There was a message on the piece of paper which fluttered to the floor when someone opened the door of the Commander-in-Chief’s room: ‘Hooknoses’ D-Day – 29 Oct.’ Throughout the late summer and early autumn of 1956 there had been a build-up of British and French forces in the Mediterranean, following President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The possibility of military operations by the former imperialist masters of the region was the object alike of Egyptian propaganda and American concern. Nor did it take much imagination to foresee that Israel might characteristically conclude that aggression was the best form of self-defence. This opened up the possibility of a collision between the war plans of the anti-Egyptian powers. But whatever the Hooknoses were up to, how could General Sir Charles Keightley, as Allied Commander-in-Chief, apparently possess privileged knowledge of what was afoot? Had collision been averted by collusion? This shocking thought crossed the mind of Air Marshal Bennett, commander of the Air Task Force, as soon as he gained his inadvertent glimpse of the note on Keightley’s floor. ‘Christ,’ he thought, ‘you aren’t in some bloody awful hook-up, are you?’
This anecdote is part of the formidable mosaic of evidence which Keith Kyle has assembled in his study of the making and ending of the 1956 crisis. If there are still secrets of Suez awaiting explosive detonation, they must be well-hidden indeed to have escaped detection in the course of his relentless research, which draws on a unique range of sources, not only private and official archives but published and unpublished testimony, both written and oral. As a working journalist who lived through the crisis and now seeks to record it as history, he invites comparison with William Shirer, whose vast chronicle of the Third Reich sat on all our bookshelves thirty years ago. Kyle may have done enough research to take on the academics at their own game, but he shows that the hard-earned skills of his old trade have not deserted him in his zest for getting the story out to the public. And quite a story it is. For an intertwined juxtaposition of geopolitical imperatives with personal sub-plots it remains the best thing of its kind since Antony and Cleopatra. Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety.
Unburnished, throneless, the first encounter between Eden and Nasser may leave description unbeggared but Kyle nonetheless conveys its piquancy. This meeting took place in February 1955 at the British Embassy in Cairo, which Eden was visiting in his capacity as Churchill’s Foreign Secretary. Eden took the opportunity to exercise not only his legendary charm but also the Arabic for which he had been awarded a First at Oxford thirty years previously. Nasser was surprised, perhaps disconcerted – not quite what he had expected on his first visit to, as he put it, the place from which Egypt had been governed. His host exquisitely demurred: ‘Not governed, advised, perhaps.’ Whether Nasser was favourably impressed by this kid-glove treatment depends upon which subsequent version of the exchanges gains most credence. If he said later that Eden behaved like ‘a prince among beggars’, this may only have been a throwaway reference to the fact that the British party were attired in evening dress. It was not to be the last time that Eden found himself all dressed up with nowhere to go.
At the outset, then, there may well have been some mutual regard between the two leaders. Eden’s turn against Nasser came with the dismissal of Sir John Glubb as Chief of Staff of the Arab Legion in March 1956. Glubb Pasha, writes Kyle, ‘was a British newspaper reader’s legend’. With his fall the reality of Britain’s diminished role in the Middle East suddenly struck home. Eden, it should be remembered, had not long moved from the Foreign Office to 10 Downing Street, and faced a predicament which we can well appreciate 35 years later. The new prime minister lived uneasily in the shadow of his illustrious predecessor – whose legs bestrode the ocean and whose reared arm crested the world – and his own honeymoon period of popular affection proved short-lived. Within months of taking over, the knives were out and even the Tory press started claiming that ‘Sir Anthony Eden has been dithering.’ It was when the poor man set about proving that he was not a ditherer, however, that things went from bad to worse.
His personal staff knew all about Eden’s fierce temper and his press secretary, William Clark, was advised against over-reacting to it. ‘Wait until, which he will do eventually, he apologises,’ was one colleague’s advice – to which another added: ‘That is the nastier part of it.’ Moreover Eden’s temperament was hardly improved by his recurrent medical difficulties, an aftermath of unsuccessful surgery, which made him feverish at times of stress. Blowing hot and cold, alternating between slashing imprecation and gushing ingratiation, Eden’s short fuse was quickly ignited by an unwelcome course of events in the Middle East. There were difficulties intractably over Israel, difficulties suddenly over Glubb, difficulties increasingly over the proposed Aswan Dam, difficulties persistently over the wretched Canal, and always the posturing Egyptian leader trying to get into the act. According to his former private secretary, Shuckburgh, the Prime Minister was now ‘violently anti-Nasser, whom he compares to Mussolini’.
It is notorious that, on the British side, the Suez crisis was driven by the supposed lessons of appeasement in the late Thirties. Nasser’s nationalisation of the Canal may have borne only limited resemblance to the seizure of Abyssinia, still less of Czechoslovakia, but a paradigm had been imprinted on many impressionable minds which saw prescience in paranoia. This time the Western powers were determined to get their retaliation in first. What complicated the issue was the need to find a legal basis for action which would pass muster at the United Nations. The British Government had long known that, with the treaties governing the Canal running rapidly towards extinction, existing legal rights were a wasting asset. A paper prepared for the Cabinet in May 1956 made no bones about this: ‘Our position concerning the Canal is fundamentally weak and that of the Egyptian Government conversely strong.’ Likewise Kyle quotes the minutes of the Cabinet meeting held on the morning of 27 July 1956, the day after nationalisation. The Cabinet accepted that Britain would ‘be on weak ground in basing our resistance on the narrow argument that Colonel Nasser had acted illegally’: ‘from the strictly legal point of view, his action amounts to no more than a decision to buy out shareholders.’
If the legal argument would not stand up, however, the political rhetoric threatened to run away with the crisis, not least on the Labour side of the House of Commons. ‘It is all very familiar,’ declared Hugh Gaitskell. ‘It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war.’ Where the Leader of the Opposition differed from the Government was in yoking this denunciation of Nasser with a reminder that it was British policy to avoid ‘any international action which would be in breach of international law or, indeed, contrary to the public opinion of the world’. Though in public Eden was still ready to play upon his credentials as a founding father of the United Nations, in private he was distinctly less keen. ‘Please let us keep quiet about the UN,’ he wrote on one cable in early August.
What occupied the Prime Minister for much of the next three months was the attempt to find a respectable public reason for the use of force to which, in private, he increasingly inclined. First he dithered, then he acted, ultimately securing the worst of both worlds. Nasser had calculated that there would be a 90 per cent chance of attack from Britain and France up to 10 August, then down to 60 per cent in September, 40 for the first half of October, and 20 thereafter. The rationality of this calculation was borne out by the course of events, as the hot indignation over the Canal’s seizure gave way to cooler and more sceptical appraisals. The more Eden tried to clear the ground for intervention by diplomatic activity, the more the situation turned from ripe to rotten. ‘Oh, these delays!’ he groaned at the end of August. ‘They are working against us. Every day’s postponement is to Nasser’s gain and our loss.’
Initially it took time to formulate contingency plans for military operations, but, once the armed forces were prepared, there was an in-built momentum for action. The Minister of Defence, Walter Monckton, told the Cabinet at the end of August that there had been no clash of military and political imperatives so far, but he warned: ‘A stage would soon be reached, however, at which it would be difficult to preserve any large measure of flexibility in the military plan.’ Thereafter, those who were bent on intervention were increasingly impatient over the time-wasting pantomime at the United Nations, ostensibly aimed at a diplomatic settlement. Harold Macmillan’s role in the crisis has to be understood in such terms. One observer described him in private as ‘wanting to tear Nasser’s scalp off with his own fingernails’. Yet he was forced to dissimulate his real feelings when dealing with the Americans because of their tiresome insistence on maintaining a line of high moral rectitude. His own cynicism led him to his gross misjudgment of the likely American response. ‘I know Ike,’ Macmillan assured his colleagues. ‘He will lie doggo!’
This tension between the actual and the avowed aims of the British Government was not just a moral flaw in its case: it became a disabling inconsistency in its strategy. For it led to the concoction of a war plan with the French which gave a crucial but unacknowledged role to Israel. The result was that British war aims, never very clear in the first place, became wrapped in the layers of ambiguity necessary to sustain deceit. The ethical failings in Eden’s scenario thus turned into failings of efficacy. Admittedly, generations of idealists have been bamboozled and debamboozled by the awkward discrepancies between the high motives which great powers are prone to profess and what they can get away with under this tissue-thin cover of rhetoric. Alas, it is a licence uniquely available to great powers, as the events of 1956 showed. In Hungary, the Soviet Union got away with murder; at Suez, the pretensions of Britain and France were humiliatingly exposed.
