Decision and even negotiation in the heat of national passion are both risky and dangerous. Yet history demonstrates that the interplay of force and counterforce among nations creates moments when it may be even more fatal to avoid decision or negotiation. Such has been the history of the Suez crisis—in London above all, but to a vital degree also in many other capitals from Moscow and Delhi to Cairo and Washington.
On the night of July 6, while Prime Minister Anthony Eden was entertaining Iraq's King Faisal at 10 Downing Street, he was handed a piece of paper telling him that Nasser had announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal. To Eden this was a blow that could destroy Britain's position in the Middle East. To Eden it conjured up Munich, when he had opposed Britain's sellout to Hitler over Czechoslovakia. The French government reacted in similar fashion; for to Paris, if Nasser were to get away with it, the loss of Algeria and eventually of all French Africa might well be sealed.
The case of Suez needs to be put in perspective—not just the perspective which flashed before Eden and French Premier Guy Mollet that evening, but the perspective of history. This is what the Eisenhower Administration sought to do. And it was the general premise on which Dulles operated during the twenty-two-nation London Conference on Suez.
The United States fully realized the depth of British and French feeling—a feeling which encompassed party and press leaderships from right to left in both nations, excluding only the Communists in France and the ultra-left in Britain. Dulles, in fact, rather admired the British attitude of going down fighting rather than surrendering to Nasser. Yet Dulles also felt that for Britain and France to resort to force was a confession of weakness rather than a sign of strength.
Curiously, it was Nasser himself who helped put the problem in perspective for Washington. He did so through his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, a slim but potent work which belatedly became must reading at the State Department, as it already had been at the British Foreign Office and the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. Here Nasser, in the triumphant flush of the first days following his ouster of Farouk, had laid out in the manner of Mein Kampf the dreams which came to haunt the Western chancelleries and, in time, at least to disturb the Soviet Union, India, and other nations as well.
In his book, Nasser spoke of Egypt's need to discover "what constitutes its living space." And he went on to dream in print of three "zones" for the Egyptian future—the Arab zone, African zone, and Islamic zone. In the Arab zone, he wrote, Egypt would hold a strategic position geographically (which of course is due to the Suez Canal), with its neighbors bound by common ties and oil resources. If only Arab nationalism could be roused so that Arab nations would act in concert to use their power and resources, he argued, Egypt could become a great force in the modern world. And when a world storm blew up after he nationalized Suez, Nasser quickly cried out with glee that Arab nationalism had been aroused.
Nasser had written of the great revenues obtained by the Western powers from Arab oil while paying "less than a subsistence wage" to Arab workers. He wrote of an African zone where he saw a "terrible and sanguinary struggle going on" between "five million whites and two hundred million Africans." And finally Nasser dreamed out loud of an Islamic zone "of our brothers in faith" which could be united if a Moslem pilgrimage to Mecca were regarded not only as "a ticket of admission into paradise" but also as "an institution of great political power and significance." This Islamic zone, said Nasser, swept "across continents and oceans" and embraced fifty million Moslems in Red China and forty million in Red Russia.
Here was nationalism unbridled, or so Dulles saw it. Here too Dulles saw an opportunity to arouse Indians, who have no desire for another holy war after the massacres of the partition with Moslem Pakistan. And here he saw an opportunity to work along a road of parallel interest with the Russians, who, while they want to eliminate Western influence in the Middle East and Asia, also desire to replace it with Soviet influence, not with some Pan-Islamic power or even Pan-Arabism.
Eisenhower and Dulles felt certain that Moscow and Washington were in accord on one great fundamental: there must be no Middle East conflict, for it might ignite a world war, which both fear and neither wants. Yet Washington was faced as well with our British and French allies, who were linked and aroused as they had not been since World War II years. So Dulles began to play for time.
He wanted time to permit a cooling of hot tempers in London, Paris, and Cairo. He wanted time to make sure that the Russians were worried about the noisy Anglo-French military preparations, which Dulles felt had a definite value if restrained short of the brink of war. And he wanted time for the Asian and Middle East nations to absorb the full meaning of Nasser's dreams of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islam, as well as the possible economic cost to them if Nasser alone controlled Suez toll rates.
What happened during he London meetings was a tribute to Dulles's reading of the immediate problem and the wide implications of an unrestrained Egyptian triumph over nationalizing the Suez Canal. Dulles set out to create an international atmosphere which would lead to trimming' Nasser's sails, yet would not fly in the face of the historic process of the gradual withdrawal of Western influence in the Middle East. But he had to do it without seeming to abandon his major European allies, on whom the United States must count if there is to be an Atlantic community strong enough to stand against the Communist orbit.
To Dulles, the sweep of history calls for the orderly withdrawal of Western power from the Middle East and Asia so that there will be no power vacuums for the Kremlin to fill. Moscow's aim, as read in Washington, has been to make that withdrawal sufficiently disorderly to permit the Kremlin to fill the vacuums by using the post-Stalin tactic of encouraging neutralism to fill the gap first.
On his arrival in London, Dmjtrj Shepilov, the new Soviet Foreign Minister, gave every indication of Moscow's uncertainty as to whether America would let the British and French belligerency get out of hand Dulles sought to and did play upon this by letting it be known that he felt that Shepilov was a fellow or could get along with, and that America did not want war- but of course, America was not going to let Nasser get away with anything which would inflate his Pan-Arabism or Pan-Islamic ideas. And did Shepilov want Nasser blown up that big either? Shepiloy indicated that his bosses did not.
With this sort of community of interest established between two of the key powers, Dulles then went to work to focus everybody's eyes on the narrow issue of how to make sure that Suez was taken out of the realm of international politics and run on a businesslike basis. Shepilov quickly accommodated him by stating publicly that Russia too was not interested in letting Nasser hike the Canal tolls at his pleasure.
By playing upon economic interests from Scandinavia to India and Indonesia, Dulles succeeded in winning common assent that there was what Krishna Menon called "an international user interest" in the Canal. And by some deft diplomatic footwork Dulles went on to win the adherence of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, thus avoiding an East-West, or white nations versus colored nations, split.
At this Shepilov reverted to Moscow's public thumping of the Arab tub, but only after it was clear that the consensus of the Conference was that Nasser should sit down and work out some sort of treaty arrangement to protect the Canal's customer nations. Thus, after the talks in London, Dulles felt that he had accomplished his twin ends of avoiding war and restoring Western withdrawal from the Middle East to an orderly affair.