Suez Operation II

By MSW Add a Comment 9 Min Read


Professed patriots of all classes and political persuasions rallied behind the embattled government, regarding the Gaitskellite assault as treason. Lord Home, an appeaser at Munich but an aggressor at Suez, assured Eden: “If our country rediscovers its soul and inspiration, your calm courage will have achieved this miracle.” The Suez Group cheered the affirmation of imperial power, one of its members asserting that the area around the Canal was “in some essential sense part of the United Kingdom.” The Beefeater press was equally staunch. Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express declared that Eden was acting to “safeguard the life of the British Empire.” It was aptly said, though, that no cause was truly lost until it won the backing of the Express. Even more telling than its support was the defection of The Times, whose recent history, Beaverbrook wrote, “was also a history of the decline of the British Empire.” The Thunderer rumbled about the damage done to Anglo-American relations by deceiving Eisenhower. Britain was “not a satellite” of the United States but an ally, it stoutly maintained, and what that alliance “cannot stand is a lack of candour.”

Eisenhower too reckoned that “nothing justifies double-crossing us.” Actually both he and Dulles would have accepted even the duplicity if Britain and France had presented them with a swift fait accompli. As it was, the President had to face a fraught hiatus during which Russia crushed the uprising in Hungary (2 November), Dulles went into hospital for a cancer operation (3 November) and he himself was fighting for re-election (6 November). During that critical week he quelled his rage and excelled himself as a global statesman. Freezing out Eden politically, “Ike” affirmed that their personal friendship remained warm. He even professed to understand why the Prime Minister had responded to Nasser’s affront “in the mid-Victorian style,” while wondering if “the hand of Churchill might not be behind this.” The President opposed Russian intervention in the Middle East and rejected Moscow’s proposal that the Soviet Union and the United States should make common cause against Britain and France. To enforce his will he deployed America’s overwhelming economic might, instantly transforming Harold Macmillan from hawk to dove. “We must stop, we must stop,” the Chancellor exclaimed, “or we will have no dollars left by the end of the week.”

Eisenhower not only refused to buoy up sterling but insisted that “the purposes of peace and stability would be served by not being too quick in attempting to render extraordinary assistance” to Britain over oil supplies. He took advantage of the hostility to the Suez operation in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, India and Pakistan. And he mobilised support in the United Nations, not only the forum of world opinion but a body capable of imposing sanctions on pariah states. In the face of this pressure Eden crumbled. He held a cabinet meeting on 6 November at which Macmillan’s warning about a run on the pound proved decisive. Eden therefore telephoned Mollet and told him that he could not continue. A French official recorded this frantic outburst of despair:

I’m finished. I can’t hold on. The whole world reviles me…I can’t even rely on all Conservatives. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church, the oilmen, everyone is against me. The Commonwealth is tearing itself apart. Nehru wants to smash its bonds. Canada and Australia no longer follow our lead. I can’t dig the Crown’s grave…I can’t make England the only champion.

So a cease-fire was announced on the very day when the seaborne invasion took place at Port Said. Eden had deemed the Egyptians yellow but they resisted strongly and the Allied forces could only occupy the northern tip of the Canal, itself now blocked with ships sunk by Nasser. So abruptly did hostilities cease that the first British troops were being withdrawn as later units were landing. General Stockwell wryly informed the War Office, “We’ve now achieved the impossible. We’re going both ways at once.”

Eisenhower single-mindedly pursued his own course, determined to restore the status quo. He bullied and cajoled the Israelis until they withdrew from Sinai. He refused to supply a financial “fig leaf” to hide Anglo-French nakedness until Suez was handed over to a UN force. This was agreed within a month. The British government did its best to present retreat as victory, even claiming that the intervention had saved the situation in the Middle East by bringing in the United Nations—a conceit punctured by the future Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, who said that it was “like Al Capone taking credit for improving the efficiency of the Chicago police.” In fact, Nasser only let in the UN peacekeepers on sufferance. His prestige waxed as Eden’s waned. The Prime Minister had conducted, as a Labour MP said, the most spectacular retreat from Suez since the time of Moses. The Suez Group had nothing but contempt for his weakness. Churchill’s verdict was widely quoted: “I doubt whether I would have dared to start; I would never have dared to stop.” To mount the invasion and then call it off almost at once, said the Minister of Defence, was “like going through all the preliminaries without having an orgasm.” Eden further demonstrated his impotence by flying off to recuperate in Jamaica, despite a friend’s warning that “all the doctors were black.”

On his return Conservative daggers were out for him, the sharpest wielded by Macmillan. Enough time had elapsed, in the prophetic words of that radical firebrand Aneurin Bevan, “to permit the amenities of political assassination. Even a minor Caesar is entitled to be despatched with due decorum.” Ill health provided a genuine excuse for Eden’s resignation. Conservatives preferred Macmillan to R. A. Butler as his successor. So did Eisenhower, who extolled Macmillan’s straightness but failed to recognise his Janus face. But on the very day when Queen Elizabeth asked Macmillan to form a government, 10 January 1957, the President had second thoughts. He said that Butler would have been easier to work with because “Macmillan and Eden were somewhat alike in the fact that both could not bear to see the dying of Britain as a colonial power.” Although the French, incensed by the desertion of their ally, had other ideas, Eisenhower himself reckoned that Britain’s post-imperial destiny lay in Europe. A possible “blessing” might emerge from Suez, he said, “in the form of impelling them to accept the Common Market.” The corollary of this, he considered, was that America would have to fill the vacuum left by Britain (and France) between the Mediterranean and the Gulf “before it is filled by Russia.” So early in 1957 he enunciated the so-called “Eisenhower Doctrine.” In the name of the global struggle against Communism, it stipulated that America would give economic aid and, if requested, military assistance to Middle Eastern countries. Few welcomed this neo-colonial overture. Nasser condemned it as an informal version of the Baghdad Pact. The Arab world in general feared, and had some reason to fear, the imposition of a new overlord, Uncle Sam instead of John Bull.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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