Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
A number of crises since 1945 have propelled the world to the brink of another global war, which is why it is so critical for a powerful nation like the United States to be led by someone of sound judgment and temperament. One of those pivotal moments occurred on October 29, 1956, when Great Britain, France, and Israel all invaded Egypt in a concerted effort to reclaim the Suez Canal. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, both complicating the developing crisis and deflecting international attention. Alex Von Tunzelman’s Blood and Sand is a gripping retelling of those events, which took place during the closing days of an American presidential election.
Gamal Abdel Nasser had become the president of Egypt after deposing the pro-British leadership in 1952. He compounded the offense in Western eyes by nationalizing the British- and French-controlled Suez Canal in July of 1956 in retaliation for the failure of Britain or the United States to finance his pet project, the Aswan Dam.
At the time, Britain was the largest single shareholder in the Suez Canal Company, one of Britain’s last remaining colonial possessions. Some 1.5 million barrels of oil a day went through the canal, of which 1.2 million were destined for Western Europe. According to the author, the British Treasury estimated the value of its assets in the Canal Zone to be 500 million pounds. But even aside from the profits, Britain needed the oil. In addition, though not measurable in dollars or barrels, Britain did not want to lose “its divinely and racially ordained place at the top of the world.”
When Nassar nationalized the Suez Canal Company, all of that was threatened. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden treated the nationalization as a direct affront to British prestige and became so incensed that (according to Von Tunzelmann ) he ordered Nasser’s assassination.
But, as the BBC History Magazine reported:
“. . . for as much as the operation [seizing the canal from Egypt] was a success in military terms, it was a disaster politically. World opinion roundly condemned the three nations for their aggression and lack of respect for Egyptian sovereignty. Fury and outrage erupted across the Islamic world at Britain’s perceived neo-colonial behaviour. . . . “
The United States was also opposed to the violation of Egyptian sovereignty. Both Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, were somewhat incapacitated with health issues. They were, however, able to exert not only moral and financial suasion, but also the threat of potential military force against the British, French, and Israelis. When Eisenhower was warned by politicos that checking the Israeli advance might cost him New York’s electoral college votes in the coming election, Eisenhower said he would rather be right than president.
To make matters infinitely more complicated, as Von Tunzelmann reported, “…the high point of the Suez crisis – From October 22 to November 6, 1956 – would coincide precisely with the biggest rebellion yet against Soviet power, which took place in Hungary from October 23 to November 4.” The people of Hungary spontaneously revolted against the incompetent rule of their government, which was pretty much a puppet of the Soviet Union. At first, the Russians tried to placate the Hungarians by installing a new set of puppets, but when that failed to quell the unrest, Khrushchev ordered a full scale invasion. The Hungarian rebels fought bravely, but they had only small arms against tanks.
The author cogently summarizes the broader meaning of the crisis for the various players:
“The crisis would be intensely emotional for the nations involved. For Hungary and Egypt, it would be about freedom. For Israel it would be about survival. For France, it would be about saving territory it considered integral to the republic. For the Soviet Union, it would be about resistance to Western colonialism as well as reasserting and extending its own influence. For the United States, it would be about decency and the trustworthiness of its allies. And for Britain, as the then leader of the House of Commons Rab Butler admitted in his memoirs, it would be about the ‘illiberal resentment at the loss of Empire, the rise of coloured nationalism the transfer of world leadership to the United States.’”
All of these developments ratcheted up tensions among the major Cold War players, a dangerous situation given that the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Britain all held nuclear weapons. The Americans felt powerless to aid the Hungarians militarily without starting a nuclear war.
Von Tunzelmann’s book gives a nearly hour by hour account of the actions at the highest levels of the Soviet, American, British, French, and Egyptian governments. In the author’s account, Anthony Eden appears nearly unhinged and exceedingly unwise; Khrushchev is volatile; the Israelis are aggressive and unscrupulous; and Nasser is simply over his head. Eisenhower is something of a hero in this tale: his prudence and calm manage to avoid a worldwide catastrophe even though he was unable to help the Hungarians other than by leading the condemnation of the Soviets in the United Nations.
Von Tunzelmann points out that the Cold War put the United States in an awkward position in seeking influence in the third world against the Communist powers. Prior to the Suez Crisis, the United States had struggled to maintain a balance in world affairs in remaining allied to the French and British colonial powers while preaching liberal democracy and anti-colonialism to the rest of the world. When push came to shove, Eisenhower upheld American ideals even though he had to chastise his closest allies and risk the wrath of Israeli’s supporters in the American electorate.
Evaluation: This is an even-handed, well-written account of a perilous time. Perhaps the best lesson to come out of this history is how fortunate the world was to have an American leader who was experienced in battle, adept politically, and calm under pressure.
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016