Wishful Thinking

The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951: Arab Nationalism, The United States, and Postwar Imperialism

by William Roger Louis
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 803 pp., $55.00

Ernest Bevin
Ernest Bevin; drawing by David Levine

This is an important and well-written scholarly work, based mainly on official and unofficial archival material, and covering the evolution of British policy toward Britain’s Middle Eastern possessions and their neighbors during the six years following the end of the Second World War. It is a big book—more than 800 octavo pages long, including the index—and it provides much more detail about its subject than has been available up to now in published form. One of the main themes—which Professor Louis handles sensitively and illuminatingly—is the constant interaction of British and American policy making in relation to Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Palestine, and—to a somewhat lesser extent—in the other countries of the region, during the period.

Professor Louis is the author of a number of books on British (and other European) imperial and colonial history. A.J.P. Taylor has called him “the foremost historian of the British Empire and Commonwealth in his generation.” Alan Bullock has called him “the leading historian of the final phase of the British Empire.” Both comments are deserved, but the second—elicited by the book here under review—is particularly significant. Alan Bullock is, of course, Ernest Bevin’s biographer, and his biography—of which the third volume, dealing with Bevin’s term as foreign secretary, was published last year—is respectful and sympathetic, though not uncritical.* Bevin—as foreign secretary throughout the period—is necessarily the central figure in Professor Louis’s story. Since Bevin’s role remains extremely controversial, it is important to note that Professor Louis’s account of that role appears satisfactory to Bevin’s biographer.

Yet no reader should jump to the conclusion that Professor Louis whitewashes Bevin, or that he necessarily shares Bevin’s anti-Zionist convictions (still less the anti-Semitism often attributed to Bevin, mainly on the basis of exasperated obiter dicta). Professor Louis approaches as near to the blessed condition of impartiality as any historian is likely to do, and so he generally steers clear of value judgments. If he has a fault, it is (in this reviewer’s opinion) a somewhat excessive respect, or appearance of respect, for the British Foreign Office as an institution—even the Foreign Office of the mid-twentieth century.

There were times while I was reading The British Empire in the Middle East, 1949–1951 when I felt I was listening to an account, by a truthful but extremely tactful guest, of a ghastly party, at which absolutely everything had gone wrong.

Because everything did go wrong for the British in the Middle East during this period. And it went wrong, in large part, because Bevin’s Foreign Office (and the Foreign Office’s Bevin) had a remarkable capacity for getting things wrong. Professor Louis documents all that, in a deadpan and deferential sort of way, but more copiously, and therefore more damningly, than anyone has done before. But he doesn’t say he is being damning, and so gives no offense. The present reviewer wishes he could master this particular trick.

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