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The Suez Crisis

FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY

SINCE I retired as United States Ambassador to Great Britain in February 1957, so much has been written about the events leading up to the seizure of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian Government in July 1956, and so much controversy has arisen over the reaction of the French, British and American governments to that event, that it might be useful for me to set down as briefly and clearly as possible the story of what happened as seen from the American Embassy in London.

The first intrusion of the Egyptian question into Anglo-American relations during my term as Ambassador in London came before Anthony Eden became Prime Minister and soon after I arrived at my post early in 1953. In May of that year, violent attacks were being made by the new Egyptian régime under General Naguib on the continued presence of British troops in the large British military base in the Suez Canal Zone. The British Government felt that United States policy was definitely sympathetic with the Egyptian point of view, and British opinion received the quite erroneous impression that we were putting pressure on Britain to withdraw its forces from the base. Later the feeling developed that but for this pressure the British forces would have remained there and Nasser could never have seized the Canal.

A further sense that America was unfriendly arose from misunderstandings between Eden, who had just become Prime Minister, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, in connection with proposals for joint financing of the Aswan High Dam. Opposition to the plan developed in Congress, and finally Secretary Dulles cancelled American participation. He did so without informing the American Embassy in London. This was not unusual, as I was never asked my opinion on matters of policy except when Dulles was in London or I accompanied Eden to Washington.

Such were the preliminaries to the Suez crisis of July 1956.

On July 26 of that year I left London for New York by air on a short vacation. One hour later the British Government received news that the Egyptian police had taken over the headquarters of the Suez Canal Company under the decree of nationalization. Not knowing I had left, the Prime Minister immediately invited me to attend a meeting of the British Cabinet which was being called at once. Mr. Andrew Foster, who was Counsellor of Embassy, attended that meeting as charge d'affaires. The shock to the British Government was very great because it had received no warning from its Intelligence that seizure was imminent.

The Cabinet reached no conclusions at this meeting other than that there must be immediate consultation with the United States at a high level. While I was still airborne en route to New York, Mr. Robert Murphy, Deputy Under Secretary of State, left for London by air to confer with the British Government. On my arrival in New York I flew to Washington and went directly to Mr. Dulles' house where he was in consultation with the members of his staff. Mr. Dulles was just back from an official visit to Peru. A state of agitation prevailed. The Secretary was receiving reports that the British were planning to use force against Egypt unless the Canal was restored forthwith to the Suez Canal Company. I participated in the discussion but did not feel that much weight was given to what I had to say. Some extremely able men were among the participants, for example, Livingston Merchant, Herman Phleger and Robert Bowie.

On Tuesday, July 31, Secretary Dulles and I flew to England and had conferences for two days with top members of the British Government including Eden, Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, Harold Macmillan and Lord Salisbury. Mr. Dulles persuaded the British to call a conference to be held in London as soon as possible; it was to be composed of the parties to the Covenant of 1888, under which the Canal had been made an international waterway, and the other nations whose ships made the greatest use of the Canal.

This conference, August 15-24, which came to be known as the First Suez Conference, produced a plan, signed by eighteen nations, for the future operation of the Canal by an international board. The plan was taken to Nasser by a committee headed by Mr. Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia. Mr. Menzies, a man of wisdom, eloquence and ability as a negotiator, seemed to me a perfect choice to head this important mission, and I believe he did everything humanly possible to persuade Nasser to accept the Eighteen Nations Plan.

The rapport between Mr. Eden and Mr. Dulles was not at all good at any time, and it now had deteriorated further. It should be noted that the original effect of the seizure of the Canal on the British Cabinet was to persuade it that force might have to be used, and there is no doubt in my mind that Dulles at this time gave the impression to Eden that the United States would also be prepared to use force if all else failed. As Dulles put it, he wanted to do everything possible to prevent the situation from reaching a point where there was no alternative except the use of force, but he also said in effect that, when the situation had reached a point where every other expedient to make Nasser "disgorge" had been tried ineffectually, then, to put it in Dulles' diplomatic language, the use of force was not excluded. One of the tragic things about the situation was that Eden did not see that in this language there was no commitment to use force and that when it came to the final and formal decision we might not be willing to use it.

