Lacking in style

Keith Kyle

  • Divided we stand: Britain, the US and the Suez Crisis by W. Scott Lucas
    Hodder, 399 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 340 53666 7
  • Blind Loyalty: Australia and the Suez Crisis by W.J. Hudson
    Melbourne, 157 pp, £12.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 522 84394 8

The late Lord Caccia, who had the misfortune to arrive in Washington as British Ambassador in November 1956 just as the ‘special relationship’ hit its all-time low with the abrupt American-driven ceasefire on the Suez Canal, was much given in later years to recalling how flabbergasted he had been by an encounter he witnessed on the 17th of that month. He had accompanied his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to visit the American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had been discovered to have cancer during the week of the Suez war. Towards the end of the conversation, Dulles suddenly asked ‘Selwyn, why did you stop? Why didn’t you go through with it and get Nasser down?’ The British visitors fell apart with astonishment. ‘If you had so much as winked at us ...’ Lloyd gasped. Although there is no American account available of this conversation, the record of a bedside visit by President Eisenhower five days earlier shows his Secretary of State making an almost identical remark.

It is with this episode that the young American scholar Scott Lucas, in the introduction to Divided we stand, opens his meticulously researched and pleasantly written examination of the 1956 crisis seen as a landmark in Anglo-American relations. What started as a PhD thesis has been happily transmogrified into a book. Dulles’s actual question, it must be said, doesn’t strike one as much as it struck both Lloyd and Caccia. There is nothing illogical about thinking that an invasion of Egypt was not the right way to deal with the question of Nasser but believing that if one was nevertheless going to resort to such 19th-century methods, one should make a proper job of it. What needed to be done needed to be done swiftly – as the Israelis had already shown in the course of 1948-9. It was no wonder that Ben-Gurion, reading on 16 November that 90,000 British and French troops had been involved in the Suez affair, wrote in his diary: ‘If they had only appointed a commander of ours over this force, Nasser would have been destroyed in two days.’

The time-limit on the ultimatum which Britain and France addressed to Egypt on 30 October (following Israel’s invasion of Egypt on the 29th) was only 12 hours, as compared, for example, with the 48 hours of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia in 1914. Eisenhower agreed with Dulles that it was ‘about as crude and brutal as anything he [Dulles] has ever seen’. But the Americans wanted Nasser to be toppled, as Lucas keeps reminding us with his references to Plan Omega. This was the secret American commitment to bring the Egyptian leader down – but by covert means and over a longer period – which had been entered into at the end of March 1956, before the seizure of the Canal company. Indeed in September Dulles had promised Harold Macmillan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that if they worked on these plans together and out of the limelight, they could pull off the desired result in six months, an assurance which Eden, especially in the light of George Bush’s subsequent experiences with Saddam Hussein, can perhaps be for given for not believing.

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