Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anthony Eden
Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anthony Eden; drawing by David Levine

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* (the title is taken from Kipling in one of his more penitential moods) 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:

Britain in 1956 still ran half Africa. The word “Empire” was hardly yet anachronistic. The continuing political weakness of France and of Europe, combined with the unpopular dogmatism of U.S. diplomacy under the inspiration of the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, gave Britain the illusion of greater power than she actually possessed. Churchill in his last main speech in March 1955 had announced that Britain would build an H-bomb, thus firmly stating in the most contemporary language that we considered ourselves as at least the third most important country in the world. [p. 11]

Nor were these attitudes confined to Conservatives. At the Labour Party conference in October 1957, Aneurin Bevan shocked his followers by urging provisional retention of the H-bomb (for purposes of negotiating a comprehensive disarmament treaty, needless to say). Doing away with the bomb without conditions, he exclaimed, meant “sending the British Foreign Secretary naked into the council chamber!” This was a year after Suez, and before the anti-bomb campaign of the CND had got under way. To the campaigners, Bevan was no hero. He had, they felt, let them down very badly with his speech (made at a time when he had hopes of becoming Foreign Secretary in the next Labour Cabinet). Yet it was he, not they, who expressed the dominant mood of an electorate not yet resigned to seeing its country powerless in the world arena. Typically, it was the middle-class moralist Hugh Gaitskell who in November 1956 led the outery of the liberal intelligentsia against Eden for having deceived Parliament and flouted the United Nations. Bevan, knowing well how Labour’s hard-core supporters felt about Nasser’s Egypt, was a good deal more reticent.

THIS IS A DELICATE TOPIC for Gaitskellites like Mr. Thomas, and it is to his honor as a historian that he has not shirked it. Bevan’s speech at the Trafalgar Square demonstration of November 4, 1956—called to protest against the bombing of Cairo by British planes—he describes as “a brilliant but also an entertaining philippic, subtly showing however that he was well aware there was working-class support for Eden.” That is putting it mildly. Many observers at the time felt that if Eden had had the nerve to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections, the Labour Party would have suffered heavily for its anti-war attitude. Working-class chauvinism, of course, is not a wholly admirable phenomenon, and British socialists (like American liberals) have good reason to feel proud of their record in resisting such sentiments when necessary. But the masochism of a section of the intellectual establishment in the grim winter of 1956-57 was not a very pleasing spectacle either. Those bombs on Egyptian airfields were not forgotten in a hurry, and it took years of Arab posturing and threats to tarnish the Nasserite image. Suez indeed ushered in the dreary decade of literary pseudo-progressivism, when Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno could do no wrong, and anyone who ventured to dissent from this chorus was written off as a reactionary.

Israel of course suffered from having been associated with Eden’s crazy enterprise, so that from the standpoint of its British well-wishers there was much to be said for its otherwise unenviable isolation in May-June 1967. David contra Goliath made a better picture than those three conspirators getting together at Sèvres in October 1956 to concert their attack on Egypt. What a lot of nonsense, though, was talked about “collusion” by Eden’s critics after 1956! The more indignant among them seem actually to have thought this secrecy more discreditable than the political lunacy of a project intended (in the event of success) to replace Nasser by that tattered old demagogue, Nahas Pasha, with whom Eden had successfully negotiated a treaty in 1936. For the British—and this was the real weakness, which would have damned the Suez expedition even if it had not been such an immediate flop—were living in the past. Nasser at least was contemporary, whatever his faults. Nahas was a throwback to the age of Farouk, the fat playboy whom Whitehall had kept on the throne as a safeguard against nationalism. No wonder the US and the USSR for once found common ground in opposing the enterprise! In the Arab world, Eden no doubt could count on discreet support from the Saudis and from Nuri in Baghdad—then still part of the Hashemite family estate. But this particular era was drawing to a close. The kings and their advisers were on the way out, to be succeeded by military dictators who on occasion might even toy with the vocabulary of “socialism.”

WAS THERE anything the British could have done to cash in on this trend, given the fact that Arab (unlike Indian or Pakistani) nationalism was already committed to an anti-British orientation? The question is not unreasonable. The answer Mr. Thomas gives is in tune with liberal-radical orthodoxy of the variety represented by the Guardian (not the paper now printed in London under that name, but the old Manchester Guardian of Scott and Crozier):

Ten years later it is hard to avoid seeing the macabre humour of the events described here: the spectacle of over one hundred thousand men setting off for a war which lasted barely a day and then returning has few parallels in the long gallery of military imbecility…It is nevertheless tragic to see great imperial countries (especially our own) ending their pretensions in comic style; and the general point at issue was serious enough. Arab nationalism, and particularly Egyptian nationalism, was certain to be inimical to Britain in the short run. The question was whether this enmity should have been met by seeking to extirpate it by force, or by a policy of magnanimous friendship, in the hope that in the long run a reasonable modus vivendi might have been achieved. [pp. 164-65.]