 

After Nasser had turned down the Eighteen Nations Plan, the British were ready to take the matter up in the Security Council of the United Nations and to ask for immediate action against Egypt. Secretary Dulles, however, persuaded them not to do so. He had conceived of a new plan, afterwards known as the Canal Users' Association Plan. In retrospect it is apparent that the British and Secretary Dulles never saw eye to eye regarding this second plan. Almost at once it became plain that Eden thought of it as having been devised to justify the use of force as a last resort. Although every effort was made to make our position clear, the British regarded the plan as a slap in the face to Nasser. This became evident from Eden's statements in Parliament on September 1, in which he said he was urging its adoption as a preliminary to the use of force if Egypt did not coöperate. Secretary Dulles, on the other hand, thought of the plan as a desirable step in keeping the users of the Canal together in order to work out a good arrangement with Egypt for its operation. Failing this, it could still prepare the way for the submission of the matter to the Security Council. This difference in point of view led to great and continuing misunderstanding. A second conference of the canal users, called to consider this second plan, convened in London on September 19 and was attended by Secretary Dulles and a group of his advisers. At the end of that conference agreement was reached to set up the Suez Canal Users' Association, known as SCUA. The Ambassadors in London of the participating countries were instructed to complete the organization, but I doubt if any one of them believed that it could accomplish anything.

 

Up to this moment there had been no slightest indication of any collusion between the French and British Governments in dealing with the Suez crisis. Nor had there been any unusual circumstances which would have caused the United States Embassy in London to suspect that preparations were already underway by the British Government to intervene with force in Egypt.[i]

Indeed the American Ambassador to London and the Ambassadors of the countries party to SCUA were busily engaged, under the instructions of their respective governments and with Lord John Hope, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Great Britain in the chair, in perfecting and completing as rapidly as possible the organization of SCUA.

At this moment and while Secretary Dulles and his advisers were in the air on their way back to Washington, the British and French Governments, without first informing the U.S. Government, laid the situation resulting from the seizure of the Canal before the Security Council of the United Nations. This had the immediate effect of changing the scene of action to New York and Washington. Selwyn Lloyd, the then British Foreign Secretary, flew at once to New York to take charge for the British of the presentation of the joint appeal of the British and French to the United Nations. While Mr. Lloyd was still in New York, I received a cable from Secretary Dulles (addressed as well to our Ambassadors in France, Israel and other countries interested in Near Eastern affairs) saying that there was growing uncertainty about what Israel was up to, specifically in connection with the reported mobilization, and requesting any information available in London. I replied that as soon as Selwyn Lloyd returned from New York he had an appointment to dine with me so that I could inquire what the British Government knew about the intentions of Israel.

Accordingly, on Sunday evening, October 28, the day before the Israeli attack on Egypt, Mr. Lloyd had dinner with me, together with Walworth Barbour, my deputy, and Mr. Harold Beeley, the Middle East expert of the Foreign Office. I asked Mr. Lloyd if he was informed with regard to the size and significance of the Israeli mobilization. He replied that he was in the dark as to details, but that Her Majesty's Government had made a very strong statement to the Israelis to the effect that if they should attack Jordan, Great Britain would be obliged to fulfill its treaty obligation to come to Jordan's defense. He observed further that the Government would deplore this because it would mean that Britain would be engaged against Israel on the side of Nasser. I asked Lloyd specifically whether he did not think Israel might be planning to attack Egypt, to which he replied that he had no evidence to show that the Israeli mobilization was directed against Egypt.

When I pressed him, he reiterated that the British Government had no information as regards a possible attack on Egypt, that it was very much more concerned about a possible Israeli attack on Jordan. In the house of Commons Selwyn Lloyd repeated the statement that he did not know what the Israeli mobilization signified at that moment. Since no ambassador can admit that he does not credit the statements of the Foreign Secretary of the country to which he is accredited, I have always taken the position that, in spite of later evidence to the contrary, Mr. Lloyd did not deliberately mislead me.[ii]

The next day, October 29, on hearing the news of the Israeli attack on Egypt, I asked at once for an appointment with Mr. Lloyd. At 10 a.m. the day following, he and Mr. Beeley met with me and Mr. Barbour in the Foreign Office. I asked Mr. Lloyd what the British Government intended to do in view of Israel's action. He replied that he thought Her Majesty's Government would immediately cite Israel before the Security Council of the United Nations as an aggressor against Egypt. Surprising as it may be in retrospect, that was his exact statement. He added that the French Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were on their way to London and that the British Government would want to discuss the situation with them before taking action, as they wished to act in concert with the French. Moreover, he said, the British had shipping and cargo of great value in the Canal and it would be necessary to take this into consideration. Mr. Lloyd concluded by saying that he could not tell me definitely what action the British would take until after the meeting which was to be held at once, but that he would inform me of the decision immediately after luncheon. I reported Mr. Lloyd's statements to Washington by cable and arranged to keep a telephone line open to Washington for further communications.