Unravelling ‘collusion’ thus remains central to understanding Suez, and Kyle provides an admirable guide to the sources on this issue. He documents contacts between the British, French and Israeli Governments, especially the furtive meeting at Sèvres in October, with a thoroughness unrivalled in earlier accounts. He quotes Ben Gurion’s diary on how the matter was first put to the Israeli Government: ‘The English propose that we should start on our own, they will protest, and when we reach the Canal they will come in as if to separate and then they’ll destroy Nasser.’ This warrants being known as ‘the English plan’, Kyle comments, ‘only in the sense that it was invented to overcome British inhibitions’. Collusion was thus one of the peculiarities of the English: they alone needed it to provide a casus belli, they alone bothered to deny all knowledge of it, and they alone seriously imagined that it could be covered up afterwards. One crucial Anglo-American implication followed from this, since collusion was largely designed to secure the acquiescence of the United States in a British ‘police action’. Once the cover story was blown, therefore, the British appeared doubly guilty – not only of aggression against Egypt, but guilty, too, of calculated deceit of their greatally.
The ‘awful bloody hook-up’ materialised when Israel duly attacked Egypt on 29 October. Eden promptly announced an ultimatum, addressed to both sides, backed by a threat to intervene, thus pre-empting action through the United Nations. So far, so planned. But the next stage of ‘the English plan’ – ‘then they’ll destroy Nasser’ – instead turned into an awful bloody cock-up. Since the UN resolution demanding a cease-fire was accepted not only by Egypt but also, it seemed at one stage, by Israel, the whole elaborate excuse for intervention threatened to disappear. Luckily ministers in London were able to satisfy themselves that a cease-fire had not been achieved, thus legitimising the remedial police action by Britain and France. But the reason was because of Israeli violations. Kyle comments: ‘The police posse would set off to curb wrongdoing by Israel by effecting an opposed landing in Egypt.’ It did not do to talk of Britain going to war, of course, any more than of its governing Egypt – not war, armed conflict perhaps.
‘It’s rather fun to be at Number Ten the night we smashed the Anglo-American alliance,’ was how someone from the Foreign Office put it. Ike failed to lie doggo; he even failed not to smell a rat. Macmillan’s cheerful predictions were quickly forgotten, at least by their author, now a beleaguered Chancellor of the Exchequer, counting the cost of his fine words. The United Nations lumbered into action with measures which threatened Britain’s oil supplies. ‘Oil sanctions,’ cried Macmillan, throwing his hands in the air. ‘That finishes it.’
What really finished it was a series of losses, not least a loss of nerve in the Cabinet. This was partly due to Macmillan’s further revelation to his colleagues that the sterling area’s currency reserves had dropped by £100 million a week. If true, this would have been a thumping loss – an eighth of the total reserve – but, with Macmillan’s word for it, the reported sum may instead have been a thumping lie. It was enough to do the trick in ending Eden’s war – and shortly afterwards his premiership. The Cabinet suffered a final loss, that of its purported casus belli, when Israel and Egypt actually stopped fighting. Eden had never had much of a story. Such as it was, it had now collapsed. Having pretended to go to war for this reason, Eden had to pretend to be very pleased with the result. Caught out by his own scenario, it was fitting that none but Anthony should conquer Anthony. Meanwhile, on the ground, none of the military objectives had been secured by the time of the cease-fire. ‘Tactically our position could hardly be worse,’ wrote one of the British generals: ‘we are deployed on about a one-tank front.’
Above all, Nasser lived to fight another day. The French foreign service drew their own conclusions, notably that Britain had been ‘hesitant in action,maladroit in execution and infirm of purpose when it counted’. They made the best of a bad job by quickly committing themselves to making a suceess of the Treaty of Rome, which allowed them to mourn their loss of superpower status by crying all the way to the bank. The British were less lucky, less clever. They ended up with Harold Macmillan as prime minister and had to wait 25 years for the belated psychic satisfaction of the Falklands War. Keith Kyle’s exhaustive account of the 1956 crisis illuminates a crucial moment in the decline of our country. After Suez it became clear that the bright day was done, and we were for the dark.