Written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Lester Pearson’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Peace, John Melady’s popular history, Pearson’s Prize: Canada and the Suez Crisis, is underwhelming. Melady’s summary of the events leading up to, including, and following the conflict pitting Great Britain, France, and Israel against Egypt in 1956 is written in an accessible style. His short, crisp chapters, captivating anecdotes, and treatment of the crisis from an international perspective are all praiseworthy. And indeed, Canadians do not know enough about their history, and any effort to facilitate a greater popular understanding of the national past should be looked upon positively. Nevertheless, this book is weak in the crucial areas of historiography and historical context, and reinforces unhelpful national myths far more than it reveals the Canadian past.
Popular history appeals to non-specialists because it does not concern itself too seriously with complicated theory that is largely incomprehensible to anyone but the most dedicated scholars. The best of the genre, however, demonstrates awareness of the interpretive debates and reveals them to the reader simply, even if only in passing. This book does not. Contemporary scholars differ, for instance, over the extent to which British Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s health problems affected his decision making in the summer and fall of 1956. Melady notes proudly that he has travelled to New York, to Egypt, and to London to see the relevant sites and conduct somewhat random interviews, but he has not read the full extent of the secondary, let alone primary, literature that has already been published on the Suez Crisis.
Considering its title, it is ironic that Pearson’s Prize does a better job of conveying the international context of the crisis than it does Pearson’s (and Canada’s) role in managing it. For example, while Melady devotes more than half of the book to the Middle East, he does not mention the TransCanada Pipeline debate, the Gordon Commission, or developments in North American radar defence, all of which help explain the intense anti-American sentiment that dominated parts of Canada and the national media at the time. For many aging Canadian imperialists and recent immigrants from Great Britain, the Liberal response to Suez was the last in a series of policy decisions that wrongly shifted the national focus from the Commonwealth to the Continent.
Finally, the book is unwilling to confront some of the less comfortable realities of the period. Melady’s comment that ‘in the decades that have passed since Pearson’s day, Canada has truly become a peacekeeping nation’ belies recent history. Certainly, during the Cold War, Ottawa was a leader in contributing to un peacekeeping initiatives. Since then, however, its overall ranking has dropped to approximately sixtieth, and it has participated in genuine wars in the Persian Gulf, in Kosovo, and now in Afghanistan.
Readers of this book will not realize that Lester Pearson himself would have preferred that the British and French be allowed to act as un peacekeepers as a means of saving them from additional international criticism. And the extent of Pearson’s regret over the eventual composition of the United Nations Emergency Force is not made sufficiently clear. Pearson knew that its mandate was too weak, that the requirement that peacekeepers use their weapons only if fired upon directly was problematic, and that developing the solution to a military conflict through the General Assembly was less than ideal. He had intended to create a Security Council–sponsored rapid reaction force, one that could violate national sovereignty in the case of political intransigence. Looked at from this perspective, the results of the Suez Crisis were actually rather tragic. The peacekeeping force that was established set a precedent that drew attention away from the need for a standing international force with real power.
Adam Chapnick, Department of Defense Studies, Canadian Forces College