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Half a century on, the ghosts of Suez return

As the region descends into conflict once more, Douglas Hurd, a diplomat at the UN in 1956, recalls the astonishing impact of another crisis in the Middle East

19 July 2006

3:03 PM

19 July 2006

3:03 PM

Fifty years since Suez, and this week the cauldron boils over yet again. Some of the ingredients are different. Britain and France used force in a way they would not now dare. The United States in 1956 had the power to stop the crisis which it has now lost. Most Arabs today accept the existence of Israel, but fail to impose that acceptance on those still bent on its destruction. Israel still tries to safeguard its citizens by using overwhelming force which breeds hatred and future danger. Suez was a dramatic setback for Britain; but this week we can look back almost with relief at how quickly that crisis was controlled.

Fifty years ago on 26 July 1956 the prime minister was entertaining the young King of Iraq to dinner in Downing Street. Four Cabinet ministers, the leader of the Opposition, much of the British establishment and the subtle prime minister of Iraq, Nuri Said, were all present. Just after ten in the evening Anthony Eden’s private secretary told him that President Nasser of Egypt had announced to a huge crowd the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

The formal dinner broke up into a series of informal gatherings in different rooms. Other ministers and the chiefs of staff were summoned in white tie or lounge suits from different locations across London. As happens at sudden consultations after dinner the mood was robust. It was felt that Nasser had his finger on Britain’s windpipe and would not hesitate to throttle us to death. Even the leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, thought that public opinion would support quick strong action. Nuri Said pressed the same view, adding that on no account must Britain act in collusion with Israel.

That summer evening Anthony Eden’s career, though still brilliant, was over the crest and heading downhill. Two years before, as foreign secretary, he had reached his peak. Among other achievements he had persuaded his reluctant prime minister Winston Churchill to accept a new treaty with Egypt under which the British would evacuate the Suez Canal zone and give Egypt for the first time full national independence.

Now as prime minister he had to accept that so far from ushering in an era of Anglo–Egyptian friendship, the 1954 Treaty had turned sour. Nasser began to rely on the Soviet Union and ordered arms from Czechoslovakia. The nationalisation of the Suez Canal was in retaliation for the Anglo–American decision to stop finance for the Aswan Dam; but it struck Eden and almost everyone at his dinner party as proof of a deep and dangerous hostility.

The idea of an immediate paratroop attack on Egypt was abandoned as impractical. Military planning went ahead in tandem with diplomacy. The foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, reached agreement in principle at the UN Security Council on six points which might have led to a treaty safeguarding both Egyptian sovereignty and free passage through the Canal. Military planning took a baleful turn when the French General Challe turned up at Chequers on 14 October with the idea, already discussed with the Israelis, that Israel might attack Egypt and so provide an excuse for the Anglo–French military expedition which would topple Nasser. Eden took the poisoned bait. Selwyn Lloyd was told to give up his genuine hopes of a deal in New York. He was sent to Sèvres to perfect the plans for the collusion with Israel.


The news of Israel’s attack on Egypt on 29 October reached New York during the first night of the Metropolitan Opera. Britain’s Ambassador to the UN Sir Pierson Dixon was in his box listening to Callas singing Norma. He received the news at much the same time as his American colleague, Cabot Lodge, who was sitting in another box a few yards away. Lodge appeared during the interval to suggest that, as had become usual, the British and Americans should call a meeting of the Security Council. But as Dixon’s private secretary I had carried to the opera instructions from the Foreign Office that we were to do no such thing. There was no accompanying explanation, no background, no analysis, nothing that would enable Dixon to hold a rational conversation with Lodge. Much worse followed. Over the next few weeks our carefully built position at the United Nations collapsed. The Americans abandoned all habits of friendly consultation. As British planes bombed Egypt and the British expeditionary force sailed slowly from Malta, we were abused and condemned on all sides.

To me as a young diplomat with Tory tendencies this did not seem lethal. My trust in Eden remained. I assumed that we at the UN were simply a pawn to be sacrificed in a greater cause. I supposed that somewhere, concealed from us, there existed a plan for overthrowing Nasser and creating a new Egypt which Eden, the master of foreign policy, would unveil at the proper time. On 31 October that hope was shattered when Anthony Nutting resigned as minister of state at the Foreign Office. I knew Nutting, though not well. If he, a protégé of the prime minister, knew there was no plan beyond the nonsense with which we had already been provided, then indeed the game was up.

