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.
More

On the afternoon of November 6, 1956, presidential election day in the United States, President Eisenhower "telephoned to me when I was in my room in the House of Commons. He was vigorous and in good spirits. He was delighted by our order to cease fire and commented that we had got what we had set out to do; the fighting was over and had not spread." The phone conversation took place on the new transatlantic cable. "The President commented on its remarkable clarity and encouraged me to keep in touch by this means and telephone to him at any time. There seemed no doubt at that moment that friendship between our two countries could be quickly reanimated." Thus writes Anthony Eden in his memoirs, Full Circle (Houghton Muffin, $6.95). At long last he saw a glimmer of hope that the frustrations in Anglo-American relations which followed Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal and the Anglo-French Israeli attack on Egypt might be ended.

Next day Eden followed up the Eisenhower suggestion. He called the President. "I told him I thought it important that we should meet and have a full discussion on the situation. He agreed and asked me what date I had in mind. I said the sooner the better and suggested that M. Mollet and I might fly over that evening. The President authorized Eden to extend the invitation to Premier Guy Mollet in Paris and Mollet agreed.

But it was not to be. An hour later the President phoned back to express some doubts. A second Eisenhower call that evening brought the excuse that the President "would be much taken up in the days ahead in consultations with the leaders of Congress." Eden kept trying, but Eisenhower continued to withhold the invitation.

Eden, in telling this story for the first time, does not speculate on why Eisenhower changed his mind. But there is no doubt of his suspicions as to who was responsible—John Foster Dulles. The late Secretary of State was Eden's béte noire. Thus Full Circle is often an account of the unhappy Eden-Dulles relationship, in the years 1953 to 1955, when Eden was Foreign Secretary under Winston Churchill, and until January, 1957, when he was Prime Minister and Dulles remained the power behind Eisenhower. In a larger sense, however, the book is a demonstration of how important are human relations in world affairs. True enough, great events occurring beyond the control of both Eden and Dulles dominated the scene in these years. But the ability of the two men to shape the course of these events was very great indeed: The tragedy here demonstrated is that they worked at opposite purposes, often with a resultant weakening of Anglo-American relationships and to the permanent injury of the Western world in the continuing East-West conflict.

To Eden, Dulles was "a preacher in a world of politics." To Eden, he "seemed sometimes to have little regard for the consequence of his words." Dulles' "cynicism toward allies destroys true partnership. It leaves only the choice of parting, or a master and vassal relationship in foreign policy." Though Eden does not say so, Dulles had no love for him, and on occasion was foolish enough to let it be known in ways that soon got back to Eden. Nor was their often strained relationship a result only of the long Suez affair. It began, as Eden writes, back in 1952, when Eden was Foreign Secretary and Dulles was Harry Truman's special envoy for the Japanese peace treaty. Dulles had agreed with Herbert Morrison, the Labor Foreign Secretary, that neither would pressure the Japanese to recognize Red China or Nationalist China. But in 1952 Dulles and the Japanese published, without prior word to Eden, a Japanese announcement that Japan would recognize the Nationalists. Eden says that Dulles and the then Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, explained that if Japan did not do so, the China Lobby in America might prevent ratification of the treaty. It was this sort of double-dealing, as Eden saw it, which was to plague the Eden-Dulles relationship to the end.

Full Circle is not an autobiography. Rather, it is an ex parte account of Eden's conduct of major foreign policy, and occasional domestic issues, with emphasis on the 1956 Suez crisis and the 1954 Indochina affair. Totally lacking is the Churchillian sweep-of-history approach. The writing is pedestrian, often dull, and the explanations on occasion are disingenuous. There are few documents—chiefly Eden's own minutes and some messages he sent Eisenhower—and very little of what he tells was not generally known. Nonetheless, Full Circle adds an important account in contemporary history.

As the foreign affairs reporter for the Washington Post, I spent many months following the course of both the Indochina and Suez affairs. Eden's Indochina account, especially those parts involving the American efforts under Dulles' leadership to bring about allied intervention in the war with the Communists, is in accord with the known facts. It is largely confirmatory. Here, for the first time, a major participant in the events tells the story of Dulles' desire to strike militarily and the willingness of Admiral Radford, then chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, to bomb Communist airfields in mainland China if the Chinese countered a United States intervention by intervening themselves.

Here is confirmation that there was an American plan for a naval air strike to save the then beseiged fortress of Dien Bien Phu on April 28 and that the President was willing to go to Congress a few days in advance to ask for sanction. The whole effort collapsed because the British, led by Eden, refused to have any part in it. After the publication in the Times of London of this section of the Eden book, Eisenhower told a press conference that Eden had mistaken Dulles' actions, that Dulles had been talking only of "possibilities that might . . . be considered as proposals, when they were not meant [as] that at all." But this, too, is disingenuous. The record is clear and includes Dulles' own account in his famous "brink of war" interview in Life magazine in 1956.

The quarrel with Eden's history centers on his account of Suez. It is not, however, a matter of commission but of omission. Eden's reason for sending British armed forces into Egypt along with the French after the Israeli strike across Sinai, the reason he announced in the House of Commons, was to "separate the belligerents and to guarantee freedom of transit through the canal by the ships of all nations." This was, in fact, only a device to strike at Nasser in hopes of bringing him down. But Eden is stuck with the explanation, because at the time he flatly denied any connivance with Israel. He now remains silent on a critical part of the story. This is what happened when Eden, his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, Mollet, and his Foreign Secretary, Christian Pineau, met alone in Paris on October 16. Eden contends that the four men "reviewed alternatives" and that the British asked the French to tell the Israelis, because "our relations with Israel were not close or intimate," that "an attack on Jordan would have to be resisted by us." As it turned out, the talk of art Israeli attack on Jordan helped to confuse Washington and served as a cover for the strike at Egypt.

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In