Books and Men April 1960

Suez in Retrospect: Anthony Eden's Memoirs

As foreign affairs reporter for the Washington Post, Chalmers M. Roberts has covered many of the conferences at critical periods in our recent history and has been in a position to study closely the fluctuations in Anglo-American relationships. We have therefore turned to him for on appraisal of Sir Anthony Eden's new book, Full Circle, recently published by Houghton Mifflin.

There is, however, very strong circumstantial evidence, most of it already published in the American and foreign press, that it was at this October 16 conference that Britain and France agreed to strike at Egypt in concert with an Israeli attack. It is known, for example, that from that day until the war broke out there was what Dulles later called a "blackout" in Anglo-American diplomatic relations. American officials in London, and in Paris and Israel as well, were given the runaround. Dulles' efforts to find out what was going on not only availed nothing, but on October 28 the American ambassador in London, Winthrop Aldrich, was told by Lloyd that Britain was very hopeful of a peaceful Canal settlement. Yet Eden states in his book that it was on October 25 that the British Cabinet "discussed the specific possibility of conflict between Israel and Egypt and decided in principle how it would react if this occurred." If one or both sides refused to stop hostilities, the Cabinet decided, "then British and French forces would intervene as a temporary measure to separate the combatants." Dulles rightly felt he had been deceived when that plan was put into effect.

There is nothing in the Eden book about differences within the British Cabinet, though there are reasons to believe that Eden did not tell all its members what he had already agreed to with the French or what he knew of the Israeli plans. Also, the book fails to mention that the Israeli strike came several days earlier than had been planned, thus throwing the Anglo-French attack off schedule, because at the moment the Soviet Union was mired in the Hungarian tragedy.

The reason for the Anglo-French blackout to the United States is evident enough. Eden and his allies knew that Dulles had been working for months to prevent their going to war, that he had used numerous delaying tactics, including the abortive plan for a Canal Users' Association. But Dulles infuriated Eden because from time to time he hinted publicly that he might approve the use of force. Eden was convinced that Dulles was two-faced after he heard that Dulles, following the cease-fire and when Dulles was in the hospital, had "deplored [to Lloyd personally] that we had not managed to bring Nasser down and declared that he must be prevented from getting away with it." But Eden, the gentleman, instead of exploding in print, comments only that "the actions of the United States Government had exactly the opposite result."

After the cease-fire, the result of Eisenhower-Dulles pressure plus the Soviet rocket threat, which Eden discounts but which other sources indicate was a major factor, Eden hoped for a quick reconciliation with the United States and for American help to force a favorable settlement with Nasser. Instead, writes Eden, the Administration in Washington "seemed to be dominated at this time by one thought only, to harry their allies." Treasury Secretary George Humphrey phoned London and "made it clear that the United States would not extend help or support to Britain until after a definite statement on withdrawal had been made." The caller's point was not lost, for Britain was suffering a run on the pound.

And so, says Eden, the United Nations, "and in particular the United States," insisted "that all the advantages gained must be thrown away before serious negotiation began. This was the most calamitous of all errors. . . . As it seems to me, the major mistakes were made, not before the cease-fire or in that decision, but after it. I did not foresee them." By then, however, the American course had been set so firmly that there was no turning back. Vice President Nixon was publicly exulting in the American stance with a statement that "for the first time in history we have shown independence of Anglo-French policies towards Asia and Africa which seemed to us to reflect the colonial tradition. This declaration of independence has had an electrifying effect throughout the world."

The Eden-Dulles differences, though personal in many respects, were differences of approach and tactics. Fundamental to the troubles between the two men was the issue of colonialism. In an October press conference, barely three weeks before the fighting began, Dulles had coupled the Suez Canal issue with colonialism, and his statement infuriated Eden and much of Britain as well. "The dispute over Nasser's seizure of the canal," writes Eden, "had, of course, nothing to do with colonialism, but was concerned with international rights." He adds—touché—that "if the United States had to defend her treaty rights in the Panama Canal, she would not regard such action as colonialism."

In fact, Dulles had long subdued his own belief, expressed privately at that time, that Suez was part of the American dilemma of being caught between colonialism, which is inevitably passing, and the Atlantic Alliance, which binds the United States to the colonial powers. He took the view that the United States should try to cushion the inevitable change and to act as mediator. That, in many respects, is what he did. But there was no way to reconcile a situation in which the United States sought to mediate between Nasser and Britain and France while those two allies expected the United States to stand with them as partners against the Egyptian dictator.

Whether the conflict was inevitable is a matter of dispute. Perhaps another Secretary of State and another Administration might have avoided it. Dulles tried mightily to prevent the fighting, but every step he took, in Eden's eyes, only encouraged Nasser and made inevitable a military effort to topple him. Oddly enough, it was. Dulles' privately expressed belief that Eden was wishy-washy on the question of using force but that he was being pushed by the man who succeeded him, Harold Macmillan, and by others in the Cabinet, including Lord Salisbury.

Eden was driven by a belief that Nasser was another Hitler. Dulles disagreed. Eden's remembrance of Munich was much on his mind. His French allies were beset by the Algerian rebellion, which impelled them to strike at Nasser, who had been aiding the rebels.

In the end, the Anglo-French forces were withdrawn rather ingloriously and Eden collapsed physically. Nasser played from weakness, taking advantage of the strange American-Soviet alliance at the UN council tables to hold on to his power. What might have been, had Eden got the hostile neutrality he had expected from the United States instead of the positive hostility he received, is only a matter of speculation.

Anthony Eden, a man of personal charm, long trained in diplomacy, a student of the classics who reads Persian and Arabic, probably served too long as the heir apparent to Churchill. In that role, as in the Indochina affair, he performed well. But as Prime Minister he was beyond his element. Full Circle in many ways is the story of a great personal tragedy.

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