British ministers had deceived themselves with their own speeches about the special relationship with the United States. Eden, and even more Harold Macmillan, thought that they could use memories of war-time comradeship to secure at least American acquiesence in the use of force against Nasser. Each side then accused the other of double-cross but the real problem was more fundamental. Eisenhower and Dulles believed that the British and French were reviving old-fashioned colonial policies which were wrong and with which the United States could not be associated. Dulles made this point repeatedly: ‘If I were an American soldier who had to fight in the Middle East, I would rather not have a British and a French soldier, one on my right and one on my left.’ In British eyes Dulles became the villain of the disagreement, but the records show that the president was in firm control. Eisenhower was no bumbling amateur. He was clear that his natural sympathy should not lead him to support the British when they were clearly and dangerously in the wrong.

During these days Soviet tanks brutally suppressed the Hungarian uprising. It is clear now that the Kremlin would have decided on this anyway, even if we had not attacked Suez; and short of dropping a nuclear bomb we could hardly have rescued the Hungarians. But the coincidence added to the misery.

The parallels with the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 crowd into the mind. The feverish concern of the Prime Minister with his own reputation for courage is an obvious common factor. So is the ability of the Prime Minister to overbear his colleagues because of his own reputation for success. We now know that in 1956 Eden did not keep his colleagues in the dark any more than Blair did in 2003. In each case the Cabinet was so overawed by the depth of their leader’s commitment that they suspended judgment and did little more than grumble.

The second similarity was the lamentable failure of analysis and preparation. Saddam Hussein was a more hateful and murderous dictator than Nasser but neither was so formidable a threat to the Middle East, or to British interests, that all techniques of containment and deterrence were doomed. In each case the failure of appeasement in the 1930s was wheeled out to create a false justification of war.

The preparation for each invasion suffered from a disastrous gap. Assuming that an Anglo–French invasion succeeded in toppling Nasser, who was to govern Egypt? Assuming, as proved true, that it was possible to topple Saddam Hussein in a few weeks, how was Iraq to be governed after that? In the first case we knew from experience that a benign military occupation of Egypt or even the Canal Zone was not possible. Equally we should have known that we could not impose democracy on Iraq through an Anglo–American invasion. Nor could we even achieve the more limited objective of defeating terrorism. It is only since the Anglo–American invasion that Iraq has become a haven for terrorists.

Both flawed enterprises did their originators much harm. But the harm we suffered from Suez was reduced because of the factor with which we were most indignant at the time, namely American opposition. We were quickly rescued from our own mistake. As part of his general rhetoric Anthony Eden said from the beginning that we would be only too glad if the United Nations were able to do the job which we and the French were undertaking. Within hours this rhetorical possibility was made real by the UN. Once the thoroughness of American opposition was apparent, Eden clutched at the plan for a UN Emergency Force prepared in New York by the secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld and the Canadian foreign minister Mike Pearson. This force (which replaced the British and French and eventually the Israelis in Sinai) was not an American creation; but it would never have prospered had not the Americans been determined that Eden’s original plan should fail. No such rescue was available to the superpower and its British ally as they committed themselves to tragedy in Iraq.

Both British prime ministers had genuine convictions which impelled them to ignore advice and invade Egypt and Iraq. The two sets of convictions were fundamentally different. Tony Blair’s belief that in the end he must always side with the Americans was linked to a doctrine of intervention which the Prime Minister has often spelled out. He believes that he is justified in sending British troops to kill and be killed, either to pre-empt an attack or to rescue a country from a brutal dictator, both justifications being, in his belief, present in Iraq in 2003. He has mobilised the arguments for this doctrine in compelling speeches in Chicago in 1999 and at Georgetown University this year. The difficulty lies not in the doctrine but in its disastrous effect when applied at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Anthony Eden needed no new doctrine to justify his actions which were those of a patriot. In the most famous broadcast of his life on 3 November 1956 at the height of the Suez crisis, Eden said, ‘All my life I have been a man of peace, working for peace, striving for peace, negotiating for peace. I have been a League of Nations man and a United Nations man and I am still the same man with the same convictions, the same devotion to peace. I could not be other, even if I wished, but I am utterly convinced that the action we have taken is right.’ A simple patriotism allied with concern for his reputation overrode Eden’s diplomatic instincts and led him and the nation into a great misjudgment. Suez was not the cause of Britain’s imperial decline but one of many landmarks — along with the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 and Labour’s decision to abandon the Gulf in 1968. Eden had served his country in peace and war for five decades with skill, courage and success. The decision on Suez is now impossible to defend; but looking at his whole life we can perhaps be kinder about the man who made it than about the Prime Minister who brought us into the present morass.

Douglas Hurd, who was foreign secretary from 1989–1995, wrote his memoirs in 2003. He is now finishing a life of Sir Robert Peel.


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