The British Empire Library

Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis That Shook the World

by Alex von Tunzelmann

Blood and Sand tells the story of the unfolding events around the Suez Canal Crisis which were occurring at almost exactly the same time as the Hungarian uprising at the tail end of 1956. The Suez Canal crisis was an unmitigated disaster for Britain as Anthony Eden vainly sought to keep British influence in the Middle East through subterfuge and deceit accompanied by military action. In his own mind, he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s Appeasement Policy towards Fascist Italy and Germany. He felt that Nasser was as big a tyrant and had to be confronted especially after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The supreme irony here was that Britain's biggest rival for influence in the region was ostensibly her ally the United States.

At first, I did not really take to this book. It certainly laid a lot of blame at the feet of the British, who certainly deserve much of that blame, but seemed less inclined to apportion blame to the other actors involved. I am firmly in the camp that this was a pig's ear debacle for nearly all who participated in it. The Americans who pulled the rug from under Eden are every bit as complicit in sending out incredibly mixed messages. The CIA seemed to be running wild and playing dangerous political games throughout the region and worst of all appeared answerable to nobody at this point in time. Furthermore, John Foster Dulles seemed to single handedly drive Nasser into the hands of the Russians by unilaterally pulling funding for the Aswan Dam without consulting anyone. His position towards the British was hostile from start to finish and seemed designed to undermine them throughout the Middle East. It would prove to be cold comfort to the British that he would later turn on Nasser once again shortly after he had done so much to frustrate the Anglo-French Suez operation and secured Nasser's position for good. Eisenhower also deserves more blame than the author is willing to allocate. Indeed she says that for once in politics a US President did the right thing for the right reason. I would argue that his position was largely based around political timing. It just happened that the US Presidential Election where Eisenhower was seeking reelection was occurring at exactly the same time as the Suez Crisis. If the British and French made one particularly awful decision it was to do with their timing. Had they waited just a couple of weeks until after the US Presidential election, Eisenhower's response may well have been more muted. Of course, it would also have occurred after the Hungary uprising which also made it difficult for the West to criticise the USSR when an invasion force was heading to Egypt at exactly the same time.

There were many other comments on the Middle Eastern back story to the events which undermined my confidence in the story before the author even got to the Suez Crisis. She seemed to want to create a narrative that the British were duplicitous and had designs on Egypt throughout their history together. I would argue that the British were often more reactive than proactive in Egyptian affairs but this author sees more sinister and organised forces at work throughout. For example, she failed to explain why the French failed to intervene in Egypt when the British did in 1882. It was supposed to be an Anglo-French intervention and it certainly was not Britain's fault that domestic difficulties saw the French fail to join in. Another misunderstanding was provided by the author when she made the comment that the Royal Navy was finally persuaded to switch to oil during the First World War. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Royal Navy was a real pioneer of oil powered ship construction. It started its conversion in 1911 under the orders of Winston Churchill. What was remarkable about this was that Britain had no oil supply of her own but had huge coal reserves. It was a far sighted decision with profound implications for the British involvement in the Middle East as this book could have explained. Indeed, Britain's connection to Persia and the Gulf does not really get mentioned at all except in passing. In fact, I think that the author missed one more critical rationale that made Eden take the fatal decision to intervene in Egypt. She fails to draw parallels with the British Government's failure to stand up to the Persian nationalisation of their oilfields in Abadan in 1951. I think there are far more useful parallels between this nationalisation event which fundamentally weakened the British in the Gulf region and the Suez Canal nationalisation. The author also contended that the famous 1917 Balfour Declaration was purely to 'stitch up the French and shut up the Americans'. This seems overly simplistic and antagonistic. It certainly had consequences but if anything it was designed to appeal to American Jews to help persuade them to lobby for American's entrance into the First World War. The author also seemed somewhat surprised that the British did not draw down its troops in Egypt in 1941 when World War Two was raging and the Axis forces were definitely threatening this vital communications link. This should not surprise anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the Second World War in North Africa. It seems as if the author had a narrative drive to tell the story that the British were at fault and felt compelled to use any evidence to support this. Although interestingly, one piece of evidence that she could have used, she did not. The Abdeen Palace Incident of 1942 is not even mentioned. This was where the British were able to reassert their authority in Egypt as German forces were perilously close to driving the British out of Egypt. It is a strange omission in light of her thesis.

Where the book does deliver is in giving contemporaneous accounts of the unfolding diplomatic manoeuvres in the various seats of government. It also weaves in the events in Hungary in a way that makes you appreciate the closeness of the events and how they may have influenced the decision makers in all directions. As I mentioned earlier, timing is a key component in the unfolding events, and the use of real time chapters is an effective device.

There is plenty of blame to go around and Eden definitely deserves the lion's share. How he felt that aligning with the Israelis would do anything but harm to the British reputation in the Middle East is difficult of fathom. How he thought he could keep this secret is even more baffling. However, the French were no angels in this event and their paratroopers in particular, battle hardened in Algeria, were responsible for some heinous crimes. The Israelis were shameless in wishing to take advantage of the British and French desire to get one over on Egypt. The Americans almost seemed to treat Middle Eastern politics as a game with the CIA supporting coups, promoting yes men and dropping them just as rapidly if the short term advantages seemed to merit it. Pretty much anything went as long as their power and influence was increased. The Americans may well have displaced the British in the Middle East but they helped suck the Russians into replace the colonial powers in large swathes for many years in their stead.

The book basically concludes that the world went from 3 superpowers to 2 after these events in 1956 which it is hard to argue with. It is clear that Britain was trying to stay with the big boys in the post war period but signally failed. The military plan did not fit the political objectives and its slow execution made it even less suitable. Perhaps the wisest words words in the book were from the retired Montgomery when he told Eden that getting rid of Nasser was not good enough and that they would need to know what the political aim was after he was toppled in order to plan the right kind of operation. You cannot but help wonder why British and American generals did not make such incisive comments to their political masters in the more recent Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.

The book is written very clearly but there were so many early factual errors that I struggled to take the rest of the book seriously. I also think it gives far too warm a pass to the Americans. It is ironic to say the least that reducing British influence would haunt the Americans subsequently. The Americans soon filled the roles of the departing colonial powers in order to keep Communism at bay. The Americans also learned that decolonisation was not an easy process and that Imperial Powers who walked away too quickly might be replaced by Communists, religious fundamentalists, corrupt cronies, etc... And when the Americans sought British help to fight in their own wars like in Vietnam, the British remembered Eisenhower's failure to support them in Suez only too well and steered a wide berth. Eisenhower had felt compelled to punish Britain and France in November 1956 as he wished to portray himself as a peacemaker during the Presidential campaign and at a time of escalating tensions in the Cold War. It would have helped Eisenhower if he had had a Secretary of State who was consistent and did not send such a continuous stream of mixed messages. It did not help matters that John Foster Dulles was further compromised by having his own brother at the CIA with his own buccaneering style and agenda. But it was John Foster Dulles' contradictory messages and lack of clarity which meant that both Britain and France did not fully appreciate American policy aims whilst making crucial decisions of their own. As it was, the Suez debacle was a watershed in the declining influence for Britain and France as imperial powers. France would see its own Fourth Republic disappear within two years of the crisis. The British actually learned that it was better to walk away from its colonies with friendship rather than enmity. It would be Eden's replacement of Harold Macmillan (who had paradoxically been a Suez hawk) who would give the Wind of Change speech in Africa just a few years later and see Britain grant independence to the bulk of the remainder of its Empire with remarkably little blood and little rancour. In that respect at least, Suez may well have been a blessing in disguise.

British Empire Book
Alex von Tunzelmann
Simon & Schuster UK