Had the story run in the Times and the war not occurred, some long-term prospects can be projected with decent confidence: Damage to Britain’s standing as a nation of laws would have been minor, not massive; the aborted conspiracy would likely have passed as an aberration. Nasser’s stature would have risen—but not to dangerous altitudes. Iraq’s pro-British leaders might have stabilized themselves. (As it was, Nuri-es-Said’s regime fell in 1958 amid gunfire. Instability, potential or savagely real, has been Iraq’s fate ever since.) The USSR certainly would have had to modify its cold-war brutality. On November 4, 1956, its troops moved against the Hungarian uprising. Its style would have been seriously cramped by a united pressure from Western and neutral nations. But America was embroiled in protecting third-world Egypt from equally ruthless assault by its own close allies, England and France. The Soviet tanks mowed the partisans down without the slightest inhibition.

There’s nothing for the plus side of the national-interest ledger. This is, of course, the Moynihan experience applying powerfully to Britain, and scarcely a helpful case for Bickel. Governments may need secrecy. But overdosing is destructive.

Why didn’t The Times blow the whistle a deluded prime minister pressed to its lips? There is no more remarkable failure in journalistic history. The perfectly informed newspaper was perfectly inactive, when six crisp paragraphs might have averted disaster.

The record is slender but offers useful clues. Sir William Haley wrote no memoirs and never discussed the matter. In his autobiography, A Man Of The Times (1976), McDonald was eloquent on fissures the 1956 war cut into British society, and his sense of doom at its approach—then sidled away from responsibility. “Very few people had any preknowledge of the scheme,” he wrote, as if he had not. But in writing the paper’s official history, Struggles in War and Peace (1984), he had to confront appeasement’s ethical morass, and found he could not pass silently on to Suez. Though terse, his account shows how the secrecy around Eden spread itself to The Times office, circumscribing journalistic action.

McDonald says he and Sir William managed their link with Eden very tightly, and by ill-judgment—he admits—shared little of its product with their colleagues. And as weeks passed they “fell into the way” of keeping Suez out of discussions with those given less confidential access. “Knowledgeable men such as Teddy Hodgkin and Richard Harries … felt themselves excluded,” he says—but these men were authorities on international politics, and celebrated ones in the discreet way British elites then practiced. McDonald concedes that the Suez analysis should have involved such experts. If so, much lethal fantasy would have evaporated.

As it was, on October 18 McDonald could not discuss his fearsome scoop with anyone—Haley being away on a U.S. promotional tour. Eden was furiously bent on security (he even tried to run the three-way plan with nothing on paper), and McDonald feared leakage too much to use telephone or telex. He wrote a complete but quite private record—entirely by hand, because all Times typescripts were routinely archived.

It seems, however, that McDonald did want the story to break, for he told a Downing Street official as shooting started that he had hoped Haley would go to Eden and “warn him off.” But that could only have been done via disclosure, and enough time remained after Haley’s return (October 21) for a competent news team to generate an effective account without quoting Eden. Many clues existed—indeed, The Guardian was assembling them, though lacking knowledge of the far-fetched scheme that made them comprehensible.

Yet the circle of initiates actually contracted as days passed. Haley had talks with Eden from which McDonald found himself excluded. He suggests that Sir William essentially agreed with his own forecast that “doom” would be the gimcrack conspiracy’s outcome. But a letter Haley wrote during the first fighting shows he had conceived a hope of “justification by results.” McDonald clearly accepted the decision for silence that the absurd hope implied.

However it was silence, not cheer-leading. The Times never produced the Churchillian rhetoric Eden wanted, and once U.S. and UN pressure forced a ceasefire (November 6) its editorials turned gloomy. It did give considerable space to denials of collusion by the demoralized conspirators, but on November 20, The Guardian produced the first hard proof that it was all a plot. In January, Eden resigned, a sad remnant of a great statesman.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.