THE SUEZ CANAL—a narrow waterway a hundred miles long, dug through the Egyptian desert to link the Red Sea to the Mediterranean—was one of the grandest achievements of the nineteenth century. It was the handiwork of Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman ever after celebrated as “the Great Engineer.” In fact, he was no engineer at all, though he was a man of other considerable accomplishments—as a diplomat, entrepreneur, and promoter. And his talents did not end there. At the age of sixty-four, he married a woman of twenty, and then, forthwith, proceeded to father twelve children.
Though long discussed, such a waterway was thought to be impossible until de Lesseps floated a private concern, the Suez Canal Company, which won a concession from Egypt to build a canal and began actual construction in 1859. A decade later, in 1869, the canal was finally completed. The British were quick to recognize a good thing when they saw it, especially when it substantially reduced the travel time to India, the jewel of the empire, and they rued their lack of a direct stake in “our highway to India,” as the Prince of Wales dubbed the waterway. Fortunately, in 1875, Egypt’s 44 percent ownership in the canal came on the market, owing to the insolvency of the Khedive, the country’s ruler. With lightning speed and the timely financial assistance of the English branch of the Rothschilds, Britain’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, engineered the acquisition of those shares. The Suez Canal Company became an Anglo-French concern, and Disraeli capped his efforts with a pithy and immortal note to Queen Victoria: “You have it, Madam.”1
A wonderful boon to travelers and businessmen, the canal cut the time required for the journey to India in half. But the canal’s greatest significance was strategic; it was indeed the main highway, the lifeline, of the British Empire, linking England to India and the Far East. The “defense of the communications with India” became the fundamental rationale for Britain’s security strategy. British forces were stationed permanently in the Canal Zone. The canal’s military importance was made starkly clear in World War II when the British mounted their stand at El Alamein to defend the canal against the advancing Rommel.
But, in 1948, the canal abruptly lost its traditional rationale. For in that year India became independent, and control over the canal could no longer be preserved on grounds that it was critical to the defense either of India or of an empire that was being liquidated. And yet, at exactly the same moment, the canal was gaining a new role—as the highway not of empire, but of oil. The Suez Canal was the way most of the swelling volumes of Persian Gulf oil got to Europe, cutting the 11,000-mile journey around the Cape of Good Hope to Southampton down to 6,500 miles. By 1955, petroleum accounted for two-thirds of all the canal’s traffic, and in turn two-thirds of Europe’s oil passed through it. Flanked to the north by Tapline and the IPC pipelines, the canal was the critical link in the postwar structure of the international oil industry. And it was a waterway of unique importance to the Western powers that were becoming so heavily dependent on petroleum from the Middle East.2
The Nationalist: The Role Finds Its Hero
Britain had exercised control over Egypt and hence the Suez Canal for three-quarters of a century, first by outright invasion and military occupation, then by political and economic dominance over a succession of client regimes. But there had long been a restive current of Egyptian nationalism, which grew stronger in the early postwar years. In 1952, a group of military officers successfully carried out a coup and dispatched the sybaritic King Farouk to exile on the Riviera, where, though unmourned, he acquired new renown both for his many girlfriends and for being enormously fat. By 1954, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser had toppled General Mohammed Naguib, the titular leader of the 1952 coup, and had emerged as the undisputed dictator of Egypt.
Son of a post office clerk and a born plotter, Nasser had begun his original anti-British maneuverings a decade earlier, during World War II, and he relished the game of subterranean intrigue thereafter. A secret CIA profile of Nasser concluded, “He gets boyish pleasure out of conspiratorial doings.” Even when head of state, he would tell visitors and associates that he still felt he was a conspirator. He also had the capability to capture and direct the new spirit of nationalism in the Arab world. A gifted student of Mohammed Mossadegh, he mastered the use of rhetoric and the radio to inflame and mobilize the masses, stirring tens or hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets in feverish passion. In turn, he was to become the model for the military officer turned fiery nationalist leader in the emerging nations of the Third World.
Nasser was indeed a nationalist, dedicated to Egypt’s restoration and independence. But he also wanted to reach far beyond Egypt’s borders, from one end of the Arab-speaking world to the other, from the western edge of North Africa to the shores of the Persian Gulf. “The Voice of the Arabs” was the name of his powerful radio station, and it was beamed across the Middle East, carrying his impassioned speeches over the air waves, calling for the rejection of the West and threatening other Arab regimes in the region. His program included pan-Arabism, the creation of a new Arab world, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the elimination of the Israeli wedge dividing the Arab world, and the righting of what he called—the “greatest international crime” in history—the creation of Israel.
The Suez Canal—with ships guided through it under the hot sun by mostly foreign, mostly French and British pilots garbed in impeccable knee socks, shorts, crisp white shirts, and captain’s hats—was an all-too-evident and embarrassing symbol of the old nineteenth-century colonialism right in the middle of what was to be Nasser’s new Egypt. Symbols, however, were not the only consideration. As with the oil concession in Iran before Mossadegh, most of the canal company’s earnings, derived from tolls, were going to European shareholders, including the largest shareholder of all, the British government. If Egypt could secure complete control over the canal, the tolls would open a major new source of income for a desperately poor country, whose new military leaders were far more experienced at nationalist rhetoric than at economic management.
Under any circumstances, the concession’s days were numbered. By treaty, it was due to expire in 1968, and British influence was already in retreat. Britain still maintained a military base and a large supply center in the Canal Zone, under the terms of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty; but Egyptians, impatient for their withdrawal, were conducting a campaign of harassment against them, including terrorist raids, murders, and kidnaping. What was the point of maintaining a base to protect the Middle East when it was under attack from one of the core territories it was supposed to defend? In 1954, Anthony Eden, as Foreign Secretary, directed the negotiation of an agreement whereby the last British troops stationed in the Canal Zone would be withdrawn within twenty months. The next year, just two months before he succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, Eden made a stop in Cairo, where he startled Nasser by speaking—and telling Arabic proverbs—in Arabic.
There was the hope, of course, that the British government could remain on reasonable terms with Egypt, but this hope faded when Nasser attempted to incorporate the separate country of the Sudan into his Greater Egypt.3 Nasser was viewed more tolerantly in Washington, where the Administration and many in Congress tended to adopt an attitude of moral superiority toward the European colonial powers, combined with a desire to see them divest themselves of their empires more quickly. The Americans believed that the relics of colonialism were an enormous handicap for the West in its struggle with communism and the Soviet Union. The Suez Canal Company, despite the economic and strategic significance of the waterway, was one of the most visible of these relics. The chairman of the canal company would later observe bitterly that, to Americans, “the company had a certain musty, nineteenth century odor derived from that lamentable colonial period.”
Yet alarm about Nasser began to mount not only in London but also in Washington in the autumn of 1955, when it was learned the Egyptian dictator had turned to the Soviet bloc for weapons. Did that mean the expansion of Soviet influence? Might the Suez Canal be closed to Western oil and naval traffic? As early as February 1956 the State Department raised with the oil companies the question of revising the Voluntary Agreement of 1950—used originally to manage the loss of Iranian oil supplies—which would allow them to cooperate with one another and the government in the event the canal was closed, whatever the reason, to oil tanker traffic. To the companies, however, the Administration’s proposal for joint action looked unworkable because of the threat of antitrust prosecution. That threat could hardly be regarded as idle; after all, the Justice Department was still pursuing its antitrust case against the major oil companies. Yet the companies themselves were worried about the possibility of supply disruption. In April 1956 Standard Oil of New Jersey commissioned its own study of how to move oil westward from the Persian Gulf if the canal was indeed shut.
Around this same time, the British Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, visited Nasser in Egypt. As far as Britain was concerned, Lloyd made clear, the canal was “an integral part of the Middle East oil complex, which was vital to Britain.” To this, Nasser replied that the oil-producing countries received 50 percent of the profits from their oil—but Egypt did not get 50 percent of the profits from the canal. If the Suez Canal was an integral part of the oil complex, he declared, then Egypt should have the same fifty-fifty terms as the oil producers. Nothing, however, was done to revise the existing arrangement.
At the end of 1955, in an effort to placate Nasser and strengthen the Egyptian economy, the Americans and British, in conjunction with the World Bank, had begun considering a loan to Egypt to build a huge dam at Aswan on the Nile. That project appeared to be going forward. And Nasser was further gratified when, on June 13, 1956, the last British troops were withdrawn from the Canal Zone in accordance with the agreement that Eden had negotiated two years earlier. But Nasser’s arms deals with the Soviet bloc had already alarmed and alienated Washington. It was thought that the Egyptians would mortgage their limited resources to pay for Soviet arms instead of making their contribution to the dam. Moreover, the expected economic difficulties and hardships arising from the massive project could lead to antagonism and blame being directed toward the financing countries, and perhaps it was better to let the Soviets be stuck with that long-term cost. In any event, opposition was mounting in the United States. American senators from the South were hostile to the dam project because they feared it would lead to a much larger Egyptian cotton crop, which would compete with American exports on the world market. Congressmen friendly to Israel were not exactly keen to provide foreign aid to a government relentlessly antagonistic to Israel’s existence. Nasser had recognized “Red China,” as it was then called, further alarming both the Administration and many Congressmen. But the coup de grace came when Senate Republicans told Dulles that foreign aid could be approved for only one of the two “neutralist” leaders slated for assistance: Tito of Yugoslavia, or Nasser of Egypt. But not both. Dulles chose Tito. Eisenhower confirmed the decision. The British were in accord. On July 19, 1956, Dulles canceled the proposed Aswan Dam loan, taking Nasser and the World Bank by surprise.4
Code Word “de Lesseps”: Nasser Moves
Nasser was angry, humiliated, and eager for revenge. The tolls from the canal, he thought, could be used to finance the Aswan Dam; the hated symbol of colonialism in his midst would be exorcised. On July 26, he gave a speech in the same square in Alexandria where he had, as a boy, for the first time joined a demonstration against the British. Now, as leader of Egypt, he repeatedly heaped calumny on the name of de Lesseps, the builder of the canal. It was no mere history lesson. “De Lesseps” was the code word to the Egyptian military to move; by the time the speech was completed, the army had seized control of the Canal Zone. The Suez Canal had been expropriated.
It was a resounding and daring act. Tension rose swiftly and dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the seizure. In England, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, echoing the foreshadowing of his beloved Victorian novels, wrote apprehensively in his diary, “There was last night and through today, the most violent gale I ever remember.” In Cairo, Nasser, deciding that he needed to escape from the mounting tension, slipped off to the Metro movie theater to see Cyd Charisse in Meet Me in Las Vegas.
Now followed three months of diplomatic circus and futile efforts to work out a compromise. In mid-September, the British and French pilots who had continued to guide ships through the canal were withdrawn on the instructions of the Suez Canal Company. The job was considered to be at the pinnacle of the merchant marine, and senior officials in London and Paris assumed that the Egyptians would not be able to run the canal by themselves. And indeed, considerable skill was required to pilot a ship through the canal, owing to the shallowness of the waterway, as well as the fierce crosswinds from the Sinai. But the Egyptian government had insisted for several years that Egyptians be trained to be pilots, and by the time of the nationalization, a considerable cadre of capable Egyptians was ready to take the helm, assisted by hurriedly dispatched ship pilots from the Soviet bloc. So the nationalized canal, under Nasser, continued to function more or less normally.5
Right at the beginning and throughout the mounting crisis, the British and French governments made one thing clear: they did not want to do anything to interrupt traffic and especially the passage of oil through the canal. But just where did the U.S. government stand? The American position during these months seemed confusing, not only to the British and French, but even to some American officials. To make matters worse, personal pique and a clash of styles irritated relations between Eden and Dulles. After one discordant meeting between the two men, Eden’s principal private secretary wrote to a friend: “Foster talks so slowly that Master [Eden] does not want to hear what he has to say, while our man talks in so roundabout and elusive a style that the other, being a lawyer, goes away having failed to make the right guesses.” Eisenhower himself had pinpointed in his diary what seemed to be part of the problem. Dulles, he wrote, “is not particularly persuasive in presentation and, at times, seems to have a curious lack of understanding as to how his words and manner may affect another personality.” For his part, Dulles, along with other Americans, found Eden both arrogant and languid. But their discord went beyond style; there were specific grievances as well. Eden and Dulles had already clashed over the French Indo-Chinese war two years earlier. Eden had promoted diplomacy, but Dulles was not interested in that kind of peaceful resolution. Now, over Suez, they would trade roles.
Yet in August 1956, a few days after the nationalization, Dulles reassured the British and French foreign ministers that “a way had to be found to make Nasser disgorge” the canal. That expression was to ring as comfort in Eden’s ear for the next couple of months. But the Americans came up with a number of diplomatic stratagems that seemed unrealistic to the British—or, if looked upon more cynically, seemed aimed at postponing more direct action on the part of the British and French.
In point of fact, U.S. policy was determined not by Dulles but by Eisenhower, and the President had no doubt from the beginning as to what the American position should be. Force was neither warranted nor justified in his view, and the essence of policy was to prevent the British and French from intervening militarily. The President believed that the two European countries simply would not be able to establish a pliable government in Egypt that would survive. Meanwhile, any such attempt would arouse not only the Arabs but the entire developing world against the West and would play into the hands of the Soviets, allowing them, in Ike’s words, to claim the “mantle of world leadership.” Moreover, he said to Eden, “Nasser thrives on drama,” and the best thing to do was to let the drama seep out of the situation. To his own advisers, Eisenhower complained that British thinking was “out of date,” while Nasser embodied the demands of people in the region for “slapping the white man down.” A military assault against Egypt would surely turn Nasser into a hero throughout the developing world and would undermine friendly Arab leaders, jeopardizing Middle Eastern oil. Eisenhower repeatedly and sternly advised London against the use of force; and, to him and his advisers, American policy was crystal clear. Events would, however, prove that U.S. policy was not by any means so crystal clear to those to whom it was directed, the British and the French.
But it was of paramount importance to Eisenhower that the United States not appear associated, even indirectly, with sponsoring what seemed a return to the era of colonial domination. On the contrary, the situation in Egypt might prove to afford an opportunity to win support among the developing nations—even if it entailed alienation from America’s traditional allies, Britain and France. After hearing the report of one statement by Eisenhower, Nasser joked to an aide, “Which side is he on?”6
There was another factor. Eisenhower was up for reelection in November 1956; he had ended the fighting in Korea at the beginning of his Administration, he was running as a man of peace, and the last thing he wanted now was a military crisis that might frighten the electorate and threaten his campaign. In an appalling blunder, the British and French never really factored the calendar of the American Presidential election into their calculations. While the public diplomatic show went on, they were also working secretly on a second track. They were making plans for military intervention in the Canal Zone, even though neither was well prepared to take such an action. The British found they had to requisition ocean liners at the height of the tourist season and even had to call on a private moving company, Pickford Removals, to cart around tank units.7
“We Had No Intention of Being Strangled to Death”
Both London and Paris were strongly motivated toward military intervention. The French saw Nasser as a threat to their position in North Africa. The Egyptian leader was not only egging on rebels in Algeria, who had begun a war for independence two years earlier; he was also training and supplying them. The French were determined to humble Nasser and reclaim the canal that de Lesseps had built with French financing. They had already opened a military dialogue with the Israelis, who had their own reasons for striking at Nasser. The Egyptian President was building up his armaments in apparent preparation for a war against Israel. He was also sponsoring guerilla raids into Israel and had instituted a blockade of Israel’s southern port of Eilat, which was, after all, a belligerent act.
But why was the canal so important to the British? Oil was a key part of the answer. The canal was the jugular. Just a few months before the expropriation of the canal, in April of 1956, the traveling team of “Mr. B” and “Mr. K”—as the post-Stalin Soviet leaders, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, were known—had come to London. Before their meeting, Eden had thoroughly reviewed with Eisenhower what he planned to say to the Soviets, and Eisenhower was in full accord. “We should not be acquiescent in any measure,” advised the President, “which would give the Bear’s claws a grip on production or transportation of oil which is so vital to the defense and economy of the Western World.” In the course of his discussions with the Soviet leaders, Eden warned them against meddling in the Middle East. “I must be absolutely blunt about the oil,” he said, “because we would fight for it.” To drive home the point, he added, “We could not live without oil and…we had no intention of being strangled to death.”8
Nasser’s seizure of the canal made that prospect all too real. Britain’s international finances were precarious; its balance of payments, fragile. It had gone from being the world’s greatest creditor to being the world’s greatest debtor. Its gold and dollar reserves were sufficient to cover only three months of imports. Britain’s oil holdings in the Middle East contributed mightily to its total foreign earnings. Their loss would be devastating economically. And a Nasser victory in Egypt might have the same kind of repercussions as a Mossadegh victory in Iran would have had. British prestige would be in tatters, and prestige mattered greatly when the British already felt they were losing ground everywhere. A triumphant Nasser would go on to subvert and topple regimes friendly to Britain and undermine the British—and American—oil position throughout the Middle East. The moment could come, Eden warned Eisenhower, when “Nasser can deny oil to Western Europe and we shall all be at his mercy.”
Eden’s anxieties were not only about oil and economics, but also about the possibility of a wholesale influx of Soviet power in a Middle East vacuum. “Eden was very worried about Soviet expansion in the Middle East,” recalled a Foreign Office official who reported directly to Eden on oil matters. “The Americans were not ready to take over the Middle East from the British, so the British were left with the job of keeping the Russians out.”
Harold Macmillan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, thought exactly the same way as Eden about the threat to oil supplies and the dangerous implications thereof. He, too, was convinced that Britain was in a very dangerous and exposed position. To be sure, he did not give off the same outward signs of anxiety as Eden. Indeed, in the first two weeks of the crisis, he managed, midst all his duties, to read through thousands of pages of nineteenth-century novels and still more thousands of pages of other works—Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, George Eliot’s Scenes from a Clerical Life, Middlemarch, and Adam Bede, before moving on over the next few weeks to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, various lives of Machiavelli and Savonarola, and a new novel by C. P. Snow. If he had not done all this reading, Macmillan later said, “I’d have gone barmy!” But he was as forceful as anyone in supporting Eden’s gloomy prognosis and the need for action. “The truth is that we are caught in a terrible dilemma,” he wrote in his diary. “If we take strong action against Egypt, and as a result the Canal is closed, the pipelines to the Levant are cut, the Persian Gulf revolts and oil production is stopped—then U.K. and Western Europe have ‘had it.’” Yet “if we suffer a diplomatic defeat; if Nasser ‘gets away with it’—and the Middle East countries, in a ferment, ‘nationalize oil’…we have equally ‘had it.’ What then are we to do? It seems clear to me that we should take the only chance we have—to take strong action, and hope that thereby our friends in the Middle East will stand, our enemies fall, and the oil will be saved, but it is a tremendous decision.”9
At the “Rhineland” Again—Twenty Years Later
As they confronted the crisis, Eden, Macmillan, and those around them, along with Premier Guy Mollet of France and his colleagues, were haunted by powerful historical memories. To all of them, Nasser was a resurrected Mussolini, even a nascent Hitler. Just a decade after the Axis defeat, they thought, another conspirator turned demagogue dictator had emerged to strut on the world stage and inflame the masses, promoting violence and war in pursuit of vast ambitions. The central experience of the Western leaders had been the two world wars. For Eden, the failure of diplomacy to head off tragedy had begun in 1914. “We are all marked to some extent by the stamp of our generation, mine is that of the assassination in Sarajevo and all that flowed from it,” he later wrote. Looking back on the diplomacy and policies of the Entente in those critical weeks in 1914, he said, “It is impossible to read the record now and not feel that we had a responsibility for always being a lap behind…. Always a lap behind, the fatal lap.”
