Jonathan Pearson. Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis: Reluctant Gamble. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 252 S. $72.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-333-98451-2.
Reviewed by Daniel C. Williamson (Department of Humanities, Hillyer College, University of Hartford)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2003)
Anatomy of a Tragedy
Anatomy of a Tragedy
In Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis: Reluctant Gamble, Jonathan Pearson attempts to clear up some misconceptions about the Prime Minister's handling of the international crisis that saw Britain humiliated and Eden's political career destroyed. According to Pearson, most historians of the crisis incorrectly portray Eden as having made the decision to use force against Nasser almost immediately after the Egyptian leader nationalized the canal in July 1956. Importantly for the outcome of the crisis, many contemporaries, including American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, also believed that Eden harbored belligerent intentions towards Nasser from the start. Pearson disagrees with this analysis; instead he argues that Eden only reluctantly accepted the idea of invading Egypt in mid-October, after his attempts to solve the problem peacefully had failed to bear fruit. In addition to correcting the historiography, Pearson provides a detailed and largely sympathetic, if not exculpatory, explanation of why Eden eventually made the fateful decision to conspire with France and Israel in the attack on Egypt.
Pearson believes that a number of factors contributed to the mistaken belief that Eden wanted to use force against Egypt immediately. Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 came as a great surprise to the world as a whole. Upon hearing the news Eden convened a hasty meeting of his senior ministers, Labor party opposition leaders, the French Ambassador and the American Charge d'Affaires to discuss possible responses. Among the options considered was a military strike to take the canal back from Egypt. Eden's Press Secretary, William Clark, recorded in his memoirs that Eden settled on force at this meeting. While Clark's version of events has been accepted by most historians of Suez, Pearson points out that Clark's own diaries written at the time do not match his memoirs and that no other participant reported that a military solution was settled on during the July 26 meeting. In fact, Eden's position was spelled out at a Cabinet meeting on July 27. The Prime Minister wanted the canal returned to international control to safeguard the oil supply of Western Europe, which passed through Suez. A "dual-track" policy of applying diplomatic and economic pressure to induce Egypt to negotiate, coupled with the threat of force was to be followed. Eden and the other members of the Cabinet agreed that military action was only to be taken as a last resort. Eden believed that Nasser might fall from power if he was forced to back down on his nationalization of the canal, and thus the Egyptian's brand of radical pan-Arab nationalism would be marginalized, but Eden was not looking for an excuse to oust Nasser by force.
In addition to Clark's erroneous memoirs, other issues have clouded history's judgment. Eden's own published account of the Suez Crisis has misled historians. In his memoir, Full Circle, Eden sought to portray the Anglo-French invasion of the Canal Zone in November 1956 as the culmination of a consistent policy that he had followed from the start of the crisis, rather than admit that he succumbed to increasing pressure to use force. Eden wanted to avoid the appearance of having vacillated over forcibly standing up to Nasser. The Prime Minister's reputation as a vain and impulsive man, who was desperate to shore up Britain's flagging empire, made it easy to believe that he always saw military action as the best option. While Pearson admits that Eden had a difficult and sometimes volatile personality, he argues that those closest to him, like his one-time private secretary Evelyn Shuckburgh, understood that Eden's fits of temper were brief explosions of frustration that could be ignored as the Prime Minister inevitably calmed down and thought things out. Nor does Pearson accept the idea that Eden was clinging to Britain's imperial past. As Foreign Minister during Churchill's peacetime ministry, Eden had pursued a global strategy that understood the post-war limitations on British power. It was Eden, after all, who was chiefly responsible for the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement of 1954 that saw Britain abandon its military bases in the Canal Zone.
