The Suez Crisis (Part 1)


Among self-destructive Western follies of the last century, the 1956 Suez War   whose 50th anniversary is coming up over the next few weeks has some special qualities. One is that no one really doubts it was a turkey. Defenders some only mildly foam-flecked can be found for the Vietnam War or even the Bay of Pigs Invasion. And in Iraq’s grim twilight, the neo-cons can be seen re-grouping, like English cricket pundits after a hapless Test: ‘It would have been a glorious victory, if only ‘

But Suez was too far-out for any such replay.

The plot required France and Britain in secret to pre-emptively zap the Egyptian air force, thus enabling Israel’s tanks to charge in conspiratorial safety toward the Suez Canal. Then, casting secrecy aside, British and French troops would invade allegedly to rescue world peace; but actually to grab the Canal, which Egypt, under its relatively new President Gamal Abdel Nasser, had quite legally nationalised three months earlier.

Though the planes burned, the tanks moved, and people died (in modest quantity, by present standards), the world gave this crazy script no more credence than Hitler’s claim that Poland had attacked Germany in September 1939. Sadly, the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden a chief scriptwriter of the Suez fiasco had been a true hero of the anti-Nazi war. Suez mortally wounded his career and he was out of Downing Street within a year.

The military campaign collapsed in six days. The USA, with world-wide support, denied oil to the conspirator nations until they ceased-fire. From today’s perspective the US as a dominant oil exporter may seem implausible still more, the Presidency’s status as the world’s most-respected institution.

But the peculiarity of the Suez Crisis that is most relevant to our time is its intersection with notions of media self-censorship and access to privileged government information. The entire disaster would not have occurred at all had just two journalists done their job properly. Sir William Haley, editor of The Times, and his foreign editor Iverach McDonald, had comprehensive knowledge of the plot ahead of its execution.

And they totally suppressed the story.

Usually, the impact of journalistic dysfunction is ambiguous. Had English-language media outfits treated British and American claims about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction with decent scepticism, and put serious effort into investigating them, the Iraq project might have been aborted or modified into something less catastrophic. But we can’t tell: like Vietnam, that folly was robust.

Suez , though, was so fragile it could only develop covertly the work of a small, deluded coterie and began disintegrating the instant it went live. Advance exposure would simply have aborted it, but with vastly lesser harm to the interests it was concocted to serve. It is, therefore, a laboratory example of collusion between government and media in the context of ‘national interest.’

Egyptian children prepare for war. Image from here

Analysing The Times’s great anti-scoop requires looking back to the 1930s and the Appeasement scandal as Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard regularly suggest, though its true lessons resemble none they choose to draw. The basis of UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement was firstly, the assumption that Nazis (Hitler’s Germany) and Fascists (Mussolini’s Italy) were peaceable or might remain so if toadied-to. Secondly, Chamberlain assumed that Hitler and Mussolini were, anyway, so fearsome that resistance was unthinkable.

The Times offered a supportive coinage: Hitler had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ rich in decisive potential. There was some dissent from the scurrilous tabloid Daily Mirror, the elevated, arch-Tory Yorkshire Post, and the (Manchester) Guardian: liberal, like its present descendant but vastly more austere in style.

Otherwise, the media, under an infamous weight of official manipulation, parroted the Government case which was crude nonsense. The Nazis were, of course, irrepressibly murderous, but had nothing like a WMD plan. (Whitehall actually did believe in and prepared for mass destruction, but when the Germans improvised such a plan, they were famously mauled by the RAF.)

Supporting Machiavelli’s estimate that free peoples have better judgment than princes, the British public applied to Neville Chamberlain’s peace the same hostility it has more recently applied to Tony Blair’s Iraqi war. The miracle of the 1930s is that, while protest failed in 2003, it was successful then.

The mechanics are not perfectly clear. The slender polling data available shows plainly that ‘Adolf the Peacemaker’ was never a saleable item. Complacent as their bosses were, few journalists and diplomats really bought it, and rebellious newsletters like low-tech blogging disseminated unlovely truths. Then Chamberlain, if as ruthless as Blair, had no such partisan hegemony in Parliament: he could not control the backbencher, Winston Churchill, nor, after his resignation from the Foreign Office in 1938, Anthony Eden.

What’s certain is that The Times rigidly followed Chamberlain’s ‘national interest’ line something defined not by the actual nation, but by its temporary governors. This meant active distress for many Times staff: none more so than young Iverach McDonald, reporting from Prague while his own newspaper free with suppressio veri and suggestio falsi insisted that the British Empire could secure itself by pressing the Czech nation into suicide by accepting Hitler’s annexation of its German-speaking region, the Sudetenland.

It was both untrue and shameful. So for McDonald, like many others, Chamberlain’s fall in May 1940 was liberation, however dreadful the war. He came specially to admire Eden, the foreign-policy expert in Churchill’s heroic wartime Cabinet: and there was much to admire in the skilled linguist, patient diplomat and front-line combat veteran.

England ‘s ‘Finest Hour,’ in its own time, was actually fine, and Eden’s later career had genuine adornments. Not only did he circumvent Richard Nixon’s lust for a joint Western invasion of Indo-China, but his virtuoso diplomacy as Foreign Secretary at Geneva in 1954 brought the French, Chinese, Americans and Vietnamese to the brink of a peace which might have been consolidated but for his own political suicide two years later with the Suez conspiracy.

The cause of Eden’s decline was complex, but certainly part-physical: gall-bladder disease, bringing bouts of helpless rage, was eroding the negotiator’s temperament Eden’s chief professional asset.

But it is also clear that Britain’s loss of its shares in the Suez Canal Company when Nasser nationalised it with full compensation, and Canal usage undisturbed was to Eden just a pretext for initiating ‘regime change’ in Cairo.

The French Government of the time, led by Guy Mollet, fancied it could hang onto Algeria if Arab nationalism could be deprived of the puppetmaster Nasser. And Eden developed a like notion about Britain’s declining control in Iraq and Jordan. Though few serious diplomats agreed, some MI6 fantasies may have sustained such de

Just as the US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz thought the spurious WMDs good ‘bureaucratic’ dressing for an anti-Saddam front in 2002-3, Eden and Mollet thought that Nasser, once involved in a war, could be presented as dangerous to world peace.

The problem was finding the pretext for a war with Egypt. The Israelis were keen to provide it they wanted the Canal definitively opened to their shipping and a way to control attacks on their territory from across the Gaza Strip. But they insisted Anglo-French destruction of Nasser’s air power must clear the way for their tank race across the Sinai. And this required a secret, essentially criminal, ambush.

Eden remained realistic enough to see that the project would need special rhetorical armour, and so he cast Nasser as Hitler Redux (adding a streak of Communism for the US market). This has since become the customary means for incompetent statespersons when suggesting that they are up against evils so profound as to justify limitless counter-measures, and render questions unpatriotic.

There is, of course, something tragic about Eden: an old warrior with foundation rights in the franchise he misused. But ‘tragedy’ is too flattering a word for adepts in spin-doctor history like Bush, Blair and Howard.

Next week: the preparation for the Suez invasion and the role of the media.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.