At 1:30 p.m. Mr. Lloyd's private secretary called James Moffett, my private secretary, and said that Mr. Lloyd would have to go directly to the House of Commons after luncheon, so he could not see me at the time arranged. However, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign Office, would see me at 4.45 and tell me exactly what had been decided. When I saw Sir Ivone at the appointed hour, he started the interview by handing me two sheets of foolscap paper. When I asked what they were he replied, "They are ultimatums, one addressed to Israel and the other to Egypt." I then read the documents and asked whether the demand that Egypt withdraw all armed forces to a point ten miles from the Canal meant that these forces must withdraw to a point ten miles west of the Canal. He replied, "To points ten miles away from the Canal on both sides." After reading these ultimatums, I expressed the opinion that Egypt could not possibly accept the conditions addressed to her. At this, Sir Ivone simply shrugged his shoulders. I then asked whether they had been already served and he replied, "Yes. The ultimatum to Egypt was served at 3:20 p.m. and that to Israel at 3:30 p.m., in each case on their Ambassadors in London."

I asked if the ultimatums had been made public and he answered, "Yes. The Prime Minister is making the announcement in the House at the present moment."

"In that case," I said, "the only thing I can do is telephone the contents of these documents to Washington immediately, but of course the President and the Secretary of State will have already learned of this action taken by Her Majesty's Government on the news services."

It is worth noting that the ultimatums stated that the British and French intended to go in and occupy Port Said, Ismailia and Suez whether or not the Egyptians and Israelis complied with the demand that they withdraw their forces from the vicinity of the Canal. When Mr. Barbour and I telephoned the news to Washington we were, as expected, met by the statement that it had already appeared on the news tickers. The only thing we could contribute was to read the actual text of the ultimatums to the State Department.

The effect on our Government of this sudden and unexpected British and French move and of the actual opening of hostilities against Egypt two days later was catastrophic. The British Government had been told over and over again at the highest levels that we wished to do everything possible to avoid the use of force, and for force to be used without any warning came as a profound shock.

Prime Minister Eden and the British Government were immediately subjected to terrific pressure. President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles would have no further direct communication with Eden, and the Canal was at once blocked by Nasser. In Parliament the opposition of the Labour Party increased from day to day and even Harold Macmillan and others of Eden's supporters in his own party began to weaken; moreover the value of sterling was falling rapidly in the international markets. On top of all this the United States was coöperating with Russia in the United Nations to bring about the withdrawal of British and French troops from Egypt. Eden was ill and seemed incapable of coping with the situation which had arisen.

From that moment the duties of the American Embassy in London consisted in (1) trying to make clear to the British Government the reasons for our attitude as expressed by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles in Washington and Ambassador Lodge at the United Nations; (2) coöperating with the British and our Sixth Fleet in efforts to protect and evacuate safely American citizens in Egypt; (3) assisting the American attempts to aid in the unblocking of the Canal; (4) coöperating with the magnificent efforts of the American oil industry to see to it that European needs for oil were met by diverting tankers around the Cape of Good Hope and shipping large reserves of oil from the United States; and (5) last but not least, assisting in the efforts of the United States Government to bring about first a cease-fire and then a withdrawal of the British forces in accordance with the resolutions of the General Assembly.

With Eden's increasing difficulty in coping with the situation because of his growing physical weakness,, I was enormously helped at this time by the willingness of several important members of the British Cabinet to exchange views with me with great frankness and to permit me to convey their view and ideas directly to Washington, without passing through the Foreign Office. This condition of affairs continued from the date of the attack on Egypt until Eden retired and Mr. Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister on January 9, 1957.

I want to emphasize that Eden's departure to Jamaica and his retirement shortly after his return were brought about at the time entirely by serious illness and not by political considerations, although I believe that he would no doubt have retired as Prime Minister later in any case.

There are several matters growing out of the invasion of Egypt which I would like to refer to particularly.

Rumors that the invasion of Egypt by the British and French forces was in any manner interfered with by the Sixth Fleet are completely unfounded. At that time the Sixth Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean was primarily engaged in the evacuation of American citizens from Egypt. Absolutely no incident of any kind occurred. After hostilities commenced, I was much concerned that the British agree that a corridor should be provided between Cairo and Alexandria where no bombing would take place, so that American citizens could be evacuated in safety. This agreement was entered into and carried out.

When the British thought it necessary as a result of the Suez operations to strengthen their position in dollar reserves, the United States Government coöperated fully and gladly in making available the full amount which could be drawn by the British from the International Monetary Fund and in dealing with the approaching installment of the British debt to the United States. Furthermore, it did everything in its power to bring about an increase of shipments of crude oil and gasoline from the Western Hemisphere to Great Britain and Europe in order to make good as far as possible the deficits resulting from Nasser's blockade of the Suez Canal and the sabotage of the pipeline pumping stations by the Syrians.

