Ties of Blood and Empire: New Zealand Involvement in Middle East Defence and the Suez Crisis 1947‑57
Auckland University Press in association with the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, $34.95
Malcolm Templeton, who retired as Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs in 1983, has given us for the first time an inside look at how New Zealand reacted and responded to the events which led to the Suez crisis in 1956 and its near‑involvement in the use of naval force. It is an incisive and absorbing study of events which not only hastened the end of empire for the United Kingdom in the Middle East but also led to a significant reappraisal of New Zealand’s subsequent relations with the United Kingdom.
The bulk of the documentary material used in this book comes from archival sources in Wellington, London, private collections in the United States and especially the Alister McIntosh papers, housed in the local Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Surprisingly, there is little documentary material from Australian archival sources given the importance of trans‑Tasman communications at the official level during the Suez crisis. Also Heikal’s Cairo Documents (1972), a fairly standard work on Egyptian attitudes towards the Suez crisis, does not appear to have been consulted for more rounding on the Arab perspective.
While this book was in progress New Zealand archival material on the Suez crisis was somewhat “monopolised” by Templeton. However, for those of us who had to “wait” the end result has been most gratifying. The book is written in two parts and has 11 chapters, plus five useful appendices. The first part focuses on New Zealand’s defence commitment in the early 1950s and the second on the unfolding Suez crisis of 1956.
Templeton manages to combine a competent academic approach with a diplomat’s insider view of how governments make decisions on defence and contentious foreign policy issues, such as the Suez crisis. He takes us beyond the “blarney” of foreign policy debates in Parliament, official statements and press releases on which earlier studies of the Suez crisis have been written. In the process he tells us, perhaps unwittingly, much about him‑self. For example, he commends senior foreign affairs officials and questions lacklustre performance of certain ministers in the unfolding Middle East crisis. Political appointees ‑ especially to the high commission in London ‑ are not rated highly, as they seem to lack the “practised” eye, “dedication” and “commitment” of the professional diplomat. One could only assume that New Zealand diplomats trained under the Templeton “regime” (1978‑83) would certainly have been practised in the art of writing a perceptive report to the secretary’
Templeton is a keen historian at heart. He has an eye for detail and a touch of wit. However his chapters, while full of useful material might have been softened with the use of subheadings.
For historical perspective Templeton relates New Zealand’s response to the Suez crisis (1956) to the events that shaped its policies during the 1930s and 1940s. Uppermost in this respect was New Zealand’s commitment to “collective security” through the United Nations and later regional organisations (ANZUS, SEATO).
He argues that New Zealand was essentially anti‑Arab in the 1950s. (The official version is that New Zealand was “neutral” during this period.) But it is not clear from Templeton’s account whether this position derived from its pro‑Jewish stance in 1947 on the United Nations partition resolution, or from earlier experiences of “street” Arabs during two world wars, or both. Using the same confidential papers as the author, it is clear to me that Peter Fraser’s Labour Government (1940-49) was cautiously pro‑Israeli, though Fraser and his deputy, Walter Nash, were more heavily committed on “moral” considerations towards the Jewish state. The bulk of Fraser’s cabinet was dearly committed to the United Nations and Britain, while Israel featured positively only insofar as it did not prejudice relations with Britain or violate United Nations resolutions. This was also the emphasis of the Holland National Government (1950‑57).
Anti‑Arab sentiment is obvious in New Zealand official documents in the early 1950s. This may have had some pro-Israeli bias, embellished for personal effect by Munro at the United Nations, but for the most part it derived from the experiences of two world wars and Egyptian opposition to the Anglo‑Egyptian treaty (1936) relating to the retention of British bases in the Suez canal.
Templeton argues that it was New Zealand’s belief in the strategic importance of the Middle East in the event of a third world war that led to its offer of an army division, air and naval contingents for western defence centred on the Suez canal. In addition, it wanted to play a prominent part in a Middle East defence organisation (1951‑52) centred on the canal. It was not at all confident that Egypt or any other Arab state should be involved in western defence planning and opposed strongly any suggestion that Britain should vacate its bases in order to placate United States and Arab opinion.
He comments incisively on the strength of New Zealand’s convictions in support of imperial interests in the Canal Zone, which were much greater than its trans‑Tasman neighbour. But why was New Zealand “stuck” on the Middle East, an area so removed from New Zealand? He is right to argue that the “mentality” of imperial service in the Middle East in World War H shaped New Zealand’s policies in the region until the mid‑1950s. With the signing of the Anglo‑Egyptian agreement (1954) and the running down of British bases in the Canal Zone, the imperial imperative for Middle East service declined and New Zealand, encouraged by the United Kingdom, turned towards regional commitments in South‑east Asia.
