In 1956 there were some really important events around the world that were to have an influence on international relations over the next twenty years or so.
In the Middle East the Suez Canal was of very high military and commercial strategic importance and the United Kingdom had control of the canal under the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 but on July 26th Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, in which British banks and business had a large financial interest.
The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was outraged and up for war to teach the Egyptians a lesson and Britain together with France, who were similarly upset, made threatening noises and began to prepare for an invasion with large forces deployed to Cyprus and Malta and the fleet dispatched to the Mediterranean Sea.
The crisis began on 29th October and the next day the allies sent a final ultimatum to Egypt and when it was ignored invaded on the following day. Someone should have told them that this was no longer the nineteenth century and they couldn’t go throwing their weight around in Africa like this anymore.
Almost simultaneously with this event there was a crisis in Eastern Europe when a revolution in Hungary, behind the iron curtain, deposed the pro-Soviet government there. The new government formally declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October this had seemed to be successful but on 4th November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and during a few days of resistance an estimated two thousand five hundred Hungarians died, and two hundred thousand more fled the country as refugees. Mass arrests and imprisonments followed and a new Soviet inclined government was installed and this action further strengthened Soviet control over Central Europe.
From a military perspective the operation to take the Suez Canal was highly successful but was a political disaster due to its unfortunate timing. The President of the United Stated Dweight Eisenhower was dealing with both crises, and faced the public relations embarrassment of opposing the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Hungary while at the same time ignoring the actions of its two principal European allies in Egypt. It was also rather unnerving that the Soviet Union threatened to intervene and launch nuclear attacks on London and Paris and fearful of a new global conflict Eisenhower forced a ceasefire and demanded that the invasion be called to a halt. Due to a combination of diplomatic and financial pressure Britain and France were obliged to withdraw their troops early in 1957. Anthony Eden promptly resigned.
The Hungarian revolution and the Suez crisis marked the final transfer of power to the new World superpowers, the USA and the USSR, and it was clear to everyone now that only ten years after the Second-World-War Britain was no longer a major world power. Since that time Britain has only once acted in a military matter without checking with the President of the United States first, when Margaret Thatcher sent troops to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders and things are so bad now of course that British Prime Ministers like Tony Blair simply do as they are told by the American Head of State as though they are the President’s pet poodle.
This change in the world balance of power was highly significant and provided the tense atmosphere of the Cold War years that lasted until the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989. In 1955 the two British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had fled in 1951, turned up in Moscow and I spent my childhood with a dread fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.
During this time the very thought of visiting eastern European countries was completely absurd which makes it all the more extraordinary that in the last few years I have been able to visit the previous Eastern-bloc countries of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and the Czech Republic.