Piers Brendon

A Most Violent Year

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

By Alex von Tunzelmann

Simon & Schuster 466pp £25 order from our bookshop

Alex von Tunzelmann provides no rationale for this book but it appears at an opportune moment. It not only marks the sixtieth anniversary of the invasion of Suez but also coincides with the publication of the Chilcot Report, which shows how Tony Blair, like Anthony Eden, took Britain to war under false pretences. After their respective incursions into the Middle East both men stressed that they had done what was right and acted in good faith. Chilcot has now demolished Blair’s defence: he knew at the time that the intelligence branding Saddam Hussein a threat was not, as he asserted, ‘beyond doubt’; and he publicly declared that no decision to attack Iraq had been taken while privately assuring President George W Bush, himself committed to regime change, ‘I will be with you, whatever.’ No damning official verdict was pronounced on Eden, whose mendacity was far more flagrant than Blair’s. Full exposure of the squalid and disastrous conspiracy in which he engaged in 1956 has been left to historians.

Tunzelmann’s history of the Anglo-French-Israeli assault on Egypt, whose leader, Colonel Nasser, had nationalised the Suez Canal Company and was fomenting anti-colonial feeling throughout the Arab world, is particularly valuable because she juxtaposes it with a blow-by-blow account of the simultaneous Soviet occupation of Hungary. The two events were intimately connected. In the face of imperialist aggression in the Middle East, Khrushchev felt that he had to quell opposition in Eastern Europe. He thus took advantage of the Suez conflict to crush the nationalist uprising in the satellite state. The Russian government, said the British ambassador to Moscow, regards ‘Suez as a heaven-sent distraction from Hungary’. As the UK’s representative at the United Nations reported, British protests against the Russian bombing of Budapest could not carry much conviction ‘if we ourselves are bombing Cairo’.

‘Bombs, by God,’ President Eisenhower exclaimed. ‘What does Anthony think he’s doing? Why is he doing this to me?’ Ike was politically outraged that Eden had ignored his statesmanlike advice not to use force, which could only help the USSR in the Cold War, and personally affronted that his old wartime comrade was trying to mislead him about the attack. This stemmed from the plot hatched by Eden, Guy Mollet and David Ben-Gurion, whereby Israel would strike at Egypt and the European powers would intervene on the pretence of separating the belligerents but really with the intention to topple Nasser and seize the Suez area. Eisenhower, though preoccupied by his re-election campaign, was not deceived for long. Indeed, the plot was absurdly transparent. The Anglo-French ultimatum of 30 October demanding that both Israel and Egypt withdraw ten miles from the canal would have actually involved a 100-mile Israeli advance. Some Whitehall and Westminster insiders thought Eden not just ill but mad.

Eden was, at any rate, so desperate to conceal his collusion with Israel that the military campaign was hamstrung from the start. British commanders only learned the secret from the less hypocritical French. And they had to delay operations in order to preserve the illusion that their forces were peacekeepers – much as British troops were starved of vital equipment before the 2003 invasion of Iraq to hide the fact that Blair had decided to go to war. Where the 1956 conflict was not a tragedy, as in the Israeli massacres at Kfar Kassem, Khan Yunis and Rafah, it was a farce. Ordered to change targets mid-air, RAF pilots bombed Cairo International Airport under the impression that it was a military aerodrome. British intelligence was, to coin a phrase, patchy and sporadic. One agent mistook a chart depicting the reorganisation of the Egyptian Interior Ministry, which had actually been drawn up by the Americans, for a description of Nasser’s secret service. Tunzelmann plausibly suggests that MI6 was not just incompetent but corrupt, peddling fictions to cover up its inability to discover facts, doubtless to ingratiate itself with its political masters.

So abruptly was the ceasefire called, on 6 November, that the last British units were landing as the first were withdrawing. What swayed Eden was not so much opposition at home and in the United Nations as Eisenhower’s refusal to alleviate Britain’s crippling shortage of dollars and oil. Eisenhower is the hero of Tunzelmann’s story. This is understandable: compared to George W Bush, he was a statesman of genius. Eisenhower opposed the Suez invasion more forcefully than his ailing secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. Nor would he countenance American involvement in the assassination of Nasser, which Eden wanted.

He also prevented Khrushchev from driving a wedge between the Western democracies and remained calm in the face of veiled nuclear threats, accepting the impossibility of stopping the Russians in Hungary without provoking a third world war. Unmoved by the Jewish lobby in America, he forced Israel to disgorge its conquests, though he could not stop France helping its new ally to become a nuclear power. Afterwards the president was magnanimous. He sympathised with Eden for fighting to maintain his country’s prestige as its empire melted away and he recommended a new role for Britain as leader of the European Common Market. Of course that aspiration has now been skunked by Brexit, itself partly the result of festering distrust of our political leaders.

However, Tunzelmann doesn’t get Eisenhower quite right. She says that Churchill had a ‘genuine respect’ for him, whereas he actually considered Eisenhower ‘weak and stupid’. She gives little impression of the president’s amiable aversion to categorical statements, his dialectical ‘zigging and zagging’, which allowed Eden to infer that he would back the Suez venture in the end – as Eisenhower admitted that he might have done if presented with a swift fait accompli. Nor does she quote Eisenhower’s chilling remark to his deputy chief of staff: ‘I just can’t understand why the British did not bump off Nasser. They have been doing it for years and then when faced with it they fumble.’

Although well written and well informed, Blood and Sand adds little to a familiar narrative and its account of the political background is somewhat jejune. For example, the book sheds no fresh light on the galvanising effect in Eastern Europe of the Republican Party’s rhetoric about rolling back communism. Nor does it say much about the way in which Eden, whose record on appeasement was shaky, felt compelled to ape Churchill in order to quash right-wing Tory accusations of ‘scuttle’. It is arguable, in fact, that Eden, a dandy even in bed, where he wore tailored double-breasted pyjamas, was as much a victim of vanity as Blair, who spent extravagantly on cosmetics and ached to walk tall beside the most powerful man in the world.

But Tunzelmann succeeds admirably in her detailed coverage of the twin events. And her indictment of Eden’s criminal folly is devastating. The invasion of Suez was an abject failure: it strengthened Nasser, left the canal under Egyptian control and blasted the standing of the colonial powers. Furthermore, as she says, it ‘scattered dragon’s teeth on all-too-fertile soil. Across the whole of the Middle East, not just in Israel and Palestine, these would for decades bear gruesome fruit.’ Needless to say, Bush and Blair learned nothing from history and the Iraq War has vastly exacerbated these evils.

Royal Shakespeare Company

Donmar Warehouse

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