Imperial Follies

In 1956, the British stumbled in Suez, and the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising—revealing the fatal flaws of modern empire.

Fifty winters ago, Russian tanks were demolishing buildings in Budapest, and British warplanes were bombing Cairo International Airport. The coincidence of these two crimes and disasters made a fool out of the nascent United Nations, gave birth to the New Left, put an end to European colonialism, curtain-raised the fall of Communism in 1989, and confirmed the United States as the postwar superpower. In retrospect, the twin episodes of hubris seem almost irrational. Yet hubris has its reasons, too, and they are worth examining.

“If a particular cause, like the accidental result of a battle, has ruined a state,” wrote Montesquieu in considering the role of chance and contingency in the Roman case, “there was a general cause that made the downfall of this state ensue from a single battle.” Though this insight may verge on the tautologous, it is nonetheless superior to the view—pungently expressed by one of the pupils in Alan Bennett’s triumphant success The History Boys—that history itself is no more than “one fucking thing after another.” The powder train had been laid across Europe before the random event at Sarajevo, and might almost as easily have been ignited by the confrontation at Agadir in Morocco a few years earlier. If the Confederacy had not been so hubristic as to fire on Fort Sumter, it certainly was hubristic enough to be doomed to make a comparably fatal mistake.

Khrushchev and Eden in 1955

Perhaps this view necessarily applies better to endings than to beginnings: one does not have the same sense of certainty concerning, for example, the open question of which European people would or could have been the first to subjugate and settle the Americas. Hegel’s famous remark about the owl of Minerva—which takes wing only at dusk, and which thus enables one to mark only the closure of a period—is for this reason much over-employed. But the crepuscular theory of history is no less serviceable for being something of a cliché. When General de Gaulle was asked why he was so reluctant to recognize Communist rule in Eastern Europe as permanent, he responded, “Parce-que l’avenir dure longtemps.”

Once it is pitilessly conceded that the future has a big future, certain once-epochal events immediately become more manageable and intelli­gible. In the fall of 1956, one undoubtedly saw the closing moments of two very imposing systems. One of them, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, was ironically almost Rasputin-like in surviving the evidently mortal wound and staggering on for several more decades. The other, the British Empire in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, had already outlived a number of apparently terminal moments but after Suez, expired almost at once. The “verdict” of history was still the same in both cases and was apparent to some clear-sighted people at the time.

From the archives:

Flashbacks: "Suez in Retrospect"
Articles written in the months and years following the Suez crisis take stock of its implications.

It is not often pointed out that in 1956, both the Russian and British empires had recently undergone the psychic experience of another sort of fin de régime, with the resignation of Winston Churchill and the death of Joseph Stalin. Their successors, Sir Anthony Eden and Nikita Khrushchev, had more to prove—and more to fear from invidious comparison—than either might have liked to admit. As these books demonstrate, both leaders felt compelled to act in ways, and in circumstances, in which they were as much the prisoners of events as the masters of them. And sometimes they were acutely aware of the fact. Most people tend to think of Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, for example, as the outcome of petrified bureaucratic thinking that was inclined to reach for repression as the first resort. And so it was in practice. But Victor Sebestyen’s illuminating book shows a surprising degree of self-awareness in the Kremlin, which understood—subjectively, so to speak—that its Hungarian puppets were unloved and incompetent, and might draw the Red Army into a moral and political trap:

Under [Mátyás] Rákosi’s stewardship Hungary’s economy was a disaster, unease was growing, the jails were full to overflowing, the courts were handing out sentences of a severity that could not be justified and Rákosi’s personality cult was appearing more and more ridiculous.

When the local Stalinists were summoned in 1953 from Budapest to a crisis meeting in Moscow, it was in order to be told that they were a disgrace to Communism. No less an authority than Lavrenti Beria attacked the excesses of the Hungarian secret police (which must have stung a bit), while Georgy Malenkov, according to Soviet archives, announced sternly:

We, all of us here on our side, are deeply appalled at your high-handed and domineering style. It has led to … countless mistakes and crimes and driven Hungary to the brink of catastrophe.

In May 1955, the Soviet Union agreed to evacuate its troops from neighboring Austria, on the grounds that they were no longer needed nor (to put it mildly) wanted in that country. At almost exactly this time, the British Conservatives, recognizing that the end of dominion in India logically reduced their dependence on Suez, had also made the essential concession by evacuating the Canal Zone and admitting that their period of direct rule in Egypt was at an end. Yet in October 1956, the Red Army was a hated invader on the streets of Budapest, and not long afterward, British soldiers were wading back ashore at Port Said. How came such cruel follies to be committed?

The short answer is that neither imperium could face the idea of being replaced by an inimical local government. Hungary had “joined” the Warsaw Pact on the day before the Red Army agreed to pull out of Austria, and Britain hoped to retain indirect control of the Suez Canal by means of a system of alliances with local Arab elites. The patriotism of the Budapest reform-Communists, and the nationalism of the Nasserists, threatened to remove both countries completely from the larger orbits that had held them in place. Superpower self-pity also played a role: Russia and Britain had taken large casualties in living memory in order to rescue Hungary and Egypt from Nazism. And at the back of the minds of both Khrushchev and Eden—the hardened inner-party survivor and the suave patrician diplomatist, both of them political veterans of that same war—there palpably lurked the queasy feeling that their mighty predecessors would never have let things get so far out of hand.

Had they been fully rational, both leaders would have felt constrained by the possible reaction of the Eisenhower administration. Wm. Roger Louis, in his incomparable set of essays on Suez, quotes directly from the letters and messages that the president sent to Churchill and then to Eden, making it unmistakably plain that any unilateral British action would immediately forfeit all American support. Meanwhile, CIA-sponsored radio stations were beaming incendiary broadcasts into Hungary, promising aid in the event of an armed resistance to Soviet rule. Yet both the Russian and British governments went ahead as if these and other considerations were irrelevant. In view of the so-called special relationship between the United States and Britain, it is remarkable in retrospect that it was the British who were more severely punished by Washington: Dwight Eisenhower coldly withdrew American support for the pound, while the American promises to Hungary proved to be chiefly rhetorical. The discrepancy is explained by Eisenhower’s strong feeling that Eden had lied to him about his intentions. “Anthony,” he demanded in an acrid transatlantic telephone call, “have you gone out of your mind?”

The answer to this, much disputed by modern historians, was probably yes: Eden had undergone a botched operation which had nicked his bile duct and was suffering from what might politely have been called “stress.” Such are the truly unpredictable factors for which Montesquieu was attempting to allow. But the French and Israeli governments, which colluded with Britain in the attack, were not led by men in personal crisis, and they were also told by Washington to get out of Egypt at once or face the consequences. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in particular had made the decision that no matter how much America’s junior allies stressed the Russian threat to the Middle East, America was more endangered by the association with “colonialism.”

The biggest losers in all this were the people of Hungary. In spite of all the brave talk about the “rollback” of Stalin’s gains in Eastern Europe, the Eisenhower administration seems to have quite cynically decided to exploit the Russian intervention for propaganda purposes, while quite consciously doing nothing that could hamper the Soviet design. Victor Sebestyen and Charles Gati both cite Vice President Richard Nixon actually putting the policy into words at a National Security Council meeting: “It wouldn’t be an unmixed evil, from the point of view of the US interest, if the Soviet armed fist were to come down hard again on the Soviet bloc.” Malign neglect might have been excusable as realpolitik—the two superpowers had only recently entered the H-bomb era—but the parallel CIA program of hypocritically encouraging rebellion via Radio Free Europe was unconscionable and has never been forgiven. One especially deplorable element in CIA propaganda was the repeated lie that Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy had requested the return of the Red Army. That falsification greatly increased the difficulties faced by this courageous if hesitant man, and ultimately made it easier for the hard- liners to have him hanged.

The British Cabinet, ostensibly Amer­ica’s chief Cold War ally, never even discussed Hungary. It was this self-centered indifference, perhaps more than anything else, that animated the great campaign against the Suez adventure launched by Aneurin Bevan, the Labour Party’s spokesman on foreign affairs. Not only had Eden acted outside international law, said this most eloquent of the advocates for democratic socialism, and lied about his collusion with France and Israel; he had increased the isolation and misery of the Hungarians at just the time when they most needed their friends. This was in some ways the finest hour of the left in the Cold War, and it meant that the tens of thousands of people who deserted the Communist parties that October felt they had somewhere to go. Meanwhile, the abject failure of the United Nations even to comment on events in Budapest until it was too late cannot be blamed solely on Henry Cabot Lodge’s decision, taken in concert with Eisenhower and Dulles, to downplay the issue. “There is only one motto worse than ‘my country right or wrong,’” as Bevan once phrased it, “and that is ‘the United Nations right or wrong.’” This is not the only lesson that the intervening half century has taught us.

Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis