Hungary-Suez Crisis: Fifty Years on: Session 1: The Suez Crisis

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

RICHARD N. HAASS: Okay, as Doug makes his way up here, let me start. I’m Richard Haass, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.

It is now, as you know, October 2006. Fifty years ago, three important things happened. Two of them we are going to discuss tonight. We are going to discuss Suez and we are going to discuss Hungary. Despite the fact I am president of this institution, I could not get on the agenda the other great thing to have happened in October 1956, which is Don Larsen’s perfect game. (Laughter.) I will let you all debate which among the three is the most historically significant.

The way tonight is going to work is we’re going to spend an hour or so discussing Suez. We are then going to break for dinner upstairs in the Rockefeller Room, and then we are going to continue the evening dealing with Hungary afterwards. There’s a joke to be made about dealing with Hungary after rather than before dinner, but I will leave it to you to figure it out.

I also would hope that those of you who still have your cell phones on, turn them off. Indeed, just about any electronic device, with the exceptions of hearing aids and pacemakers, I would hope, would be off.

The way we’re going to do this tonight is after I do a very brief introduction of the four extraordinarily learned and thoughtful and creative individuals flanking me, I will have the fun of doing what I have always wanted to do, which is ask a lot of questions about this. And then I’ll try to save a few minutes for you all to have some of the same fun. And then, again, we will try to move upstairs at about 7:00.

I’m going to dispense with long introductions. You have some introductions in your program: Roger Owen, stage right, far left to me. Roger is a distinguished professor at this rural university called Harvard and struggling with an endowment that today alone probably went up more than the endowment of the Council. Roger and I go back a long ways.

Basically what you have up here are several people who used to be at the Middle East Center at St. Anthony’s College, where, among other things, we were colleagues and students of Albert Hourani, who in some ways is the intellectual godfather of this event, because when I was rereading some of his writings recently, I decided that we really needed to revisit the significance of Suez.

The gentleman on my left, Tim Naftali; Tim is one of the great experts on things Soviet and Russian in this country and is currently, I just learned, among other things, writing—you call it a, what, biography would you call it?

TIMOTHY NAFTALI: Presidential biography.

HAASS: A presidential biography of 41, George Herbert Walker Bush.

The gentleman to my immediate right is David Fromkin, who, like several others up here, is an active professor; well, actually, (from ?) what you told me, you teach; I’ll say an inactive professor. It’s the only job I know where it’s a full-time job and you work three hours a week. I’m clearly in the wrong line of work.

Mr. Fromkin, showing how learned he is, is doing it and I am not. And he wrote what I think is just simply one of the great books, a -- (inaudible) -- piece. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is one of those books that leaves me both impressed, because it is so wonderful, and depressed, because I could work from now to the end of time and I could never produce anything 1/26 th as good. It is really, I think, one of the rich histories of basically a century ago, but written in ways that makes it alive and relevant. It’s a real masterpiece.

And the gentleman to his right, last but certainly not least, is Doug Brinkley, who’s one of, I think, the most influential historians writing in the United States. And in the same series that Tim is writing, the book about 41, George Herbert Walker Bush, he is writing the book about 39.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: It would be 38, I think—Gerald Ford.

HAASS: Thirty-eight? Gerald Ford.

MR. : An unelected president.

HAASS: And the only—is writing a book about Mr. Ford. So, again, extraordinary talent up here tonight.

Let me just kick it off with a few questions, and I’m going to start with—I think I’ll start with Roger, since he speaks with the strongest English accent up here but is also a student of the Middle East—but David, I hope you jump in also—which is, why did the Suez crisis happen? What was the fuse that led to it? And was it one of those things that, even in retrospect, was inevitable? Or is this one of those things where people truly mattered, and had other people been on the scene, things might have turned out very differently?

E. ROGER OWEN: Well, it was an extraordinary event in many, many ways. I was in Egypt the first time in June 1956, and the evacuation of the last British troops from Egypt had just taken place. And everybody imagined at that stage that a difficult period in Anglo-Egyptian relations had come to an end.

About a thousand hours later, we heard that President Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, which had a history, of course, because the funding for the canal was denied by the British and the American governments. And then there was this very long-delayed attempt to wrest the canal back from the control of the Egyptian government and to overthrow—it’s not still—the whole facts are not still particularly well-known, but it was clear that the Eden government wished to depose Nasser and put history back and bring in Ancien Regime politicians who had been deposed in 1956.

In many ways, it’s a very grubby affair and a very short-lived affair. The attack was originally going to be in Alexandria. And then, in September 1956, it was changed to Port Said, which was a hopeless military target. And then it was aborted almost immediately that it happened, so there was no real occupation, no invasion, nothing that one can compare with Iraq at the moment.

And yet it also, at the same time, became a world historical event. It became involved in the early stages of the Cold War. It became involved with the non-aligned movement. It’s difficult to think of any part of the world that wasn’t involved in what was actually a feud between Sir Antony Eden and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

DAVID FROMKIN: Yes, I think it was very much that. And I think one has to add that the conflict was not just about Egypt. It was about Jordan. Jordan’s Arab Legion, which had been British officered, was, in effect, taken out of British control. The British officers were discharged. And Eden, after all, had been an Arabist in the foreign office. In the milieus in which he mixed, it was thought that Arabs loved Englishmen.

And what he felt about Nasser, whom he saw taking this away, taking away Jordan, taking away Egypt, was not a rational reaction. We were just talking about this before. The quote I had read of Eden’s was when he said about Nasser, “I want him killed.” And Roger tells me that the correct quote is, “I want him murdered.” So you were not dealing with a rational policymaker in London.

HAASS: Roger, let me ask just one other question at this point. Do we know how much Nasser predicted what would happen, as opposed to how much he was genuinely surprised by the chain of events? Did he know what he was essentially starting?

OWEN: I think he thought he would get away with it, because he was on the tide of history, which was taking over national assets, which was happening all around the independent postcolonial world at that time. And I think he thought he got support from the United Nations. And until the collusion came along in October, I’m pretty sure he thought he would get away with it.

There is one other thing, though, that the Egyptian records were entirely closed. Nobody to this day can put chapter and verse to anything that Nasser thought. And I’m not sure—in Egypt it’s a rather strange event at the moment, because nobody actually knows the Egyptian side of the story, because the records are—actually, people don’t even know where the records are.

HAASS: Well, anyone who’s been to the antiquities museum in Cairo would understand this. (Laughter.) It may not be an act of policy. It may simply be a reflection of reality.

Doug, let me bring you in for a second here, which is the American reaction to this. Could you say something about it? And was there much debate? The reason I mention it is I had a foreign policy teacher in college who was, as it turned out, Adlai Stevenson’s principal, or one of Adlai Stevenson’s two principal foreign policy advisers, a gentleman named Bob Tuss (sp), who stunned me even at the ripe old age—I think I was 19 at the time—saying that the principal mistake the Americans made was in opposing what the British and French were up to.

BRINKLEY: That was certainly the view of some of the Atlantic alliance people, the Dean Acheson crowd, who thought that Eisenhower bungled the Suez crisis by the mere fact that Britain and France didn’t think they had to inform the president of the United States what they were doing; so, for those (real ?) Atlanticists, a kind of corroding Atlantic alliance, the fact that Britain and France would operate behind the back of Dwight Eisenhower.

I might say we’ve really—when you deal with Eisenhower and Suez, Eisenhower-Dulles, the number one person, really, in the country is here, Richard Immerman, who you’ll hear from later, and he writes a great deal about the New Look policy in Eisenhower’s liberation and roll-back of Dulles. And also Zachary Karabell here wrote a great book on Suez.

I think one of the reasons Suez isn’t being talked about that much right now as a big historic moment is it used to be written up as a failure. I mean, I think Eisenhower’s—what it belied was this notion of liberation theory or that we were going to always back the Atlantic alliance. In many ways it was a breakaway from the Truman-Acheson notion that you always put the primacy of the Atlantic alliance first.

Here you have Eisenhower chastising Britain and France and seeming to be sidelined, the most powerful country in the world. But with time, if we look at 1956, I think we can appreciate Eisenhower’s restraint, the fact that he didn’t go in to do anything in Hungary because we couldn’t; the fact that he avoided getting mired in the Middle East with Suez.

Those things that used to be seen as failures of Eisenhower, that whole ‘56 to ‘60 period where you add the missile crisis, what the Democrats charged him with in ‘57, the Soviets having Sputnik, that our inaction in Hungary used to be said to have encouraged the Russians, that Suez forced the Eisenhower doctrine to be launched, all those criticisms of Eisenhower, I think, are wrong.

I think we need to look at the job that Eisenhower did of restraint from war, the restraint that Ike constantly showed. Yes, in Hungary, which we’ll talk about later today, it was embarrassing that this liberation rhetoric of Loback (sp) was not actual; it was words. But Eisenhower wisely understood that in both, I think, Suez and in Hungary that you had to show restraint, that he didn’t have options.

If you really take seriously Eisenhower’s policy of working through that crisis in October and early November of ‘56, I think Eisenhower probably handled the two situations about as well as he could, with the exception of perhaps in Hungary, Free Europe Radio or, you know, these people encouraging the dissent in the streets when we do nothing. But I don’t think we could have done too much more regarding Suez.

The legitimate criticism of President Eisenhower would be the Acheson criticism, that France and Britain should never have been in a position to deceive us or operate behind our back, that they did so only because Eisenhower, time and again, didn’t prioritize NATO or the European-American alliance enough.

HAASS: You wanted to say something before I turn to Tim?

FROMKIN: This is not disagreement with what you just said, but—

HAASS: You’re allowed to disagree here, by the way.

FROMKIN: Okay. (Laughs.) In that case, years ago, when I was reading through the (Frost ?) volume, when it came out, the thing that I found surprising was how personally Eisenhower took this thing. And indeed, I mean—two quotes: he said of Eden, he said, “Why is Anthony doing this to me?” It was the Egyptians that were getting bombed, but anyway—then again, when excuses were made for why the British and French thought they had to go behind our backs, he said, “Nobody double-crosses the United States.”

So one had—I mean, just as one had a much stronger sense of emotionalism in London, but it -- (inaudible) -- pretty much in Washington too.

BRINKLEY: But I would criticize, I think, Britain and France for doing that behind the United States’ back. I think the alliance was strong enough that the United States should have been informed about Suez. And I think Eisenhower took a very principled stance.

And the end result was that Britain and France started looking smaller and looked like they couldn’t operate without the United States. The failure of Suez and the fact that they eventually capitulated and backed off meant that they really weren’t ready for that kind of engagement.

FROMKIN: I agree with you. Indeed, I think one of the chief lessons was “Don’t lie.”

HAASS: That’s a lesson that’s been taken to heart by countries everywhere. (Laughter.)

I want to come back to that, because I probably disagree with you fundamentally on that. But I’m just sitting up here in the middle.

FROMKIN: What do you think they should have—

HAASS: Well, I think there’s an—I mean, one, I’d challenge you. What would have happened had the British and French raised it with the Americans? And would the Americans have said no? And if they had said no, then it might have prevented—

FROMKIN: It would have prevented the Suez crisis.

HAASS: Well, but from the point of view of Britain and France, one of the things you learn in diplomacy, like law, is you never ask questions you may not like the answer to; much better not to have raised the question and just done it, particularly on the basis that you create facts.

One of the things you do with alliances, like anything else, is you compartmentalize, particularly when you feel your national interests are at stake.

FROMKIN: But they failed Britain and France.

