The Suez invasion: losing the Middle East

THE DOMINANT POSITION IN the Middle East that the British Empire had established at the end of the First World War was to collapse in the 1950s. This is usually associated with the Suez invasion of 1956, but important though this was, the British collapse really consisted of four episodes, distinct but nevertheless related. The first, defeat at the hands of the Zionists in Palestine, we have already discussed in Chapter 7. This was followed by the overthrow of the British position in Iran, then in Egypt, and lastly in Iraq. In each episode, a seriously weakened British Empire found itself confronted by militant nationalist movements determined to drive it out and by the United States that hoped to replace it.

The British under both Labour and Conservative governments were fully aware of their predicament although not about how to deal with it. In May 1954 the then Conservative foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, complained of the American failure to support either the French position in Indo-China (today’s Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) or the British position in Egypt. They wanted to “replace the French and run Indo-China themselves” and they “want to replace us in Egypt too”. Indeed, he complained, “they want to run the world”.1 What this chapter will explore is both the British attempt to maintain their dominance over the Middle East, and once this had failed, their coming to terms with the United States’ new Middle East imperium.

Iranian oil

British interest in Iran had initially been strategic, a concern to counter Russian influence that might pose a threat to British India. This concern had been joined by the discovery of oil in 1908, which transformed the country into one of the British Empire’s major economic assets. Although only part of Britain’s informal empire, there was a clear understanding that whatever else might be going on, Iranian governments were expected to allow the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), today’s British Petroleum (BP), to exploit the country’s resources without interference. Iran’s oil was there for the benefit of the British Empire, not for the benefit of Iran. This resulted in the situation in 1950 where the AIOC earned some £200 million profit from its Iranian operations, but only paid the Iranian government £16 million in royalties, profit share and taxes. The company’s profits in that year alone were considerably more than the total paid to Iran (£114 million) since the oil concession had been granted. In fact, the British government, a Labour government, was receiving substantially more in taxes from the AIOC’s Iranian operations than the Iranian government itself.2 And this was a company in which the British government held a 51 percent interest. The injustice was compounded by the fact that Iranian oil cost more in Iran than it did in Britain with the Royal Navy, in particular, receiving substantial discounts. The Iranians could buy oil from the Soviet Union at a cheaper price than they could buy it from the AIOC. At the same time, the company behaved “as a typical colonial power, manipulating the host government by making and unmaking ministers”, insisting on its privileges and treating “the natives” with contempt.3

There was a growing hostility in Iran, both to the privileges of the AIOC and to the regime that sustained them. The nationalist movement, the National Front led by Mohammad Musaddiq, demanded the nationalisation of the company and constitutional curbs on the power of the Shah. If the British had offered a more generous settlement regarding oil revenues then it is possible that a “friendly” government might have been able to survive in power. The idea of the Iranians successfully defying the might of the British Empire was not taken seriously, however. This was to prove a costly mistake. When the British ambassador, Francis Shepherd, considered that what Iran really needed was “a 20-year occupation by a foreign power”, one can see that confrontation was inevitable.4

On 7 March 1951 the pro-British prime minister, General Ali Razmara, was assassinated to great popular delight. While the Shah and the British looked around “for a suitable strong man to seize the premiership and take control of the country”, the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, voted to pardon the assassin.5 Confronted with a militant nationalist movement and fearful for his throne, the Shah reluctantly bowed to popular pressure and on 29 April appointed Musaddiq as prime minister. On 1 May 1951 Musaddiq signed a bill nationalising the oil industry.

For the Labour government in London this was a disaster. As the Foreign Office made clear, what was at stake was not “the fate of a major asset, but of the major asset which we hold in the field of raw materials. Control of that asset is of supreme importance”.6 The Abadan oil refinery, in particular, was the largest in the world, with the physical plant alone estimated to be worth £120 million. The loss of the Iranian oil industry would be a tremendous economic and financial blow, but more than that it would also have dire political consequences, seriously damaging British prestige throughout the Middle East. As Emanuel Shinwell, the minister of defence, put it when advocating a military response:

We must in no circumstances throw up the sponge not only because of the direct consequences of the loss of Persian oil, but because of the effect which a diplomatic defeat in Persia would have on our prestige and on our whole position throughout the Middle East. If Persia was allowed to get away with it, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries would be encouraged to think they could try things on; the next thing might be an attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal.7

There were not the troops available, however, for a protracted occupation of the oil fields. This was one of the consequences of the loss of British India. Instead the government imposed an economic blockade on Iran and initiated covert activities inside the country to try and bring Musaddiq down. They intended wrecking the Iranian economy so that popular opinion would hopefully turn against Musaddiq and he could be overthrown by a coup of some kind.

This might well seem to be unusual behaviour for a Labour government, especially the great reforming government of 1945-51. In fact, Clement Attlee’s Labour government was wholeheartedly committed to the preservation of as much of the British Empire as was possible, although it did use a different rhetoric from Churchill and the Conservatives. While India, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) might have gone, British domination of the Middle East was to be maintained no matter what the cost. As Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary, put it, the Middle East was an area of “cardinal importance…second only to the United Kingdom itself ”.8 His successor as foreign secretary, Herbert Morrison, the man who actually had to deal with the Iran crisis, was a strong advocate of military action against Musaddiq and complained that the government was being “too United Nationsy”. Even his Foreign Office advisers were surprised at how “hawkish” this former conscientious objector was when confronted with rebellious natives. Morrison started reading Philip Guedalla’s biography of Palmerston as soon as he was appointed and actually confided to one official that “I wish I was Lord Palmerston”.9 He urged that if the oil fields could not be occupied then at least the Abadan oil refinery should be seized. This, he argued, “would demonstrate once and for all to the Persians, British determination not to allow the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company…to be evicted from Persia and might well result in the downfall of the Musaddiq regime”. He went on to warn that “failure to exhibit firmness in this matter may prejudice our interests throughout the Middle East”.10

Preparations for the military occupation of Abadan were put under way. If the appropriately named “Operation Buccaneer” had gone ahead then one suspects the Labour government’s quite undeserved reputation for being “progressive” in colonial affairs would have been seriously damaged, if not altogether destroyed.11 What prevented it was not any great principled objection to an act of imperialist aggression on the part of members of the government, but American hostility. The United States made it absolutely clear that they were opposed to any British military action and the government did not feel strong enough to defy them. The chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, seems to have been the US embassy’s spokesman in the cabinet over this and other issues. Attlee made the position clear: “It was…the general view of the cabinet that, in the light of the United States’ attitude…force could not be used to hold the refinery and maintain British employees of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan. We could not afford to break with the United States on an issue of this kind”.12

With the occupation of Abadan ruled out, the British were forced to evacuate the country in a humiliating and damaging retreat. Soon afterwards Labour lost power and Winston Churchill once again became prime minister. The Conservatives had been extremely critical of the Labour government’s failure to overthrow Musaddiq in opposition, but once installed in power they found themselves forced to rely on the United States. The coup d’etat that finally overthrew Musaddiq in August 1953 was organised by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with Britain’s MI6 very much in a supporting role.13 The Shah’s new dictatorship rewarded its American sponsors with a renegotiated division of the oil spoils. Under the new arrangements the Shah’s government received 50 percent of the profits from the oil industry which was placed in the hands of an international consortium. The AIOC had a 40 percent share in this consortium, along with US oil companies that also had a 40 percent share. Royal Shell had 14 percent and the French state oil company a 6 percent share. This represented a massive shift in the relative position of British and US oil interests, reducing the British owned share of Middle Eastern oil from 53 percent to 24 percent and increasing the American share from 44 to 58 percent. The brutalities of the Shah’s dictatorship were a small price to pay for the security of Western oil.

Egypt and the Canal Zone

Egypt was also part of Britain’s informal empire, although the presence of British troops in the country gave British influence a directness, even brutality, not so evident in Iran. On 4 February 1942, for example, the British ambassador, Miles Lampson, had surrounded King Farouk’s palace with tanks and, accompanied by armed men, forced the monarch to appoint a prime minister of Britain’s choosing. This bullying was, Lampson confessed, “something I could not have enjoyed more”. While it achieved short term objectives, however, the resentment this humiliation of the Egyptian head of state caused made the British position untenable in the long term. In March 1946 Lampson, by now Lord Killearn, gave Ernest Bevin some advice on what sort of people the Egyptians were and how best to handle them. “The Egyptians”, he wrote, “are essentially a docile and friendly people, but they are like children in many respects. They need a strong but essentially fair and helpful hand to guide them: ‘Firmness and justice’ is the motto for Egypt just as it used to be for the Chinese”.14 The days when British governors, ambassadors and officials could get away with this sort of patronising arrogance had gone, however.

The Labour government that took power at the end of July 1945 was confronted with a growing demand for the removal of British troops from Egypt. Under the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the British were entitled to station 10,000 troops in their Canal Zone bases. In 1946 there were, in fact, still over 100,000 British troops in the country, half of them in Cairo. Their presence was bitterly resented and there were continual clashes with the local people, clashes that were beginning to assume the character of a low level guerrilla war. On 21 February 1946 British troops in Cairo opened fire on demonstrators, killing more than 20 people. This provoked demonstrations and protests throughout the country. In Alexandria there were serious clashes that left two British soldiers and 17 Egyptians dead. After this, attacks on the British became routine with shootings, grenade attacks and bombings a regular occurrence.15 The British responded by withdrawing their troops to the Canal Zone but still maintained over 60,000 men in the country as late as mid-1947.

As far as the British were concerned, the military bases in the Canal Zone were of vital importance. The scale of the commitment was enormous. The network of bases occupied 750 square miles between the Nile delta and the west bank of the Canal. It was, according to one historian, “the world’s most elaborate military complex” and boasted:

Regional communications networks; ten airfields and a facility for seaplanes; docks; a railroad system (50 engines and 900 coaches); depots (for ammunition, ordnance, railroad trucks, and thousands of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and armoured carriers, along with medical and general stores); assembly plants and factories (for jerrycans and clothing, among other commodities); repair shops for everything from vehicles to surgical equipment; power stations, water filtration plants and distribution outlets for water, coal and oil (including storage tanks, pipelines, and filling stations); to say nothing of barracks, hospitals, and recreational facilities.16

This hopefully ensured British domination over the Middle East, but was also regarded as indispensable in the event of war with the Soviet Union. The Labour government hoped to use this Cold War consideration to secure American support for the retention of the Canal Zone. To this end, the British undertook to extend the runway of the Abu Sueier airfield so that it could take American B-29 strategic bombers. They would be able to attack more targets in the Soviet Union flying from Egypt than from the bases the Labour government had handed over in Britain itself.17

The Labour government was attempting to maintain military bases in a country that was in a “pre-revolutionary situation”.18 Attempts at reaching an agreement were fatally compromised as the situation in Egypt escalated out of control. The situation finally came to a head on 8 October 1951 when the Egyptian government unilaterally annulled the 1936 treaty and demanded British evacuation. The British responded with a show of strength, pouring troops into the country in an attempt to intimidate the Egyptians. By early November troop levels were again up to over 60,000 men. They took up positions in the Canal Zone and threatened the reoccupation of the whole country. Attlee and Morrison were absolutely determined to maintain the British position, because, they reasoned, “the consequences of allowing ourselves to be ejected from Egypt…would be so disastrous as to leave us no alternative”.19

With the election into office of Winston Churchill’s government, at the end of October, an even stronger line was taken. Troop levels rose to some 80,000 men and a tough response to Egyptian guerrilla attacks was authorised. In November the British commander, General George Erskine, ordered most of the village of Kfr Abdu levelled because it was being used by snipers to harass the Suez water filtration plant. Some 80 houses were bulldozed and the inhabitants evicted in an operation that one British officer subsequently described with some understatement as a “blunder”. One Egyptian newspaper placed a bounty of 1,000 Egyptian pounds on Erskine. Violence escalated with the British shelling Egyptian villages in response to increasing guerrilla attacks. Erskine believed that the Egyptian police were heavily involved in assisting, even participating in, the guerrilla campaign. On 25 January 1952, in an attempt to put a stop to this, a large British force surrounded the police station in Ismailia and demanded its surrender. The police refused and, to the surprise of the British, mounted a fierce resistance. An infantry assault was beaten off and so Centurion tanks were brought in to shell the buildings. The police finally surrendered after more than 40 of their number had been killed. One British officer recalled that his men were “far from jubilant…Dead and wounded littered the barracks and rooftops”.20 Erskine’s political adviser, J de C Hamilton, crowed that the operation had shown “the jackal peoples of the world…that the lion’s tail cannot be twisted indefinitely and that he can still bite”. The British press was unanimous in its support, with the Daily Express welcoming the attack as “a mighty reaffirmation of imperial destiny”.21

