1956 - Suez and Hungary

Fifty years ago, two crises rocked the world in the space of a few days. This is how the <em>New Sta

Suez: Britain's Act of Aggression

The New Statesman and Nation, November 3, 1956

Eleven years and six months after Sir Anthony Eden signed in San Francisco the solemn instrument which established the United Nations, a British government under his leadership has committed an act of aggression and has used its veto to prevent the Security Council from formally expressing the disgust and anxiety of the rest of the world. No more self-interested manipulation of the legal processes of the UN has ever been undertaken. The world will condemn Britain, and justly so, for a crime not merely against Egypt, but against the whole edifice of international law which has been so arduously reconstructed out of the ruins of Nazi aggression.

The British offensive against the Canal Zone is not an action improvised to meet the sudden emergency caused by Israel's invasion of Egypt. In fact it is no more than the original plan to attack Egypt, for which the reservists were recalled last summer and which world opinion has hitherto prevented the British and French governments from carrying out. Using the Israeli invasion as a pretext, Britain and France issued an ultimatum which was totally illegal and which, by ordering both Israel and Egypt to withdraw ten miles from the Canal, was calculated to aid Israel at the expense of her victim. Then, using Egypt's inevitable rejection of such an ultimatum as a further pretext for the next stage of the operation, Sir Anthony set in motion the prearranged war on Egypt.

Can this morally and legally reprehensible plan conceivably be justified on grounds of statesmanlike self-interest? At no stage has there been any threat to Britain or France. It is not even clear that there has been any serious threat to the free passage of the Canal; but, if there was in the last few days, it arose from the Israeli invasion and from nothing else. Let us see how the balance sheet stands even in terms of self-interest. The British government has broken the Charter of the UN. It has shocked its allies and furnished its enemies with a propaganda weapon which will for years be used to belabour us. Inside the Commonwealth it has roused the disapproval of Australia and Canada as well as the more expected opposition of the Asian members. It must surely have united the Arab peoples against us and reawakened all over the world dormant fears of British colonialism. It has certainly confirmed the Arab view that Israel is primarily an outpost of western colonial policy; and finally, it is imperilling the lives of British servicemen in an illegal war for an unjust cause.

And on the other side of the ledger, what is gained? A temporary saving of face for Sir Anthony Eden and the pathetic Guy Mollet? The reconquest of an international waterway which was in any event being efficiently operated by its lawful owners? Nothing else. Nor is greater security for Israel to be thrown in on this side of the account. Most British Socialists feel they are emotionally involved in the well-being of Israel, and ever since 1945 this journal has supported the Israelis through good times and bad. But we cannot support Israel in her present action, or rejoice when we try to estimate its long-term consequences. The danger is, first, that Ben-Gurion has by his act destroyed the moral position from which Israel has been able since 1948 to exercise an influence out of all proportion to her strength; secondly, that the British and French, having used Israel in their attempt to topple Nasser, will then cynically seek the favour of the rest of the Arab world by condoning, or even abetting, their growing threat to Israel.

The Labour movement is greatly to be commended for its uncompromising stand. But the opposition to Sir Anthony is wider than a single party. All those liberal-minded people who have laboured for two generations to establish the authority of international organisations will feel a deep sense of shame at the crime which has been committed in our name and at the odious hypocrisy which has accompanied it.

Hungary: The Feast of the Dead

The New Statesman and Nation, November 10, 1956

Bruce Renton writes: There was a smell of corpses outside the Hungarian parliament. It was dusk and the great bridges over the Danube, catching the last rays of an autumn sun, were all one could recognise of the Budapest that was. The population hurried over the rubble in Rakosi Street. They crowded round the cars of the western journalists. For the moment, they paid no attention to the youths nearby engaged in tommy-gun battles with the last of the AVO secret police troops. The revolution seemed to have been won.

The trophy of an Italian colleague brought home the fact that this had been a revolution in the full sense of the word: it was the blue-banded hat of an AVO officer. The previous owner was hanging by his feet from the branches of the trees outside the AVO central barracks.

A strange silence fell as news got round that 200 Russian tanks were moving into positions around the city. At the Hotel Duna a babble of western journalists tried vainly to get through to their capitals. Embas-sies burned documents. Columns of rebels moved to the outskirts.

Budapest that night was a city of candles. Candles in the windows of the houses; candles in the cemeteries; candles over the corpses of the freedom fighters stretched out in Republic Square, in a great feast of the dead. Boys, solemn and determined, tearless, lit candles where their fathers had fallen. But the faces of the AVO troops whose bodies were heaped in the square had been crushed and spat on. Cigarette ends had burned them beyond recognition.

Parliament Square was deserted save for a few weeping women. A Hungarian officer approached, smiling. I told him I wanted to speak to Nagy or Kadar. Two soldiers led me through a maze of rich Byzantine corridors. After the atmosphere of the streets the warm waiting room was soothing, apart from the fact that armed patrols kept passing incongruously across the rich carpets. One of Nagy's assistants spoke fluent English. "Oh, what a fine paper," he said when I told him I represented the New Statesman. In the next room Nagy was arguing with Soviet ambassador Andropov. The assistant told me that in half an hour Nagy intended to declare Hungary a neutral country and ask the UN for protection. "Russian troops are pouring in from the Ukraine. They are digging in. I am very pessimistic." He advised me to leave Budapest at once.

Back at the Italian legation there was a row with an embassy employee whose baby Fiat 600 we had smashed that day. Several hundred dollars changed hands. Then it was a nightmare dash for Vienna. At one point the freedom fighters only just prevented us from driving into the Russian tanks. A youth in a military raincoat, two pistols in his pockets, waved the direction and shouted after us in the darkness, "Danke, danke, danke fur alles." It was a forlorn cry that I took away from Hungary. The freedom fighters jumped out at every corner, looking for escaping AVO troops. Their hands shook and they were ready to die or kill.

The Russians were bringing down the curtain with a bang and a massacre. When I had arrived at the Hungarian frontier a week before, and we had all jumped on to a lorry loaded with Austrian newspapers, it seemed utterly incredible that this brave, enthusiastic people had freed itself. There had to be a catch. It was the sight of red flags burning beneath the walls of Gyor town hall that frightened me. It was the sight of girls carrying away the remains of massive red stars. It was the complete, spontaneous and violent destruction of the Communist regime. The Russians were bound to react by massing an entire panzer army.

In Gyor, the first large town inside Hungary, people had snatched the western newspapers from our hands, yelling in wild enthusiasm. Now there was black grief. There was not much time - one could feel it in the air. I went into the house of a young doctor. "The British and the French have betrayed us," he said. "To attack Egypt now was to make a dirty bargain of the Hungarian people. The panzers came in from the Ukraine, crossed the border after Suez." I gave him fruit and chocolate. "If the Russians attack," he said, "we shall all die." He pointed to his baby boy, who was eating the first and probably the last banana of his life. "We can never go back to what we were," said the doctor. "He will die, too."

And as I write, from Austria, Russian tanks are attacking Gyor.