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Three men and a burning question

How Nehru,Einsenhower and Zhou responded to the parallel crises of Suez-Hungary.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
February 28, 2011 11:47:00 pm

There is no way the inextricably intertwined story of the Suez War,(‘East of Suez’,IE,January 24) and Soviet repression of the popular revolt in Hungary,(‘The art of intervention’,IE,February 14),the two events of tremendous importance in their time,can be completed without a brief account of Jawaharlal Nehru’s detailed talks on the subject with President Dwight Eisenhower of the United States and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. These parleys contributed to a solution of the Suez issue and the stabilisation of the situation in Hungary,though under a government installed by Moscow.

Shortly after the ceasefire came into force along the nationalised Suez Canal in early December 1956,Nehru travelled to the US in response to a standing invitation from Washington and held long talks with Eisenhower at the latter’s farm at Gettysburg. Even more prolonged were the talks between Nehru and Zhou. Since the visiting dignitary wanted to see the Bhakra Nangal Dam in Punjab,they first met there on the last day of 1956,and then continued their dialogue during the rail journey back to Delhi. With only two interpreters present,their conversation lasted till the wee hours of the morning,interrupted only by a short ceremony to welcome the New Year.

Briefing Zhou on his discussions in the US,Nehru disclosed that Eisenhower had suggested that the clearance of the Suez Canal,a decision on its future,and Israel’s right to use it must be settled at the same time. But Nehru told him — and the US president eventually agreed — that the canal’s clearance and an amicable settlement on its future should have the first priority,and the Israel issue taken up when passions had subsided. “Israel,” Nehru had said,“could not disappear from the map and,at the same time the very existence of Israel infuriated the Arabs.” Therefore,it was better to wait for a “more reasonable atmosphere” to take up the ticklish problem.

Highly significant was Ike’s statement on the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt,as summed up by Nehru: The invasion had come as a “great shock” to him (Eisenhower) and he had “insisted on disapproving it — even though his advisers had “tried to restrain him” because they were “afraid this might affect the Jewish vote in the (forthcoming US) elections”. One might add,parenthetically,that more than half a century later,in the midst of the “Arab spring” this factor remains a major diving force in American politics and policy.

On Hungary,Eisenhower said to Nehru that while Britain and France had accepted the UN resolution and withdrawn their forces from Egypt,the Soviet army had not withdrawn from Hungary,and in the presence of foreign troops no solution was possible. More notably,Ike repeatedly expressed his apprehension about the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc “creeping in and filling the vacuum in the Middle East created by the ending of the British and French influence and thus get a grip on the Middle East”. He was unconvinced by Nehru’s comment that this was not feasible under the existing circumstances because “the Soviet government had been hurt so much by the Hungarian rising that it was not at all likely to invite further trouble”. He also pointed out to Eisenhower that in Russia,the “basic fear was that of a re-armed Germany”.

Zhou Enlai’s elaborate response to Nehru’s presentation was remarkable for revealing that differences between him and his host were much greater than those between the US president and India’s prime minister. On Suez and the Middle East he agreed almost completely with Nehru’s stand. But he had no time for Nehru’s estimate that the US,and President Eisenhower in particular,was opposed to the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression and had taken steps to halt it. Zhou contended that while deploring the invasion of Egypt publicly,the US had “encouraged it secretly”. On Hungary,disagreement between the two prime ministers was almost complete.

In Nehru’s words,Zhou “stuck to the Soviet line on Hungary throughout”. The Hungarian question and the Egyptian question,the Chinese premier said,were different in character. “Our view is that the Soviet army’s going to Hungary cannot be compared with British and French invasion in [sic Egypt.” Zhou went on arguing,“Western powers were carrying out subversive activities designed to overthrow socialist governments and (dragging) these countries into the Western camp.” It was for this reason that the Hungarian government

had asked the USSR to come in under the Warsaw Treaty.

Nehru replied that while there were “some external subversive elements,they formed only a small part of the trouble. It was mainly a national uprising (whose) object was not so much to change the internal regime as to get rid of foreign domination,namely,that of Soviet Union … Our information is that originally the movement was not directed against the USSR but turned anti-Soviet when workers and youth were shot. That 20,000 Hungarians are reported to be dead and in a city like Budapest 1,000 tanks were required shows the extent of the uprising”.

There was a lot else of great importance in Nehru’s talk with both Ike and Zhou — ranging from Tibet to the Baghdad Pact to Sino-US relations — but none of these is relevant to the twin issues of Suez and Hungary. Nehru’s overall verdict is,however,eminently worth quoting: “Recent events in Egypt have shown that world opinion is strong enough to prevail against aggression of stronger powers against weaker nations. The events in Hungary have revealed that communism could not succeed in a country unless it was allied to nationalism.” Privately,Nehru also told several of his confidants that one of the results of the Suez misadventure had been that its main instigator,British Prime Minister Anthony Eden,was thrown out. Harold Macmillan was named his successor — “to the surprise of everyone except himself”,according to British historians.

Perhaps the most devastating comment on Suez and Hungary came from Thanu of

The Indian Express who drew a brilliant cartoon that depicted Khrushchev and Bulganin,with blood dripping from their sleeves,saying to each other: “Let’s go and wash our hands in the canal”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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