The failure of governments to respond in time was etched even more strongly in memory by the events of the 1930s. The year 1956 marked the twentieth anniversary of Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, in violation of treaty obligations. The British and French could have stopped the German dictator in 1936. Hitler would have lost his momentum and his prestige, he might even have been toppled, and then tens of millions of people would not have died. But the Western powers did not act. Again in 1938, the Western nations failed to back Czechoslovakia, and instead appeased Hitler at Munich. There, too, Hitler might have been stopped and the terrible carnage of the second great war averted.
Eden had courageously resigned as Foreign Secretary in 1938 in protest of the appeasement policies toward Mussolini and Hitler. Now, in the summer and early autumn of 1956, it seemed to him that Nasser was embarked on an all-too-familiar program of aggrandizement. To Eden, Nasser’s Philosophy of Revolution read like Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Nasser, too, wished to carve out a great empire, and in his book, he emphasized that the Arab world should use the power that came with the control over petroleum—“the vital nerve of civilization”—in its struggle against “imperialism.” Without petroleum, Nasser proclaimed, all the machines and tools of the industrial world are “mere pieces of iron, rusty, motionless, and lifeless.” Eden had already attempted compromise. He had invested great personal prestige in the 1954 settlement with Egypt over the withdrawal of British forces from the Canal Zone and had been subjected to considerable attack from a segment of his own Tory party because of it. Now, he felt, he had been personally betrayed by Nasser. As with Hitler, Nasser’s promises were not worth the paper they were written on. Was the seizure of the canal, in violation of international agreements, another Rhineland? Would further attempts to accommodate and appease Nasser merely be another Munich? Eden did not want to go through all that again. Two of his brothers had died in World War I; his eldest son had been killed in World War II. He personally owed it to them and to all the other millions who had died because the Western countries had been too laggard in 1914 to halt the crisis and too irresolute in the 1930s to stop Hitler. If force had to be used against Nasser, better now than later.
Premier Mollet had been imprisoned in the German concentration camp at Buchenwald, and he thought as Eden did. So, too, the Belgian Foreign Minister, Paul Henri Spaak, who wrote to the British Foreign Secretary during the crisis, “I do not wish to hide from you that I am haunted by the memory of the mistakes which were committed at the outset of the Hitler period, mistakes which have cost us dear.”10
The analogies were much less compelling in Washington than in Western Europe. But if there was no consensus on how to deal with Nasser, the Western countries were at least making contingency plans for an oil crisis that might result from a duel over Suez. Eisenhower authorized the creation of a Middle East Emergency Committee, which was charged with figuring out how to supply Western Europe if the canal was blocked. The Justice Department granted limited antitrust immunity to companies participating in the plan, but not enough for them to work together to allocate supplies and to exchange information about oil demand, tankers, and all the other logistical data that would have been necessary to mount a joint supply operation. Nevertheless, the committee established close communication with the British Oil Supply Advisory Committee and the Organization for European Economic Cooperation on plans for crisis management.
Overall, the oil companies believed that the bulk of Western Europe’s requirements could be met by increased production in the Western Hemisphere, which would call on the large amount of surplus capacity in the United States and Venezuela. On the last day of July, the Executive Committee of Standard Oil of New Jersey finally received its report on alternatives to the Suez Canal that it had commissioned in April. Instead of building larger tankers, the study recommended the construction of a large-diameter pipeline from the head of the Persian Gulf through Iraq and Turkey to the Mediterranean. The estimated cost for the pipeline was half a billion dollars. There was, however, a slight hitch with timing; it would take four years to build. Moreover, the danger of excessive reliance on pipelines was demonstrated a few days later when Syria, as a warning to the West, stopped the oil flowing through Tapline for twenty-four hours.
In September, Eisenhower insisted, in a message to Eden, that there was a danger in “making of Nasser a much more important figure than he is.” To this, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office, provided a sharp rejoinder: “I wish the President were right. But I am convinced that he is wrong…. If we sit back while Nasser consolidates his position and gradually acquires control of the oil-bearing countries, he can, and is, according to our information, resolved to wreck us. If Middle East oil is denied to us for a year or two our gold reserves will disappear. If our gold reserves disappear the sterling area disintegrates. If the sterling area disintegrates and we have no reserves we shall not be able to maintain a force in Germany or, indeed, anywhere else. I doubt whether we shall be able to pay for the bare minimum necessary for our defense. And a country that cannot provide for its defense is finished.”
That same month, with the Suez crisis still brewing, Robert Anderson, a wealthy Texas oil man who was much admired by Eisenhower, made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia as the President’s personal emissary. The objective was to get the Saudis to apply pressure on Nasser to compromise. In Riyadh, Anderson warned King Saud and Prince Faisal, the Foreign Minister, that the United States had made great technical advances that would lead to sources of energy much cheaper and more efficient than oil, potentially rendering Saudi and all Middle Eastern petroleum reserves worthless. The United States might feel constrained to make this technology available to the Europeans if the canal were to be a tool of blackmail.
And what might this substitute be, asked King Saud.
“Nuclear energy,” replied Anderson.
Neither King Saud nor Prince Faisal, who had done some reading on nuclear power, seemed impressed, nor did they show any worry about the ability of Saudi oil to compete in world energy markets. They dismissed Anderson’s warning.
Meanwhile, the key British and French decision makers had become very skeptical about the prospects for a diplomatic settlement of the crisis, which were now centered at the United Nations. Only military force, they concluded, could work with Nasser and stop him at his “Rhineland.”11
On October 24, 1956, senior British and French diplomatic and military officials, including the respective foreign ministers, met secretly at a villa in Sèvres, outside Paris, with a delegation of top Israelis, including David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres. The three nations came to an understanding: Israel, responding to Egyptian threats and military pressure, would launch a military strike across the virtually uninhabited Sinai Peninsula toward the Suez Canal. Britain and France would issue an ultimatum about protecting the canal, and then, if the fighting continued—as surely it would—they would invade the Canal Zone to protect the international waterway. The ultimate objective for the British and French would be to effect a canal settlement and, if possible, to topple Nasser in the process.
There was much closer understanding between Israel and France than between Israel and Britain, in whose official circles was to be found considerable distaste for Israel and Jews. It was ironic that Eden himself, who had a fondness for Arabs and Arab culture and had said to his private secretary during World War II, “Let me murmur in your ear that I prefer Arabs to Jews,” was now preparing to pit himself against the self-appointed leader of the Arab world. By contrast, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, thought that Jews “had character.” But at Sèvres, the British Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, and his lieutenants treated the Israelis with what seemed like disdain. Indeed, over the preceding several weeks, Britain had also been giving thought to coming to Jordan’s aid if war broke out between Israel and Jordan, and had so warned the Israelis. One reason that the French took the lead at Sèvres in bringing the Israelis into the Anglo-French plans was to ensure that Britain and Israel did not end up fighting each other over Jordan in the midst of a confrontation with Egypt.12
The day before the secret accord at Sèvres, Egypt and Syria set up a joint military command under Egyptian control. The day after, Jordan acceded to the joint military command. The die was cast. Yet now came one of those strange bunchings of political and personal dramas that would further complicate the Suez crisis. On October 24, the same day as the meeting at Sèvres, Red Army troops entered Budapest to put down a revolution that had erupted in Hungary against Soviet control.
Then there was the medical condition of Anthony Eden. In 1953, in the course of a gall bladder operation, a careless surgeon had damaged his bile duct, which had only been partly repaired by subsequent operations, leaving Eden, as he once said, “with a largely artificial inside,” along with a tendency to become ill and suffer pain under pressure. Some later said that such a condition could, literally, slowly poison the mind. To make matters worse, Eden thereafter was on drugs for his stomach pain, as well as on stimulants (apparently amphetamines) to counter the effects of the painkillers. The interaction and side effects of these various medications were not then well known. Eden struck others as very agitated. The dosage of both sets of drugs had to be increased considerably after Nasser’s seizure of the canal. In early October, Eden collapsed and was rushed to a hospital with a 106 degree fever. Though he was back in command for much of October, he continued to show signs of ill health and was put on a regimen of ever-heavier medication. A certain character change was evident to some. A British intelligence official confided to an American opposite number, “Chums in Downing Street tell me our old boy is feeling queer and is all nerves.” Sometimes, Eden would seek solace from the strain and his own ill health by sitting in his wife’s drawing room at 10 Downing and gazing at a Degas bronze of a girl in a bath that the film producer Sir Alexander Korda had given him.13
Eden was not the only one who was feeling the effects of illness. Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack in 1955, and then, in June of 1956, had been stricken with ileitis, which had necessitated surgery. So in the impending confrontation, two of the principal actors on both sides of the Atlantic were in poor health. A third would soon join them.
After months of indecision and delay, events began to move swiftly. On October 29, Israel launched its attack into the Sinai, putting the Sèvres accord into action. On October 30, London and Paris issued their ultimatum and announced their intention to occupy the Canal Zone. The same day, Russian troops were withdrawn from Budapest with a promise of nonintervention. The next day, October 31, the British bombed Egyptian air fields, and the Egyptian Army began its hasty retreat across the Sinai.
The entire Suez operation came as a surprise to the Americans. Eisenhower first learned about the Israeli attack while on a campaign swing through the South. He was absolutely furious. Eden had betrayed him; his allies had deliberately deceived him. They might inadvertently set off a far wider international crisis, involving a direct clash with the Soviet Union. And they had done so while America was preoccupied with the Presidential election, only a week away. Eisenhower was so angry that he called 10 Downing Street and personally gave Eden “unshirted hell.” Or at least that is what Eisenhower thought he was doing. In fact, he was in such a rage that he mistook one of Eden’s aides, who took the call, for the Prime Minister himself, and without waiting for the answerer to identify himself, the President dumped the diatribe on the hapless aide and then hung up before Eden could be summoned to the phone.
On November 3, it was Dulles’s turn to be rushed to the hospital; acute stomach cancer was diagnosed, and a substantial part of his stomach was removed. So now three of the key players were sick. With Dulles out from November 3 onward, day-to-day control of U.S. foreign policy rested in the hands of Undersecretary Herbert Hoover, Jr., who had put together the Iranian consortium and who was regarded in London as antipathetic to the British.
For several reasons—logistical problems, poor planning, and Eden’s vacillation—there was a gap of several days before the British and French troops could follow up their ultimatum and carry out their invasion of the Canal Zone. Meanwhile, Nasser had been quick to act exactly where the most damage could be done. He scuttled dozens of ships filled with rocks and cement and old beer bottles, effectively blocking the waterway, and thus choking off the supply of oil, the security of which had been the immediate reason for the attack. Syrian engineers, on instructions from Nasser, sabotaged the pumping stations along the pipeline of the Iraq Petroleum Company, further reducing supplies.14
During the months of joint planning to avert oil shortages if Nasser closed the canal, the British had always assumed that the United States would step into any breach with American supplies. That assumption proved to be a large and decisive mistake, no less a miscalculation than their inattention to the date of the Presidential election. Eisenhower refused to permit any of the emergency supply arrangements to be put into action. “I’m inclined to think,” he told aides, “that those who began this operation should be left to work out their own oil problems—to boil in their own oil, so to speak.” Petroleum would provide the way for Washington to punish and pressure its allies in Western Europe. Instead of providing supplies to America’s allies, Eisenhower would impose sanctions.
By November 5, the Israelis had consolidated control over the Sinai and the Gaza Strip and had secured the Strait of Tiran. On that same day, British and French forces began their airborne assault on the Canal Zone. “I remember the phone call from Eden,” recalled a British diplomat at the United Nations, “and hearing in that clipped First World War aristocratic accent, ‘the paraboys are being dropped.’ It was an unreal world, as though he were ringing up from Mars.” The day before, Soviet troops had reentered Budapest and brutally proceeded to crush the rebellion in Hungary. The coincidence of Suez precluded any effective common Western response to the Hungarian uprising and Soviet intervention. Indeed, without even a hint of embarrassment or self-consciousness, Moscow vituperatively denounced the British, French, and Israelis as “aggressors.” The Soviets also threatened military intervention, perhaps even nuclear attacks on Paris and London. Any such assaults would result in devastating counterattacks on the Soviet Union, Eisenhower made clear—“as surely as night follows day.”
