British engineer Christopher Hinton commenced his diary entry for Tuesday, October 29, 1956 thus: “Israel has attacked Egypt . . . [hard to decipher] . . . that Suez Canal is kept open.”
I am of course obsessively fascinated by Hinton, father of the British gas-cooled Magnox and AGR reactor programs, and its decades-long breeder program. (Clearly I over simplify, as indeed many others had responsibility, but if anyone singly could be said to spawn those plants, Hinton was the one.) His diaries are notoriously coy, so for him to mention the Suez war/conflict/fiasco, whatever you want to call it, it obviously loomed large to him and his contemporaries.
The Suez Crisis is not really within my book’s purview (though strangely enough it impacted Israel’s journey towards nuclear weapons under peaceful guises, something I am preoccupied with) but anyone writing about the Cold War cannot ignore it. So I long sought a general history to use as overview. Well, I can heartily recommend Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Sixteen Days of Crisis that Changed the World by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann. It came out last year, in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Suez and just in time for my purposes, and I devoured it in one sitting. The author’s day-by-day syncopation of the globe-straddling account brings home just how fraught this fortnight was. As she puts it, “Among the many problems with mutual assured destruction was that it assumed everyone would act rationally. Both Eisenhower and William Hayter had indicated the previous evening that they did not feel the Soviets could be relied on to act rationally. With nuclear weapons in play, any fleeting moment of irrationality – or miscalculation, or misunderstanding – had the potential to trigger global disaster.”
I encourage a reading, if only to bring home how world events can shift too fast for rational consideration.
Hinton, Christopher. 1956. Hinton diary 1956. Folder “A.42”, Box “Hinton of Bankside – A.32 – A.45, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London.
von Tunzelmann, Alex. 2016. Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Sixteen Days of Crisis that Changed the World. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Of course, one of the least rational responses of the time – JFK’s response to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, a response that went against his think tanks’ advice but seriously frightened the Soviets (and the world) – came from the USA.