For some reason, Washington had come to the conclusion that if Eden should retire the new Prime Minister was going to be R.A.B. Butler. I was convinced that the Queen would summon Harold Macmillan, since Salisbury, in whom I knew the Queen had great confidence and who I felt sure would be consulted, had come to the conclusion that Macmillan was the person best fitted to deal with President Eisenhower because of the close association they had had in Africa during the war. This proved to be the case. While Eden's retirement was a very sad event, the ultimate designation of Macmillan as his successor was most helpful in improving relations between our two governments.

There has been much discussion of why the British forces which intervened in Egypt did not progress further than Ismailia. General Keightley, who was in command, was very much blamed by certain people for not seizing the entire Canal immediately, which he could easily have done because the Egyptians had been so thoroughly defeated by the Israelis. General Keightley told me later that the reason he stopped near Ismailia was that his instructions were to go into Egypt in order to bring about a ceasefire between the Egyptians and the Israelis, and that when this purpose had been accomplished he had no other mission in Egypt. He also observed that if the enterprise had been mounted for the purpose of throwing Nasser out, it would have required much greater preparations than those actually made. He also said the British and French in fact went in to bring about a cease- fire and in the hope of preventing interference with the Canal.

Of course the invasion did bring about a cease-fire and did prevent the Israelis from overrunning Egypt. But if the real purpose of the invasion was to eliminate Nasser, the fact remains that the Canal was blocked immediately and the ensuing events made the operation as a whole a classic example of what diplomats would call a completely "counter-productive enterprise."

One very important point raised by Professor Herman Finer of the University of Chicago in his book "Dulles Over Suez" (which is to my mind a remarkably valuable historical essay despite the fact that the author is evidently strongly prejudiced against Secretary Dulles) requires correction.

A resolution had been adopted in the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 7 calling on Britain and France to withdraw their forces from Egypt. The Indian delegation, headed by Krishna Menon, proposed that it be superseded by a resolution demanding that these forces be withdrawn "forthwith." Whereupon Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium introduced an amendment to eliminate "forthwith," thus leaving a phased withdrawal a possibility. As Professor Finer describes the situation, Spaak,

tried to influence Lodge, and succeeded momentarily in doing so, to such effect that Lodge, also influenced by the other members of the U.S. delegation (some of them strongly anti-Soviet) thought of voting for the Belgian Amendment. At noon that day, a victorious vote seemed possible. The NATO countries pressed for such a vote and some Latin American countries asked why it was thought necessary to inflict another humiliation on America's allies. But the State Department was consulted. This meant that the President was consulted. This meant, further, that Dulles was consulted. And this resulted in Henry Cabot Lodge's being told to do what he had it in his heart to do before the nations of the Western world had begun to trouble his mind and conscience about justice and Russia and Western power. He led the abstentionists. The vote was 37 against the Belgian Amendment and 24 for it, with 18 abstentions, including the United States. The French delegates judged that if the U.S.A. had voted against, so, too, would the Latin Americans.[iii]

What actually happened was as follows. On November 22, which was over a weekend, I happened to be staying with Lord Salisbury at his place in the country and I was called to the telephone by Deputy Under Secretary Murphy from the State Department in Washington, who said in effect, "You will be very glad to know that the State Department is instructing Henry Cabot Lodge to vote in favor of the Belgian Amendment and if the Belgian Amendment is not adopted to refrain from voting on the Afro-Asian resolution." I replied in effect that I thought it would be very helpful to have Lord Salisbury, Harold Macmillan and R.A.B. Butler listen in on the conversation and hear what to my mind was the most encouraging thing that had happened since the invasion of Egypt had taken place. The necessary telephone connections were made so that these three important members of the cabinet could hear the good news immediately.

The purpose of the Belgian Amendment was, of course, to enable the British and French to withdraw in an orderly manner and without undue humiliation. With the news that the United States would support this amendment, I went to bed in a happier frame of mind than at any time since the crisis had started. The next morning, however, we found to our astonishment and dismay that Mr. Lodge had abstained from voting for the Belgian Amendment, that it had been defeated and that Mr. Lodge had then voted in favor of the Afro- Asian resolution, which had been adopted without change. In other words, the action taken by the United States Delegation to the United Nations was diametrically opposite to the instructions which I had been informed Lodge had received from the State Department.

