The Commonwealth and Suez
British Politics in the Suez Crisis
Dulles Over Suez
As an Opposition back-bencher, I was only the most minor of participants; yet the Suez crisis—with its days of savage uproar in the Commons, its monster demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, and its macabre background of Hungarian tragedy—was the most searing experience of my whole political life. Today, less than eight years later, the episode has receded into history. Here in Britain we politicians can placidly look back at this traumatic experience and re-examine it with something approaching clinical detachment.
In doing so, it is almost impossible to avoid the smoothest-worn clichés of the professional historian. If the Suez venture was not “a watershed” (we crossed that sometime in the course of World War II) it was certainly a “moment of truth” when it was suddenly and overwhelmingly born in upon every British politician—whether he was supporting Sir Anthony Eden or opposing him—that the United States was the boss in the Western Alliance and that we were living in a country which could no longer “go it alone.”
Of course, the withdrawal from Port Said was not the cause of the collapse of the British and French African Empires that immediately followed it. What it did was to sound an imperial death knell so loud and sinister that Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle were driven to liquidate what each had pledged himself with fanatical conviction to defend. Within four years, Mr. Macmillan as Prime Minister was proclaiming in his “wind of change” speech the decision to wind up as quickly as possible that White African empire which, in 1956, he had been urging Anthony Eden to sustain, if necessary by force of arms. Within six years, General de Gaulle conceded that total withdrawal from Algeria which Guy Mollet thought he could avoid by allying himself with the Israeli in order to topple Nasser.
If the Anglo-French venture taught us our military and economic weakness vis-à-vis America—it took Mr. Eisenhower exactly three days of oil and financial sanctions to bring the British and French Governments to heel—it also shook us out of a mood of backward-looking nostalgia for a past imperial greatness, and made us reconsider the whole basis of our existence as independent nations and also as members of NATO.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that, apart from the tragedy of one man, Lord Avon, the Suez fiasco in retrospect can be seen as a disguised blessing to the whole Western Alliance. And if none of us feels much gratitude either to Mr. Eisenhower and Mr. Dulles, or to Lord Avon and M. Mollet, for the roles they played, this is because it is now so obvious that none of them was in control of the situation. This was a crisis precipitated by blindness and incompetence, in which none of the participants, with the possible exception of Colonel Nasser, rose…
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