Blood and sand: Suez, Hungary and the crisis that shook the world

"The Suez crisis made Britain look incompetent and petty – a spent force": Alex von Tunzelmann talks to Matt Elton about her book on the twin crises of the autumn of 1956 – the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising – and how they pushed the world to the brink

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr (centre) at a UN Security Council meeting concerning the Suez crisis. (Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

In context

Two key global events defined the autumn of 1956. The Suez crisis saw Britain, France and Israel launch a politically disastrous assault on Egypt, which was both condemned by US president Dwight D Eisenhower and the cause of rising tensions with the Soviet Union. The near-simultaneous Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule, meanwhile, was brutally quashed.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In context

Two key global events defined the autumn of 1956. The Suez crisis saw Britain, France and Israel launch a politically disastrous assault on Egypt, which was both condemned by US president Dwight D Eisenhower and the cause of rising tensions with the Soviet Union. The near-simultaneous Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule, meanwhile, was brutally quashed.

These episodes caused a nuclear crisis and lasting tension in regions including the Middle East.

Why do you think that this story has been under-served in previous books?

My book looks at the Suez crisis simultaneously with the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. What I found when I started researching is that a lot of people don’t appreciate that both of these massive international events happened within the same fortnight in the autumn of 1956, and interacted with each other in a significant way. Together, they pushed the world as close as it got to nuclear war in the period between 1945 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

There were so many different things happening geopolitically at once, and it was a coincidence that these events happened at the same time – but the fact that they did became extremely fateful. The Suez crisis was the tipping point between the period of imperial European rule, in which France and Britain had a major say in the world, and the rising world order of the US andthe Soviet Union having a lot more sway.

It represented a move towards superpowers, rather than empires, running the show.

Were any factors or events key in setting the crises in motion?

For every nation involved it was about something different and quite existential – and the crises really brought in a lot of the world. There really aren’t rational explanations for a lot of what happened in the Suez crisis and the Hungarian rebellion, and a lot of that comes down to national emotion. For the French, it was about a rebellion against their rule in Algeria: they were convinced, wrongly, that the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was behind it and that getting rid of him would calm everything down.

Britain wanted to overthrow Nasser and have control of the Suez canal because it was the main conduit for its global trade, particularly oil. This was all about oil on some level, because that’s the way in which conflicts now run.

These two nations considered all sorts of things to get rid of Nasser, including assassination. The scary thing, looking at this through modern eyes, is that you are reminded of the 21st-century situation in Iraq. They had no real plan for what would happen if they did assassinate Nasser, what sort of government they’d bring in as a replacement – no kind of exit strategy at all.

How did the Tripartite Aggression unfold, and how far was it expected?

It wasn’t really expected. The Tripartite Aggression – Britain, France and Israel – was a secret plan they cooked up together. It was so crazy that afterwards many people in the British establishment refused to believe it had happened, and denied it for a long time.

The idea was that Israel would invade Egypt on the pretence that they were going to root out infiltrators, because there was already tension in the region. They would stage a raid into Egypt towards the Suez Canal which Britain and France would condemn, telling both sides that they had to stop fighting or they would invade. Britain and France would make Israel and Egypt both retreat a set distance from the Suez Canal, and then ever-so-selflessly occupy the canal for the security of the world.

Because they had planned it in advance they knew that Israel would abide by their terms but Egypt would not, and the idea was that they would then be able to fight all the way to Cairo and overthrow Nasser.

It was a thinly disguised bluff, and how they thought they could get away with it is anyone’s guess. Everyone quickly spotted that Britain and France had been colluding with Israel, and the Soviet Union was convinced that the US was also involved.

Turning to events in Hungary, what happened on 25 October?

‘Bloody Thursday’ – 25 October 1956 – is a very significant day for Hungary. It’s still very hard to know precise details of what happened, and there are still very many contradictory reports, but effectively thousands of people were gathered in a large and peaceful protest in the main square in Budapest when somebody started shooting.

It’s still impossible to know who, but we do know that a large number of people were killed. It was deeply shocking, brutal bloodshed, that really galvanised people. There were pitched battles in the streets, fought by often incredibly young rebels. They were desperate, and those who survived were terribly punished afterwards.

To what extent did the situation in Hungary push an already volatile situation closer to the brink?

It clearly did, and you can see that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was thinking very hard about Suez when he was dealing with Hungary.

Both of these crises were referred to the UN, which was awkward because normally Britain would have stood by the US and condemned Soviet aggression – but since it was doing exactly the same thing, the UN was hamstrung. The US went against Britain and France at the UN for the first time, so this was a real danger to that alliance.

How difficult was the position in which the US found itself?

It was extraordinarily difficult: they were trapped between a lot of different competing alliances. Britain and France had lied to them, and were continuing to lie, when it was perfectly obvious what was going on.

It was also complicated because, although the US and Israel didn’t have quite as solid a relationship as they do now, it was still a pretty solid relationship.

It had therefore been widely expected in Britain, France and Israel that the US would not go against Israel in public, but in fact they did – extremely strongly. This was all happening in the week leading up to Dwight D Eisenhower’s second presidential election, too, and it was assumed that he wouldn’t stamp down on Israel because he would lose the election if he lost Jewish votes in the US. But actually Eisenhower was very clear that he didn’t mind about losing the election, he just wanted to do the right thing.

Why was the Tripartite Aggression so badly bungled?

When you look through the military plans, they’re extremely poor and full of gaps – but actually the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that, repeatedly. They were really opposed to this whole operation, and advised the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, that the consequences would be terrible. All the advice was not to do it, but Eden ignored it.

It was really a disaster. The British and French got about a third of the way down the canal before they had to stop, because the weight of world opinion was such that they simply had to. Israel achieved its objectives initially but soon lost Sinai again.

Things weren’t much better in Hungary, meanwhile, where the rebellion had been completely crushed. The Soviet Union, tragically, rolled back its small, nascent reforms and life became much more unpleasant for many people living in the Soviet bloc.

And neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives. All that the crises achieved was to massively strengthen Nasser and, separately, Soviet control of its satellite states.

Is it fair to say that this was the last point at which Britain was a major player on the world stage?

That’s a difficult question, because Britain has undoubtedly still played a role. But what is astonishing about this situation is that, when people talked about superpowers in the 1950s, they talked about three: Britain, the US and the Soviet Union. After Suez, they only talked about two.

It was so humiliating for Britain – a bad, immoral plan that they didn’t even achieve successfully – that it made the nation look incompetent, petty and a spent force. It reduced its influence globally quite substantially. Eventually some of that came back, but it showed that Britain was no longer a superpower and that, ultimately, it had to bow down and do what the US told it to.

Are there any misconceptions about this period that you would like this book to help correct?

The one that I still encounter most commonly in Britain is an amazingly strong sense that the US stitched us up. That’s really not justified by events at all. Britain and France wanted to invade Egypt, and Eisenhower said straight away to Eden that he should not even contemplate it – and he kept saying it consistently all the way through, in private and public. Yet somehow the British managed to convince themselves that the US would back them up anyway.

So, actually, the Americans were completely straight most of the time and did exactly what they said they’d do – the problem was that the British plan was terrible. I do think that when we’re looking at our own history we need to be honest that this was not our finest hour.

What parallels can we draw between 1956 and 2016?

I think we probably feel quite a lot of sympathy right now with our equivalents in 1956. When I was researching this subject – and I started on this book four years ago, so this certainly isn’t something I’d planned – I was reading about these ever-more extreme events in the 1956 newspapers, how seemingly every day there was extraordinary news that upset the existing order of the world. And, during the summer of 2016 in the UK, many of us have been feeling that again. There’s a huge amount of turmoil going on both here and in the wider world. However we feel politically about events such as Brexit, they represent a major upheaval and it’s hard to know how things will turn out.

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Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis That Shook the World by Alex von Tunzelmann (Simon & Schuster, 480 pages, £25).