Mr. Thomas clearly thinks this last is what should have been tried, as did others at the time. The best argument in favor of this view is the one he himself states: “In simple terms of realpolitik, the situation would have been different if we had had the physical power. But we did not.” True, and yet one wonders whether he is being quite realistic enough. What if there was no solution? What if Nasser did not want any kind of “understanding,” but the total destruction of Britain’s position in the Middle East? Then what answer was there to Eden’s reported remark to Loy Henderson (Dulles’s representative who urged a settlement acceptable to Egypt), “I would rather have the British Empire fall in one crash than have it nibbled away!”?

Fall in a crash it did, and great was the fall thereof, Mr. Thomas, at heart as good a patriot as Mr. Nutting, is distressed by this outcome, though suitably philosophical about it (he even compares Eden to Alcibiades leading the suicidal expedition to Sicily which ruined Athens). There is some advantage in having had a classical education—for, one thing it tends to improve one’s style. For his next edition he might consider an appendix on the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, under some such heading as “Nasser meets his fate.” Less grandiosely the event showed—what observers of Israel’s lightning drive into Sinai in 1956 had already suspected—that there was a new power in the area: one not restrained by the caution of a declining imperial oligarchy, but spurred on by the simplest of all emotions: self-preservation. In the end, only a nation can fight another nation. Empires are at a disadvantage in the matter, if only because their ideologies inhibit them from being as ferociously self-centered as the leaders of small countries concerned only with survival. Whence, too, the remarkable fact that whereas in 1956 a good third of the British electorate was furious with Eden for dropping a few ineffective bombs on Cairo, in 1967 only 2 percent of those answering a questionnaire thought the Israelis had behaved badly in striking first. (See the London Sunday Times of July 9.) Patriotism is respectable, imperialism is not—not even (any longer) in Britain, long the proud center of an empire. Of all the lessons of the recent past, this is perhaps the one least open to doubt or question.

As for the future: “But why worry about that?” might be a tempting reaction, especially since Israel’s military position looks secure at the moment. The reasons for worry are spread out on the front page of every newspaper, whether it be in the form of dispatches from Cairo and Damascus listing the arrival of Soviet arms and emissaries, or in the shape of hints from well-informed quarters to the effect that Israel may be about to enter the nuclear game. In this particular context, the maneuvers of the great powers are perhaps less decisive than the irrationalities embedded in the minds of the lesser ones—especially the Arabs, now smarting under a defeat which nothing in their intellectual makeup led them to expect or to understand. The already familiar line of division between “progressive” and “reactionary” Arab regimes (broadly speaking, radical nationalists vs. traditional authoritarian regimes) looks like becoming the frontier between bitterenders and opportunists, with Russia (and, in the background, China) supporting—or at least appearing to support—those planning a war of revenge (though one may reasonably doubt that the Kremlin is really keen on it—in private its spokesmen do not give this impression).

WHETHER a fourth round in the Arab-Israeli struggle—possibly fought in ten years’ time, and escalated to the nuclear stage—is “inevitable” might serve as an interesting topic for a seminar on the philosophy of history. To the Israelis the question is meaningless, since they have no choice in the matter. The decision is not up to them but to the Arab leaders. If the Arabs persist in their present course, Israel can only respond by bringing the pillars of the Temple down upon their heads (as Bourguiba of Tunisia at least seems to have recognized—with what effect upon the handful of non-fascist intellectuals among the Arabs, remains to be seen). But at least this much can be said: Whereas the Suez debacle of 1956-57 was “inevitable,” in the sense that Britain could not have acted otherwise—the imperial heritage was what it was, and Nasser’s enmity was irreconcilable—the hypothetical “fourth round” in 1977 can be willed by the Arab states only if they are prepared to face the likelihood of a total catastrophe, which even in this Iron Age of preemptive air strikes is perhaps a bit more than nationalist leaders, however drunk on their own rhetoric, may be expected to contemplate, at any rate in their soberer moments. This must be the short answer to those well-meaning people who demand a “solution.” (It is a well-established liberal principle that every “problem” can be “solved,” although the grounds on which this conviction is held are not always plain to the outsider.)

And the United Nations? Its recent unappetizing performance notwithstanding, it cannot yet perhaps be written off. At least one British observer noted for his realism has even suggested that “U Thant’s War” (the only possible title for the upheaval of 1967) may actually prove a turning point: if only because the institution cannot possibly fall lower than it recently has. Sheer revulsion—already noticeable in Delhi, among Indians not committed to their government’s despicable role in the recent crisis—may start off a regenerative process. Who knows, by 1977 the UN—under a different Secretary-General—may actually be able to play the sort of part for which its charter was supposed to have equipped it.

This Issue

August 24, 1967