Pearson argues that contemporary historical actors as well as historians have also been misled by the fact that, since the threat of military force was vital to the "dual-track" policy, military preparations had to be made in an open manner. The British Government could not be seen publicly as too keen on a peaceful solution or Nasser would have little motivation to give up control of the canal. Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan presented a particularly bellicose face to British policy. According to Pearson, Macmillan believed the Eisenhower Administration would only support putting serious diplomatic and economic pressure on Egypt if it believed that Britain was anxious to use force against Nasser. In order to foster this view in Washington, Macmillan, on his own initiative, spoke to American officials, including Secretary of State Dulles, portraying Britain as ready and willing to invade Egypt. Pearson argues that Macmillan's efforts backfired, as the Americans became so concerned over a possible war that they spent all their diplomatic efforts on stalling the British and French from taking military action. Therefore, the United States did not play a truly constructive role in attempting to reach a settlement.
While Eden's diplomatic maneuvers of the summer and early fall have been portrayed by some historians as a cover under which to prepare for an invasion, Pearson obviously disagrees with that analysis. If Eden did not support the use of force early in the crisis, when and why did he change his mind? Pearson presents a number of reasons for Eden's acceptance of a military solution. The most important factor is that diplomacy failed to end Nasser's control of the canal. Two conferences were held in London and attended by the major maritime nations using the Suez Canal, including the USSR, in order to formulate a mutually agreeable negotiation platform for dealing with Egypt. The major outcome of these meetings was the concept of forming a Suez Canal Users Association (SCUA) to present a united front to Nasser. The problem with SCUA was that Britain and the United States had very different ideas about what the organization should try to accomplish. Eden wanted SCUA to withhold the canal transit dues from Egypt, thus undercutting the benefits of nationalization and putting real economic pressure on Nasser to return the canal to international control. From the American point of view, SCUA, and indeed the other attempts at a negotiated settlement, were mainly designed to restrain the British and the French from taking military action against Egypt. Dulles would not allow SCUA to be used as an economic weapon against Nasser. In addition, while Dulles, and to a lesser extent Eisenhower, fluctuated in their public statements regarding the use of force, on the whole they made it clear that the United States would not support military action against Egypt. According to Pearson, Washington's policies undercut Eden's "dual-track" strategy by eliminating the most effective means of placing economic pressure on Egypt as well as by removing the threat of a concerted Western attack. Without economic sanctions or the threat of invasion, Nasser could hold onto the canal until Egyptian control became an accepted fact by the international community.
Other forces that pushed Eden toward a military solution include political pressure from the French and from the right-wing of the Conservative party, as well as his own deteriorating health. French Premier Guy Mollet's Government was much more keen on a military solution to the crisis as this, more likely, would lead to the end of Nasser's regime and, presumably, his support for the Algerian rebellion. The French had secretly begun to negotiate for Israeli participation in an invasion of Egypt, an idea the Eden had rejected at the beginning of the crisis as potentially too damaging to Anglo-Arab relations. Israel refused to aid the French unless Paris could guarantee that Britain would also be a party to any attack on Egypt. Pearson believes that Eden only accepted the use of force on October 14, 1956 when a French delegation presented him with a plan at a meeting at Chequers. By this time SCUA was not working as Eden had hoped and the last-minute negotiations at the United Nations had failed to reach a workable, negotiated solution to the crisis. The French proposal called for an Israeli invasion of the Sinai as a pretext for the French and British to invade Egypt and seize control of the Canal Zone to "safeguard" it from the warring parties. In addition the French and British hoped Nasser's leadership of Egypt would be fatally undermined by the humiliating defeat that the Anglo-French-Israeli forces would inflict on him.
Eden did not give an affirmative reply to the French immediately as he wanted to discuss the idea with his senior ministers and get the formal approval of the Cabinet. There were plenty of hawks in the Cabinet, like Harold Macmillan and Lord Salisbury. They were supported by Winston Churchill and the "Suez Group" of Conservative party members who had resisted the withdrawal of British military forces from the Canal Zone in 1954 and now supported firm action against Nasser. The hawks were encouraged by Macmillan's belief that, at the very least, the Americans would allow the military operation to proceed without interference, as the Eisenhower Administration would also be happy to see the end of Nasser. On October 24, 1956 Britain, France, and Israel agreed to the secret Sevres Protocol. While Eden was not forthcoming to the full Cabinet about the details of the collusion between Britain, France, and Israel, the assembled ministers authorized the use of force in case an Israeli invasion threatened the Suez Canal.
