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Nehru's Word: The Suez crisis and Hungary 1956
"It becomes clear to me that the system of pacts and alliances—whether it is NATO or the Warsaw Treaty or SEATO or the Baghdad Pact—weakens peace and maintains a constant dread of each other"
India’s confused foreign policy towards the ongoing Israel–Palestine conflict prompts us to look for other examples of how India handled similar situations. Sixty-seven years ago, on 29 October 1956, Israel attacked Egypt, and was soon joined by Britain and France. The ostensible reason was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by General Nasser of Egypt in July 1956. In a letter he wrote to the Chief Ministers of the provinces on 8 December 1956, Nehru, while condemning the aggression against Egypt and supporting Hungary’s right to choose its own path, also emphasises the need to keep ways open for peace.
What happened in Egypt and Hungary is of importance for a variety of reasons, and the world has been rather near a major war. I should, however, like to lay stress on two aspects particularly. The first relates to Anglo–French action in Egypt. It is patent that this action has failed completely.
It was aimed principally at bringing down the Nasser government and establishing a more pliable tool. This transformation was supposed to lead to a re-establishment of British influence over Western Asia and of French influence in Northern Africa and especially Algeria.
It is President Nasser who has come out of it with greater strength and far greater prestige, while both the UK and France have suffered tremendously in their prestige, apart from the great losses that they sustained.
This has demonstrated that it is very difficult now for an open reversion to colonialism. Even a strong power cannot do so at the expense of a weak country, because of world opinion, including of course Asian opinion, and the many other consequences that flow from this...
England and France, two great colonial powers, have not only suffered very greatly in prestige, but have also been shown up as really not strong enough to hold empires. In effect, this has changed the balance of power in the world.
The events in Hungary have demonstrated that militant communism, however powerful its backing, cannot be forcibly imposed for long. Communism might possibly grow in a country if it is allied to nationalism and the country relies on its own strength. Hungary was, for ten years, under a Communist regime dominated by the Soviet Union.
During these ten years there was, no doubt, a great deal of propaganda and indoctrination But, as events have proved, it could not stand up against the strong nationalist urge of the Hungarian people. Thus, Russia has not only suffered greatly in prestige by what it did in Hungary, but so-called international communism has also been shown to be much weaker than people imagined.
These two events are significant for the future and will, no doubt, gradually influence the policies of various countries.
Both in Egypt and Hungary, the situation is still critical, though it would appear that the immediate danger of a major war has been avoided. At the same time, the cold war has come back and is likely to create a new crisis from time to time….
It is important that we should have a clear idea of these happenings because the burden of shaping our own country’s policy rests on us… The stakes are very heavy indeed and, by some fate or circumstance, India’s responsibilities have grown.
Reports come to us from many of the West Asian countries that wherever an Indian flag is seen on the car of one of our representatives, crowds gather round it to express their high appreciation of India and her policy, and expect India to do something to help them.
So also, in Budapest. That is a terrible burden for us to carry. Our capacity to do anything is limited, and our good name has gone far beyond that capacity. This prospect rather frightens me. It is easy enough to give expression to our views in brave language, condemning this country or that, but it is not easy to hold to the straight and narrow path which leads to peace….
What is the test we should apply? Certainly, the test of principles, but the enunciation of principle is not enough and even a good principle shouted out at the wrong time may create dangers and lead to difficulties. If a great country, because of its own folly and mistakes, is driven into a position from which it cannot extricate itself without humiliation and abject surrender, then it is likely to prefer even war, whatever the consequences.
We have seen England and France and Russia, no doubt because of their own mistakes, driven into a corner and trying desperately to find a way out without complete loss of dignity. If we prevent them from finding a way out, this might lead to desperation and even war.
Therefore, it would seem that we should always try to have an honourable way of escape from a difficult position. I remember that Gandhiji always left a door open in this way, without ever sacrificing his principles. Gandhiji’s wisdom and practical good sense justify itself again and again.
England and France, losing the active help of the United States and having to face an angered public opinion, became too weak to carry on their rash adventure in Egypt and are trying to end it with such grace as they can. The Soviet Union is not weak and relies on its own strength. Even so, it has bowed to world opinion to some extent The danger is that it may be pushed too much in an attempt to humiliate it and then it may react wrongly.
The Soviet Union was alarmed at what might well develop into a collapse of its authority in the East European countries and bring a hostile frontier right up to its own borders. There is nothing that Russia fears so much as a re-armed Germany. Twice in our lifetime, German armies have invaded and brought havoc to Russia...
How, then, are we to deal with this situation? I can offer no simple recipe. We may, however, lay down some broad considerations. The first one is that we should stand on our basic principles. That means that foreign forces should be withdrawn from Hungary, and Hungary should enjoy real independence with a political or economic structure of her people’s choice.
For this purpose, Soviet troops will have to withdraw. We should make it easy for the Soviet Union to do so. If we make it difficult, then the process of withdrawal will be delayed and the crisis will continue.
It becomes ever more clearly evident to me that the system of pacts and alliances— whether it is NATO or the Warsaw Treaty or SEATO or the Baghdad Pact—weakens peace and maintains a constant dread of each other.
If we ask the Russians to withdraw from East European countries, as we logically should, foreign bases in other foreign countries should also be liquidated. I am quite sure that if all these pacts and alliances are put an end to, there would be great relief all over the world.
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)