The Suez Crisis (Part 2)


In last week’s instalment, ‘ The Suez Crisis (Part 1),‘  Bruce Page described some of the events leading up to the 1956 Suez Crisis. To prepare the ground for the invasion of Sinai and the taking of the Suez Canal, the three co-conspirator nations (UK, France and Israel) demonised Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, casting him as ‘Hitler Redux (adding a streak of Communism for the US market).’

Despite this concerted demonising, the Commonwealth contained few citizens eager to save the world from Nasser. Though Robert Menzies perhaps was, the Prime Minister didn’t carry his nation. More representative was an Australian Imperial Force veteran who said: ‘My dad was in the first [World War], and I was in the second. But if they come up again and say œShall we dance?  the answer will be no.’

However, two men who seemed to go all the way with (UK Prime Minister) Anthony Eden were Sir William Haley, editor of The Times, and his foreign editor Iverach McDonald. They produced fierce leaders, writing that Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July 1956 was ‘A Hinge of History.’ Doubtless, there must be efforts to negotiate, they pronounced, but in such matters it was ‘better to have a foot in the door first.’ Eden was urged to have military force mounted in readiness, and not be deterred by lack of vivid demonstrations for war. The people ‘in their quiet way’ were demanding that Britain should be great, Haley wrote, and those who saw control of the Canal as less than crucial were joining ‘The Escapers’ Club.’

Eden responded with complimentary warmth, telling Haley and McDonald it was grand to see Appeasement so completely purged from The Times (referring to the newspaper’s support for Neville Chamberlain’s policy towards Hitler in 1938.)

Eden rewarded Haley and McDonald with personal access beyond that of most Cabinet Ministers. Rival papers were excluded in proportion to their expressed skepticism: The Guardian, which assisted by a highly suspicious US State Department was getting very close to uncovering the Anglo-French-Israeli conspiracy, being confined to outer darkness.

Then on 18 October, Eden briefed McDonald with all the essentials of the plot. The Times, he assumed, had signed-on for Britain’s Finest Hour II, and he thought they should have time to get some Churchillian verbal ammunition primed for the second D-Day at the end of the month. The words, naturally, would be all about ‘lifting the banner of freedom,’ and reveal none of the sordid mechanism.

It seems Eden did not realise McDonald was horrified. Those throbbing leaders he had published had been purely rhetorical faced with an insane reality of the invasion, McDonald realised it must do damage to Western interests beyond anything Nasser might have concocted.

Why didn’t The Times blow the whistle a deluded Prime Minister had pressed to its lips? It may be the most remarkable failure in journalistic history: the perfectly-informed newspaper was perfectly inactive, when six crisp paragraphs would have averted disaster. (The air-strikes by Anglo-French forces on the Egyptian airforce on which the success of the Israeli tank attack in Sinai depended depended themselves on secrecy.)

The historical record is slender, but contains some clues. Haley wrote no memoirs and never publicly discussed the matter. But telling his own story in 1976 in A Man of The Times, McDonald dwelt on the 1956 war’s destructive impact in the Middle East, and his sense of doom at its approach saying ‘few people had any preknowledge of the scheme,’ as if not counting himself among them.

However, in writing the paper’s official history, Struggles in Peace and War, in 1984, McDonald had to confront Appeasement’s 1938 ethical morass, and found he could not pass silently on to Suez. This brief account shows how the secrecy around the information Eden shared with Haley and McDonald infected The Times‘s office, anaesthetising journalistic action.

McDonald and Haley managed their link with Eden tightly, and foolishly McDonald admits shared few results with their colleagues. Thus they ‘fell into the way’ of keeping Suez out of discussion with anyone who had less confidential access. ‘Knowledgeable men such as Teddy Hodgkin and Richard Harries’ were excluded though they were authorities on international politics, and celebrated ones in the discreet way of 1950s journalism. McDonald admits The Times‘s operation should have involved such experts and if it had, much lethal fantasy would have evaporated.

As it was, McDonald on 18 October could not discuss his awful exclusive with anyone: Haley being away on a US promotional tour. McDonald feared leakage too much to use telephone or telex. He wrote a complete but quite private record entirely by hand, because The Times typescripts were routinely archived.