Added to the political pressures and the failed diplomacy, Pearson believes that Eden's ill health was the final contributing factor in his decision to use force. Eden had been in poor health since a botched gallbladder operation in 1953. The stain of the Suez Crisis, with Eden trying to stay abreast of the situation in Washington, New York, and Cairo meant that the Prime Minister got very little sleep for weeks. On October 6, Eden had to have emergency surgery to correct a blocked bile duct that had caused him to suffer from a temperature of 106 degrees. Thus he was physically and emotionally worn out by mid-October. According to Pearson, Eden's decision to use the military came about "simply because Eden was not the same man in October that he had been in July 1956, and, under increased pressure, agreed to use force to resolve the crisis" (p. 173).
The Israeli invasion of October 29 was quickly followed by the Anglo-French ultimatum to the combatants to call a ceasefire or risk intervention. British warplanes bombed Egypt on October 31 and troops were landed on November 5. Macmillan's claim that the United States would not try to stop the invasion proved incorrect. Washington and Moscow both supported a U.N. call for an immediate ceasefire on November 2. On November 6 the Cabinet decided to accept the inevitable and agreed to a ceasefire. The once-bellicose Harold Macmillan now warned that he would resign unless the military operation was stopped, as the British economy could not stand the drain on its gold reserves and the potential of formal U.N. economic sanctions. Eden's premiership was effectively over. He left for three months of rest in Jamaica on November 23 as Macmillan and R.A. Butler maneuvered to replace him at the head of the Cabinet. On January 9, 1957, Sir Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister and gave up his seat in Parliament.
Pearson's book makes a very compelling case that Eden only came to the decision to use force near the end of the Suez Crisis and that, until that point, he had high hopes for a peaceful settlement. Eden is portrayed as a tragic figure who was let down by his American and French allies as well as his own Cabinet members who undercut his "dual-track" strategy for dislodging Nasser from the canal with diplomatic and economic pressure and the threat of force. In the end his own ill health conspired against him. Of course, Pearson does not attempt to exonerate Eden of all guilt for the Suez debacle. It was Eden who made the final call on the use of force and it was Eden who failed to predict the strong reaction that Washington would have to the invasion of Egypt. Still the reader is left with a feeling of sympathy for Anthony Eden and his attempts to peacefully solve the Suez Crisis.
There are, however, two related questions that are not fully answered by the book. Why did Eden allow Harold Macmillan to conduct his own diplomacy with the Americans? Pearson implies that Eden believed that Macmillan's attempts to scare Dulles would make the Americans more supportive of diplomatic and economic pressure in order to avoid a war between Egypt and their Western European allies. On the other hand, Pearson points out that at some stages in the Suez Crisis, Eden was sharply critical of Macmillan's involvement in foreign affairs. It seems odd that a Prime Minister whose own background was as a diplomat would allow his Chancellor of the Exchequer to have meetings with high ranking American officials that were not carefully scripted by the Cabinet or Foreign Office to conform to Government policy. It is also unclear as to why Eden was not more forthcoming with the Americans about his desire to maintain a legitimate threat of military action against Nasser in order to make him more amenable to a negotiated settlement. With the Americans blowing hot and cold as to whether the use of force was justified, it would seem to be a logical step for Eden to have fully cleared up any confusion between London and Washington on so vital a point. Pearson's book is an excellent addition to the historiography of the Suez Crisis, and does an outstanding job of proving that Eden was not a warmonger, but one suspects that we are far from hearing the last word on this complex and fascinating subject.
. Historians of the crisis move from the first chroniclers such as Paul Johnson, The Suez War (1957) and Hugh Thomas, The Suez Affair (1967) to more recent scholars like Keith Kyle, Suez (1991) and W. Scott Lucas, Divided We Stand: Britain, the US and the Suez Crisis (1991) and Britain and the Suez Crisis: The Lion's Last Roar (1996).
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Daniel C. Williamson. Review of Pearson, Jonathan, Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis: Reluctant Gamble.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.