Despite Ike’s reply, the anger of the U.S. government toward Britain, France, and Israel continued unabated. The message from Washington remained the same: It did not approve of the military action, and the British and French would have to stop. On November 6, Eisenhower won a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. That same day, the British and French agreed to a cease-fire in place; they had by then achieved only a foothold along the canal. For them, the war had lasted barely a day, and its objective, unrestricted use of the canal, had already been lost. But Washington made clear that a cease-fire was not enough. They would have to withdraw. And so would Israel, or it would face economic reprisals from Washington. Eisenhower told his own advisers that it was imperative not to “get the Arabs sore at all of us,” because they might embargo oil shipments from the entire Middle East.
Without American aid, all of Western Europe would soon be short of oil. Winter was coming, and the stock levels were only enough for several weeks. The normal route for three-quarters of Western Europe’s oil was now interrupted by the combined loss of transit through the canal and the Middle Eastern pipelines. In addition, Saudi Arabia instituted an embargo against Britain and France. In Kuwait, acts of sabotage shut down that country’s supply system. When word was brought to the British Cabinet’s Egypt Committee that the United States was considering oil sanctions against Britain and France, Harold Macmillan threw his arms up in the air. “Oil sanctions!” he said. “That finishes it.” On November 7, the British government announced that consumption would have to be cut by 10 percent. Upon entering the House of Commons, Eden was greeted with catcalls from the Labour opposition, which had flipflopped from its initial vigorous endorsement of a strong policy against Nasser. Critics in Parliament now declared that, if ration coupons were issued, they should bear a portrait of Sir Anthony Eden.
On November 9, Eisenhower met with the National Security Council to begin considering help for the Europeans. He talked about getting the oil companies to cooperate on a major supply program. “Despite my stiff-necked Attorney General,” he said with a smile, he would provide the companies with a certificate that they were operating in the interests of national security, thus protecting them from antitrust action. But what would happen if the heads of the oil companies landed in jail anyway for participating in such a program? Why, said the President, laughing, he would pardon them. But he also made emphatically clear that all this was only contingency planning. Absolutely no emergency oil supply program would be put into effect until the British and French had actually begun to withdraw from Egypt. Europeans bitterly complained that the United States was going to punish Britain and France by “keeping them in purgatory.” The international oil companies, seeing shortages develop, begged the Eisenhower Administration to activate the Middle East Emergency Committee. But, as one oil company executive put it, “The Administration simply refused.”
Britain was economically vulnerable in another way. Its international finances were very shaky, and once the military assault began at Suez, an immense run on the pound started. The British strongly believed that the run was carried out with the acquiescence, perhaps with the support and even instigation, of the Eisenhower Administration. The International Monetary Fund, under American prodding, refused London’s pleas for emergency financial aid. The economics minister at the British embassy in Washington reported to London that he was meeting a “brick wall at every turn” in Washington in seeking the urgently required financial support. The Americans, he added, “seem determined to treat us as naughty boys who have got to be taught that they cannot go off and act on their own without asking Nanny’s permission first.”15
By the middle of November, United Nations “peacekeeping” troops had begun to arrive in Egypt. But the Eisenhower Administration indicated that purgatory was not over: The Middle East Emergency Committee would not be activated until all the British and French troops were out of Egypt. An oil shortage appeared imminent. Eisenhower wrote to his wartime compatriot, the British general Lord Ismay, now head of NATO, about “the sadness in which the free world has become involved.” He was “far from being indifferent to the fuel and financial plight of Western Europe,” but reiterated his desire not to “antagonize the Arab world.” That last consideration was, he said, “an extremely delicate matter” that “cannot be publicly talked about.” Ismay sent back his appreciation for the message, but confidentially warned Eisenhower that “next spring might well find NATO forces practically immobilized by lack of oil.” Finally, at the end of November, London and Paris pledged a swift withdrawal of their forces from Suez. Only then did Eisenhower authorize the activation of the Middle East Emergency Committee. The Americans had carried the day. They also added to the burden of defeat and humiliation the British and French had already suffered at Nasser’s hands. In the whole messy business, Nasser was the only clear winner.
Yet in mid-November, while British and French troops were still in Egypt, Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd had made a visit to John Foster Dulles in his room at the Walter Reed Hospital. A most puzzling conversation had there ensued, at least according to Lloyd’s recollection.
“Selwyn, why did you stop?” Dulles asked. “Why didn’t you go through with it and get Nasser down?”
Lloyd was flabbergasted. After all, this was the same Secretary of State who had, seemingly, done everything he could to head off Anglo-French action, and whose government had effectively terminated action once it began.
“Well, Foster,” Lloyd replied, “if you had so much as winked at us we might have gone on.”
He couldn’t have done that, Dulles replied.16
The “Oil Lift” and the “Sugar Bowl”: Surmounting the Crisis
At the beginning of December, a month after the canal’s closing, with Britain and France thwarted and all of Western Europe on the brink of an energy crisis, the emergency supply program finally swung into operation. The Oil Lift, as it was called, was a cooperative venture of governments and oil companies in both Europe and the United States.
For the most part, oil production in the Middle East had not been interrupted. The problem was, first of all, one of transportation. The solution was to tap into other supplies. Owing to the shorter distances and shorter travel time, any given tanker could transport twice as much oil from the Western Hemisphere to Europe as from the Persian Gulf, around the Cape of Good Hope, to Europe. Therefore, the main focus of the emergency committees was the wholesale redeployment of tankers so that the Western Hemisphere would once again be the main supply source for Europe, as it had been up to the end of the 1940s. Tankers were rerouted, they were shared among companies, supplies were swapped—all with the objective of moving oil in the quickest, most efficient way possible.
In Europe, extensive efforts were made to ensure that the emergency supplies—which became known as “the sugar bowl”—were equitably distributed among the various countries. The Organization for European Economic Cooperation (subsequently the OECD) created a Petroleum Emergency Group, which actually made the allocations, based on a formula that reflected pre-Suez oil use, stock levels, and local energy supplies. The Oil Lift was complemented by rationing and other demand-restraint measures. Belgium banned private driving on Sundays. France limited sales by oil companies to 70 percent of pre-Suez levels. Britain slapped new taxes on oil, which resulted in higher gasoline and fuel oil prices and led to a hike in London taxi fares that became immortalized as the “Suez sixpence.” Power plants were encouraged to switch from oil to coal; by the end of December, Britain was rationing gasoline.
Though the disposition of tankers was the number-one problem, oil supply itself turned out to be right behind. It was estimated that Western Hemisphere production would have to be increased substantially to meet Europe’s needs—much of that extra supply to be drawn from the United States, where there was a great deal of shut-in capacity. The international companies aggressively scoured U.S. crude markets for all the extra supplies they could obtain for the Oil Lift. But neither the companies nor the concerned governments had reckoned with the Texas Railroad Commission, which, to almost everyone else’s consternation, barely allowed any increase in production in the critical winter months of 1957, and basically kept the shut-in production shut in. Here was a new arena for the old battle between independent producers and major companies. As an internal memorandum for Jersey’s board delicately put it, the railroad commission reflected the independent producers in Texas, “whose interests normally are wholly domestic.” The commission feared that a buildup of crude inventories inland, as well as gasoline inventories for which there was no extra call from Europe, would depress prices. And, of course, if anything, it wanted higher, not lower prices.
The commission’s refusal to allow significantly higher production set off a storm of disapproval. Eric Drake of British Petroleum called it “nothing less than a calamity for Europe.” One of Jersey’s European representatives said it was “disastrous” and could lead to a 50 percent drop in the company’s supplies to Europe. Both Eden and Macmillan personally protested the policies of the Texas Railroad Commission, and the British press denounced this unknown and mysterious agency deep in the heart of Texas. The Daily Express declared: “No Extra Oil—Say Texas Wise Men.” The venerable Texas Railroad commissioner, Colonel E. O. Thompson, did not hesitate to give as good as he got. To the complaints from Great Britain, he replied, “We have already shipped her many barrels of crude, but we only get criticism for not going all out at her bidding. England apparently still looks on us as a province or dominion.”
The mood among Texas producers improved markedly when they got what they wanted out of the majors and the marketplace. Humble, the Jersey affiliate in Texas, fearing a shortage of supply, announced that it would raise the price at which it bought oil in the fields by thirty-five cents a barrel. Other companies followed suit; additional crude became available from Texas producers, and supply for the Oil Lift surged. But soon there was a new storm of denunciation—this time of the oil companies, which were accused of collusion to raise prices. In the face of a shortage, higher prices sent out a necessary double signal: to increase supply and to reduce demand, both of which were not only welcome and constructive in the midst of the Suez oil crisis, but probably necessary to make the Oil Lift work. Yet, oil and politics being what they were, the price increases resulted in much controversy and led to highly charged Congressional hearings, which filled more than 2,800 pages, and to a new antitrust prosecution of twenty-nine oil companies by the Justice Department. The case would eventually be thrown out in 1960, when a Federal judge ruled that there was “economic justification” for the price increases and that the government’s evidence “does not rise above the level of suspicion.”
The Oil Lift involved a tremendous job of coordination and logistical dexterity. It drew upon the experience and personnel that had been involved in the Allies’Atlantic oil supply system during World War II. Yet considerable bureaucratic and administrative complexity had to be overcome. A host of governments, companies, and supply committees had to establish guidelines, marshal information and communicate it, and make sure the programs were properly implemented. There was much room for confusion, but the Oil Lift worked so well that it looked almost effortless. It was not. Afterward, one oil company executive tried to explain how misleading it was to believe that, during a crisis, “all you had to do is push a button and everything is all right.” It was an admonition that should have been kept in mind for future crises.17
By the spring of 1957, the oil crisis was finally coming to an end, owing mainly to the unanticipated effectiveness of the Oil Lift. Almost 90 percent of the lost supplies had been compensated for. In Europe, the immediate conservation measures, abetted by warm weather, made up for much of the rest of the lost supplies, so that the actual shortage was quite small. Overall, the European economy was not as vulnerable to oil disruptions as it would later become. In 1956, oil was only responsible for about 20 percent of total energy consumption. Though shifting, Europe was still primarily a coal economy. That, in the years to come, would change.
In March 1957 the Iraq Petroleum pipelines were partly reopened, and by April, the Suez Canal had been sufficiently cleared for tankers to resume passage. Nasser had won; the canal now unequivocally belonged to, and was operated by, Egypt. While the Egyptian Suez Canal pilots did not dress as crisply as their British and French predecessors, they were quite adequate to the navigational task. The Persian Gulf producers were keen to get supplies moving again; Kuwait had seen its production drop by half owing to the inability to transport oil. In April, the American government suspended the emergency Oil Lift program. In mid-May, the British government terminated gasoline rationing and then took the final grudging step of directing “British shipping to use the Suez Canal.” With that, the Suez crisis was really over.18
The Exit of “Sir Eden”
One of the American participants was later to remember the crisis as “a curious time, those Suez months. There was high comedy, low conspiracy, and deep tragedy, but mostly tragedy—for individuals and for nations.” It constituted a huge personal tragedy for Prime Minister Anthony Eden—whom Nasser called “Sir Eden”—who had until then amassed an extraordinary record of prescience, courage, and diplomatic skill, but whose reputation was to be ignominiously scuttled with the ships that Nasser sent to the bottom of the canal. Eden, who had prepared so long for the prime ministership, was under constant emotional pressure throughout the crisis. In November, while the crisis still raged, his ill health forced him to take a long vacation in Jamaica, in a house loaned to him by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. On his return, Eden’s doctors told him that his health would not allow him to function as Prime Minister. He spent the days between Christmas and New Year’s quietly at Chequers, thinking about his future. In a letter to a friend at that time, he described himself as “so unrepentant …I find it strange that so few, if any, have compared these events to 1936—yet it is so like.” In January 1957 he resigned.
