Anthony Eden’s Mental Map: the Suez Canal Débâcle, 1956

Napoleon commented, to understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.1

Background

As a young officer, Eden aged 18, led troops in the battle of the Somme, 1916. This vicious battle resulted in 58,000 British casualties on the first day. Three years later, the Treaty of Versailles, led to the collapse of three European empires. He became disillusioned with war and supported the League of Nations and international conflict resolution. Hitler’s dictatorship and the failure of League led him reverting to a militaristic attitude. His preference for military solutions, as Foreign Secretary, meant he opposed Chamberlain’s foreign policies and he resigned in 1938. This was courageous as it could have ended his political career.

Discussion

Anthony Eden was a political thoroughbred.2 He became Foreign Secretary in 1935 aged 38. Churchill appointed him to the wartime Foreign Office and he resumed this post of Foreign Secretary in 1952 after Labour’s defeat. His political career reached a pinnacle when he became Prime Minister in 1955. Eden was 20 years old during Europe’s existential war. He believed Nasser intended to destroy the British empire. Eden’s mental map over-rode a lifetime of experience in world diplomacy and he ignored the complexity of the Egyptian crisis (see Addendum).


Eden believed Nasser, caricatured as Mussolini, shouldn’t be appeased. His delusion about Britain’s status meant he didn’t recognise Britain could no longer impose ‘solutions’. The Suez Crisis was a global event, demanding a response by the United Nations (UN). A Labour MP commented on the geopolitical implications of the crisis, “Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us he has considered that economic warfare against Egypt may have serious repercussions upon the trade of this country?”4,5 Eden said British goodwill was met by, “a broken faith, and broken promises. We have been subjected to a ceaseless barrage of propaganda. This has been accompanied by intrigue, and by attempts at subversion in British territories.6 (my emphasis)

Gaitskell, the Labour leader, supported Eden saying that, The French Prime Minister, M. Mollet, the other day quoted a speech of Colonel Nasser’s and rightly said that it could remind us only of one thing—of the speeches of Hitler before the war (my emphasis)7 Denis Healey, Gaitskell’s colleague, refocused the debate by saying free movement through the canal was the only substantive issue and Nasser had guaranteed this.8

In the September 12th debate, Eden said Nasser had ‘seizedthe canal not ‘nationalisedit.9,10 Eden’s speech was tantamount to a declaration of war.

Of course, there are those who say that we should not be justified and are not justified in reacting vigorously unless Colonel Nasser commits some further act of aggression. That was the argument used in the 1930s to justify every concession that was made to the dictators. It has not been my experience that dictators are deflected from their purpose because others affect to ignore it. This reluctance to face reality led to the subjugation of Europe and to the Second World War. We must not help to reproduce, step by step, the history of the Thirties. We have to prove ourselves wiser this time, and to check aggression by the pressure of international opinion, if possible; but, if not, by other means before it has grown to monstrous proportions.11

A brutal rejoinder by Hector Hughes, mockingly referred toa scrap of paper’,12 referring to Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler. Three weeks prior to this, on August 19th, there’d been a portentous use of the concept ‘D-Day’13 in a ludicrous parody of June 1944. In Eden’s mind Britain was already at war with the fighting yet to start. Eden14 mentally transformed the Suez crisis into a literal replay of 1936-45.

Eden was egged on by Macmillan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Notwithstanding the obvious economic damage of an Egyptian war, Macmillan remained gung-ho. He wrote an economic paper for cabinet, The Economic Consequences of Colonel Nasser, in an attempt to gain gravitas from Keynes’s seminal paper of the 1920s.15 During a tour of the USA, Macmillan drew parallels with the Rhineland crisis, 1936, Munich, 1938 and appeasement. Americans wanted a Cold War link so he cynically developed one by declaring Nasser, “…is now effectively in Russian hands, just as Mussolini was in Hitler’s.16

 

Conclusion

Britain’s credibility was shattered by the Suez débâcle. The conflict lasted nine days. Eisenhower’s brutal use of economic power left Eden one option: Retreat.17 Eden was a broken man and resigned in early 1957 being succeeded by Macmillan. Macmillan understood the enormity of the destruction of British credibility. His foreign policy began the dissolution of the British empire so ultimately Eden was correct. Nasser was the catalyst which brought about the end of the British Empire but not in the manner Eden had anticipated.

Addendum

The Suez Canal débâcle

The nationalisation of the Suez Canal was a complex geopolitical event. It involved-

    •  

the American presidential election

    •  

Arab nationalism

    •  

Israeli territorial insecurities

    •  

the Cold War (the Hungarian revolution was coterminous)

    •  

world economics (especially the oil trade)

    •  

legacy imperialism

    •  

Egyptian nationalism and development economics

    •  

the Aswam Dam project

Notes

1 Stumbling and Mumbling: On generational difference (typepad.com)

2 Anthony Eden – Wikipedia

3 For a quick summary see The causes of the Suez Canal War of 1956 – History Learning Site

and BBC – History – British History in depth: The Suez Crisis and 8 Facts about Aswan Dam | Fact File

4 The first parliamentary exchange is here SUEZ CANAL COMPANY (EXPROPRIATION) (Hansard, 27 July 1956) (parliament.uk)

5 Emrys Hughes, SUEZ CANAL (Hansard, 30 July 1956) (parliament.uk) column 920

6 17th November, 1954, by Colonel Nasser himself. He then said, according to our reports, that there remained only fourteen years until the end of the Canal Company’s Concession. SUEZ CANAL (Hansard, 2 August 1956) (parliament.uk) column 1603 This cut away the so-called justification for nationalisation.

7 loc.cit column 1606 He then denied that the UN had any useful position in the matter column 1607

8 loc.cit. columns 1612, 1613 and immediately repudiated his position on 27th July 1956 (footnote 3) The debate was inflamed by Charles Waterhouse commenting on Shia law and amputations as a punishment column 1618 and worse: We have got Colonel Nasser on the run and he must be kept on the run. Column 1620 There was a further references to Hitler by Hinchingbroke, column 1623 Healey’s point was a simple economic fact. Nasser absolutely had to have the revenue from the canal.

9 loc.cit column 1626

10 loc.cit column 1634ff This distanced Nasser from what Labour had done in the late 1940s.

11 Eden knew that he had authorised war at this time with preparations in Cyprus alongside alliances with France and Israel in place

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