• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Disaster: From Suez to Iraq

Only seventy years ago, Great Britain ruled over more than one quarter of the land surface of the planet. It policed, as far as anyone did, the oceans and seas, and it was the most important force in world finance, trade, and economy. All this was a source of national pride and a sense of mission that, for most people, conveniently evaded moral questions about the right of one race or nation to dominate another. Lord Curzon, the ultimate British proconsul, wrote that the British Empire was the greatest instrument for good that the world had ever seen.

Britain is no longer a world power. The colonies, dominions, and protectorates that made up the empire upon which the sun never set, with a few small exceptions, have gone their own way. The Commonwealth still reflects the positive side of imperial relationships, but it is a pale reminder of that legendary world of exploration and trade, of bugles and cavalry charges, of dedicated servants of the empire living out their lives far from home.

Britain is still one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, where the empire’s most conspicuous legacy is a series of apparently unresolvable problems. Palestine, Kashmir, and Cyprus are in a class by themselves for their insolubility. The first UN military observer operations were a response to the violence in Palestine and Kashmir; the first UN peacekeeping force was set up to end the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. The empire also left behind several states or federations made up of incompatible ethnic or religious groups whose mutual hostility created instability and even, occasionally, civil war. Of these, Iraq is currently the most prominent, and the thorniest.

In Ends of British Imperialism, Wm. Roger Louis, the historian of the British Empire and Commonwealth at the University of Texas in Austin, explains in exhilarating detail the complex process of imperial growth and dissolution. In The International Struggle over Iraq, David Malone, currently the Canadian high commissioner in India and formerly president of the International Peace Academy, analyzes the international setting, particularly in the UN Security Council, of the involvement of the United States in Iraq. These two books raise many important issues, among them the question of how far history must dictate the future and how far the United Nations system and the Pax Americana can take over the law-and-order functions of the old imperialism.


In the late-nineteenth-century European scramble for colonies, Africa was colonized almost exclusively for financial gain and prestige, with, as Louis shows, very little serious concern for, or knowledge of, the indigenous African population.1 Although some of the lots drawn in the European scramble, such as the Congo and Ghana, were economically and financially rewarding to the imperialists, most of the new colonial possessions were not. Nor was the desire for colonies only a European fashion. In the Pacific, Japan annexed Korea in 1910, acquired the former German islands in the Pacific north of the equator in the Treaty of Versailles, invaded Manchukuo and China in the 1930s, and entered World War II as an imperial power in 1941.

During the twenty years between the two world wars the entire British imperial system functioned—for the first and last time—as a worldwide political and economic institution. Long before World War II the movement for independence was fermenting, especially in India. That war’s vast demands on British manpower and financial and economic resources made the expense of empire impossible to sustain.

The United States was strongly opposed to colonialism both in principle and in practice, as Franklin Roosevelt made clear to Winston Churchill in 1941 during the drafting of the Atlantic Charter. FDR insisted that respect for “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” applied to all members of the human family and not just to those whose lands were currently occupied by the Axis. The 1956 Suez Crisis, which Louis regards as the end of British and French imperialism, dramatically exposed Britain’s financial and military weakness and its dependence on the United States.

Harold Macmillan, who succeeded Anthony Eden as prime minister after the Suez debacle, recognized the “winds of change” in Africa and elsewhere and accelerated the pace of British decolonization. Louis describes the rush to give independence to colonial holdings in the 1960s as the “mirror image” of the European scramble for colonies seventy-five years earlier. However much Africans wanted independence, both colonization and rapid decolonization were appallingly disruptive. Colonial boundaries ignored both tribal and economic realities and ran through unexplored country, often along lines of longitude and latitude. The main result was to undermine the institutions and traditions by which tribal Africa had lived for so long. The supposedly superior systems of government, justice, and administration introduced by the European powers did not have sufficient time to take firm root before the colonists departed; and some European rulers did very little to prepare their subjects for self-rule. Much of Africa’s present suffering and confusion derives from these failures.

The Suez Crisis, exactly fifty years ago, which Louis calls “a deadly set of interlocking miscalculations,” dealt a mortal blow to British and French claims to be great powers. Coinciding with the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolt, Suez split the Western alliance at the worst possible time. The ludicrous pretense that an Anglo-French invading force was being sent to protect the canal from a confrontation between Israelis and Egyptians failed completely to disguise what was in fact a blatant attempt at regime change—toppling Nasser—and made Britain and France appear ridiculous as well as mendacious. The Suez fiasco destroyed the influence of Britain and France in the Middle East, where they were soon replaced by the United States.

