastern Europe, and was the hero of the Non-Aligned Conference. In September 1955, blaming a major reverse against the Israelis in the Gaza Strip on poor equipment rather than poor leadership, he publicly announced a major arms deal with Czechoslovakia. The Russians also offered substantial aid, particularly for Nasser's most cherished project, the Aswan High Dam. By the end of 1955 he was being viewed with mounting apprehension and impatience in the Middle East, particularly in Baghdad, Amman, and Tel Aviv, and increasing dismay in London, Paris and Washington, Eden warned the American Congress at the beginning of 1956 that:
Brought to a halt in Europe, Soviet expansion now feels its way south and probes in other lands... From the Kremlin streams forth into the lands of what we call the Middle East, and into all Asia, a mixture of blandishment and threat, offers of arms and menaces of individuals, all couched in terms of fierce hostility to Western ideals.Nasser's activities were manifestly hostile to Western interests, with the Russians eagerly assisting him.
Another myth of the subsequent crisis was that Eden, at his only meeting with Nasser before he became Prime Minister, in January 1955, had condescended to him, and treated him as 'a prince dealing with vagabonds', his biographer Heykal alleging that this was to impress his young wife, Clarissa (she was not present at the meeting). In fact, as all other accounts go, the meeting went well enough, with Nasser professing warm pro- Western sentiments, but baulking at any Egyptian involvement in the Baghdad Pact. The Pact was anti- Russian; Nasser saw it, genuinely or not, as anti-Egyptian. Eden, who had imperilled his chances of the Premiership by strongly and successfully advocating the withdrawal of British troops from the Suez Canal Zone on certain terms, on the expiry of the1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that he had negotiated in his first term as Foreign Secretary, was keen on better relations. It was to achieve this, and to keep out the Russians, that he urged the Americans and the World Bank to join Britain in a Western consortium to finance the Aswan Dam.
As Eden emphasised to President Eisenhower and the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, this was 'a political dam', but there were powerful voices in Washington, in the Administration and in Congress, that were hostile, and these were not confined to Jewish influence alone. In London, particularly after the new Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, had met Nasser and General Sir John Glubb was dismissed from his command of the Jordanian Arab Legion, the first enthusiasm faded. Eden wanted to play the matter long, but when warned that Dulles was likely to withdraw the American offer, did not do more than mildly demur. Dulles, in an appallingly ill-conducted meeting with the Egyptian Ambassador on July 19th, announced the American decision, and on the next day, with virtually no discussion in Cabinet, the British did the same. On July 26th, 1956, before a vast crowd in Alexandria, Nasser announced not only the nationalisation of the Suez Canal but its military occupation and the seizure of the property of the Suez Canal Company by force. It had clearly been carefully planned: what had not been anticipated was the vehemence of the reaction in London and Paris.
Anthony Eden was a man of exceptional integrity, and expected it in others. He believed fiercely, as his eminent career demonstrated at every point, in the sanctity of international agreements; a man of honour himself, he also respected good manners. He had always been a strong Foreign Secretary, although working under Churchill provided its difficulties and often vehemently expressed differences. The Russians especially had a great respect for him. Nasser had demonstrated that he was not only a dangerous menace in the Middle East, but he now had, in Eden's words, 'his thumb on our windpipe'. It was not he but Hugh Gaitskell who first com- pared Nasser with Hitler and Mussolini, but Eden saw enough of the latter in Nasser to revive vivid memories of Neville Chamberlain's futile appeasement of Mussolini that had precipitated his courageous resignation as Foreign Secretary in 1938. Eden's personal detestation of Nasser was not the only factor in his actions, but it would be wrong to deny that it was an important one. Nor is this at all surprising. But the key factor was that this avowed enemy of the West and virtual ally of the Soviet Union had, in defiance of all treaties, agreements, and commitments, seized by force the great international waterway through which flowed virtually all the oil of Western Europe and Britain's considerable trade with Asia. Nasser's assurances that the Canal would remain open to all countries had to be seen in the context of his ban on all Israeli ships and in the hollowness of his reputation.
