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Similar strain

In 1956, the criticism made of India’s position on the crises in Suez and Hungary was of inconsistency and hypocrisy; criticism of Britain and France but relative silence on Soviet actions

T.C.A. Raghavan Published 24.05.24, 06:02 AM
D.D. Eisenhower at a campaign rally at the Eisenhower farm, September 1956.

D.D. Eisenhower at a campaign rally at the Eisenhower farm, September 1956. Sourced by the Telegraph.

As India’s general election enters its last phases, the voting tally and seat count will soon move to the centre stage. Next, attention will inevitably pivot to the other big election in 2024 — the presidential election in the United States of America — with an additional edge because one of the principal contenders, the former president, Donald Trump, has seldom been off the front pages.

For the past few weeks, the criminal proceedings that Trump is in the midst of have riveted America and the world, charged as he is with making payments to bribe a porn star to keep quiet about a sexual encounter with him.


Speculation about the outcome of this trial and its impact on Trump’s re-election bid will continue till the November polling date. The contest, President Joe Biden vs ex-President Trump, is also a rerun of the 2020 poll when Biden had beaten Trump, the then incumbent president. A sitting president losing his re-election bid is unusual; a direct rerun is rarer: this is, in fact, the first direct rerun since 1956 when the former president, Dwight Eisenhower, beat Adlai Stevenson II for a second time after besting him in the 1952 election.

There is, however, more in common between the 1956 and the 2024 US elections. In 1956, too, the world had confronted the prospects of deeper conflict amidst a crisis in Europe and, simultaneously, one in West Asia — the Soviet military intervention in Hungary and a coordinated British, French and Israeli military campaign against Egypt. If Gaza and Ukraine are the foreign policy issues that frame the 2024 US presidential election, the crises in the Suez and in Hungary similarly did so in 1956.

In the last week of October 1956, demonstrations — largely peaceful but with some armed groups also participating in them — forced the resignation of the communist party government in Budapest. By November 1, a new government was in place and it announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and that it would henceforth be nonaligned in its foreign policy. This was a revolution, nothing less, in eastern Europe. But by November 4, a strong and bloody Soviet military intervention put an end to it.

Alongside this drama in Europe was another that took place further east. On October 29, Israel attacked Egypt and advanced across the Sinai desert towards the Suez Canal. This was the first part of a wider game since Israel was acting in concert with Britain and France. The latter two had coordinated to keep aircraft and ships ready and their military columns arrived shortly thereafter seemingly to protect the Suez Canal from the Egypt-Israel hostilities.

This triple axis was aimed against the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July 1956 had initiated a chain of events that brought the three countries into a secret alliance aimed at seizing the Suez Canal, destroying Egypt as a military force, and neutralising Nasser as the face of Arab nationalism. What this meant, in effect, was to bring about regime change. As is well known, the whole enterprise failed principally because the US did not permit it to proceed.

The Suez crisis and the Soviet action in Hungary had converged with the US presidential poll with voting taking place on November 6, 1956. But the two events were intertwined for other reasons too. Events in Hungary united the Western alliance in outrage but it had to acquiesce. In the US, the bottom line was the clarity that the Soviet Union was acting within its sphere of influence and any effort by the US to intervene would have led to a dangerous escalation. In brief, pragmatism prevailed.

The Suez action was deeply divisive. The justifications offered by Britain and France that they were acting to protect an international waterway convinced no one and it was clear that the whole scheme had been planned by the three protagonists well in advance. To many, it appeared self-evident that France and Britain as former imperial powers were seeking to re-establish control over former colonies.

The US and President Eisen­hower were particularly aggrieved. Defending a colonial war being waged by the US’s allies in the midst of a presidential election was the last thing he wanted. Perhaps what also rankled was that each of the three partners had acted without keeping the US informed and against its advice to not escalate matters to the military level.

The US’s displeasure was expressed in different ways but most dramatically through squeezing the British and the French economically. The withdrawal of their forces followed and it meant a huge political victory for Nasser who became consequently the most prominent face of Arab nationalism.

Incidentally, Eisenhower went on to win the 1956 election comfortably — possibly neither Suez nor Hungary impacted that outcome. But the manner in which both issues were handled reinforced his reputation as a president who was not going to be dictated to by his allies, no matter how close.

In 1956, the criticism made of India’s position on the crises in Suez and Hungary was of inconsistency and hypocrisy; criticism of Britain and France but relative silence on Soviet actions. This was unfair. The crisis in Suez arose with the former colonial powers acting to reassert dominance; and in Hungary on account of a great power protecting its hegemony in its periphery. With the passage of time, the US position seems, in fact, to be closer to that of India — Eisenhower acquiesced with the Soviet action but came down hard on his allies for their adventurism in the Suez.

As the war in Ukraine extends into its third year and Israeli military action gears up to enter a fresh phase amidst student and campus protests against the genocide in Gaza across the US, American foreign policy seems paralysed and captive to the demands of its allies. At least some of the supporters of President Biden may well be harking back to an older era when US leadership also meant keeping allies in check. It is easy to overlook that the current international order is also based on a conscious prioritisation of peace over justice. Supporting Israel in its reckless military action and Ukraine in an endless war hardly upholds it.

T.C.A. Raghavan is a former diplomat. His latest book is Circles of Freedom: Friendship, Love and Loyalty in the Indian National Struggle

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