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.

Enraged by Eden’s disingenuousness and frustrated at being sidelined on the eve of an election in which he was to be ‘the candidate for peace’, Eisenhower could even so have found a degree of sympathy for his allies if they had only pulled the whole thing off with some style. On 30 and 31 October he and Dulles were expecting at every moment to hear that British and French troops had landed along the Canal and it is clear from cables to Eden which he drafted but did not send that he was prepared to think in terms less of reproach than of damage limitation. But British plans (and self-defeating British secrecy) dictated, first, that scarcely anything should start before the ultimatum expired, and secondly, that no airborne invasion from Cyprus be attempted before the seaborne reinforcements had arrived from Malta. The allies thus deliberately and of set purpose surrendered in advance the built-in advantage of surprise. Ten days after Christian Pineau, the French Foreign Minister, showing scant regard for British feelings, had confessed ‘collusion’ to the American Ambassador, Eisenhower, who now knew that the British and French had not been reads ‘just over the horizon’ when the ultimatum was sent, had renewed difficulty in accepting that the British had been lying to him. ‘The British,’ he said, thinking back to his experience in the war, ‘were meticulous military planners and ... they would have seen to it that they were in a position to move into Egypt in a matter of hours.’ The President made this remark to Dulles in hospital and it was in answer to it that Dulles first made the pronouncement which, when repeated to Lloyd and Caccia, caused such bewilderment and dismay.

Scott Lucas is right to stress that before Suez there was Buraimi. During a Nato meeting in Paris in December 1956, Dulles, who had just emerged from his bout with cancer, engaged Dr Luns, the Dutch Foreign Minister, in an argument about ‘colonial’ issues, referring heatedly to ‘your aggression’ in Saudi Arabia. When Luns asked him what he was talking about Dulles replied: ‘Buraimi.’ After pointing out that the Dutch had not been present in the Arabian desert, Luns asked who had suggested that there was aggression there on the part of the United Kingdom. ‘Public opinion in Saudi Arabia,’ Dulles answered. When Luns rejoined that there was no such thing, Dulles got so exasperated that he was said to have stridden about the room with a purple face. The Norwegian Foreign Minister whispered to his Dutch colleague that he had better lay off or Dulles would become ill again.

The Buraimi dispute began before and continued after the Suez Crisis. Its importance lay in the fact that the Americans had entered the Middle East – Palestine apart – through the Saudi gate. In his recent diplomatic memoir Footnotes in the Sand, Sir Bernard Burrows, who was Political Resident in the Persian Gulf during the Fifties, quotes Eden as writing just before he resigned the premiership in January 1957: ‘It may be than the United States’s attitude to us in the Middle East dates from our refusal to give up Buraimi.’ And Burrows asks: ‘Can it really have been that important?’ It was. Strictly speaking, Buraimi was one desert village in the middle of nowhere, but in the diplomacy of the day it was the name used collectively for eight or nine villages which depended on an oasis. Two of them were claimed by the Sultan of Muscat, the remainder by the ruler of Abu Dhabi, both sheikhdoms under British protection, but in 1952 the Saudis had taken physical possession of the Sultan’s two villages and were claiming the rest. It was decided to submit these claims to international arbitration.

The United States was very interested in Saudi Arabia because its new-found oil wealth was provided by Aramco, an American company. The Americans, and particularly President Eisenhower, having lost their earlier enthusiasm for Nasser, convinced themselves that King Saud would provide a pole of influence to compete with his throughout the Arab world: in short, he was cast by them to play a prime role in Operation Omega. The British, who had a much more realistic view of that sovereign’s spendthrift incapacity, regarded this as a ridiculous idea and were not prepared to sacrifice to it Britain’s reputation as a reliable protector of the Gulf sheikhdoms. The conflict fortified national stereotypes: the British seeing American oil diplomacy, the Americans colonialist recidivism.

International arbitration over Buraimi was rubbished by the British when they alleged gross Saudi bribery of the villagers in question and discovered that the tribunal was not going to find in then favour. After the break-up of the tribunal, Eden arranged for the small Saudi police force to be physically ejected from Buraimi and refrained from telling the Americans in advance. The Americans were informed that ‘in view of their relations with the Saudi Arabian Government we did not wish to embarrass them by taking them into our confidence beforehand.’ To Eden it seemed unbearably ironic that American oil money (much of it doled out to the Saudis in advance) should be squandered in ways that, so far as the British could see, would contribute only to the success of the Soviet Union. To Dulles, Suez and Buraimi were both equally reprehensible instances of British high-handedness.

Whatever faults there had been of British statesmanship, the United States would anyway have had in time to take over the leading Western role in the Middle East – Britain’s economic performance was insufficient to support great power status. But the circumstances of the Suez crash left many people in Britain believing (some of them nurse the grievance to this day) that America had wanted the British out from the start, and that American policy had been designed to that end. After he left office Anthony Eden and his wife became increasingly convinced of this. Clarissa Eden’s letters to Lord Beaverbrook pulsate with this assumption, and in 1959 when Anthony Eden had written his memoirs in draft Selwyn Lloyd remarked to the Cabinet Secretary on ‘the strong anti-American bias throughout’. The legitimate criticisms of American policy, Lloyd thought, ‘lose force because there is such strong persistent prejudice running through the book’. Lucas is very level-headed on this question: he notes the mistakes made on both sides, some of which – as Richard Neustadt was the first to point out in his 1970 study Alliance Politics – actually arose from the intimate nature of the exchanges between the two governments and the false conclusions which this assumed intimacy was liable sometimes to promote. But he does not lend his support to more farfetched conspiratorial notions.