As a member of Security Council in 1954‑55, New Zealand had been critical of Egypt’s refusal to permit Israeli ships to use the canal on the ground that a ‘state of belligerency” existed between Egypt and Israel. The Government was less certain whether Egypt’s actions were in legal violation of the 1888 convention governing the use of the canal.
In a sponsored resolution in 1954, New Zealand tried to accommodate the attitudes of the United States and United Kingdom over the canal. The United States generally preferred a “soft” resolution that would not needlessly offend Egypt and Arab oil lobbies, the Churchillian Tories preferred to teach Egypt a “lesson”. New Zealand was also lobbied by Israel to support ‘counter‑measures”, such as economic sanctions against Egypt. But New Zealand was more concerned about principle than punishment. In the end a Soviet veto made the whole issue academic. Yet the failure of this resolution sensitised New Zealand to the attitudes of the major parties over the operation and administration of the canal. Above all, the principle of freedom of transit through the canal for all nations was the important issue for New Zealand.
Only about 5% of New Zealand’s ships used the Suez canal. The Panama canal was the most preferred route to the United Kingdom. But for Britain the canal was crucial for oil, trade and communication. Hence the Suez Canal’s importance for New Zealand, whose economy in those days was closely bound up with the British economy.
Nationalisation of the canal
The nationalisation of the canal on 26 July 1956, brought a cry of outrage from British Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the right‑wing Suez group in the House of Commons. Britain and Francie were the main shareholders in the Suez Canal Company, which held the concession over the running and administration of the canal until 1968. Anglo‑Egyptian relations had plummeted over Nasser’s opposition to the pro‑western Baghdad pact (1955), anti‑western agitation in North Africa and the “apparent” removal of Glubb Pasha the commander of the pro‑British Arab Legion in Jordan (1954‑56).
President Nasser had reacted hastily to the decision of the United States and United Kingdom to punish Egypt by withholding promised aid for the construction of the Aswan dam. For Eden the nationalisation of the canal was the last straw: Nasser had to be removed and the international status of the canal reestablished. It was a view which Eden shared with only a few dose colleagues. New Zealand like Australia had absolutely no inkling as to his ulterior motives, New Zealand’s response
On 28 July 1956, Prime Minister Sidney Holland was in Los Angeles on his way back from the Commonwealth conference in London when he received news of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal. Without consulting the cabinet his first instinct was to send full‑bloodied reply to Eden offering New Zealand’s total “support” in Britain’s response to Nasser.
Templeton argues that Holland’s desire to be “loyal” committed New Zealand to a policy which made it difficult to follow an independent line through the United Nations, and bound the Government “hand and foot” to Britain’s policy of using force if all else failed. To complicated matters, the newly purchased HMNZS Royalist, a cruiser and flagship of the New Zealand navy, was in the Mediterranean on its way home when the crisis occurred. Holland agreed with Eden to hold the ship on station with British naval units in the Mediterranean. Initially this may have been designed to strengthen the level of New Zealand’s commitment to the British at this moment of crisis. But as Templeton observes, New Zealand was later to regret this as the crisis deepened and finally erupted into a show of military force.
But why did the “old Commonwealth” (New Zealand, Australia, Canada) not show more solidarity and oblige Britain to follow a course of action that would adhere to the principles of the United Nations charter? Templeton poses this question but offers only sketchy answers?
New Zealand was a small actor during the Suez crisis. For the most part it followed and justified policies made in London on the Suez crisis. Other than from missions in London, Paris and New York, its main briefing came though the Commonwealth Relations Office in London. But Eden never took Holland into his confidence. Rather he manipulated Holland’s total support in the British Parliament to give the impression of consultation and approval by the loyal dominions. This was particularly galling to Holland after the outbreak of hostilities.
Templeton underlines a major dilemma confronting the New Zealand Government during the fateful months preceding the Suez invasion. Stated simply, should force be used to uphold the interests of Britain given the importance of the Canal and Nasser’s unwillingness to comply with the 18‑power proposals of the London conference for the international administration of the canal? Or should New Zealand hold to the principle of the United Nations charter that called upon nations to resolve problems by peaceful means? For example, the latter opposition was adopted by Canada.