HAASS: But they didn’t know that in advance.

FROMKIN: Well, we know it now, and that’s why we can cast the judgment as to the failure. (Laughter.)

NAFTALI: To be fair, our government was not always signaling the same way. Eisenhower didn’t want to do it, but it’s not clear that Dulles signaled that he didn’t want them in.

HAASS: Let’s talk a little bit about the Soviet side and their view of all this, how they looked upon Suez.

NAFTALI: Poor Soviets. No, the Soviets—you think the Americans had trouble with their allies. We don’t know what Nasser was saying to his people, but we know what Nasser was saying to the Soviets. And the Soviets were trying to convince Nasser in early 1956 not to acquire too much materiel, military stuff, because the Soviets wanted a balance of power. They did not want Israel to get scared by Egypt.

And here were the Egyptians asking for this and that—the most modern Soviet tanks, the most modern Soviet fighters. The Soviets were saying, “Please don’t cause any trouble.” Khrushchev could not afford another crisis. He had the trouble, which we’ll be discussing later, in Eastern Europe. The last thing he needed was a Middle East crisis.

In 1955 -- we’ve got to understand this—this guy comes to power and he revolutionizes Soviet foreign policy, but does it on the cheap. He basically—Stalin was so awful and Molotov was so bad that it wasn’t really hard to improve relations with the world. He does it on the cheap, makes new friends for the Soviet Union, gives them a little bit, and before you know it, we in the West are afraid that the Third World is moving towards the communists.

And the key to this was the sale of weapons to the Egyptians in late ‘55. All of this was easy. This was grand strategy, as I said, on the cheap. In ‘56, Khrushchev realizes you’ve got to pay if you have allies. Allies need defense. And there was no way the Soviets could defend Egypt. The Soviets in 1955 decided to stop their aircraft carrier program. The Soviets could not project power into the Middle East. So, on the one hand, they’re making friends with Egypt and enjoying that fact. On the other hand, they couldn’t possibly defend Egypt.

So what you have in the summer of 1956 is this incredible confluence of interests, where the United States and the Soviet Union both don’t want a war in the Middle East. The problem was, neither superpower understood the other superpower.

The Soviets at least had some good intelligence on us. It turns out they were able to intercept every cable that went to and from our embassy in Moscow. That was useful, but it was also harmful, because what they were reading in these cables was that the United States was not that pleased with French and British belligerence after the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

That actually turned out to be pretty bad intelligence, because the Soviets began to assume, “Well, if the Americans are against the British and the French going in, the British and the French are never going to go in.” And one reason why Khrushchev is confident that this is not going to blow up into the Mideast crisis that he doesn’t want is that he’s reading intelligence which doesn’t help him, because it’s the wrong stream of information. He should have had stuff on the British government. He didn’t. He had it on our government.

So what you have with Khrushchev is this unbelievable moment in history, and it won’t happen again for some time, where the two superpowers, though their interests in the long term are different, in the short term have identical interests in the crisis, and they just couldn’t figure it out.

HAASS: Could you say something about the relationship of Suez and Hungary to one another? Look at that from -- (inaudible). And later on we’ll talk about -- (inaudible) -- here, which is how Soviet policy towards one was affected by developments in the other.

NAFTALI: Well, Doug Brinkley mentioned the very important people who contributed to his understanding of -- (inaudible) -- talking about, and I’ve got to say the same for Bill Taubman, who’s in the audience. What I’m telling you—

HAASS: (Inaudible.)

NAFTALI: He’ll have a chance later to talk about this. But I think the Suez crisis is worth looking at because it shows what happens when you don’t understand your allies and you don’t understand your enemy, and it all happens at the same time.

Every player in this story didn’t understand the other side. Even the French didn’t quite understand the British. The Israelis certainly didn’t really understand the British. And the Soviets and the Americans didn’t understand each other. Nobody really understood anybody in this crisis.

And what’s fascinating is how the simultaneous crises affected each other. You see, Khrushchev was looking for a diplomatic way to deal with Hungary. He is hormonal, if you will, and there was always the temptation to use force. But as they’ll discuss later, he was thinking about almost a radical redevelopment of Soviet policy towards Eastern Europe when Suez happened.

And you have this leader who has, in a year, revolutionized his foreign policy, who’s now seeing his foreign policy collapse around him. His main sphere of influence is under attack, and his new allies in the Third World—which, by the way, he alone had pushed for; he was the chief of their Egyptian policy—they’re both being attacked simultaneously.

It means—what I think it means is that it results in a much more bellicose reaction to Hungary than he otherwise would have undertaken. And, once he dealt with Hungary, he turned to Egypt and then was stuck not being able to use conventional forces to defend Europe. What could he do?

Well, there he took a leaf out of the book of John Foster Dulles. John Foster Dulles, with the New Look policy, or Eisenhower’s New Look policy, it taught Khrushchev how power worked in the mid-20 th century. Power was nuclear power. By the way, it’s something the North Koreans and the Iranians have learned since.

What you need to do with the United States is just scare them with the possibility that you’ll use nuclear weapons, and that’s enough for a democratic society to move back. That’s the lesson that Khrushchev learned in ‘56. He had nothing. He had no missiles that could reach Paris or London. He could not reach the United States with his so-called transcontinental bombers. He could not inflict nuclear damage upon our alliance. But he knew we weren’t sure, and he was in a corner, and so he bluffed.

And when the crisis ended the way he and Egypt hoped it would end—and we can discuss why it ended that way—he took the wrong lesson. The lesson he learned was that nuclear bluff works. So a guy who in early ‘56 doesn’t want a crisis, by the end of ‘56 believes that crises, promoting artificial crises, is in the interest of the Soviet Union, and that helps explain the Berlin crisis, the Iraqi crisis, the second Berlin crisis, and, of course, the Cuban missile crisis. It’s the wrong lesson to have learned, but as I said, this is a fantastic case study of everybody misunderstanding everything.

BRINKLEY: And I would agree with that. And also, I would just add that, from Eisenhower’s point of view, it really showed that as much as Eisenhower learned to hate war after World War II—as being our general, every Sunday Ike would sign one of those, for everybody killed, every soldier, on Sunday he would actually sign the death notice.

And so, if you look at Eisenhower’s presidency, you see him getting us out of Korea. You see him avoiding Cold War confrontations all the time. And it wasn’t that he was afraid of war as much as he was afraid of nuclear war. He wasn’t going to risk a nuclear holocaust over a war in Eastern Europe. And we did not have the troops to liberate Eastern Europe, and we had no way to kick the Red Army out of Hungary if we wanted to.

So, given the limitations that we had, Eisenhower did the same thing and avoided escalating the Hungarian crisis into something more. Ironically, as Tim says, that led to Khrushchev’s hubris increasing. But ironically, then again, Khrushchev’s hubris undermined him when he did it at the Cuban missile crisis.

NAFTALI: Could I ask one thing for those who specialize on the American side? We learned the wrong lesson too. We came up with this vision that somehow Nasser was a client of the Soviets, which led to the Eisenhower doctrine, which led to the sense that the Soviets were in much more control of events in the Middle East than was true.

I would argue, if anything, that vision on our part helped the Soviets sell themselves to the Egyptians, because they basically said the Egyptians—who, by the way, I think would have preferred to be with the United States than the Soviet Union, certainly by what they were telling the Soviets—that the Egyptians felt they had no other choice but to be with the Soviets as a result of this (misperception ?).

HAASS: Let me take your question and ask it to Roger and David in a slightly different way. You could analyze that Suez turned out the way it did for several different reasons, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but it’s fundamentally different emphases, and therefore lessons.

One could be British-French military-diplomatic incompetence. One would be the strength of Egyptian nationalism and how the world had changed. One could be because of American opposition. One could be because of the Soviets playing a fairly deft game of bluff.

What’s your sense? How should we understand Suez?

OWEN: Well, I think the first framework that people used was a conventional Third World one, that countries like Egypt had become independent, and this was the way the world was going. If you tried to reinvade them and re-establish puppet governments there, you were going to be defeated, somehow or other, by the international community. So that’s one thing, and that seemed to happen.

I think the incompetence is much more difficult, and that’s one of the lessons throughout history. I don’t—it’s very difficult to explain incompetence, although I suspect it’s more generally the rule when people go around—

HAASS: We’re getting a lot of case material these days. (Laughter.)

OWEN: -- invading. But, of course, it’s also learning the wrong lessons. I mean, General Stockwell wanted 80,000 troops to invade Egypt, which was the size of the British garrison in the Suez Canal zone, because of the fighting in the canal zone. He thought the Egyptians were better fighters than they were. And to get 80,000 troops to Egypt, they couldn’t do it until September.

So a lot of—if they’d managed to do it straight away, then they changed the plan, instead of going to Alexandria, because they think they’re going to kill too many citizens—too many civilians. So they go to Port Said, which is along a causeway connected to the rest of Egypt. It was the wrong place to land. So there’s a lot of military incompetence.

Then there’s the lying, of course. I mean, preparing a democracy to go to war and spend money, you have to have a good case. And I think everybody in England saw through that extraordinary collusion stuff in requiring the Egyptians to retreat behind the canal. So one can draw that kind of lesson.

But then Nasser himself drew—you know, Nasser was on the winning side. What you had to do at that stage in the Third World business was you had to have a real victory against imperialism. And he appeared to have a real victory, and it led to Arab nationalism. It led to Soviet support for the Aswan Dam. It led to all kinds of things.

FROMKIN: But then, of course—and this is just sort of on the surface, and we knew this fairly close to the time—what Harold Macmillan, as chancellor of the Exchequer, told the cabinet—and he was the only person who, up till then, had known what he was about to tell them—which was that the United States upheld the British currency and that, if the United States stopped supporting it, as the United States threatened to do over the Suez thing, that Britain could keep going for only 10 days, and beyond that would mean total economic collapse.

I believe that that was the argument that persuaded the cabinet. I’ll defer to Roger on that, but—

OWEN: Well, yes, there was an oil crisis, if you’ll remember. We needed both oil and dollars to keep going, because the oil supplies were cut off because the canal was closed.

HAASS: So let me throw out two questions to the four gentlemen flanking me, and then we’ll open it up, which is, here it is now, 50 years on. One way to ask the question is, how significant was Suez? Or what do you see as its lasting significance? Why should people continue to study it for what it was?

But secondly, bringing it up to current, what are its most relevant lessons? To what extent should people be looking at it not simply for what it is, as an event that, to some extent, influenced history thereafter, but are there specific lessons that should be drawn that continue to hold real relevance? Let me put those before everybody.

Doug, why don’t we start with you? We’ll go backwards.

BRINKLEY: Well, I think one of the crucial parts of this is the history of Israel; I mean, the eventual giving up of the Sinai Peninsula, the fact that the Israelis understand that maybe the United States always isn’t going to be there on their side. Today we seem to be there 100 percent.

But the fact that Eisenhower hesitated that moment and looked at it from a different perspective, I think it’s forever in the Middle East-Israeli history books what happened there. You start seeing a decline of Britain and France. It was a grandstand play. By ‘61 Acheson says Great Britain had lost an empire and hasn’t found a role for itself. The backing up of Britain and France; I think they shrunk in geopolitical estimation.

But more importantly, I think it shows a period in the United States in the Cold War when restraint was the high order of the day. If you really look at Eisenhower in this period of his inaction in ‘56 and denunciation of Britain and France at Suez—his inaction over Hungary, but also the communists came into Cuba; Eisenhower didn’t do anything; everybody claimed there was a missile gap—Eisenhower didn’t get rattled by it.

And by the end of Ike’s administration, he gives the industrial-military complex speech as a farewell; showing a presidency there that we misunderstood. And Fred Greenstein and Stephen Ambrose, Richard Immerman and others, Blanche Cook, have taught us that Eisenhower was much more complex than we think. He was always, because, I believe—and if you read his early speeches, as early as ‘53, we learned that in this tense period, Eisenhower was not one to get sucked into international engagements unnecessarily; Vietnam being just another example.

HAASS: Sure.

FROMKIN: Well, I think Britain and France drew different conclusions from what had happened. France drew the conclusion that the United States wasn’t going to protect them where their interests were concerned, or wouldn’t necessarily do so. And, under the socialist Guy Mollet, they began their nuclear program. They were the first proliferation, in a sense, at least on our side. And so they went after the bomb.

The effect on Britain, I think, was more significant. I think it persuaded many in Great Britain that colonialism was dead. There certainly was always some element in Great Britain that said, “Yank, you stole my empire from me,” and thought that what we had done was to take an empire of our own.

But most people thought the other thing, and the result is this tremendous decolonization, the end of the age of imperialism. And I think that’s a tremendously significant thing that happened.

NAFTALI: The Soviets and their allies took the wrong lesson from this. The Chinese in particular believed that the crisis had ended with the salvation of Nasser because of nuclear bluff. It’s really interesting; you know, a week before the crisis, the CIA informed President Eisenhower that it was highly unlikely that France and Britain would invade Egypt. And almost the same day, the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence service, informed Nikita Khrushchev that it was highly unlikely that the French and the British would invade Egypt.

Intelligence services were awful in this crisis. And if you autopsy this crisis, I think you can learn a lot about the limits of what governments know about each other, even when they’re friendly, and what they gain through intelligence.

It’s also important, I think, in this crisis to see the role that individuals play. You asked the question about personality. Eisenhower was convinced he understood the British. The British were convinced they understood Eisenhower. Harold Macmillan had served with Eisenhower in North Africa. The winking and the nodding that went on was actually worthless, because they didn’t understand each others’ interests.

The Soviets were convinced they understood the Americans, and they didn’t. And yet, time and again, when information would come in to these leaders that contradicted these assumptions, they didn’t change their minds. Certain assumptions are really sticky.

So I think this is a wonderful case study for people who want to understand, not just the Middle East, but any crisis where intelligence and military operations play a role. So it’s a crisis that I love to teach.

One other point about it. The United States came out of this crisis absolutely convinced that the Soviets had mounted a conspiracy to turn the Arab countries against the United States. And what’s so clear from Soviet records these days that we didn’t have until recently is that the Soviets hadn’t the foggiest idea what the Arabs were up to. They realized the Arabs were all in it for themselves. They knew that there was a big -- (inaudible) -- that everybody was bargaining with everybody else. And they were scared to death that the United States, which was much richer than they were, would outspend them and win the hearts of the Arabs. The Soviets never thought in this period that the Arabs were on their side. Unfortunately for the Cold War, one of the lessons of the Suez crisis was the Soviets felt, “Hmm, we’re probably better at dealing with Arabs than America.”

HAASS: Roger.

OWEN: Three very quick points, just to pick up on something that David Fromkin was saying. The British lesson from Suez was “We must never get out of step with the United States.” And this has led all the way to Iraq and I think finally is being discussed in a way that it hasn’t been in Britain.

The French said, “We will never do anything with the United States. We must join Europe and be independent.” The French election now seems to hinge on “Shall we re-establish relations with the United—better relations with the United States again?” So that’s one thing.

There’s the destabilization that was caused by the British withdrawing from the Suez base, which I don’t think was understood at the time, and certainly alarmed the Israelis no end and may have had something to do with the Israeli-French military alliance at that stage, and I think was learned by the British. When we withdrew from the Gulf, an effort was made to make sure that there was some indigenous security arrangement in place and that it wouldn’t be destabilizing. And, of course, there’s a lesson for that too about the United States as it withdraws.

And thirdly, there’s the ongoing story of oil, which is just a pendulum. Everybody panicked in 1956 because the oil supplies were cut off and there were strategic oil reserves and things. Then, in the next crisis in ‘58, the oil is not cut off. So Eisenhower said something like, “The market will reign. They have to sell it to somebody. We don’t worry about the Middle East,” and then this kind of swing between “Do we take military steps to safeguard oil supplies, or will the Arab nations always sell oil?” at not always a nice price, but they have to sell it at some price.

That would be the third thing that I would draw attention to. It was the first time that the oil supplies, I think, apart from the Persian oil crisis, where oil supplies had actually been cut off. And therefore one had to work through the consequences of that.

HAASS: With that, let me open things up to you all. This is an audience that is a group of members and others who bring incredible experience and knowledge to this. I’ll try to get as many of you as possible. All you’ve got to do is raise your hand. And when we bring a microphone to you, give us your name. We’ll start here; the gentleman in the aisle second; and Malcolm, you’ll be third.

QUESTIONER: I’m Charles Gati and I’d like to ask Professor Brinkley the following question.

You mentioned the Atlanticists who might have done differently had they still been in power. Eisenhower rejected that. I don’t fully understand what he expected to gain, or indeed what did he gain from this? Did he gain the friendship of the countries of the Third World? Did he gain better access to energy in the Middle East? Did he gain politically at home for standing up for the poor people of the Third World? Could you explain that?

BRINKLEY: Sure. Well, I mean, right after, obviously, the Second World War, this group of Atlanticists—Acheson being one, but many dealing with Robert Schumann (sp) and Jean Bonet (ph), people in Europe—believed very strongly -- (inaudible) -- called the dumbbell. You had, you know, a big bar, the Atlantic, and you had Western Europe and you had the United States and Canada. And no matter what, they had to never operate against each other politically, culturally, economically.

Eisenhower and Dulles were part of that to a degree, but they weren’t an extreme. And there was a Democratic criticism of Eisenhower and Dulles that they were letting the Atlantic alliance, if you like, erode; that they didn’t do enough to help France, perhaps, in Indochina.

And so the criticism Democrats launched—it was a political season in ‘56 -- was that some people didn’t blame Britain and France for operating behind the United States’ back. They said, “That’s how weak and ineffectual Eisenhower is. He’s golfing all the time. Europe can’t even count on him.” And so it became a criticism of Eisenhower.

But I don’t know what Ike could have done differently in Suez. I don’t know what we could have—did we want him to support what Britain and France was doing and to take the canal and the consequences of that and risk a major third world war over this, or was it best to play it the way that he played it?

I personally think Eisenhower played the crisis about as best as he could. And I think it was a disappointment to—some of the Atlanticists that were Democrats blamed Eisenhower, but in general the Atlanticists on both sides, you know, whether Britain, France or the United States, felt that, “Uh-oh, this is a crisis, and we’ve got to now unify more.”

Remember, about ‘57 becomes the Treaty of Rome and there are the big debates that go on about Great Britain becoming part of the European Union and, you know, what is Britain’s special relationship with the United States—“Isn’t it just another European country?”—and all those problems that engaged with NATO.

The other final criticism is that whole concept of the Democrats by ‘56, ‘57, saying Eisenhower and Dulles’s New Look policies failed and that, you know, this is just another example of a foreign policy that’s not working.

HAASS: Sure.

QUESTIONER: First of all, two comments.

HAASS: Please identify yourself so everyone knows who you are.


HAASS: Thanks, Karl.

QUESTIONER: Two comments and a question to Mr. Brinkley. Comment one is that I have a feeling that this discussion is like the play “Hamlet” without the prince of Denmark, because no one seems to have mentioned the fact that the Israelis moved in the Sinai on October 25 th, which was one week before the American presidential election, so that the Eisenhower White House suddenly found themselves with a triple crisis. They had an electoral crisis, a Hungarian uprising and the Suez, all at once. So one can understand why Eisenhower felt this sense of betrayal when no account was taken of his domestic political concerns.

Second observation: I just made a list of some of the things that have come out of this discussion—that Suez was based on faulty intelligence, on official deceptions to Parliament; that also you can say that Eden never really discussed the plan with his colleagues, that it was done on the basis of a certain obsession on his part, maybe feeling overshadowed by Churchill and a desire to play a heroic role in the Middle East; and that there was no morning-after plan. And in all of these senses, it does seem to me quite relevant.

But my question to—

BRINKLEY (?): Those are good points you’ve made. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: My question to Mr. Brinkley is this. I sympathize, on the whole, with what you said about Eisenhower. But how do you explain the fact that Eisenhower, in Iran in ‘53, did sanction the forcible collusion of the United States and the overthrow of Mossadegh, and then a year later in Guatemala with the regime there, which seems to flow contrary to your restraint doctrine?

BRINKLEY: Because I don’t think—I think the idea was that the New Look was—and again, Richard Immerman is really the expert on it—but the concept was that there with the newly hatched CIA that you could do it on the cheap; that, you know, the part of Eisenhower was always this kind of a fiscal conservative, and the fact that he didn’t want to see the military budget mushroom so much, so he decided to rely on nuclear weapons more than conventional troops, but also using the CIA to topple coups.

He was not a pacifist, Eisenhower, and I don’t mean to be suggesting that. He’d do anything to promote American interests and was a staunch, staunch anticommunist. But on something as tricky as what was going on in the Suez, or in Hungary, a direct American intervention would have triggered a world crisis on both of these. They got quickly kind of stamped out, unfortunately for the people of Hungary. We feel terrible for them that their expectations were so high and went down. But I think, without getting too long-winded, that’s the best I can do.

NAFTALI: May I just suggest that you look at it this way, which is, unlike many presidents, Eisenhower wasn’t concerned about his credibility. He understood the Soviets and didn’t feel that he had to be more alarmist than Joseph Alsop to show that he cared about American power.

In the Suez crisis, he didn’t feel that American commitment to NATO was so weak that he had to stand by the British and the French willy-nilly. And that’s really interesting, because not all presidents have been that self-confident about themselves and their credibility. And I think that makes Eisenhower unusual.

HAASS: Let me take Karl’s first question and put it to both—either Roger or David, which is—because we haven’t really talked much about the Israelis—if this were Hollywood, if this were a movie, would Israel be up for the best actor role or the best supporting actor?

How significant is Israel in this equation, if you will, as a causal agent, or as more of simply someone who saw this as a moment to take advantage of essentially what the British and French had cooked? How do we understand the Israeli role here?

OWEN: Well, you have to decide who arranged the collusion in the first place. And I think the Israelis were as present in the plan, the collusion plan, as the French, and they looked at an opportunity to destroy the Egyptian army and its new Soviet tanks, which they did very successfully. Of course, they might not have known that they would be resupplied so quickly, but that is, in fact, what happened.

It’s also germane to the 1967 war in that Nasser withdrew all his troops west of the canal, as you know. And he tried to do that again during the next war and it was a total disaster. He drew the wrong military conclusion, so crippled himself in that; I mean, no doubt there was no way in which the Egyptians could have done enormously much better in ‘67, but they shot themselves in the foot.

And I think—my other feeling is that I think the Israelis were worried about first the destabilization produced by the fact you don’t have British troops in the canal zone anymore; secondly, by the arms deal. And this was a working through of post-British imperial hegemony in the Middle East before some other defense—you know, the Baghdad pact and so on. The things that were supposed to stabilize the Middle East just weren’t the right things to do at that particular stage, because they excluded Nasser.

HAASS: Did you want to say something?

FROMKIN: At that time, Israel and France had a fairly close working alliance, negotiated by Shimon Peres, amongst others. And since they were working together—they were ordering arms from France and so on—I think it’s difficult to answer the question of who came up with the idea of joint action first, because they both wanted to act.

The French were under the illusion that their problems in Algeria came from Nasser and that the problems could be solved by toppling him. So, I mean, they were thinking about what they could do militarily against Nasser, and the Israelis didn’t even have to ask. There were border raids in the Sinai all the time.

OWEN: Could I just say something about that? I mean, they had the infamous meeting at Sevres, when the collusion was got up, and there were toasts afterwards. Ben-Gurion toasted the French for the nuclear cooperation deal that had been signed in that same run-up to the war. So there were many other things going on at the same time.

HAASS: Malcolm and then Zack.

QUESTIONER: Malcolm Wiener.

Richard started the meeting by raising the Tolstoyian question of how much this was sort of an inevitable play of forces and how much it turned on peculiarities of certain individuals. We’ve heard, of course, of the two key factors, the famous Khrushchevian boast that it would take—what did he say? It would take eight, no, I mean, nine atomic weapons to destroy all England—and, of course, the American threat to stop supporting the pound.

But there were certainly strong personal factors at play. We’ve mentioned how Eisenhower felt that he had been deceived and stabbed in the back. But, of course, after Eisenhower’s election in ‘52, but before he took office, Sir Antony Eden begged him not to appoint Dulles as his secretary of State, and Dulles must have known this. He despised Eden. And, of course, Macmillan was also playing his own game.

The fact that he made a statement that we’ve heard about to the cabinet without informing the prime minister first says something. And then, of course, right afterward, Macmillan was asked what he thought about Sir Antony Eden’s leadership and he said, “I have never served under a prime minister with more flair.” Of course, the only other prime minister he’d served under was Churchill. (Laughter.) So this caused a lot of laughter at the U.K. And I could go on in this fashion.

But one of the things I’m wondering about is whether this ever would have occurred at all, the Suez assault, without Sir Antony Eden’s particular personality. Would any other prime minister have gone in? Well, let me leave it there.



HAASS: Okay, thank you. What about that? How much was Eden the necessary factor?

OWEN: I think he was, yes. And the thing that is still difficult to explain unless you talk about his bile duct and some sudden change in his personality, which is how we thought about it at the time—

HAASS: That’s bile, not Nile, just to be clear. (Laughter.)

OWEN: I mean, he’d masterminded the British withdrawal from Egypt, over Churchill’s opposition. And he was looking forward to a new order in the Middle East. And then something about the nationalization of the Suez Canal just drove him batty. And the whole thing was—I mean, talking about murder and so on. I mean, it’s quite—I don’t know that any of the biographies of Eden have satisfactorily explained that sudden change.

HAASS: Well, just out of curiosity, play out the alternative policy. Just say Eden had lost the battle or he hadn’t been there. Okay, so Nasser would have done what he did. He nationalized the canal. Then what was essentially the alternative ramp for British foreign policy at that moment?

OWEN: Well, I think it was to go to the U.N. and try and get pilots about the Suez Canal and put ships through, send ships through the canal, which Egyptian pilots wouldn’t be able to deal with. And the Australians had a plan at this stage. I mean, there were many other things going on.

NAFTALI: And people forget there was actually a diplomatic settlement at the U.N.—

OWEN: Yes, there was.

NAFTALI: -- which Eden sank, because, of course, it meant he couldn’t have his little -- (inaudible) -- war. So there was a—the real issue was, could you have international supervision and Egyptian control over the canal? And the Soviets and the Americans agreed—but they never shared this agreement—that they could do that.

HAASS: Mr. Karabell.

QUESTIONER: I’m Zachary Karabell.

You know, we’ve focused a lot, and I think appropriately, on the ramifications of this for international politics and for the United States, Britain, France. I’d like maybe, in the dwindling moments, to get people’s commentary and to reflect a little bit about the legacy for the Arab world and for Middle Eastern politics, and particularly the way in which the canal had very much been a burden of unrealized dreams for Egypt for the 100 years leading up to 1956 and the way in which Nasser was able to take, frankly, a moment of total defeat and engineer that into a moment of utter victory.

It seems to have set in motion a legacy for that for the next 50 years within the Arab world of turning defeats into victory. And you could draw, I think, very much a through line from Nasser in 1956 at the nationalization and then the defeat through Sheikh Nasrallah recently or, to some degree, Osama bin Laden.

And I’m wondering, if the crisis had been played differently by Britain, France and the United States, even within the U.S. opposition, do you think there was a possibility at that time that Nasser’s energies could have been directed much more to constructive engagement with the international system -- (sound of ringing phone) -- I told you never to call me here—with constructive engagement of the international system as opposed to the direction that it did take, which was a sort of defiance born of a deep perception of weakness, and whether that was an inevitable outcome as well?

BRINKLEY: Well, can I say—Zachary, the one thing, I think, which we didn’t talk about—you mentioned the backstabbing question before towards Eisenhower. Eisenhower got betrayed by Nasser a lot. Here we had 60 percent of our oil coming out of the Middle East. Eisenhower thought he was making a bold move, partially to encourage the Saudis, that we cared about the Arabs and the Middle East. And then there’s Nasser, who Ike’s basically standing up for against Britain and France. What’s Nasser do but praise the Soviets out of it? I mean, he got—at the end of the line, Eisenhower got shafted by Nasser.

Imagine if Nasser would have applauded Eisenhower, not gone with the Russians, and led to a new generation of American-Arab diplomacy, showing that the United States wasn’t just always going to defend Israeli interests but that we would be judicial in determining what was fair for the region. Nasser’s move towards Russia maybe changed history, but I think in the long run it’s hurt the Arab states in the Middle East by them not embracing what Eisenhower did and instead just basically turning on him after.

NAFTALI: And it wasn’t inevitable. The Soviets did not want to give money to Nasser to build the Aswan Dam. Nasser was so afraid of communists. The Soviets said, “We’re not going to give you any money unless you let East German technicians come and look around.” And he said, “There’s no way.”

So what he did was he pretended that the Soviets were much closer to giving him money than they actually were. And, in fact, the Soviets investigated the extent to which the rumors about their willingness to give money were actually created by the Egyptians.

So the problem for Nasser was he was playing this game with our side, and then he made a miscalculation when he recognized the People’s Republic of China as a way of putting additional pressure on us to give him better terms, because we’d already given him terms; the British and the Americans had. And the Congress said, “No way.”

So he’s stuck. The Soviets are not going to give him any money. The Americans and the British aren’t going to give him any money. How the hell is he going to build the Aswan Dam? Well, he’s got the tolls from the Suez Canal and he nationalizes the canal. But he nationalized the canal with nobody in the world supporting, neither East nor West, his goals for the country. This guy was a free agent. We could have had a much better relationship with him. We messed this up, and the Suez crisis just confirmed it.

I think the history of the United States and Egypt could have been fundamentally different had it not been for this crisis.

HAASS: You’re all so negative. So let me just—is there nothing positive that any of you glean? I mean, is there no dividend or positive byproduct of this? Is this a situation where nothing good came? Is anyone glad the Suez crisis happened the way it did?

OWEN: Well, it depends who you are. It gave Nasser, until ‘67, whatever that is, 11 years of Arab nationalism, state socialism, leadership of the Arab world.

HAASS: But Doug says that was an empty victory for him because he didn’t—by his interpretation of it, he actually ended up hurting the Egyptian and Arab cause.

NAFTALI: Yeah, but how long should a policy be successful for it to be successful?

HAASS: That’s why we have academics. (Laughter.)

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible.) And Richard, maybe my question can be related to what you have just been asking about Russia. As Timothy was saying, the Soviet Union seriously misinterpreted its own intelligence and the intents of all other players.

Now, as the lessons can apply to the current situation, do you think that Russia’s position in 2001 showed that Russia might have gotten it right by not getting actively involved in the situation with Afghanistan and Iran because, well, obviously having its own experience with Afghanistan, but participating by providing intelligence in that region and some other resources that it has provided?

NAFTALI: Got it right in terms of not finding themselves in the middle of the Iraqi war that we’re badly prosecuting at the moment? Well, there are lots of reasons why the Soviets, the Russians, didn’t go into the Iraqi war. I mean, they weren’t really very happy about the first Gulf War, and there were a number of reasons why they were our allies in that case.

I’m not sure—I’ll put it to you this way. The one thing you learn from looking at Soviet intelligence is that there was very little good analytical product, because the system was constructed that no analyst wanted to put himself, largely himself, out on a limb because the Politburo could change the direction of policy tomorrow and you’d be in trouble.

I don’t know the nature of the intelligence community that Putin has established around himself. I wonder, given the way Putin has handled the press, whether he’s any more likely to encourage the kind of free discussion of ideas that a good intelligence service would have to have for analysis to be interesting.

So if they made the right choice, I’m not sure it was because their intelligence service pointed them in that direction.

HAASS: I want to squeeze one last one in. Sir, you get the—and then we’re going to head upstairs.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. I’m Harry Harding.

I have a question about the financial aspects of the crisis. One of the previous questioners mentioned that the United States threatened not to—or said it would not prop up the pound. And I’m curious about two things. One, how important was that in the British decision to back down? And number two, and even more important, how credible was that threat? Did we not hold pounds ourselves?

If you’re thinking that I’m drawing an analogy with the Chinese holding of American assets and the question of whether that gives them leverage if the United States does something somewhere in the world that they don’t like, you’re right; I am thinking of that analogy.

HAASS: Who wants to—how important was the vulnerability of the pound to British decision-making?

OWEN: Oh, it was completely—I mean, it’s only in recent years that runs on the pound have not been an essential part of British political history. And they go on through the Thatcher period and they can sink the economy. There was a late Thatcher crisis—I can’t remember—when there was a run on the pound, which brought down the Chancellor of the Exchequer. So it was a very—it had only to be threatened and it had only to be made known for it to bring the British up short.

Now, the next question will be, Macmillan obviously used that. I mean, there’s a famous expression about Macmillan: “First in, first out.” He was the most enthusiastic supporter of the Suez affair, and then he comes along to the cabinet and says, “We have to stop because the economy is going to collapse if we don’t do it.” And then he becomes prime minister.

HAASS: Are there arguments here, Doug, that the United States would suffer too much of a financial hit by hurting the pound, given our own pound holdings, or that wasn’t a significant factor in the American debate?

BRINKLEY: I don’t think it was a significant American debate.

HAASS: Well, with that, let me—what we’re trying to do, by the way, here is one of the things I want at the Council is to try to inject more history into what we do here, and part of it is my homage to a book by Ernie May and Dick Neustadt, because I have this view that there’s lots to be learned.

And we have a History Maker series here where we ask people to come and reflect upon what they did and why. And what we’re trying to do with events like this is more of it. And these four individuals—again, for me this has been a real treat. If the university had only been this good, I would have paid a lot more attention. (Laughter.)

What we’re going to do now is, besides thanking these four people, is move upstairs to the David Rockefeller Room, which is literally on the second floor. We’ll then take a break of around half an hour, 45 minutes, not to go hungry. And then afterwards we will have the second panel. We’re going to stay upstairs for the second panel, so take everything you’ve got from here, head upstairs.

And again, let me thank all four of you for really getting us talking. (Applause.)








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