Why did we fail in Suez?

Forty years ago this week, Egypt nationalised the canal and Britain set off down the road to humiliation.

On 26 July 1956, the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, proclaimed to a cheering crowd in Alexandria the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. Far more than any other act, the nationalisation symbolised for Egyptians the liberation of the country from British imperialist influence.

For the British government Nasser's actions symbolised something far more sinister. Nasser, a man who was likened to Hitler or Mussolini, had seized the jugular vein of the Empire. If his grip was not loosened, economic strangulation and political eclipse threatened the nation.

From the outset, all the leading members of Anthony Eden's Cabinet regarded Suez as an issue over which Britain should be prepared to go to war. Nasser's nationalist rhetoric, calling on the Arab world to reject British influence, seemed a direct threat to Britain's national interests. Top of the list of such interests were concerns over access to Gulf oil resources. In the pre-supertanker era, the bulk of Britain's oil supply passed through the canal, and the future economic health of the nation seemed dependent on keeping it out of hostile hands. As Eden memorably told one official of Nasser: "It's either him or us; don't forget that."

The main problem that confronted Eden's government was how to come up with a pretext both for reversing Nasser's nationalisation and ousting him from power. From the outset it was clear that these twin goals could only be accomplished by a full-scale invasion of Egypt.

In order to carry out such an operation, time was needed to assemble the appropriate forces. Here Suez paralleled the Falklands War. Negotiations had to be attempted in the meantime simply to fill the gap before military action.

During August, September and October of 1956, the government attempted a variety of diplomatic gambits, including an international conference and an appeal to the United Nations Security Council. The principal goal behind all of these attempts was not so much to resolve the crisis as to draw the US administration of President Dwight D Eisenhower into supporting the British position.

The difficulty here was that the diplomacy of Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was aimed in the opposite direction to that of Eden's government. Dulles, in particular, was to have criticism heaped on him by British politicians and the press for his supposed duplicity during the crisis. A controversial figure at the best of times, Dulles's puritanical character had been famously dismissed by Churchill in three words: "dull, duller, Dulles." During the Suez crisis itself, Dulles's poor relations with leading figures in the British government did little to assist him in deflecting their warlike intentions.

What Dulles did manage to do with his various schemes for establishing international control over the canal was to pass time. By the middle of October, with Nasser's nationalisation announcement an increasingly distant memory, the domestic consensus over Suez was coming under pressure. On the one hand, the right of the Conservative Party was urging Eden to take decisive action. On the other, Hugh Gaitskell's Labour Party, which had initially been supportive of Eden's policy, was becoming increasingly restless. Whether Eden moved to compromise with or to confront Nasser, he seemed destined to fracture the domestic consensus in Britain over Suez.

What Eden desperately needed was a convincing new pretext to act against Nasser. Here, the French government came to his rescue. The French were concerned not only by Nasser's nationalisation of the Canal Company but also by his activities in supporting Algerian rebels against French rule. A community of interest existed between Britain and France in respect of ousting Nasser.

On 14 October 1956, two French officials arrived at Chequers with a plan that Eden found intriguing. They pointed out that Israel also had an interest in seeing Nasser's downfall. David Ben Gurion's government had been showing increasing concern about the Nasser regime ever since Nasser had signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union the previous year. Given the opportunity, the officials argued, Israel could be persuaded to launch an attack on Egypt.

Britain and France could then intervene, posing as peacemakers. An ultimatum would be issued to both Israel and Egypt to pull back from the canal. When the Egyptians refused, as they would have to since the canal was deep inside their territory, Britain and France could land forces on the canal. This, combined with a successful Israeli strike, should be sufficient to topple Nasser.

One does not have to delve far beneath the surface of the scheme to see how shallow the cover story was. Britain and France were locked in a bitter dispute with Egypt over the canal, so their intervention was hardly likely to seem impartial. Moreover, who would believe that the British and French governments had had no warning of Israeli intentions, when the timing of the attack was so propitious for their purposes?

Nevertheless, Eden pressed ahead with the scheme. A deal was done with the French and the Israelis and an unlikely alliance was formed. Indeed, Ben Gurion remained suspicious of British intentions all along and critical of British hypocrisy in seeking to divert the blame on to Israel.

On 29 October 1956, the Israelis began their attack. Paratroopers were dropped at the strategic Mitla Pass in the Sinai Desert, and Israeli armoured units crossed the Egyptian border. In order to preserve the pretence of ignorance of Israeli intentions, the British armada assembled at Malta had to wait until the Israelis moved before setting sail for the Egyptian coast. The best part of a week's sailing time lay ahead of it before troops could be landed. In the meantime, the British and French role was to veto anti-Israeli resolutions at the United Nations and issue their ultimatum to both sides.

Even if these actions had not provoked international suspicions, the ensuing bombing of Egyptian airfields by the RAF was guaranteed to do so.

The first days of November saw intense diplomatic pressure on Britain from the United States. American records show that as early as the third day of the crisis the full outline of the collusion between Britain, France and Israel was clear to Eisenhower. His outrage was deepened by the fact that he was in the final days of a re-election campaign, and by the fact that the Soviet Union chose the Suez crisis as the opportune moment to crush the reformist Nagy regime in Hungary.

Nevertheless, Eden pressed ahead. The domestic consensus had fractured and huge crowds took to the streets to protest against what some described as Britain's act of war. Early on the morning of 5 November, British paratroopers began landing near Port Said at the mouth of the canal, followed a day later by the amphibious assault.

Within hours of the beginning of this phase of the crisis, the nerve of the Cabinet began to crack. Harold Macmillan's nerve broke first. Charged with the task of maintaining financial stability during the crisis, he was shocked to discover that Anglo-American relations had broken down to the extent that the US administration was actively blocking his attempt to stabilise sterling.

Despite the weight of international and domestic condemnation of the government's actions, it still seems extraordinary that the attack was stopped so soon after being started. Weeks after the decision to cease fire was taken on 6 November, Dulles, who had been hospitalised for much of the crisis, asked an incredulous Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary, why Britain had not carried the attack through. Eisenhower, too, later recorded the same opinion. Britain, in their view, had the worst of all possible worlds. She had acted but not succeeded; shown resolve then lost her nerve.

It seems probable that if the British government had pressed ahead and faced the Eisenhower administration with the fait accompli of the removal of Nasser, US interests would have dictated acquiescence in the outcome. The vehemence of the US response in the first days of November was perhaps dictated more by the circumstantial factors of the election campaign and the Hungarian crisis than by deeper-seated US interests in the region.

Even with the benefit of hindsight and access to a wide range of sources, the British decision to halt operations on 6 November remains difficult to understand. Much like the original decision to opt for collusion, that to cease fire can perhaps only be understood in the context of the psychological stress endured by Eden and his closest advisers. The elastic of their nerve had been stretched to its limit, and so it snapped. Within weeks of the ceasefire British troops were evacuated from Egypt and Eden resigned the premiership, to be succeeded by Macmillan.

Many historians have seen the British defeat over Suez as a crucial watershed in the nation's post-war history. From this point, it is argued, the dismantling of the Empire was inevitable. Britain would now play only a subservient role to the United States in the waging of the Cold War in the Middle East and beyond.

There is no doubt that the crisis is important, not least in exposing the lack of domestic consensus over imperial policy. However, to cast it as a truly epoch-making event perhaps goes too far. The decision to dismantle the African empire, although taken in the years after Suez, was not directly contingent on it.

Also, Britain proved herself capable of undertaking independent military actions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world in the years after Suez. As late as 1982, Britain undertook a major military operation in defence of a residual imperial commitment in the Falklands.

Perhaps the importance of Suez is in fact symbolic. It brought to the surface deeper processes of change in Britain's position in the world, the legacy of which the nation's leaders are still trying to work out.

Nigel Ashton is the author of 'Eisenhower, Macmillan and the Problem of Nasser', published by Macmillan, pounds 40.

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