Many later critics of Eden's reactions fail to understand the crucial importance of the Suez Canal in 1956. Over two-thirds of the fuel supplies of Western Europe (60 million tons) passed through it, as did nearly fifteen thousand ships a year, one third of them British; three-quarters of all Canal shipping belonged to NATO countries. Britain's total oil reserves were only six weeks. When Eden had told Kruschev bluntly in their talks earlier in the year at Chequers that oil supplies were so vital that Britain would fight for them, the Soviet leader had one of his explosions, but the British believed that the point had been taken. Nasser, gleeful after his coup, utterly tailed to grasp this. The Americans were sympathetic to Eden, but their own interests were not nearly as much involved, and Eisenhower was adamant that the canal was not worth a war. The British and the French were convinced that it was. The Americans believed that their warnings would be sufficient to deter the military option. They misjudged Eden as badly as he misjudged the likely American reaction. From the beginning, the Western Alliance was in disarray. Urged on by the Americans, there were unavailing endeavours to find a peaceful solution, but Nasser remained intransigent, convinced that nothing would actually happen. He also underestimated the humiliated fury of the French. They had passed through the misery of bloody defeat in Indo-China and had a ghastly war on their hands in Algeria. They had good cause to hate and fear Nasser, and when the British seemed to dither, the Parliamentary resolve wobbling, they turned to the Israelis. None of this was known to the British.
With the British Press and Parliament universally condemnatory of Nasser's perfidy the British Cabinet resolved on July 27th 'that HMG should seek to secure, by the use of force if necessary, the reversal of the Egyptian Government's action to nationalise the Suez Canal Company'. It also established a small committee of ministers 'to formulate further plans for putting our policy into effect'. The French, if anything even more incensed, were eager to be involved, and the military planning began at once, and the Reserves were recalled.
Entirely contrary to some accounts, there was no question of immediate action, and one of the first and most unpleasant surprises of the crisis was the discovery of how lamentable was the actual condition of British military power ten years after the war, and particularly for this kind of operation. Cyprus had no deep-water harbours, which meant that Malta, several days' sailing from Egypt, would have to be the main concentration point for an invasion fleet if the Libyan Government would not permit a land invasion from its territory. The list of deficiencies in equipment and training was alarming, and very long.
The military planners were later blamed for grossly over-estimating Egyptian military strength and resolve, and treating the operation like a repetition of D-Day. If there was some justice in this criticism, it must not be forgotten that British memories were seared by the result of underestimating the Turks at Gallipoli and the Dieppe disaster. Men's lives were at stake, and so were many reputations. What was far more important, and disastrous, was the changing of plans from a landing near Alexandria (Musketeer) to Port Said (Musketeer Revise) and then, amazingly, a proposal only a few days before the actual landings in November, back to Alexandria again.
But the real problems were political, at home and abroad, and these were tri increase until they became utterly dominant, and fatal for Eden.
If it had been militarily possible for a swift coup de main to seize the Canal back, it would certainly have received overwhelming support in Britain and, at worst, disapproval from Washington and Moscow. But it was not possible, and after the first emotional response there were second thoughts, not only in the Labour Party, but in the British Cabinet and, most important of all, in Washington.
Too much has been made of the alleged personal antipathy between Eden and Dulles. The problem was that Dulles detested Nasser, particularly because he was so well regarded aid courted by the Chinese Communists, about whom Dulles was not rational, as Eden had discovered in1954, and would be glad to see him fall. Eisenhower, coming up for re- election, took the view from the outset that the Suez Canal was not worth a war, and Dulles' contribution to the debacle was not his duplicity, as has been suggested and on occasion even openly alleged, but his ambiguity. From him Eden came to believe that although the Americans wanted a peaceful solution – as he did – if this proved impossible they would look the other way. When Dulles theatrically declared that 'Nasser must disgorge his theft' Eden was greatly encouraged; what he completely under-estimated was Eisenhower's imperious nature and his complete domination over Dulles and American foreign policy. The President was not going to permit the United States to be involved in anything that remotely smacked of a colonialist war on behalf of the British Empire. This he made very clear, as did Eden in his insistence that Nasser's actions put the West in mortal peril. Each was entirely consistent, but, looking at their letters and telegrams it is impossible not to conclude that each did not fully believe what the other was saying. Perhaps Eden's greatest single error was his failure to comprehend the fundamental dichotomy in American attitudes to the Middle East in 1956: they were simultaneously anti-Communist and anti-Colonial, and also had their own oil interests, especially in Iran. This hardly amounted to a policy at all, and the confused thinking in Washington was indeed difficult to analyse – then or later. The hard political fact is that Eden misread the signals: it must he said in his defence that they were very confused indeed.
