On a list of the most important historical episodes of the 20th century, the Suez Crisis of 1956 wouldn’t make the top 10, or even the top 20. Insofar as it was a war, it was a fizzle: Israel invaded Egypt with a small force, conquered some of the Sinai desert, and then gave it back a few months later. As a diplomatic incident, Suez was more significant, altering the balance of power between Britain, France, and the United States. But it hardly compares to a major Cold War confrontation like the Cuban Missile Crisis of a few years later, which threatened the survival of the world.
Yet the appearance of two new books on the subject of Suez—Ike’s Gamble by Michael Doran and Blood and Sand by Alex von Tunzelmann—suggests that the events of October 1956 continue to have a symbolic significance out of proportion to their actual scale. That is because Suez serves as a convenient marker for the twilight of European colonialism and the rise of American empire. At the same time, it encapsulates a number of the themes of America’s experience in the Middle East, down to the present day: the difficulty of identifying allies and enemies, the uncertainty about how deeply to get involved, and the dangerous law of unintended consequences.
Von Tunzelmann, a British popular historian and journalist, and Doran, an American Middle East specialist and occasional White House adviser, have produced very different books covering some of the same ground. Blood and Sand focuses on the two weeks of the crisis itself, from Oct. 22 to Nov. 8, with hour-by-hour updates on the action as it unfolds across several continents. (Sections are introduced by the kind of datelines familiar from Jason Bourne movies: “1500 Washington DC//2000 London//2100 Paris.”) And Von Tunzelmann interweaves the Suez affair with scenes from another crisis that, coincidentally, broke out at exactly the same time—the rebellion against Soviet rule in Hungary. The effect is a cinematic, you-are-there style of history-writing, which plunges the reader into the chaos of events, but does little to explain their deep background or ultimate consequences.
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