One of the first to be told was Harold Macmillan, who was next door at Number 11 Downing Street, when Eden summoned him into the little drawing room at the front of 10 Downing Street. “I can see him now on that sad winter afternoon,” Macmillan wrote in his diary, “still looking so youthful, so gay, so debonair—the representative of all that was best of the youth that had served in the 1914–1918 War…. The survivors of that terrible holocaust had often felt under a special obligation, like men under a vow of duty. It was in this spirit that he and I had entered politics. Now, after these long years of service, at the peak of his authority, he had been struck down by a mysterious but inescapable fate.” Stunned, Macmillan walked sadly back through the connecting passage to the Chancellor’s residence at Number 11 Downing Street. The next morning, he sat under a portrait of Gladstone, at Number 11, quietly reading Pride and Prejudice to soothe his soul, until interrupted by a phone call asking him to come to the Palace to be invested as Prime Minister.
Suez was a watershed for Britain. It was to cause as severe a rupture in British culture as in that nation’s politics and its international position. Yet Suez did not presage Britain’s decline; rather, it made obvious what had already come to pass. Britain no longer belonged to the top echelon of world powers. The bleeding of two world wars and the divisions at home had heavily drained not only its exchequer, but also its confidence and political will. Eden had no doubt that he had done the right thing at Suez. Years later, theTimes of London said of Anthony Eden, “He was the last prime minister to believe Britain was a great power and the first to confront a crisis which proved she was not.” It was as much an epitaph for an empire and a state of mind as for a man.19
The Future of Security: Pipelines Versus Tankers
The Suez crisis gave the international oil industry considerable food for thought. Despite the return to operation of the canal, the oil companies were no longer confident that they could rely on it. A great deal of discussion followed among companies and governments about building more pipelines. But Syria’s interdiction of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s line had shown how vulnerable pipelines were to interruption. Clearly, they were not the sole answer to the overriding question of transit safety. The risks were too obvious.
In all the agitated discussion in 1956 about the Suez Canal as the jugular, one point had not been given much attention: If the canal and the Middle Eastern pipelines were vulnerable, there was a safer alternative—the route around the Cape of Good Hope. To be economical and practical, however, supplying Western Europe by that route would require much larger tankers, capable of carrying a great deal more oil. The general view in the industry, however, was that, physically, such tankers could not be constructed. But Japanese shipyards, taking advantage of advances in diesel engines and better steels, were soon proving otherwise. “In 1956, the tanker people were saying larger ships would be too expensive, their fuel costs too high,” recalled John Loudon, senior managing director of Shell. “The amazing thing to me was how quickly these tankers were being manufactured by the Japanese.” Not only would they prove to be eminently economical, they would also provide the requisite security. Thus, supertankers, along with the decline of British influence and prestige and the ascendancy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, were among the consequences of the Suez Crisis. As one British official put it, “Tankers clearly were less subject to political risk.”20
To End the Suez Schism
In the wake of Suez, much bitterness toward the Americans remained on the part of the British and French. Eisenhower, the British ambassador in Washington acidly commented in early 1957, “has the American boy scout views about colonialism, the United Nations and the effectiveness of phrases as act of policy…. The need to save his health, added to natural inclination, have made him one of the idlest (if the most revered) Presidents known to American history.”
During the crisis, the United States had focused on trying to bolster its position with Arab oil producers. Eisenhower himself put great emphasis on “building up King Saud as a major figure in the Middle Eastern area” as an alternative to Nasser and on making clear to Arab oil producers that the United States intended to work to “restore Middle East oil markets in Western Europe.” Beyond that consideration, there was also the thrust to support stable pro-Western governments in the Middle East as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. Britain and France certainly shared both those strategic objectives. Their differences were over means, not ends.21
Yet on both sides of the Atlantic there was recognition of the need to heal the Suez schism. The process would be much aided by the fact that the new Prime Minister was Harold Macmillan, who was to become known for his “unflappability,” though he would later admit that, internally, he often “suffered from agonies of nervous apprehension.” He and Eisenhower had worked together during World War II and had maintained friendship and high regard for each other. When Macmillan was mentioned as a possible successor to Eden, Eisenhower described him as “a straight, fine man.” Somehow it did not hurt at all that Macmillan’s mother came from a small town in Indiana. Macmillan was also a realist. After the hard lesson of Suez, he said, it was the “rulers in Washington, in whose hands all our destinies largely lay.” That was simply a fact. To Eisenhower’s good wishes, Macmillan replied, “I have no illusions about the headaches in store for me, but thirty-three years of parliamentary life have left me pretty tough, without, I hope, atrophying my sense of humor.”
The Middle East and oil were, of course, among his most troublesome headaches, along with the rift in the American alliance. The formal process of healing was to take place at the Bermuda Conference between Eisenhower and Macmillan, which was held in March 1957 at the Mid-Ocean Golf Club. Oil was much on Macmillan’s mind as he prepared for the meeting. He requested a map showing the various oil companies’ positions in the Middle East, as well as a “family tree” of the companies themselves. The intertwined subjects of oil and Middle Eastern security formed one of the major subjects at the meeting itself. As Eisenhower later said, there was “some very plain talk” about oil, including the possibility of promoting the construction of supertankers. Suez had taught all the Western powers about the volatility of the Middle East; and now at Bermuda, the British emphasized the importance of maintaining the independence of Kuwait and the other states along the Gulf, all of whose rulers seemed very vulnerable to Nasserite coups d’état. Both sides agreed on the need for Britain to do everything it could to ensure the security of the Gulf. Calling Middle Eastern oil “the biggest prize in the world,” Macmillan urged cooperation between the two governments to achieve long-term peace and prosperity in the area—the sort of “common approach,” he said, that they had during the war.
The Bermuda Conference did help to close the schism between Britain and America. Eisenhower and Macmillan promised to write privately and “freely” to each other as often as once a week. After all, the two countries did indeed have common objectives in the Middle East. But as Suez had so dramatically demonstrated, in the years ahead it would be America, not Britain, whose power would predominate.
In 1970, fourteen years after the Suez Crisis, the Conservatives won the general election in Britain and Edward Heath became Prime Minister. He arranged a dinner at 10 Downing Street for Lord Avon, as Anthony Eden had now become, and whose chief whip Heath had been in 1956 during the Suez Crisis. For Eden, his own return as an honored guest to Number 10 was a wonderfully sentimental evening. Heath made a witty and charming speech, and Eden rose to respond impromptu. He offered a special prayer for the British people—that they might discover “a lake of oil” under the North Sea. That was exactly what they were just beginning to do in 1970, though they would not be able to benefit from it in time to prevent Edward Heath from being toppled by another energy crisis. How different things might have been in 1956 had the British then known of, or even suspected, the existence of such a lake.22