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 Pasha) decided to bring him down.
Mr. Nutting is not alone in holding that this last was a foolish aim, if only because it would have aggravated the trouble with Arab nationalism. What he fails to see is that his own solution was just as hopeless. His personal preference was for backing Nasser to the hilt. For the time being, however, he advised that “we should do all in our power to ensure that Iraq, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms were built up with British aid and British arms” (Ibid.) He does not realize that Nasser was bent on toppling Britain’s satellites in the Gulf, if only because he wanted a share of their oil (the reason, after all, for Britain’s and Mr. Nutting’s solicitude for the welfare of these regimes). To that extent, Eden’s view of him as an Arabian Hitler was not quite so silly as critics of the Suez expedition later tried to make out. Moreover, there were disquieting ideological parallels. Even if the presence of numerous German military and political experts (mostly old Nazis) in Cairo were set aside, it was arguable that pan-Arabism of the Nasserite sort was just as irrational as pan-Germanism, and destined to come to the same end.
Such notions were not merely Eden’s private mania, after he had become disillusioned with Nasser. During the critical summer of 1956 they were widely shared within the Labour Party, whose leaders were far more worried about the safety of Israel than about the ownership of the Suez Canal. They were also firmly held by the leaders of the French Socialist Party, then in office and specifically in charge of foreign affairs. Mr. Nutting quite fails to understand that to Socialists, in France and elsewhere, the defense of Israel was a matter of principle. He thinks Mollet and Pineau were only concerned with Algeria when they decided to strike at Nasser. This is not borne out by their subsequent behavior, nor by their reaction to the crisis of 1967, by which time the issues had been brutally simplified, for neither Algeria nor the Canal were there to complicate them. Mr. Thomas, who does understand these matters, gives a far more balanced picture of the situation in 1956 than Mr. Nutting, who is chiefly concerned to prove how right he was and how much better off everyone would have been if his advice had been taken.
SEEN FROM WHITEHALL, of course, the survival of Israel was a marginal concern. What really mattered was Britain’s stake in the Middle East and the means deployed for defending it. But even on this—to a Tory a crucial subject—Mr. Nutting is unconvincing, as some of his former colleagues (he resigned his parliamentary seat and ostensibly quit politics in 1956) have not failed to point out. The more realistic Conservatives had by 1955 already written the whole position off as hopeless. For them the turning point was the Anglo-Egyptian agreement of 1954 (negotiated by Eden, then still Foreign Secretary: he succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister in the following year). Under the terms of this agreement, the British garrison was withdrawn from the Suez Canal base, although stocks of material were left behind, which the Egyptians promptly seized two years later. The 1954 agreement was opposed by a group of Tories headed by their present Defense spokesman, Enoch Powell, who with characteristic logic concluded that its acceptance by a Conservative government spelled the end of British influence in the Middle East. It did not take Nasser long to prove these critics right. On anti-imperialist grounds all this may be applauded, but Mr. Nutting is hardly the proper jockey for this particular horse. In any case it was pretty silly to believe that Nasser, of all people, could be turned into a watchman on Britain’s dwindling imperial estate. Both the right-wing Tories and the left-wing Socialists who (for different reasons) opposed this particular operation showed better judgment than either Mr. Nutting or his ailing and aging chief.
None of this constitutes any reason for thinking better of the disastrous Suez expedition. It is indeed difficult to find another example of an enterprise that exposed so many signs of political and military incompetence. Not to mention the lies that were told (to the House of Commons; the French, in their cynical fashion, were more honest). Everything went wrong, from the political planning to the military execution. Eisenhower, in one of his more lucid observations, commented that it was sad the British had behaved so badly, and even sadder that they were being so inefficient about it! The British Government lied about its reactions, and was repaid by even grosser fabrications from Cairo Radio a decade later—all too readily believed on that occasion, when for once Whitehall was quite blameless. Israel’s cause was damaged in the Third World, possibly beyond repair, by being associated with the Anglo-French attempt to recover control of Suez. Last, the Entente Cordiale was wrecked, for the French conceived a furious detestation for their blundering and unreliable British partners in the enterprise. Not that the Entente had been in good shape even before this final disaster. It is reliably reported (though not by Mr. Nutting, nor by Mr. Thomas, who is otherwise well-informed about political gossip) that when the Israeli emissaries in Paris asked their French interlocutors why they were so determined to bring the British in, they were told, “We must compromise Eden in public, otherwise he’ll run out on us!” (He ran out on them just the same.)
To be candid about Mr. Nutting’s book, No End of a Lesson^* is no end of a bore. For a dispassionate analysis of the Suez disaster—concise, well-written, and exhaustively documented—one must turn to Mr. Thomas, a professional historian with just enough of a Foreign Office background to understand how these things work in practice. He knows the ways of Whitehall and evinces no surprise at the casual manner in which confidential arrangements were handled (on at least one occasion, an important go-between was briefed by a British Minister “over lunch at the Savile Club” as to what he should tell Ben Gurion about the timing of the campaign). Of course he knows all about those meetings at which the British and French Ministers sent their aides out of the room before settling the details with the Israelis. This was the aspect that tickled the fancy of journalists and diplomatists. Secret treaties! Nocturnal conclaves outside Paris! A solemn oath sworn by the participants that none would in the lifetime of the others disclose what they had done! But there was a serious side to it. The French Ministers were veterans of the Resistance (a point missed by Mr. Nutting, who is incapable of entering into the minds of foreigners), and felt in their element. This was especially true of the War Minister, Bourgès-Maunoury, a wartime Gaullist like most of his staff, and the principal “hawk” in the Mollet government. These men saw Nasser as a new Hitler, Israel as a bastion of democracy, and themselves as the organizers of an anti-fascist campaign. Their successors are those rebellious Gaullists of 1967 whom the General had to threaten with a court martial if they contravened his orders against shipping arms to Israel after the embargo had been imposed. If Mr. Thomas ever gets around to the subject of the Six Days’ War in June 1967, he should have no difficulty picking up the threads of this particular narrative.
To the British, of course, other things mattered more at the time: principally the survival of the Empire, then still in existence if hollowed out by the postwar withdrawal from India. The 1950s were for Britain an age of illusions sustained by wartime memories and the afterglow of Churchill’s rhetoric. At Yalta and Potsdam, he had been one of the Big Three, and when he returned to office in 1951, Truman and then Eisenhower humored him by retaining the external trappings of the wartime alliance. It was difficult, even for insiders, to relinquish the notion that the essentials of the exclusive Anglo-American alliance might be preserved and made permanent. The British during those years still felt they had something vital to contribute. A lot of the “real estate” that mattered to NATO was physically under British control, and Whitehall was fond of contrasting its experience with the blundering crassness of the Americans. Mr. Thomas sums it up well: