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Whitehall and the Suez Crisis
Saul Kelly and Anthony Gorst, eds., Whitehall and the Suez Crisis. London: Frank Cass, 2000. 250 pp. $54.50.
Peter Hennessy, the distinguished analyst of the British policy-making process, has described the Suez crisis of 1956 as "the greatest political trauma experienced by the British Civil Service," a trauma that stretched the fabric of Whitehall "to the point where it began to tear in private if not in public." This valuable collection of essays, based on a fortieth-anniversary conference held in 1996, is the first to explore in detail how the Whitehall machine actually functioned during the Suez crisis. The essays were earlier published as a special issue of the journal Contemporary British History (Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 1999).
The approach of the book is biographical, but the editors have taken trouble in their selection of "Whitehall warriors." The essays have been arranged according to the phase of the crisis in which each adviser played his most prominent role. The first phase runs from Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal Company in [End Page 108] July 1956 to the faltering of the initial plans for an Anglo-French military operation in mid-September 1956. Included are essays on figures such as Sir Gerald Templer, the chief of the Imperial General Staff; Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, the Foreign Office legal adviser; and Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary. The second period runs to late October. During this time, Anthony Eden, Britain's beleaguered prime minister, turned in great secrecy to collusion with the Israelis. Sir Gladwyn Jebb, Britain's ambassador in Paris; Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord; and Sir Patrick Dean, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, are among those deemed to have played their most important roles in this period. The third phase runs from the Israeli attack and Anglo-French intervention in late October 1956 to the eventual withdrawal of troops in December. This period is covered in some of the most substantial essays, including one by Edward Johnson on Sir Pierson Dixon, the British ambassador at the United Nations (UN), and another by Ann Lane on Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office.
The threefold categorization of advisers is somewhat problematic. Sir Alexander Cadogan is probably situated in phase two because of his role as a government director of the Suez Canal Company; yet, as Tony Shaw's essay shows, he was more significant in the third phase as the pro-Eden chairman of the Board of Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Sir Roger Makins, the subject of an incisive essay by Saul Kelly, is of particular significance because he bridges phases two and three, first as ambassador to Washington and, then, from 15 October, as Joint Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, where he exploited his Washington contacts to facilitate help for the embattled British pound.
Although the three phases are rather artificial, they help to give a sequential structure to the essays. The contributions are generally of high quality; those relating to the last phase are particularly illuminating. The material from Makins's papers, for instance, strengthens the argument that if Eden had waited until after the U.S. presidential election, the Americans would have helped him to bring Nasser down. Ann Lane reminds us how prevalent were the analogies between Nasser and Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in a year that marked the twentieth anniversary of the reoccupation of the Rhineland and of Italy's conquest of Abyssinia. What do the essays tell us overall about Whitehall? As John Young observes in his reflective conclusion, there were far more doubters about the invasion among officials than among ministers. The Foreign Office was particularly angry at the inept collusion with the Israelis and the blatant deception of the United States. Both of these actions were marked shifts from habitual British policy. For "Bob" Dixon at the UN, the task of defending a policy for which he had little enthusiasm...