Eisenhower and Britain’s Imperial Pretensions

Introduction

Roosevelt informed Churchill that an American general had to be Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in December, 1943. Churchill accepted this fait accompli even though Britain ceded sovereignty during a war. Britain was no longer in control of its own destiny. British armed forces, henceforward, were commanded by Eisenhower. Churchill knew this was a price worth paying. Although Britain became America’s junior partner, Churchill’s history of the war shaped perceptions to such an extent this was concealed from the public. Churchill’s myth-making was choreographed. At the VE Day celebrations Polish troops were banned from the march because Churchill wanted a British victory on view.

Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Foreign Secretary during the war, objected to his decision to cede sovereignty. This was an indicator of poor judgement in not recognising that courageous decisions have to be made for the greater purpose. More significantly, this lack of judgement demonstrated his inability to recognise that Britain’s place in the world had changed irretrievably. This led inexorably to his catastrophic decisions plotting regime change in Egypt of 1956. Eden as prime minister wrecked British standing across the world. He hastened the end of the British empire by his actions.

Discussion

Britain’s post-1945 attempt at maintaining imperial control was doomed. The twenty year independence movement in India was the beginning of the end. Britain was bankrupt and the in-coming Labour government faced facts facilitating Indian independent in 1948. Israel’s (Palestine) independence came in 1948 because it was unimportant to Britain and the endemic Arab-Jewish conflict was an incentive to quit promptly. Other independence movements in Malaya and Cyprus showed the British empire was in a spiral of decline by 1956.

Anthony Eden* thought Eisenhower would endorse regime change in Egypt and the re-establishment of Britain’s economic imperialism. Egypt’s principal economic asset, the Suez canal, was controlled by an Anglo-French company who were only interested in dividends. President Gamal Nasser said the company was looting Egypt. He planned a huge dam on the Nile to provide hydro-electricity and manage the river’s flow. This required Suez canal profits in addition to American and British aid. Neither happened.

Nasser reacted to the American and British decision by declaring martial law in the canal zone and seizing control of the Suez Canal Company, predicting that the tolls collected from ships passing through the canal would pay for the dam’s construction within five years.”**

Eden plotted with France and Israel to oust Nasser. The plan was straight-forward. Israel would attack across the Sinai desert and on reaching the Suez canal Britain and France would intervene to ‘protect’ the international waterway. The assumption was Egypt would cave in with Nasser ousted. Egypt would then return to the status quo ante.

Israel did their job to perfection, sweeping across the Sinai peninsular quickly reaching the Suez canal. Eight days later, on the 5th November 1956, the British and French launched their attack with immediate success. Then it fell apart. Nasser scuttled ships blocking the canal and America went to the UN. There was world-wide outrage at the transparent ruse Britain and France had used. Less than two months later, Britain and France left Egypt under UN instructions.

The final straw for Eden came when the Treasury told the government that sterling, under sustained attack over the crisis, needed urgent US support to the tune of a billion dollars. ‘Ike’ had a crisp reply: no ceasefire, no loan. The invaders were ordered to halt, and await the arrival of a UN intervention force.”***

The Suez crisis ended Britain’s Great Power delusions. Twice in thirteen years Eisenhower had demonstrated America’s over-whelming superiority. Eden resigned shortly afterwards. His successor, Harold MacMillan, showed that he’d learned the lessons of Suez with his historic ‘Winds of Change’ speech in South Africa. This ended British pretensions once and for all.

Notes

* Eden had a very long and distinguished career as Foreign Secretary before he succeeded Churchill as prime minister in 1955. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Eden

** https://www.britannica.com/event/Suez-Crisis

*** https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/mar/14/past.education1 Eisenhower’s nickname was ‘Ike’.

Sources

For wars of Independence see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_Kingdom

For Egypt, the UK and the Suez Canal see https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/suez-crisis

For the possible source of Eden’s mistaken view of Eisenhower in 1956 see [original documents] https://www.cvce.eu/obj/message_from_anthony_eden_to_dwight_d_eisenhower_on_the_suez_crisis_london_27_august_1956-en-093b1a3d-7ce5-48f6-bfa1-c2ac91aac010.html

For the barring of Polish armed forces see https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/polish-perspective-on-ve-day-1.443748

For Harold MacMillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech see https://www.thoughtco.com/wind-of-change-speech-43748#:~:text=The%20%22Wind%20of%20Change%22%20speech%20was%20made%20on,Ghana%2C%20Nigeria%2C%20and%20other%20British%20colonies%20in%20Africa.

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