Until it was overtaken by the still more disastrous debacle in Iraq, the Suez Crisis of 1956 was widely judged to be Britain’s worst postwar foreign blunder. Not only, to use Talleyrand’s phrase, a crime, but an error of monumental proportions.
The deceitful plot by Britain and France, in secret collusion with Israel, to invade Egypt disguised as peacemakers; restore the recently nationalised Suez Canal to western control; and overthrow Egypt’s charismatic nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser into the bargain, went horribly and fatally wrong. Britain’s humiliating retreat, forced by a disapproving United States, marked the effective end of both the British and French empires, and raised the US to undisputed hegemony over the non-communist world.
Despite his wartime partnership with Churchill, President Eisenhower, horrified by the naked resort to imperial force, pulled the plug on the intervention, not least by approving a run on the pound. If there ever was a transatlantic special relationship, after Suez it was clear that Britain’s role in it was to be Uncle Sam’s obedient bitch.
Soviet Russia, America’s Cold War rival, was unable to take advantage of the bitter divide between its western ideological enemies, as its tanks were too busy at the same time that autumn with the bloody suppression of a popular uprising in Hungary, one of its downtrodden eastern European satellites. These twin crises are the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s brisk and grippingly readable 60th anniversary narrative history.
It is unfortunate that the author or her publisher had the notion of yoking Suez and Hungary together in one book merely because they happened simultaneously. The brutal crushing of a popular upsurge against totalitarian tyranny in mittel Europa, and the wheezy last gasp of clapped out European imperialism in the Middle East, are so different that, though Von Tunzelmann makes ingenious efforts to find parallels between them, they do not really hang together.