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Suez ()

I'm unashamed to admit that my perceptions of several historical crises--especially Suez and the Cuban Missile Crisis--are shaped by rhetorical asides in the novels of James Clavell.  Mr. Clavell, in Noble House, convincingly portrays both as catastrophes for the West.  The result of the Missile Crisis was that JFK promised that the U.S. would no longer try to topple Castro.  Forty years later we see the foolishness of that pledge.  Meanwhile, in the Suez Crisis, America gratuitously humiliated its own democratic allies, ending even the illusion that Britain and France were still significant geopolitical players, while boosting a Middle Eastern dictator.

Hugh Thomas--who in later years has published a series of monumental and excellent histories including Conquest : Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico and The Slave Trade--in this shortish but thorough account of the whole balls up, lays much of the blame at the feet of John Foster Dulles and a U.S. State Department that was hostile to what it mistakenly perceived as British neocolonialism.  But he also reserves healthy shares of blame for Ike, who let Dulles his way and failed to communicate clearly that he too opposed the adventure, and for the French and British governments (especially Prime Minister Anthony Eden) who erroneously believed that Ike was still the ally they remembered from WWII.

Basically the Israelis sought to destroy the Egyptian military threat but also to occupy the Sinai and Gaza and the French and British sought to put a stop to the rise of Islamic nationalism, which had just seen Nasser nationalize the Suez Canal (July 26, 1956).  Military operations, begun by the Israelis on October 29, went fairly smoothly, though by simply sinking ships in the canal Nasser was easily able to make it impassable.  However, Eisenhower was infuriated, not least because he was facing re-election in a few days and had not wanted to have to rebuke Israel at the risk of losing Jewish votes in New York.  Accordingly, the U.S. sponsored a UN cease-fire resolution on November 1.  The Brits, French and Israelis withdrew and UN peace keeping forces took over supervision of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.  In the meantime, the Soviets brutally repressed the Hungarian Revolt in early November.  So whatever Eisenhower and Dulles may have thought they'd accomplish, the result was to make it look like the Soviets had forced a withdrawal in the Middle East while crushing internal problems, thereby elevating them, and at the same time France and Britain would never again act on their own.  Having had the lost illusions of great power stripped away, they became virtual dependents of the U.S..  Even more disastrous for all concerned, these events gave added impetus to the movement for European Union and resulted in the creation of the Common Market, the initial step towards the centralized, bureaucratic nightmare that is now descending on Europe.

Mr. Thomas, writing from a mostly British perspective, is deeply dubious about the plausibility of the plan and the rather undemocratic and deceptive way in which Eden's government prepared, presented and pursued it.  Perhaps his most valid criticism of the entire operation is that there was really no planning for what might follow a Nasser government if things went that far.  Still, with the wisdom of hindsight, it's hard to believe things in the Middle East would be any worse today if the West had established in the 50s that it would not allow the rise of governments that were openly hostile to its interests.  And it certainly might have prevented much subsequent misery if the U.S. had allowed its allies to continue their mission while we dealt with the Soviets, intervening on Hungary's behalf.  Instead, the Cold War was allowed to drag on for another thirty years and even forty-five years on we're still dealing with the problem of Islamicist governments in the Middle East.  Even if Mr. Thomas is right and the Suez takeover was ill-considered and unlikely to be a permanent solution to the problem of Egypt, it certainly seems that the American intervention to end operations prematurely made a potentially bad situation much worse.  What a mess.


Grade: (B+)


Hugh Thomas Links:
Question mark over Cuba: a review of THE REAL FIDEL CASTRO By Leycester Coltman (Hugh Thomas, 11/22/03, The Spectator)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD: A call for the UN to revive the disarmament plans of 1946 (Hugh Thomas, November 23, 2002, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Philip of Spain by Henry Kammen (Hugh Thomas, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Apr 23, 1998 Hugh Thomas: Remember the Maine? (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Pop Historians : Since 1945 Britain has bred a disproportionate number of readable historians. Following AJP Taylor, the line between historian and journalist has blurred. But has the new post-cold war generation, led by Niall Ferguson, taken too literally the claim that history is good "box office"? (Daniel Johnson, Prospect)
    -ARCHIVES : "hugh thomas" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "hugh thomas" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : Aug 24, 1967 George Lichtheim: East of Eden (NY Review of Books)
       Suez by Hugh Thomas
       No End of a Lesson: The Story of Suez by Anthony Nutting
    -REVIEW : of THE SLAVE TRADE The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. By Hugh Thomas (John Thornton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Jun 11, 1998 David Brion Davis: A Big Business (NY Review of Books)
       The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas
       The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 by Robin Blackburn
    -REVIEW : of The Slave Trade (Hardy Green, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of The Slave Trade  (Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post Gazette)
    -REVIEW : of The Slave Trade (Douglas R. Egerton, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of The Slave Trade (Winthrop D. Jordan, African American Review)
    -REVIEW : of Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico (Stephen Cox, Liberty)
    -REVIEW : of ARMED TRUCE. The Beginnings of the Cold War 1945-6. By Hugh Thomas (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Spanish Civil War (Bernard Knox, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of SS-1: The Unlikely Death of Heinrich Himmler  Hugh Thomas (2001) (Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian)

    -ESSAY : Suez Crisis (Military Analysis Network)
    -ESSAY : The Suez Crisis and the British Empire (July 1956) (Postimperial and Postcolonial Literature)
    -ESSAY : Suez 1956 (Chris Leininger)
    -ESSAY : Suez Crisis (Planet Papers)
    -ESSAY : Crisis over Hungary and Suez (An Outline of American History 8: Modern America)
    -ESSAY : Two people prevented the Suez crisis becoming a disaster. One was the Housewivess' Heart-Throb. The other was a quick-witted waiter at the Ritz ( R. Mostyn Pritt, Nov 15, 1996, New Statesman)
    -ARCHIVES : "suez crisis" (Find Articles)

    -OBITUARY : Anthony Eden Is Dead at 79 (The New York Times)
    -OBITUARY :  Career Built on Style and Dash Ended with Invasion of Egypt  (ALDEN WHITMAN, NY Times, January 15, 1977)

    -ARCHIVES : "nasser" (NY Review of Books)

    -ESSAY : Myth of Franco takes pounding : In a Spain still nervous of coming to terms with its past, a historian claims the country's former dictator was no great military commander (Adela Gooch, April 10, 2000, The Guardian)