The British Empire's 40-year death throes

November 04, 1996|By William Pfaff

LONDON -- The British Empire came to an end just 40 years ago, its death agony lasting from the 31st of October to the 6th of November, 1956. The proximate cause of death is known. The real cause remains a mystery.

The proximate cause is called by historians ''Suez.'' The agents of the empire's execution were Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anthony Eden. Colonel Nasser was considered by Eden, then Britain's prime minister, as ''a new Hitler.'' He was the first of the Western-designated ''new Hitlers'' to appear in the Middle East. There are others today. This one, unlike his namesake and his successors, defeated his British enemy, if only by default.

He was a populist army officer who first inspired and then took over formal leadership of a military revolt in 1952 which deposed Egypt's monarchy. He declared Egypt a republic and a neutral in the Cold War. In 1955 he arranged to obtain arms from Czechoslovakia, an act disapproved of by the Western powers, who also disapproved of neutralism.

France accused him of arming and supporting the national liberation movements in French North Africa, and Israel said he harbored guerrillas raiding Israeli settlements -- both accusations true.

In July 1956, Britain and the Eisenhower administration withdrew their support for a World Bank loan to build a high dam at Aswan on the Nile, a project dear to Nasser. In retaliation, he nationalized the Suez Canal, until then a private company under mainly British and French ownership.

The British, French, and Israeli governments then concocted a plan to recover the canal. Israel would attack in the Sinai peninsula toward the canal, and Britain and France would demand that both Egypt and Israel withdraw, while they themselves seized the canal to ''protect'' it.

The deception was ridiculously apparent soon after the Israeli attack was launched, on October 29. Britain and France issued their ultimatum the next day, and began bombing Egyptian airfields on the 31st.

On November 3 the Egyptians blocked the canal by sinking ships in it. On the 4th, British and French paratroops landed, and two days later armored forces began landing at Port Said and Port Fuad. The Israelis, meanwhile, had reached the canal. The French were eager to continue.

In Britain, there was political uproar. In Washington, where the presidential election was taking place, President Eisenhower was furious at not having been consulted, and also because the affair had distracted global attention from the simultaneously-occurring Soviet attack upon Budapest to suppress the Hungarian revolution.

Washington withdrew support for sterling, which had come under international speculative attack. London called off military operations on November 6, without informing the French or Israelis. The war was over.

The French deputy chief of operations at the time said afterward, ''We should never have let the British command, and agreed to a secondary role. . . . They overestimated the Egyptians . . . The operation was too heavy. . . . They kept us from playing on LTC surprise and speed. . . . They let us down.'' The Israelis felt the same. No one seemed to understand that even if the canal had been taken, they would have been politically defeated.

Striking aftermath

What is striking is what happened to the three countries afterward. The Israelis withdrew, under U.N. orders, but in 1967 retook both Gaza and the Sinai, and defeated Egypt a third time in 1973. They are today as energetic in defending their national interests as they were then (even if divided on what those interests are).

The French packed up and went back to their war in Algeria. When they lost that, they rewrote their constitution, created a new republic, re-established their quasi-colonial position in Africa, built nuclear-weapons systems, made themselves the world's fourth-ranking economic power, and today, with Russia out of the running and China not yet in the running, are the only major nation that consistently challenges the U.S.'s global political and economic leadership.

Britain never again went against America's wishes. Its African empire was wound up by 1965. Its remaining presence east of Suez was eagerly given up in the late 1960s.

Margaret Thatcher, avowedly a British nationalist, agreed in 1984 to hand over to Communist China Britain's last position in Asia -- not only the New Territories of Hong Kong, whose lease expires in 1997, but Hong Kong itself, ceded to perpetual British sovereignty in 1842, and Kowloon, ceded in 1860.

No doubt the latter had been ceded under duress, and were unsustainable without the New Territories. London was positively determined to get rid of the entire colony, even without enforceable guarantees of the liberties of its inhabitants. Yet at the moment Mrs. Thatcher made the agreement, the United States was sponsoring the contras in El Salvador to save Central America -- so Washington explained -- from communism.

A few years earlier the United States had fought a terrible war, with Britain's approval, to keep Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos out of Communist hands. Hong Kong was given to China virtually as a gift.

Meanwhile, today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, the film that has the crowds queuing up is a fictionalized biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser, liberator of Suez.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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