The performance of some Western leaders over Suez was so strikingly weird that the actions of Nasser, who had ostensibly set off the crisis by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, have scarcely drawn scrutiny. John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, had declared that the US would not resort to force over the canal. Eden therefore believed that Dulles and President Eisenhower would prefer not to be informed of the British, French, and Israeli plan to invade Egypt, but would eventually support it anyway. Eden and the French leader Guy Mollet insisted on going ahead with the invasion in spite of the fact that Egypt, Britain, France, and the United States had reached agreement, under Dag Hammarskjöld’s auspices at the UN in New York, on six principles governing the future management of the canal, causing Eisenhower to comment “It looks as though a very great crisis is behind us.”

Eisenhower’s telephone call to Eden after the British started bombing targets in and around Cairo dispelled Eden’s fantasies of US support: “Anthony, have you gone out of your mind? You’ve deceived me.” Eisenhower denounced the invasion, and, by refusing to stop a potentially catastrophic run on the pound with $1 billion from the International Monetary Fund and the Export-Import Bank until Eden undertook to leave Egypt unconditionally, forced the British to abandon the Anglo-French-Israeli plan. Early in November Eisenhower was reelected in a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. One positive element of the Suez Crisis was the creation of the first UN peacekeeping force, a deployment of six thousand soldiers from ten countries that initiated an important new form of conflict control.

A brief passage in Louis’s Suez chapters made me wonder how far the use, fifty years later, of hitherto classified sources may sometimes give undue substance to highly subjective stories. Sir Pierson Dixon, the British ambassador at the United Nations, like other key British ambassadors, whether in Cairo, Paris, or Washington, had not been informed in advance of his country’s attack on Egypt. Defending an indefensible action that he did not believe in was the worst experience of his professional life. Dixon, however, was not close to Hammarskjöld and he resented Hammarskjöld’s openly critical attitude toward the Anglo-French-Israeli operation. Nonetheless, by assembling and deploying within a few days the first UN peacekeeping force, Hammarskjöld made it possible for the British and French forces to be withdrawn with reasonable dignity. Reluctantly recognizing this fact, Dixon commented, in a cable to the foreign office,

Hammarskjoeld, I think, is on the verge of collapse…. Surprisingly enough this strange intellectual whom we have elevated into a superman is made of flesh and blood…. He literally burst into tears this evening….

To one who worked with Hammarskjöld throughout his time at the UN, his “bursting into tears” in the presence of Dixon seems so out of character that I find it virtually impossible to believe. Nor was this alleged loss of control ever mentioned or recorded in their private notes by Ralph Bunche and others who regularly accompanied Hammarskjöld at all such meetings. Dixon’s story allows him to patronize the “strange” Swedish intellectual to whom the British were so deeply in debt.

In Louis’s account, the partition plans for India and Palestine and the independence of Libya and Sudan foreshadow more recent international problems that have arisen in all these countries, as does the Anglo-US cloak-and-dagger scheme for regime change that toppled the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddeq in 1953—successful in the short term, but leading to rebellion and Islamic revolution later on. In Iraq the 1958 coup and revolution, led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim, in which the king and crown prince and Britain’s all-powerful ally, Nuri Pasha es Said, were assassinated, swept away British influence in Iraq forever; not many years later, the country came under the control of the Baathist dictatorship whose overthrow has brought about the current crisis.

In 1971 the withdrawal of British power, for reasons of economy, from east of Suez, and most notably from the Persian Gulf, by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, marked the effective end of the empire. Looking today at the shining towers, ultra-modern cities, and colossal opulence of the Gulf States, it is hard to remember that Britain’s surprise decision to withdraw from the Gulf protectorates without designating a successor caused intense anxiety at the time. The transformation of the Gulf States and their oil and natural gas reserves into major centers of finance, trade, and tourism has become a stabilizing element in one of the world’s tensest and most important strategic areas. Even the system of federation—Britain’s favored, but usually abortive, constitutional concept—has flourished in the Gulf in the United Arab Emirates.


Louis’s work in archives, diaries, letters, and memoirs sheds new light on people who were rearranging the geopolitical map of the world with a self-confidence and a lack of resistance that now seem inconceivable. British leaders, politicians, and civil servants saw themselves, usually without undue personal vanity, as leading the world forward to better times. A rigorous classical education provided many of them with formidable powers of analysis that were often tempered by style, elegance, and wit.

  1. 1

    At the Berlin Congo Conference (1884– 1885), over which Bismarck presided, the British ambassador, Sir Edward Malet, protested, in response to Bismarck’s opening speech, that commerce was not the exclusive subject of the conference. “While it is desirable to secure a market in the Congo country, the welfare of the natives is not to be neglected.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print