A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 19, 2010

Weekend Historical Video: The 1956 Suez War

This week's "Weekend Historical Video" — again poaching from the wealth of YouTube so I can enjoy the weekend — is a BBC documentary on the 1956 Suez War. It doesn't carry a date but must be in the last few years since it includes much information that was only declassified after 40 years or more. [UPDATE: Looks like 2003.] But its strength is it contains, in addition to the inevitable talking heads, a lot of contemporary newsreel clips of Nasser, Eden, etc.

Now that 1956 is more than half a century in the past, the Suez War does not seem to occupy a very prominent place in most Westerners' collective memory; most aren't old enough to remember it. When it comes to Arab-Israeli wars, 1948 is enshrined in Israeli memory as the war of independence, and 1967 and 1973 are much studied as the formative matrices of the modern Middle East. Israel was a bit player in 1956, its invasion of Sinai a pretext (planned in advance) for the Anglo-French intervention. And in Britain and France, it's an incident best forgotten, the last death rattle of empire, when the once dominant powers were brought low by their erstwhile American ally, which turned out in those days to actually mean its anti-colonial rhetoric.

But Suez' memory is still alive in Egypt, for this was Nasser's finest hour, the defiant victory over the former colonial masters, his apotheosis as an Arab symbol, never completely erased even by the disaster of 1967. The victory over the "Tripartite aggression" is still a staple of school history in Egypt.

[In the documentary I do have one historical nit to pick. When discussing Nikita Khrushchev's nuclear threats against London and Paris, the documentary cuts to clips of a silo-launched missile and to another missile which is in fact an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. Neither of these was in service in 1956. The first Soviet ICBM, the R-7, was tested in 1957 (and launched Sputnik later that year) and none were silo-launched in the early days. The SA-2, which is an anti-aircraft defense, was also first introduced in 1957 and most famously demonstrated against Francis Gary Powers' U-2 in 1960. So those clips are anachronisms; though Khrushchev talked a lot about missiles, in those pre-Sputnik days most Westerners interpreted any nuclear threat as involving bombers.][End of Nitpick.]

The BBC documentary is in three parts, totaling about half an hour, below. Have a nice weekend.


Rashad said...

Thanks for these links.I hadn't quite grasped the extent of ant-Nasser activities leading up to the Suez war until this documentary.

David Mack said...

Thanks for reviving my memory of this low moment for Britain and France, high moment for Egypt and the U.S. I was just 16 at the time, totally taken in by anti-Nasser British propaganda. It took five years before I began to see the other side, and it helped form my evolving views about the political changes underway in the Middle East.