The reality was somewhat different: as one historian has put it, Erskine had “saved Ismailia and lost the Canal Zone”.22 Any prospect of an agreement allowing British troops to stay in Egypt was gone. The day after the battle in Ismailia, 26 January, “ Black Saturday”, large crowds attacked the European district in Cairo with the police either standing by or joining in. Over 400 buildings were destroyed, many of them symbols of British domination, including Shepherd’s Hotel and the Turf Club, and seventeen British subjects were killed. Eventually order was restored and King Farouk, fearful of British retaliation, retreated from further confrontation. This sealed his fate, completing the alienation of the Egyptian army and leaving the country ungovernable. Moreover, his fear of the British was exaggerated. The events of the 25 and 26 January served as a “reality check” with the British recognising they could not reoccupy the country. The opposition to such a move would be too great. Plans for moving troops into Cairo and Alexandria had been prepared, but the Middle Eastern commander in chief, General Brian Robertson, now concluded that the heroism (my word, not his) of the Egyptian police at Ismailia made the undertaking too dangerous. “Any idea that we can waltz into Cairo and find some moderate elements whom we could set up to restore order is out of the question,” he told the government. “Our former expectations”, he warned, “that the Egyptian army might offer only token resistance will not be realised”.23 The reoccupation of Egypt would meet with fierce resistance and would require more troops. There were no more to be had. Indeed, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal William Slim, feared that the Egyptian crisis had already swallowed up Britain’s strategic reserve and that this “might encourage insurgency in other parts of the world to which they would be unable to respond”.24

Nasser and the road to war

On 23 July 1952 a secret society organised within the Egyptian army, the Free Officers, staged a coup that overthrew Farouk. They installed a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) headed by General Mohammad Neguib in power. The dominant figure within the RCC, however, was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was soon to supercede Neguib.25 The coup took place with the full support of the CIA and, according to one account, the Americans promised the conspirators that they would prevent the British from intervening on Farouk’s behalf.26 As far as the Americans were concerned, a modernising dictatorship aligned with the US was the way forward and they supported the Egyptians in negotiations over the Canal Zone. For the British, Egyptian demands remained totally unacceptable. Churchill, the prime minister, in particular, regarded it as outrageous that Britain could no longer dictate terms to an inferior people for whom he had the utmost contempt. On one occasion he told Anthony Eden that he should tell the Egyptians “that if we had any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter from which they should never have emerged”.27 On another occasion, as Eden attempted to secure an agreement on the bases, Churchill sarcastically remarked that “he never knew before that Munich was situated on the Nile”.28 Privately, Churchill made it clear that he supported the “Suez Group”, a collection of right wing Tory MPs who opposed any retreat from empire and favoured the use of military force in Egypt and everywhere else. Eden’s private secretary, Evelyn Shuckburgh, complained in his diary of the widespread view in Whitehall that “we should sit on the gippies [Egyptians] and have a ‘whiff of grapeshot’”.29

Without American support, however, the British no longer had the ability to impose their will on the Egyptians. On 27 July 1954 the Churchill government finally concluded an agreement to evacuate British troops from Egypt by 18 June 1956. Thereafter military facilities would be maintained by civilian contractors and the British would be allowed to make use of them only in response to outside attacks on Turkey or any Arab state.30 This was a humiliating retreat, surrendering control of territory the size of Wales to the despised Egyptians. It was a humiliation that rankled.

Even after the 1954 Settlement the British could not accept the notion of Egyptian independence. When Eden met Nasser in Cairo in February 1955, the Egyptian leader was summoned to the British embassy to be lectured on his responsibilities to the British Empire. The British expected the Egyptians to behave as loyal servants and cooperate with the military alliance, the Baghdad Pact (Britain, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq) that they were constructing. As far as Nasser was concerned, this was “colonialism in disguise”.31 Egyptian opposition to the pact was seen as a major challenge to the British position throughout the Middle East. Having driven the British out of Egypt, Nasser was now trying to drive them out of the whole region. The problem was that the Egyptian regime had ambitions both to modernise the country and to establish itself as an independent regional power. Nasser was not prepared to be a British client or, as the Americans were to soon discover, an American client. Instead he hoped to adopt a “neutralist” stance in the Cold War, committed to neither side but playing the Russians and the Americans off against each other to Egypt’s advantage. This was not acceptable.

By the mid-1950s hostility to British domination was widespread throughout the Middle East. Rather than recognising this as a response to British policy and behaviour, the government blamed it on Nasser personally. According to Anthony Nutting, a junior minister at the Foreign Office, they needed “a whipping boy to explain away the failure of their policies in the Arab world”.32 King Hussein of Jordan’s decision in March 1956 to dismiss John Glubb, the British commander of his Arab Legion, finally convinced Eden (by now prime minister) to get rid of the Egyptian leader. Hussein had recognised that if he was to survive the rising tide of Arab nationalism, he had to distance himself from the British. The British, however, blamed Nasser, the new “Hitler” or “Mussolini” who was out to dominate “our” Middle East. The response was “a toughening of British policy everywhere in the Middle East” and the ascendancy of “the ‘whiff of grapeshot’ school” in the cabinet.33 Evelyn Shuckburgh wrote of the prime minister wanting “to strike some blow, somewhere, to counterbalance”. “Ministers”, he wrote, “led by the PM—mad keen to land British troops somewhere to show that we are still alive and kicking”. Bahrain, where the foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, had been stoned on a recent visit, was considered as one possibility. On 3 March, however, Eden took Shuckburgh aside “and said I was seriously to consider reoccupation of Suez as a move to counteract the blow to our prestige which Glubb’s dismissal means”. Everything, Shuckburgh concluded, was “in a mess” with the Arabs “hating us more and more”.34 Nutting, still advocating a restrained response, was told by an outraged Eden to forget all talk of isolating or neutralising Nasser: “I want him destroyed, can’t you understand? I want him murdered, and if you and the Foreign Office don’t agree, then you’d better come to the cabinet and explain why.” When Nutting tried to argue that they had no alternative government to replace Nasser, Eden replied: “I don’t give a damn if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt”.35

Nasser’s refusal to accept a client role was by now alienating the Americans. The Egyptians had become desperate to modernise their own armed forces. They were alarmed by Israel’s increasing military strength, courtesy of arms deals with the French, and their exercise of that strength in punitive border raids. The prospect of Israeli aggression made this a matter of life and death for the regime, and when the Eisenhower government refused to help, Nasser turned to the Soviet bloc. In September 1955 the Egyptians concluded an arms deal with the Czechs. This was regarded as a hostile act by the United States and Nasser went on to compound his crime in May 1956 by recognising Communist China. The Americans responded by withdrawing their financial support for Egypt’s major development project, the Aswan Dam, on 19 July 1956. Nasser’s response was, a week later, to nationalise the Suez Canal.

Collusion and invasion

The nationalisation of the Suez Canal was another blow to British prestige, but it was also an opportunity. While covert efforts were already under way to overthrow both Nasser and the Syrian government (“Operation Straggle”), there was now a pretext for a full-scale military intervention to take back the Canal.36 The Conservative Party was united, with the chancellor of the exchequer, Harold Macmillan, leading the “hawks”. Indeed one leading Conservative described him as “wanting to tear Nasser’s scalp off with his own fingernails”.37 Moreover, at least initially, the Labour opposition supported intervention. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, made it clear that he would support military action against the new “Hitler”, but with the proviso that “they must get America in line”. A staunch Zionist, Gaitskell urged an alliance with Israel.38 Even Aneurin Bevan, the leader of the Labour left, joined in the abuse of Nasser who he compared to “Ali Baba”. Egypt, he wrote in the Tribune newspaper, had “a right to come into her own, but not into someone else’s”.39 The key to the crisis, however, was to be the United States.

In order to try and secure US support for an invasion, the British played the Cold War card, arguing that Nasser was a Soviet ally and that through him the Russians aimed to dominate the Middle East. MI6 supposedly had an agent codenamed “Lucky Break” placed in Nasser’s inner circle, who was sending back reports of a Soviet sponsored attempt to take over the Middle East. While the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), that coordinated intelligence collection and assessment, discounted these reports, Eden took them seriously and passed them on to the Americans. In the words of the JIC’s semi-official history, “He was already falling into the dangerous practice of selecting the pieces of intelligence that fitted his preconceptions and neglecting the committee’s more balanced overall view”.40 Indeed, the historian Scott Lucas has gone so far as to argue that the likelihood is that “Lucky Break” never even “existed outside the creative imaginations of MI6 officers who wanted more aggressive operations against Egypt”.41 President Eisenhower would still not come on board, however. The Americans were not interested in helping to bolster British power in the Middle East and, anyway, did not regard military intervention as the most effective way to deal with Nasser. It would alienate Arab opinion. For the British, the situation was beginning to slip out of their hands with the likelihood of the Americans sponsoring a deal over the Canal that would complete their humiliation.

The solution to Eden’s predicament was provided by the French. Guy Mollet’s Socialist government was determined to strike a blow against Nasser because of his support for the liberation struggle in Algeria. The French were already in an informal alliance with Israel, having armed the country and agreed to help it become a nuclear power. They now proposed extending this alliance to include the British. At this time relations between the Eden government and Israel were poor, with the British concerned that the Israelis were planning an attack on Jordan to seize the West Bank. Despite considerable reservations Eden entered into secret discussions with the French and Israelis that eventually resulted in the Sèvres Protocol of 24 October 1956.42 Under the terms of this illegal conspiracy, Israel would attack Egypt, whereupon Britain and France, posing as peacemakers, would demand that both sides withdraw from the Suez Canal area. Israel would agree, but the Egyptians could not possibly accept this infringement of their sovereignty, especially as they were the victims of aggression. In response to the Egyptian refusal, an Anglo-French force would invade, ostensibly to separate the two sides, but in reality to overthrow Nasser. The Israelis insisted that the British and French should act quickly because they counted on the British destroying the Egyptian air force. The British were absolutely insistent that the collusion remained secret, something the Israelis, who were quite open about their expansionist aims, regarded as typical “British hypocrisy”.43

There were a number of problems with the Sèvres plan. First, it would fool no one. It was even more transparent than George Bush and Tony Blair’s later “weapons of mass destruction” ruse. When Selwyn Lloyd told a cabinet colleague, R A B Butler, of the plot, Butler “was impressed by the audacity of the thinking behind this plan”, but nevertheless was “concerned about the public reaction”.44 Second, even if the operation was successful, there was the practicality of occupying Egypt. The British had pulled back from this very prospect in 1952-1954 and the French were heavily embroiled in Algeria and yet they now proposed what could well be an open-ended military commitment. Humphrey Trevelyan, the British ambassador in Cairo, warned that invasion would be greeted with “guerrilla warfare and it would be difficult for us to disengage without long and widespread operations… No government set up by the occupying forces would last”.45 The British ambassador in Paris, Gladwyn Jebb, later acknowledged “the sheer impossibility of occupying Egypt for very long”, and doubted “whether we could succeed in establishing a stooge government in Cairo capable of carrying on after the withdrawal of our troops”. In retrospect, he concluded that “the Suez venture on any rational calculation did not make very much sense”.46

The Suez invasion was not, however, based on any “rational calculation”. Nasser, for example, could not believe that the British would commit “the one unforgivable sin” of joining with Israel in an attack on an Arab country. It would irreparably damage “their prestige and interests in the Middle East”.47 Why then did Eden take the gamble? It was an act of desperation by a government that believed the British position in the Middle East was lost unless some dramatic stroke could rescue it. The Americans could not be relied on, British influence was in decline, but perhaps a military demonstration could turn the situation round. The British state no longer had either the financial or the military strength for such demonstrations, but the Conservatives refused to face up to this. In the event, the Suez invasion was to prove a testimony to British weakness. There was, of course, a third problem with the Sèvres plan. The United States were to be kept in the dark in the belief that they would oppose any attack on Egypt if they knew in advance, but would have to support it if it was an accomplished fact. After all, the British government had supported the Americans over the CIA-inspired coup that overthrew President Arbenz in Guatemala in June 1954, even to the extent of covering up the sinking of a British freighter by CIA aircraft.48 Surely the Americans would reciprocate. As far as the Americans were concerned, however, this was one way traffic. One of those who assured Eden that the Americans would go along with the invasion once it was under way was Harold Macmillan. As he later acknowledged, this was “a profound miscalculation”.49

The Israelis launched their surprise attack on Egyptian positions in Sinai on 29 October. French collusion was hardly disguised with French aircraft supporting the attack from Israeli airfields from day one. The British, however, were desperate to maintain the pretence. The Anglo-French ultimatum was presented to both sides the following day. Nutting, who resigned from the government in protest, later wrote:

If proof were needed of collusion between Britain and the aggressor, it was written plainly enough in the timing of the ultimatum, which demanded that both belligerents withdraw to a distance of ten miles from the Canal at a moment when the Egyptian army was still engaging the Israelis at distances between 75 miles and 125 miles to the east of the Canal. This meant, at the moment of its issue, the powers who were pretending to put a stop to the fighting by separating the belligerents, were ordering one of them—and the victim of aggression at that—to withdraw up to 135 miles, while the other, who happened to be the aggressor, was told to advance on all fronts between 65 and 115 miles.50

The Egyptians rejected the ultimatum and the British bombers began their attacks. The actual invasion began on 5 November with paratroop landings followed by a seaborne assault on Port Said. The following day the British and the French agreed to a ceasefire.

The decisive factor in defeating the Israeli-Franco-British attack on Egypt was the hostile stance taken by the United States. Eisenhower reacted to the invasion with fury. The Americans were not prepared to tolerate independent action on this scale on the part of the British. Not only did they not want any revival of British power and influence in the Middle East, but they were afraid that Britain’s old-fashioned imperialism would play into the hands of the Russians. Accordingly, the United States took the lead in condemning the invasion and backed this up with financial and oil sanctions. This forced the British to accept a ceasefire without any of their political or military objectives having been gained. When British troops finally withdrew on 22 December 1956 Nasser was still in power, a popular hero throughout the Arab world. American hostility was also the decisive factor in the Labour opposition’s decision to oppose the invasion. Although Gaitskell grounded his opposition on the UN charter, there can be no serious doubt that if the United States had supported the attack on Egypt, so would he. Many Labour MPs and most rank and file party members would have opposed it regardless, but they certainly did not have as much influence with the party leadership at this time or subsequently as the American embassy.

Conservative hardliners have always claimed that, were it not for the Americans, the Suez invasion would have been a great success. Julian Amery, for example, insisted that if operations had continued for only another 48 hours, “we would in my judgement have toppled Nasser and seen the emergence of a new Egyptian regime”. Nasser would have fled, “probably to the Soviet Union”.51 A much better case can be made that Eisenhower actually saved the British government from a quagmire. The Egyptians had prepared for guerrilla war, distributing arms to the people, including all the weapons the British had stored in the Canal Zone bases. Nasser ordered the assassination of collaborators. And he put on a display of personal courage and determination that the likes of Amery refused to believe any Egyptian capable of. Moreover, the British and the French had already met determined resistance in Port Said that was put down with considerable violence. Taking the city cost the lives of 11 British and French soldiers and between 650 and 1,000 Egyptians, mainly civilians. The ceasefire agreed on 6 November did not stop guerrilla attacks on the occupation forces which continued up until the moment of the final evacuation. If the British had been successful in installing a “stooge government” in Cairo, they would have faced protracted resistance across the country. The chief of the Imperial General Staff estimated that “ to hold Egypt would take eight divisions and five hundred military government officers”.52 A bloody protracted guerrilla war would have led to attacks on the British throughout the Middle East. One consequence of this would almost certainly have been the continuation of conscription into the 1960s. Success in 1956 would have been an even bigger disaster than failure.

One last point worth making is that those responsible for the collusion never admitted to it, even after it was common knowledge. Eden, Macmillan and Lloyd all denied that there had been any conspiracy. This is, of course, perfectly understandable when one considers that they had conspired to make an unprovoked attack on Egypt under the guise of peace keeping, no less. This is really quite breathtaking. Nevertheless, Lord Kilmuir insisted, “The wild accusations of collusion between the British, French and Israeli governments which were hurled by the Labour Party had absolutely no foundation in fact”.53 Kilmuir, it is worth remembering was a former attorney general, home secretary and lord chancellor, an absolute pillar of the establishment, a man of unimpeachable integrity. And yet here we have absolute proof that he lied through his teeth until the day he died.


How did the British government respond to the absolutely ruthless way that Eisenhower crushed their imperial pretensions? The contrast with France is interesting. The French responded with a Gaullist strategy of refusing to accept subordination to the United States and attempting instead to build up Western Europe as a rival to the American imperium. The British were to consider such a response themselves, with Selwyn Lloyd putting forward the Gaullist alternative. He was never to forgive the Americans for Suez and even in his posthumously published memoirs insisted that they had “let us down on every occasion, when even silence from them would have helped”. This had been evident even before 1956 (he blamed the loss of Iran on them) and he characterised the US State Department’s “anti-British” attitude as “a mixture of anti-colonialism and hard-headed oil tycoonery”.54 In early January 1957 Lloyd presented his “Grand Design” to the cabinet. He proposed a:

closer military and political association between Britain and Western Europe. He went so far as to suggest that Britain could “pool our resources with our European allies so that Western Europe as a whole might become a third nuclear power comparable with the United States and the Soviet Union”.55

What Lloyd was urging was a revolutionary shift in grand strategy whereby the British state committed itself to building up Western Europe as a means for protecting British interests throughout the world, as, in fact, a rival imperium to both the Soviet Union and the United States. This had some support within the Conservative Party at the time, and still has today, but Macmillan decided instead on the alternative course of voluntary subordination to the United States that was dignified as a “Special Relationship”.

In Macmillan’s memoirs he revealingly entitles the chapter on the Suez invasion “The Anglo-American Schism”. This is not how he saw it at the time, when “Destroying Nasser” would have been a more appropriate title, but it was certainly how he came to regard the crisis subsequently. As far as Macmillan was concerned such a “schism” should never be allowed to happen again. The interests of British capitalism were best served by embracing an alliance with the United States on whatever terms were available. Whereas previous governments had hoped for an alliance of equals, Macmillan accepted that this was not realistic. Maintaining an unequal alliance, with the British very much in the subordinate position, became the primary objective of British foreign policy. This has been the strategy of successive British governments both Conservative and Labour ever since, with the notable exception of Edward Heath’s Conservative government (1970-1974), the nearest we have come to a British Gaullism. While this strategy has often involved British leaders in an undignified relationship with American presidents, Macmillan with Kennedy, Wilson with Johnson, and most especially Blair with the appalling George W Bush, in fact, it was every bit as hard-headed as France’s Gaullist strategy. What the Macmillan government decided was that Britain’s interests, unlike those of the French, were global and could only be effectively protected by a state with a global reach. Once the British state had been able to perform this role itself, but since the Second World War it had become increasingly clear that this was no longer the case. The Suez fiasco was the most dramatic demonstration of this. Instead the British looked to the United States, an imperial state with a considerable reach, to protect its interests. Obviously there were difficulties with this because British interests always took second place to American interests, so that the alliance was often tense and uneasy, but these difficulties were always secondary. As far as successive British governments were concerned, Western Europe did not have the ability to protect British interests worldwide so that some British variant of Gaullism was never in the interests of British capitalism.

The Iraqi endgame

While the Suez invasion was certainly important in weakening the British position in the Middle East, it was not the decisive factor in its final destruction. Indeed, after the invasion Macmillan did his best to restore the British position, but always with American support. He remained every bit as committed to the destruction of Nasser as before, but recognised that nothing could be achieved without the United States.56 Britain still maintained Iraq as a client state and was determined to oppose Egyptian influence everywhere it could. On 14 July 1958, however, a military coup swept away the Hashemite monarchy and dealt the British position in the Middle East a final fatal blow.57 Certainly the Suez affair played a part in this, compromising any Arab government that remained friendly with Britain, but nevertheless the coup took the British completely by surprise. Macmillan himself described it as “devastating…destroying at a blow a whole system of security which successive British governments had built up”.58

At the time it was regarded as an Egyptian-sponsored coup, as part of a general offensive to overthrow pro-Western governments throughout the Middle East. To counter this, on 15 July US marines landed in Lebanon to support the Chamoun government and on 17 July British paratroopers began arriving in Jordan to support King Hussein. The British also hoped for intervention in Iraq. Macmillan tried to persuade Eisenhower to agree to an Anglo-American invasion, but the Americans were not prepared to go that far. Despite this, the British continued trying to interest the Americans in a joint occupation of the country as late as August 1959. British plans were advanced enough for it to be proposed that the Americans should occupy Baghdad, while the British occupied Basra.59 Britain acting alone was not even considered. As it was, the new Iraqi regime quickly distanced itself from the Egyptians. Its provenance was nationalist rather than Nasserist and the British followed the American lead and came to terms with it. This proved only a short-lived “friendship” and in 1963 the CIA supported a coup carried out by the Baath party, a coup whose ultimate beneficiary was, of course, Saddam Hussein.

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