There is, in fact, no evidence that Eisenhower and Dulles were consciously seeking to supplant British influence in the Middle East. What they were not prepared to do was to abdicate American judgment especially when they considered British judgment to have been repeatedly at fault. Lucas briefly but usefully outlines the evolution of American official thinking and quite rightly points both to Dean Acheson’s criticism of British over-stretch and to the breezy interventions of CIA figures like Kermit Roosevelt in Egypt acting in support of the Colonels before the days of John Foster Dulles at the State Department. The friction was essentially that between a power on the way up and another on the way down, and agents on the spot were sometimes less respectful than their principals of the proprieties of that difficult relationship.

Some of Dulles’s waverings, which did so much to confuse and complicate the situation in the late summer of 1956, actually arose from his effort to understand the British and French predicament. He told the National Security Council on 29 August that he found it extremely difficult to take a strong stand against British and French views ‘since, alter all, the British and French would be Finished as first-rate powers it they didn’t somehow manage to check Nasser’. Others arose from his assessment of political realities so near to a Presidential election. Lucas traces the zigs and of America’s handling of the jumpy British. He is also good on various intelligence aspects of the crisis, although in the case of Israel a word of caution is called for by his speculations concerning the role of an elaborate deception plan labelled ‘Esau’. These are ingenious but probably overshoot the mark. It is certainly true that there was an Israeli contingency plan called ‘Esau’ in existence before the Sèvres conference with the British and French, designed to make it appear that Britain’s ally, Jordan, not Egypt, was Israel’s main target. After Sèvres, in the days preceding the Israeli offensive against Egypt, some (but not the main) features of it were put into practice. What is more controversial land is not supported by current Israeli research) is the suggestion that the partially bungled border raid at Qalqila, in Jordan, on 10-11 October (ahead of Sèvres), showed that this contingency plan was already in action, with the additional possibility that it was being used by Moshe Dayan (with or without the knowledge of his prime minister) to provoke Britain into co-operation with Israel. In fairness to the author, it must be said that his qualifying phrases get thicker on the ground the further forward he moves with this thesis.

Blind Loyalty is an elegant paperback from the editor of historical documents at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. As one would expect, it gives a useful indication of the material available in the Canberra archives; it also makes perceptive comments on Australian public opinion at the tune. The author clearly documents the radical difference opinion on Suez between Robert Menzies and his Minister for External Affairs, R.G. Casey, whose public notoriety so astonished Lord Carrington when he arrived in the middle of the crisis to take up his post as British High Commissioner.

I am not sure that the title gives quite the correct impression. During the Chanak crisis of 1922, which pitied Britain against Ataturk’s Turkey and in some ways anticipated Suez, the leader of the Canadian Opposition, Arthur Meighen, had said that Canada’s attitude should be summed up in the words; ‘Ready, aye ready.’ Australia under Menzies did not fit entirely into that pattern. The book’s one weakness is that its author clearly did not have the chance to visit the Public Record Office at Kew, which would have enabled him to bring into play British impressions of Menzies’s initial reaction to the nationalisation of the Suez. Canal, an event which found him in Washington. What he would like, Menzies said, was to eliminate certain courses of action. ‘The first was the use of force it was quite true that, in days gone by, military action would have been the appropriate reply to Egypt, but in present circumstances resort to it would split the Western world.’ He went on to London, at ended Cabinet meetings and allowed himself to be used as chairman of the delegation to Cairo which delivered and expounded but had no power to negotiate on the plan to internationalise the Canal which had been endorsed in London by 18 nations.

Meanwhile back in Canberra, Hudson shows that Casey and the Defence Minister. MacBride, were briefing the Cabinet about the ‘self-destructive’ course on which Britain seemed to have embarked, and about the unsuitability of London as a conference centre on Suez and of internationalisation as a principle. But (and this, the author no doubt would hold, justifies the title of the book) their expert view was swept aside by the uninformed toughs in the Cabinet who let out a cry to show ‘backbone’. Before the Cabinet meeting began Menzies had spoken over the telephone with his deputy. ‘Whether Menzies influenced ministers,’ Hudson writes, ‘or rather was influenced by their loyalist sentiments, can only be a matter for speculation.’ Hudson has some interesting reflections on why Casey, who was more upper-class and more English in his appearance and manners than his colleagues and who, as Minister Resident in the Middle East had served as a member of Churchill’s War Cabinet, cut so little ice with his sceptical attitude to British statesmanship.

Menzies may have spoken airily in Loudon about Australia being ‘in this with the UK’ and assured the UK Government that, although land troops were out, ‘naval and air help might well be possible,’ but Australia’s actual material contribution to the Suez operation was precisely zero. Eden and Home (the Commonwealth Secretary) were eager to put Commonwealth solidarity on show, but they were advised by their civil servants that it was useless to ask for anything from Canberra. Australian diplomacy was handicapped throughout by the immense distances and difficult time zones involved, but the Suez crisis also showed up very vividly that Commonwealth membership did not guarantee special access to information. Even the loyal Menzies, on whose rhetorical and forensic support Eden relied, was bamboozled by a cable sent on 30 October speculating that the Israeli attack on Egypt might have been occasioned by the progress apparently being made in Anglo-French negotiations with Egypt. Hudson is rather severe on Australia’s performance at the UN, which did, it’s true, sacrifice something in consistency but did not in every instance show ‘blind loyalty’ in voting for Britain when this meant voting against the United States. As the Sydney Morning Herald put it on 1 November, ‘many indeed, even of those who endorse Britain’s policy, will be dismayed at her government’s rough disregard of the other members of the Commonwealth and of her great American ally.’