It seems that McDonald himself wanted the story to break, for he told a Downing Street official as shooting started on 29 October that he had hoped Haley would confront Eden and ‘warn him off.’ That could only have been done by being sufficiently resolute to disclose ample time remained after Haley’s return from the US (21 October) for any news team to generate an effective account without quoting Eden. Many clues existed indeed The Guardian was gathering them, though without the astonishing key which made them comprehensible.

But the circle of initiates actually contracted with time. Haley had talks with Eden which excluded even McDonald, and there can’t be much doubt that Eden played the ‘national interest’ card successfully, as far as keeping the conspiracy dark. McDonald suggests that Haley essentially shared his own forecast that ‘doom’ would be the outcome. But a letter Haley wrote during the first fighting suggests Eden had talked him into some hope of ‘justification by results.’ Haley was a disciplinarian editor, and McDonald glumly accepted that decision for silence that went with the misplaced hope.

However it was silence, not cheer-leading. The Times never produced the inspirational broadsides Eden wanted, and greeted the ceasefire (6 November) gloomily. Space was made for denials by the demoralised conspirators, but on 20 November The Guardian nailed down the first hard proof of the conspiracy. In January 1957, Eden, an image of ruin, left office.

Two important journalists had made themselves into ‘morons’ as Daniel Ellsberg puts things in Secrets, his 2002 ‘memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.’ Ellsberg used the word when explaining the years he spent in top-secret Washington, systematically lying he admits about the prospects of success in Vietnam.

Real mental function, Ellsberg says, declines in step with the quantity of secrets acquired via official clearances. The recipient finds it hard to respect:

anybody who doesn’t have these clearances you’ll be thinking ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. [In dealing with anyone] who doesn’t have these clearances you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know.

Thus the custodian of secrets becomes:

something like a moron incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may
have that may be much greater than yours.

Ellsberg’s Syndrome afflicted Haley and McDonald classically. Debates on secrecy usually assume its sinister glamour and tactical value. Certainly, it can be put to episodic use in stock markets, used-car trading or espionage. But its most consistent product is stupidity.

Real knowledge mostly comes by exposition, criticism and exchange. Secret knowledge said US Senator, Ambassador and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan before the WMD debacle is mostly untested knowledge, and intelligence agencies inevitably are storehouses of things which just ain’t so.

The Suez Crisis is a revealing journalistic parable because The Times faced no technical difficulties. Haley had the whole story in his hands the failure to disclose was entirely moral and its effects perfectly traceable. In the WMD case, technical problems were, as usual, formidable. But more moral commitment from the Fourth Estate could surely have reduced them.

The ‘Dossier’ the British Government produced in 2002 was used by Prime Minister Tony Blair to project an illusion of Iraq menacing humanity with diabolical innovations themes developed in Colin Powell’s 2003 magic-lantern show at the UN. But the defence scientist who produced such facts as the Dossier contained has repeatedly said they never supported Blair’s melodramatic estimate. Asked whether the publication disturbed him beforehand, Dr Brian Jones said he foresaw little harm, because he assumed the Government would face vigorous questioning by journalists.

And indeed, that would have exposed the Dossier as referring little to cutting-edge deviltry, and mostly to science long known for lack of warlike value. Blair and Bush topped it up from sources quite obviously spurious.

It can’t be shown that deflating this political science fiction would have caused public insistence on finding better plans for Iraq. But fantasising on the brink of war is certainly counterproductive (US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw specialised in mushroom clouds, and wee phials capable of instantaneous genocide).

The questioning by journalists, however, never came. Many reporters treated their job notoriously Judith Miller of the New York Times as retailing official assertions, not as testing those assertions against reality.

Suez , Vietnam and the War on Terror teach several lessons which interact subtly with each other one of which is that histories cannot be recycled as simply as old beer cans.

But the Suez Crisis is peculiar for its warning about the journalism of access which can bring you absolute knowledge in particular cases. And in the process remove your ability to do anything useful with it.

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.