Empire and Its Limits

Lecture Objectives
Case study in historical methodology. ► Suez is good example of how patient work in the archives gradually amends conventional wisdom and politically motivated contemporary accounts. ► Also a good example of how contemporary historians have gone beyond traditional diplomatic history to understand the context in which events were occurring. ► The whole process is rather like restoring a fresco. Gradually bring to light hidden details until you have a richer picture than before.

The Suez Crisis Main Events
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What was the Suez Crisis? A small war fought by Britain, France and Israel against Egypt first week November 1956. Cause? Structural causes and immediate ones. Rise of Arab nationalism in the M.E. endangered British client regimes and the French presence in Algeria. Presence of Israel since 1948 gave a focus to Arab resentment. Gamel Abdel Nasser emerges after April 1954 as a charismatic leader. M.E. source of Europe’s oil & in 1950s oil overtakes coal as main source of energy. Intellectual structures: Egyptian leader Nasser portrayed as a new Mussolini by British and French leaders; lessons of appeasement. Imperial Humiliations: GB had had to leave India and Palestine with her “tail between her legs.” France had been humiliated in Vietnam in May 1954 with the military defeat at Dien Bien Phu. I stress these structural causes because it is easy to personalize the war as a clash between Nasser and British P.M. Anthony Eden.

Nasser

Anthony Eden

Origins of the Crisis
After Nasser takes power in 1954, he successfully moves to close British bases in the canal zone (October 1954). He refuses the British offer to join the Baghdad Pact. In 1955, he begins to make overtures to the Soviet bloc. September 1955 signs arms deal with USSR. ► At the same time, he asks the US and GB to finance the Aswan dam project. Playing off two superpowers against each other. The trigger for the crisis comes on 20 July 1956 when the Americans, tired of Nasser’s double game, pull the plug on the Aswan project. ► In retaliation Nasser nationalizes the Suez canal. The canal would have become Eygptian anyway in 1968. But the rest of the world feared that Eygpt would not abide by the 1888 Constantinople convention, which specified that the Canal should remain open, even in times of war, to ships of all nationalities. ► Also: Nasser had his hands on the West’s windpipe. Could cut off oil shipments.

Nasser on the day of nationalization

Eisenhower and J.F. Dulles

From Diplomacy to War


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I

Under the influence of Eisenhower and J.F. Dulles, the Suez issue was initially dealt with at diplomatic level. In August, via Australian P.M. Robert Menzies, the creation of a non-profit company that would guarantee Egypt a secure and rising dividend is proposed. After failure of this attempt, US propose the SCUA (Users’ Association) to collect tolls. But this plan is blocked in the Security Council on 13 October by the USSR. US policy? Elections first week in November – Want no problems. Also, issue of US attitude towards imperialism. British memoirs (e.g. Eden’s, which in places is a harangue) have generally tried to portray the US as not having been clear about its opposition to war. Scholarly research, by Wm Roger Louis and Scott Lucas has shown this to be unlikely.

US Policy Fears

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J.F. DULLES: PRESS CONFERENCE 2 OCTOBER 1956 “THE UNITED STATES CANNOT BE EXPECTED TO IDENTIFY ITSELF 100% EITHER WITH THE COLONIAL POWERS OR THE POWERS UNIQUELY CONCERNED WITH THE PROBLEM OF GETTING INDEPENDENCE AS RAPIDLY AND AS FULLY AS POSSIBLE…” J.F. DULLES: MINUTES NSC 1 NOVEMBER 1956. “FOR MANY YEARS NOW THE US HAS BEEN WALKING A TIGHT-ROPE BETWEEN THE EFFORT TO MAINTAIN OLD AND VALUED RELATIONS WITH OUR BRITISH AND FRENCH ALLIES ON THE ONE HAND, AND ON THE OTHER HAND TRYING TO ASSURE OURSELVES OF THE FRIENDSHIP AND UNDERSTANDING OF THE NEWLY INDEPENDENT COUNTRIES…UNLESS WE NOW ASSERT AND MAINTAIN OUR LEADERSHIP, ALL OF THESE NEWLY INDEPENDENT COUNTRIES WILL TURN FROM US TO THE USSR….”
SOURCE: WM ROGER LOUIS, “DULLES, SUEZ AND THE BRITISH,” IN ED., RICHARD H. IMMERMAN, JOHN FOSTER DULLES AND THE DIPLOMACY OF THE COLD WAR (PRINCETON UP, 1990).

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The British Lion at Suez

War

After the UN vote, Eden seemingly decides that diplomatic means are exhausted and that Britain needs to pass to military action. Convinced of this by the French, who were anxious to involve the Israelis, at a meeting at Chequers. No formal minutes taken; senior officials excluded; No mention in Full Circle. First revealed by Anthony Nutting (Min. State Foreign Office) in his memoirs, No End of a Lesson (1967). Eden could “scarcely contain his glee.” The area of Anglo-French collusion with Israel is the one where historical researchers into the Suez crisis have established the most important truths. It is the key issue because at the time Eden did not explicitly tell the cabinet of the extent to which the war had been planned with Israel; lied to Parliament about the plans; denied any collusion in his memoirs and tried to eliminate all extant copies of the compromising Protocol of Sèvres (24 October) that planned out the joint military action. “Massive attempt to deceive” (Avi Shlaim). The Sèvres accord was inspired by two men:


Christian Pineau

David Ben-Gurion

Sèvres
The Sèvres accord was reconstructed from various sources by Keith Kyle in his 1991 book, Suez. Before then, Christian Pineau (1976), a British civil servant, Donald Logan (1986) had published their accounts. Mordechai Bar-On, secretary of the Israeli delegation to Sèvres, published a detailed history in English in 1994 (The Gates of Gaza). Ben Gurion’s personal copy of the protocol was published in 1996. ► The whole business is brilliantly summarized by Avi Shlaim in his article “The Protocol of Sèvres, 1956: Anatomy of a War Plot,” International Affairs 73 (1997), 509-530. ► In substance, Britain, France and Israel agreed that Israel would attack Egypt on 29 October; that Britain and France would intervene to “protect” the Canal by asking both sides to withdraw to at least 10 miles from the canal zone. ► Shlaim: “The Protocol of Sèvres was thus a monument to French opportunism, Eden’s duplicity and Ben-Gurion’s paranoia.”

The Suez Crisis 1956

Seem Familiar?

Stabs in the Back

The US was horrified by Anglo-French support of Israel. 2 November, Dulles introduces a Security Council Resolution condemning the war. 4 November, ONU demands cease-fire + peace-keepers (proposed Lester Pearson, Canadian P.M.) British public opinion divided. Popular dailies gung-ho. Eden makes “man of peace” broadcast; Gaitskell replies, “It is not a police action; there is no law behind it. We have taken the law into our own hands.” Observer: “We had not realized that our government was capable of such folly and crookedness.” 5 November, Britain and France land troops at Port Said; the USSR, which was brutally oppressing the Hungarian revolt, warns Suez crisis could turn into a third world war. 6 November, British Chancellor Harold Macmillan tells Cabinet that $280 million dollars (£100m) had been lost on the Forex markets in a week and urges GB to accept cease-fire (despite having been a hawk throughout the crisis). Eden announces cease-fire for midnight. War ends Eden’s career. Goes to Jamaica to recover from nervous breakdown & loses premiership to Macmillan in January 1957.

Harold Macmillan

Role of Macmillan

Is another area where historians have been at work. The standard account assumed Macmillan was telling the truth. That he had discovered the position of sterling and changed his mind. The work of Diane Kunz (The Economic Diplomacy of the Suez Crisis, 1991) called this into question. She argued that less than $100m had been lost. In Kunz’s view the sterling crisis only began afterwards when the US refused to allow GB to draw upon IMF funds until GB withdrew from canal zone. Macmillan’s statement to cabinet had been “either knowingly or accidentally” untrue. On the basis of this argument, the “sensational loss of nerve” school gained ground. In brief, Macmillan either chickened out (possible), or wanted to be on good terms with the US in order to replace Eden (impossible given that Macmillan was an English gentleman). Latest research complicates this picture, however. Klug and Smith, “Suez and Sterling, 1956” (Explorations in Economic History 36 (1999), 181-203 argue that while Kunz is right to say only abt $100m was lost from British reserves in the first week of November, overall July-November 1956 saw a “total underlying loss” of $883m in British reserves. Suez was the most serious postwar challenge to the £ until 1967, even greater than 1949, when the £ was devalued. The conduct of Macmillan remains strange, however. Documentation shows he was persistently warned of the danger to sterling throughout the crisis. Why did he choose the heat of the battle to give a false figure to cabinet?

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A.J.P. Taylor on Suez

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The moral for British governments is clear. Like most respectable people, they will make poor criminals and had better stick to respectability. They will not be much good at anything else.”

Revisionism?

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Perceptible shift towards rehabilitating Eden and British government. E.g. D.R. Thorpe, Eden (2003). Does so in three ways: A) By putting Suez in context. Eden one of the great statesmen of the 20th century; Suez a blip. B) By emphasizing that Gb and F did nothing untoward. Were victims of American moralizing. Compare US action against Mossadeq in Iran in 1953. C) By putting blame on other members of Eden’s cabinet, especially R.A.B. Butler and Macmillan, who is rapidly becoming the villain of the piece. Other scholars, e.g. Gordon Martel, are calling into question the accepted view that Suez was a “watershed” in postwar world history (certainly British history). This kind of revisionism, in Geyl’s great phrase, is why history is “argument without end.”

What We Know
Yet also true that the Suez crisis is proof of a cautiously “objectivist” view of history. We do not know (and cannot know) THE truth about Suez, but we do now know that many former beliefs are wrong; that leading politicians lied; that the US had complex motives; that collusion took place; that the £ was under pressure. ► Historians are now also at work on the social history of the crisis. Recent work has been done on film and newsreel during the crisis; work is being done on public opinion; somebody needs to do work on the political parties since the only work on the subject is Epstein’s 1964 classic British Politics and the Suez Crisis. ► A provocation: We may eventually even know more about the Suez crisis than the leading actors did at the time. The fresco restoration metaphor is a powerful one. Our knowledge of the past is necessarily incomplete, but it can still be richer and more vivid than contemporaries could know.

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