Back in 1938 there was not much sign of Britain’s press undermining national interests—interests as defined by Neville Chamberlain’s government, which fancied that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would become fine international citizens once their territorial ambitions were appeased. Chamberlain’s idea of peace required suppressing ample evidence that Europe’s dictators were violently dangerous, and the press, with certain honorable exceptions, assisted him, agreeing that resistance to Hitler was unthinkable because he possessed, as The Times said, “weapons of mass destruction.” In spite of Chamberlain the people took the national interest—the world’s interest, one might say—into their own hands, and in September 1939 forced a hallucinating government to face the need for war. Seven months later popular pressure led to Chamberlain’s replacement by Winston Churchill.
Though not unique in promoting appeasement, The Times was uniquely deep in the Chamberlain government’s pocket, and for one young foreign correspondent that made a personal ordeal. Iverach McDonald reported the Munich crisis from Prague, among people his editors were sedulously betraying by pushing the British “national interest”—in Chamberlain’s version&mdash requiring Czechoslovakia to concede all Hitler’s territorial demands. To that end, suppressio veri and suggestio falsi were applied with dismal success.
During the war that followed Hitler’s attempted reprise in Poland, McDonald grew close to one of the few Tory leaders who survived the 1930s with a clean name—Anthony Eden, who indeed qualified for admiration. He was a World War I combat veteran and a scholar of Middle Eastern languages; Britain’s youngest foreign secretary, he quit in 1938 over Chamberlain’s ill-judged intrigues with Mussolini. He was a major figure in Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s World War II victory and later a skillful ally when America secured Europe against Soviet military potential. He was a cold warrior, though a temperate one.
That quality evaporated on October 14, 1956, when French emissaries arrived with a proposition mafiosos might have viewed askance. Israel, then a close French ally, was ready to invade Egypt. This was, ostensibly, to be spontaneous action triggered by fears of Egyptian rearmament; actually it would be by arrangement with and aid from France and Britain, who would deal with the ersatz “emergency” of canal nationalization by seizing Suez to “separate the combatants.” Incidentally, they would eliminate Nasser.
Improbabilities abounded. A pliant succession in Cairo was assumed—without specific plans. Absurdly, Israel’s “spontaneous” invasion had to rely on Anglo-French destruction of Egypt’s air force—action the U.S. was somehow to overlook. Then President Eisenhower was expected to accept, via deception, measures that he had rejected in explicit discussion: nothing in his record made that plausible. Still, the scheme had a certain wild purity, a benchmark quality as a test of secrecy and national interest.
Throughout the crisis Eden had given McDonald, now The Times’s head of foreign affairs, special personal briefings. And on October 18, having tied up most of the plot, Eden saw McDonald at 10 Downing Street and revealed all its chief features. He had been depressed to find that the public did not favor a war of choice over a canal that Egypt was discussing at the United Nations&mdash and keeping carefully open. But now the prime minister was relieved: Britain and France would ride out to check Israeli aggression and re-establish peace. If the fraud held good, it would neutralize much opposition, and even generate enthusiasm. He was forewarning The Times so that more fine—if devious—editorial-page rhetoric could be prepared.
Eden was so entranced by his vision of Finest Hour II that he assumed his Times confidants shared it. But by McDonald’s later account the plot struck him as deadlier to Western interests than anything Nasser might concoct. Before asking why the government’s secrets stayed nonetheless intact, let’s see what their exposure (say in a Times story on October 20) would have precipitated:
Overwhelming dissent in Britain and in Australia (the one Commonwealth nation whose government shared Eden’s Nasser-as-Hitler-redux fixation). Opposition to war, serious enough anyway, would have exploded on proof of fraud—reaching France, possibly Israel, let alone Canada, India, and New Zealand. Decisive countermeasures by the U.S., on which Britain relied for oil and financial support. Cancellation of the air strikes—which required surprise—immobilizing Israel’s Sinai expedition. Regime change in Britain: the fall of Eden’s government.
In the certain short term, there could have been no war. However, the campaign did open, with the fraud still intact. It collapsed within six days under pressures of a similar but lesser sort—essentially, Eisenhower, once undeceived, forced the conspirator nations to retreat from Egyptian territory before they could get the canal.