In this case the statement in Professor Finer's book is wrong. The State Department was not responsible for the action taken by Lodge on November 23.[iv]

Nothing during my term as Ambassador in London injured the relations between the United States and Great Britain so much as Lodge's reversal of the instructions which Deputy Under Secretary Murphy told me he had received from the State Department and which he had repeated directly over the telephone to top members of the British Government.

I have never been able to find out how the reversal actually occurred. Of course, President Eisenhower himself may have authorized Lodge's action. In any event I feel that it was most unfortunate that the original critical decision made by the State Department should have been reversed.

One of the chief difficulties during the Suez Crisis was that Eden was in doubt whether the various plans put forward by Dulles were intended to bring about the results which Eden himself desired, or to thwart them. For example, it was a question whether the Users' Association was intended by Dulles to be a means of ultimately justifying the use of force. In his book "Full Circle," Eden states that Dulles actually told him that SCUA would "mobilize the opinion of the world in case it became necessary to use force." On the other hand, while I do not think any of the foreign ambassadors with whom I was dealing in connection with the formation of SCUA believed any more than I did that the plan would be effective, I do not think any of us supposed that it was a device for mobilizing world opinion in case the use of force became necessary. I cannot verify personally Secretary Dulles' use of the quoted words, for although when he came over to London I was with him in all the formal interchanges, I cannot be sure what he and Eden said to one another in their private talks. I did everything in my power to prevent Eden from misunderstanding Dulles' position, but I do not think I was successful. I believe that even at the last moment Eden thought that, faced with a fait accompli, we were going to recognize what he believed was Britain's vital interest and would support him.

In retrospect I believe that one of the underlying reasons why so much bitterness arose between Great Britain and the United States during the Suez Crisis was that the British felt that they were justified in ultimately using military measures to enforce an international treaty which had been unilaterally violated by Nasser, and when his action created a direct threat to the national interests of Great Britain.

On the other hand there were some Americans in Washington and New York who felt that the invasion of Egypt by British and French forces without warning not only was a betrayal of its ally, the United States, but was also another example of colonialism, which they regarded as a world evil that must be destroyed.

In a speech which I delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in April 1957, I said, "I am convinced that the complete reëstablishment of the close relations which formerly existed between the United States and Great Britain is essential to the welfare and security of the Western World and I believe that this will be brought about in the near future with the exercise of patience, understanding and steadfastness of purpose on the part of the people of both countries." In the ten years which have lapsed since that speech, the confidence I then expressed has been most happily and completely justified.

[i] In the book by Terence Robertson, entitled "Crisis: The Inside Story of the Suez Conspiracy," the following quotation appears from an account by Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury (appointed Minister of Defense in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mollet of France, January 1, 1956): "Once our own preparations were under way and the Israelis decided when to attack, our assistance programme was speeded up and I had to consult with the Americans to get spare parts and items of equipment we lacked. The Americans knew just about everything that was going on in Paris. I saw Ambassador Dillon about once every two weeks to request further supplies from the United States, and in my opinion he was quite aware that they were destined for Cyprus, from where a proportion was sent on to Israel. "It was Ambassador Dillon who told me that the British were also asking United States Ambassador Aldrich in London for equipment and supplies from the United States. In total, we asked for and received ninety different items of arms equipment, and the British received a hundred and sixty-seven different types. It is quite pointless for the Americans to continue to say they were kept in the dark about our plans. Certainly Mr. Dillon was a clever man, and not likely to be deceived. In fact, on one occasion I asked him why, in view of the readiness with which the United States met our requests for arms and supplies, it was being politically so anti-French and anti-British, particularly in New York. He replied that Washington was exerting heavy pressure on the English in the hope that they would stop the French. If that was the case, Ambassador Aldrich must have been lacking powers of persuasion in his dealings with Whitehall." (New York: Athenaeum, 1965, p. 148.) The fact is that at no time while I was Ambassador did the British ask for military equipment and supplies from the United States, and when I called Ambassador Dillon's attention to the foregoing statement he assured me that there was not one word of truth in the entire quotation set forth above.

[ii] Under the circumstances, I arranged to have all telegrams to Washington from that time on drafted by Mr. Barbour and myself jointly. And thereafter I never had any conversation with the British without having Mr. Barbour with me.

[iii] Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964, p. 448.

[iv] It may be worthwhile to correct at this point an error in Robertson's book, "Crisis" (op. cit. p. 313). He refers to a telephone call from Under Secretary Hoover to me just after these events had taken place, instructing me to protest to the Foreign Office because a revolt in the ranks of Eden's own party was being construed in Washington as a direct attack on President Eisenhower. No such telephone conversation took place.

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