At the root of the problem of communication and understanding was that Eden did not accept that Britain and her empire was a satellite of the United States. His lack of sympathy for British integration into Europe, manifested in his scepticism about the fledgling European Economic Community, was another aspect of his belief in Britain's independent role in world affairs. He was not half- American, like Churchill or Harold Macmillan, and was always happier in Canada than the United States. Throughout the crisis from the end of July to the end of October, the United States tried one delaying measure after another. There was an international meeting of maritime nations; there were US delays in referring the issue to the United Nations; there was the equally futile Suez Canal Users' Association, dreamed up by Dulles and then sabotaged by him; the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, took an abortive mission to Cairo. Time passed; nothing in particular happened; the armed services, particularly the Reservists, became restive.
From the beginning, Eden severely limited the number of ministers and officials who were kept fully informed, entirely on the wartime model, but with bad results. Also, he did not adequately realise how deep were the doubts of the Minister of Defence, Walter Monckton, or the First Sea Lord, Mountbatten. This was entirely the fault of the latter, and does their reputation much harm, especially Mountbatten's. At the other extreme was Macmillan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose idea it was at the very outset of involve the Israelis, which Eden, fearful of a conflict between Israel and Jordan in which Britain was treaty hound to support the latter, absolutely refused. R.A. Butler was loyal and supportive, but as matters progressed could be classified with Derick Heathcoat Amory and Lord Salisbury as a doubter. With the Labour Party now openly and strongly critical, the Press becoming derisive, and with doubts inside the Government, the French came up with the solution.
For some time the French had been engaged in close discussions with the Israelis, and on October 14th the acting foreign minister and General Maurice Challe unfolded to Eden at Chequers the new plan. The Israelis would be encouraged to attack the Egyptians across the Sinai, upon which the British and French would issue an ultimatum to both sides to withdraw from the Canal; upon Egyptian refusal the British and French would occupy it, as Britain was legally entitled to do under the Zone Agreement. Eden was at first non- committal, and Selwyn Lloyd was initially hostile, but after they had flown to Paris in great secrecy the plan was agreed to, and was confirmed at a famous – or notorious – meeting at Sevres on October 22nd involving Lloyd, Ben-Gurion, and Dayan, confirmed by a secret protocol on the 24th, which was attended by two British officials, Patrick Dean and Donald Logan. When Eden heard that a document, even just a record of agreements, existed he was appalled, and sent Dean and Logan back to Paris to destroy it. The French refused, and the Israelis had taken theirs back to Tel Aviv. On October 25th Eden revealed in full Cabinet what was now proposed, remarking that 'We must face the risk that we should be accused of collusion with Israel'. This was the moment for the doubters to speak up strongly, but although some expressed doubts, no one pressed his case to the point of resignation, and it was unanimously endorsed, even by Monckton, no more Defence Minister but still in the Cabinet. The majority was captivated by the cleverness of it all.
The fatal flaw was that when the Israelis told the British and French that they could reach the Canal in a matter of a few days they were not believed. It would take six days for the invasion fleet to reach Port Said, which would be seized by British and French paratroopers on November 5th, the day before the main landing. In order to maintain the fiction of intervening 'to separate the belligerents' the fleet could not sail before the Israelis began their attack. This was on October 29th. The Anglo- French ultimatum was publicly announced on the 30th. The first' Eisenhower knew of it was from the Press Association; the British representative at the United Nations had the same experience; if achieving surprise was the main purpose of strategy, it was wholly successful. The trouble was that those most surprised were Britain's closest allies and friends, and virtually all her Ambassadors and High Commissioners. At the UN Britain and France were isolated, and had to resort to the veto in the Security Council; the Americans then led the move to refer the matter to the General Assembly. After the initial bewilderment and shock, the Labour Opposition launched the most vehement assault in recent Parliamentary history. The tumult became even greater when, on the evening of November 1st, the RAF bombed Egyptian airfields.
Militarily, this was a brilliant success, eliminating the Egyptian air force on the ground. Politically, it was disastrous. There is something particularly emotive about bombing, and nothing had been said about this in the ultimatums. At home and abroad the political storm rose. The Russians had their own severe difficulties, with cruel and bitter fighting in Budapest, and could do nothing to help Nasser except issue threats. That to launch rocket attacks on London and Paris was dismissed for the bluff it was, but Eisenhower's anger and alarm were greatly augmented by the mere possibility of the Middle East conflagration getting out of hand. With the Commons in uproar, and the nation acutely divided, the invasion fleet steamed slowly on, while the Israelis, after initial difficulties and losses, swept forward to the Canal.
It was time that defeated Eden. The UN called for an international peacekeeping force, supported by most of the Commonwealth and Western Europe. The British stalled, but by now the Cabinet's divisions were manifesting themselves, and for all the brilliance of Edward Heath as Chief Whip, the strain on the Parliamentary Party was becoming very serious. It was the fact that nothing seemed to be happening that was the most unnerving element. There were only two ministerial resignations – Anthony Nutting, to Eden's astonishment, and Edward Boyle – but Cabinet support was crumbling.
With the exception of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – and even here the support was less than whole-hearted – Eden had the entire Commonwealth ranged against him, and cries of dismay were coming from his Middle Eastern allies, particularly the lraqis. A run on the pound developed and then accelerated: the Americans curtly refused to help unless the operation was halted. The Syrian pipeline was blown up, and block-ships sunk in the Canal. When Nasser, in a brilliant stroke, accepted the UN demand for a cease fire and accepted in principal a UN Force, the fundamental pretext crumbled. The French were unconcerned, but British ministers were. By November 4th there were some who actually favoured stopping the entire operation, but the majority agreed that it should continue.
As the hitherto unpublished Cabinet, Egypt Committee, and Chiefs of Staff papers clearly reveal the purpose of the entire operation was to bring down Nasser, and considerable detailed plans had been made for providing an alternative Government from among anti-Nasser Egyptian politicians, and means of financing it. There was a general expectation that military disaster would destroy him, whereas the fact was that it had consolidated his position. If, as was the case, the Americans saved him from total disaster and the loss of the Canal, the storm of international disapproval of the invasion had made him appear the victim, rather than the initiator, of aggression.
When Macmillan, the greatest of the hawks at the outset and during the crisis, changed sides Eden's position became untenable. Bowing to the pressure, Eden announced a cease fire on November 6th. The Suez Crisis was, technically, over.
Sevres remained a closely guarded secret for a considerable time, and it was a notable tribute to Eden's reputation for integrity that many of even the fiercest critics of Suez did not believe the charge of 'collusion' with Israel and accepted Eden's explanation, repeated in his memoirs, that the British had known of the possibility, even likelihood, of an Israeli attack but were not involved in its inception, whereas under the Challe Plan it was central to the pretext for the Anglo- French intervention, providing the legal justification under the Zone Agreement, whereby the British were entitled to return if the Canal was threatened.
This was not a British plan at all, but a French device for satisfying Eden's scruples about an unprovoked seizure of the Canal. The French found these mystifying, as did the Israelis about Eden's insistence upon minimum casualties. 'Eden wanted a war without casualties', a prominent Israeli deeply involved in Sevres has told me: 'that is not possible.' The implication, that Eden lacked ruthlessness, might appear condemnatory, but Eden, a former – and very brave – soldier himself knew personally what casualties mean; two of his brothers had been killed in the First World War, he had only narrowly survived, and he had lost a son in the Second, and many friends in both. Also, he was deeply anxious to limit Egyptian civilian casualties to the minimum, which was why the RAF was strictly confined to purely military targets. By November 2nd it had complete mastery of the air over Egypt and had the capacity to inflict massive damage – and casualties. There were certainly political reasons for not doing so, given the hope and expectation of establishing a more friendly Egyptian Government, but the dominant ones were humanitarian, which was greatly to Eden's credit.
He was also far more sensitive to charges of ignoring the United Nations – of which he had been one of the founding fathers, and very nearly became its first Secretary-General – than many others would have been. The Canadian proposal for a Peacekeeping Force had in fact been supported by the British Government, which made the cease-fire even more difficult to resist. It was also an appalling personal experience for a lifelong exponent of One Nation Conservatism to find himself leading a harshly divided country, and the Peacemaker denounced as the Warmonger. But if he had not been abandoned by his colleagues he would have carried on until the Canal was taken – which would not have been very long – and would have been in a very strong bargaining position. To go so far and then to stop, with the then almost inevitable withdrawal, was the greatest error of all, but by this time the pressures and exhaustion and strain had proved too much.
'Collusion' is an ugly word, and it was surprising to me to find that it was Eden who first used it in his explanation of the plan to his full Cabinet. It could equally be applied to a considerable number of modern agreements between nations, not least in the case of with Russia in Persia in the War, or with the Americans on several occasions. What caused the difficulty in the case of Suez was that it was denied. In Eden's last speech in the Commons he said that 'there were no plans to get together to attack Egypt... there was no foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt'. This was absolutely true up to the meeting at Chequers on October 14th, but not thereafter. Eden's endeavour to destroy all records of Sevres was significant, but the fact that he had openly told his Cabinet about the plan.; would eventually, as he knew, come to light. As a result of changing the Fifty Year Rule to Thirty, and my access to his papers, and the decision of Pineau to reveal the agreement, with Dayan following, it came to light much earlier than he might have expected.
But he did not regard the agreement – or Protocol as the British obstinately call it – as in any sense dishonourable. Nor do I. As the three participants had agreed to keep it absolutely secret, Eden honoured his commitment, not least because the Israelis were in the most vulnerable position of all – something that Ben-Gurion never forgot. For the advocates of Nasser to complain about breaches of international behaviour would be comical, if the results had not been so tragic.
And tragic they were. Bolstered by his unexpected and undeserved triumph as a champion of anti- colonialism, Nasser continued as before. He brought down the Iraqi Government, and handed the Iraqi people over to an infinitely more terrible despotism than King Faisal could ever have envisaged, let alone practised. He got his Dam, and the Russians with it. Soviet involvement in the area was vastly augmented, and deliberate destabilisation spread to Libya, the Lebanon, Algeria, Aden, and the Gulf States, and the war against Israel continued, with results that live with us to this day. When in 1967 he demanded the withdrawal of the UN forces on the border with Israel, and the Israelis reacted with the most devastating brief campaign in modern warfare, the scale of the ruin he had brought upon his country, and upon Syria and Jordan as well, could be better gauged. Eden's own reputation, not least in Israel and the United States, soared, and he was deluged with letters of the 'you were right in 1956' variety. Of all the ironies of Suez, for Nasser the arch-conspirator to look like the victim of a conspiracy was the richest of all.
One of the true beneficiaries was De Gaulle, Eden's old friend and ally, who emerged from the wilderness to lead France not only out of Algeria but also out oft NATO, to make France militarily and politically independent, to create the French nuclear deterrent, and to keep Britain out of the Common Market. For him the lesson of Suez was that the Americans could not be trusted and that so long as Britain was so dependent upon the United States she was an unreliable ally – especially under someone like Macmillan. So long as De Gaulle reigned at the Elysée Palace, Eden and his wife were the most honoured of guests. Eden survived Nasser, and also lived to see another Egyptian military disaster in1973, subsequently redeemed by Sadat's statesmanlike realisation of facts, which cost him his life. The Aswan Dam was built with Russian money, but the Soviet influence faded. To demonstrate how times had changed, when the Suez Canal was closed between 1967 and 1974 the effects were negligible. The age of the super-tanker had arrived, and the hope expressed in Eden's last speech, at a dinner in his honour organised by Heath at Downing Street in 1971, that Britain would find 'a lake of oil' in the North Sea was to be fulfilled.
It was ill-health and the peremptory orders of his doctors, and not remorse or other ingenious explanations that have been manufactured, that compelled Eden's withdrawal to Jamaica in late November 1956 – a disastrous decision – and his subsequent resignation in January 1957. Very few Conservatives had broken ranks, and Gallup polls recorded the strengthening position of the government. Had he been in London, and less unwell, he would have fought hard against the withdrawal of the Anglo-French forces, but Macmillan stood out for unconditional withdrawal, and gained the majority. To the end of his days Eden considered Macmillan's performance with something stronger than disdain, as he did Mountbatten's.
Eden in one sense was the last of the British imperialists, in that he truly believed that it was possible and desirable for Britain to have a global role in alliance with, but not subservient to, the United States and Western Europe, and was absolutely entitled to protect her own interests by force if needs be. As the whole record of his life showed, he was not a colonialist, and it also demonstrated his enthusiasm for better and balanced relations with Egypt. This is now much better appreciated in Egypt than it was, even Heykal now moderating his hostility to Eden and his veneration for Nasser.
What is also better understood is how high the stakes were in 1956, and how it was impossible for the British and French to tolerate or lamely accept Nasser's action. The apologists for Nasser now look even less impressive than they were at the time.
In perhaps the most sensitive assessments of Eden and Suez, the late Martin Wight wrote that Eden's moral dilemma has a lasting significance. In trying to preserve the political conditions of international life he allowed himself to become unscrupulous', and he compared it to Cicero's:
Reduce the heroic scale; make it international society and not the Roman republic; and Eden explored the same region of the moral universe of politics, with similar high-mindedness and self-righteousness, blindness and clear-sightedness, misjudgement and courage.The tragedy of Suez and of Anthony Eden cannot be better expressed.
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