No End of a Lesson: The Story of Suez
The third round in the Arab-Israeli conflict is barely over, and here are two books dealing with the previous round: the Suez affair of 1956. Are they worth reading? The answer must be a qualified yes: heavily qualified in the case of Anthony Nutting, less so in relation to Hugh Thomas. Both authors inevitably concentrate upon Britain’s role in the 1956 crisis, and to the extent that British influence has shrunk since then, this approach must seem parochial. But Mr. Thomas and, to a lesser degree, Mr. Nutting, also cast some light upon the permanent factors in the Middle-Eastern tangle. For the historically minded reader there is the additional attraction of insight into the mechanism that comes into play when an imperial system finally disintegrates.
The two books are of unequal value. Mr. Thomas at the age of thirty-six is already a full professor, the author of a weighty study on the Spanish Civil War, and—to judge from his new book, which manages to be both brief and brilliant—about to become an authority on the Middle East as well. Mr. Nutting, although his senior in years and experience (he was, after all, Minister of State in the Foreign Office during the short-lived Eden regime of 1955-56), emerges by comparison as something of a lightweight. It is not merely that his writing is commonplace, and his documentation almost non-existent; he appears, on the evidence of his memoirs, as the possessor of a mind no better than that of the average Tory, and in some respects deficient even when measured by conventional standards. He is, for example, quite unable to realize that Britain’s position in the Middle East had already been wrecked beyond repair before the Suez fiasco. Reading him one might think that it was all one man’s doing: if only Sir Anthony Eden had taken Mr. Nutting’s sage advice in 1956 and let Nasser have the Suez Canal, all would have been well, and the traditional Anglo-Arab connection would have gone on flourishing, especially if something could also have been done to extract “concessions” from Israel on frontiers, refugees, and so on (cf. Nutting, p. 34).
THIS, OF COURSE, was the Foreign Office view. It was also Eden’s view down to November 1955, when in a much commented-on address at the Guildhall he outlined a scheme for satisfying Jordan at Israel’s expense. Mr. Nutting heartily applauded this initiative (which happened to coincide with the first major delivery of Czech war material to Egypt), and was seriously put out when in the following spring his chief began to move in the opposite direction. What happened in the interval, according to him, was that Eden, while still anxious to protect Britain’s Jordanian client, had fastened upon Nasser as the source of all Britain’s troubles in the area, and (with the encouragement of the Iraqui regime of Nuri…
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