Surprisingly, the New Zealand Government was apprehensive about the course of action to follow largely due to the strength of its commitment to the United Kingdom. Matters were made more difficult because of Britain’s increasing lack of “consultation” with the Commonwealth in the weeks prior to Israel’s invasion of the Sinai. A further complication lay in the policies of the United States, which displayed marked opposition to the use of force. Tension between the United States and United Kingdom greatly concerned New Zealand as it valued good relations with both powers and was reluctant to take sides in view of the increasing drift in relations.
Templeton argues that New Zealand was also denied penetrating analyses and assessments of the crisis as it unfolded in London due to the incompetence of the High Commissioner, Clifton Webb. Webb was a National Government appointee who regarded London as his “retirement” post. In the critical weeks prior to the Israeli invasion of the Sinai at the end of October the flow of information from Webb was limited, inconsistent, often outdated and lacked incisive penetration.
Webb believed that after the adoption of the “six principles” by the Security Council (13 October 1956) (emphasising freedom of transit in the canal, etc) the crisis between Britain, France and Egypt had eased and the likelihood of military action had decreased. But this was in contrast to the information from Webb’s deputy, Frank Corner, who was becoming increasingly alarmed by the division between the permanent officials in the Foreign Office and an in‑group of hawkish senior ministers in Eden’s Government. For Corner something was seriously wrong. Eden was being evasive and military planning had not ceased, despite moves through the United Nations Secretary‑General to continue a dialogue between the parties over the application of the six principles on which the Egyptians seemed to agree.
On 23 October British, French and Israeli leaders met secretly at Sèvres outside Paris to complete a plan of action that was to go down in the “halls of infamy”. They all shared one common ambition, which, for different reasons, amounted to the overthrow of Nasser. Together they conspired to hoodwink their closest allies and the international community. The plan was as simple as it was crude. Israel was to invade the Sinai and threaten the canal; Britain and France were to issue ultimatums calling upon Egypt and Israel to withdraw 10 miles from the canal; as it was expected that Egypt would refuse, Britain and France would enter the Canal Zone ostensibly to ensure the free movement of ships. However, in one crucial area the plan badly misfired: it sought to bypass the Security Council on the pretence of urgency.
Templeton suggests that Eden’s message to Holland on 30 October justifying British action as a peacekeeping operation in the Canal Zone and seeking support from New Zealand must be ranked as one of the most “disingenuous communications in … intra-Commonwealth communications”. Holland had shown “outwardly” much sympathy and understanding to the British Government. But he was taken aback by the rapidity of Anglo‑French attack on Egyptian military airfields without recourse to the United Nations. His reply to Eden (1 November) was almost “curt”, unlike Menzies who despite his apprehension over the use of force, displayed understanding and support all the way.
Templeton provides three reasons for Holland’s action: alarm over the status of the HMNZS Royalist and the need for its speedy recall; lack of consultation with Eden; and damage done to New Zealand’s American relations. A fourth reason perhaps was Holland’s embarrassment in being pushed into a minority position in the United Nations from which to defend the British action.
Templeton emphasises clearly at this time the contrast between the official and private position of Holland: outwardly supportive while privately alarmed at the course of events. It was a position made worse by the fact that within the United Nations General Assembly the international community, led by the United States, was lining up to condemn the Anglo‑French and Israel action. But all that New Zealand could do, other than appear disloyal, was to follow the Anglo‑French line and receive the odium of the international community. Matters were made worse through revelations from Corner to McIntosh for Holland that queried the official British peacekeeping line in favour of an argument for collusion at the highest possible levels.
Praise where it is due
Templeton ties all these complicated strands of the story together in a masterful way in what by now has become a very exciting drama with a dénouement to follow. There is even a suggestion of a British intelligence breach of New Zealand cables from Corner which Templeton suggests may have some relevance to Peter Wright’s book, Spycatcher.
Templeton is very good at selecting, reconstructing, interpreting and accounting for inconsistencies in official documents. Of course precision in this area sometimes reduces the ability of the author to explore the impact of the document upon the reader and the motives behind the documents in the wider context. In the case of Holland, for example, was he becoming mentally incapacitated during the height of the crisis and did this affect his overall judgment?
This book is a worthwhile addition to the growing number of books on New Zealand foreign policy and more so in view of its Middle East focus. It shows very clearly that in the rapidly changing world of the 1950s New Zealand’s commitment to Britain, based on emotion and culture, was becoming unrealistic. The experience of the Suez crisis certainly brought the New Zealand government to its senses. Thereafter the relationship with the United Kingdom was based more of national self‑interest while for Britain the experience of Suez crisis undermined its involvement in the Middle East and hastened its “return”, as Templeton suggests, to Europe.
Dr Ron Macintyre is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury.