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National Affairs: Foxes & Lions

4 minute read

All week the case-hardened habitués of Washington’s Embassy Row looked out upon a rare and wonderful spectacle as the British and French, than whom there are none more nimble, played the diplomatic game of foxes and lions to maneuver themselves out of a jam. Not very many days before, Britain’s bombers had, to Washington’s astonishment, flown off to bomb Egypt, but now Britain’s diplomats, unabashed and socially impeccable, and the French, provocative and chop-logical, were talking elliptically about how the alliance was coming back together again and was certainly the most important thing in the world: “Let us frankly admit there have been disagreements, but . . .”

Spate of Punditry. Through receptions and cocktail parties and all kinds of informal gatherings, the diplomats deployed to meet the needs of the crisis. “Is anyone here still speaking to me?” a bright-eyed British noblewoman pertly broke the ice one day, whereupon she was warmly and immediately reassured. Well-mannered and well-indoctrinated young embassy spear carriers were ever ready to convince their U.S. opposite numbers that they had really invaded Egypt to stop the Russians. The higher-ups concentrated on background briefing U.S. columnists and pundits—many of them still awallow in the wash of the sunken Adlai Stevenson—to the effect that Secretary Dulles had really been something of a failure (which was the British-French, as well as the sunk Stevensonian line).

The briefings took effect. “Washington is a-buzz,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor’s William H. Stringer, “with the talk of the ‘disastrous failure’ of the Dulles foreign policy in the Middle East.” “It is generally conceded here that the Soviet Union and Egypt have scored a tremendous victory,” the New York Times’s James Reston reported nonsensically. In a piece called “The Kremlin’s Shattering Triumph,” Joseph and Stewart Alsop ranted: “Even among the Administration policymakers the almost hysterical emotions generated by pique against the British and French are now beginning to subside.” Two days later the Alsops swung even more wildly: “The most strategically vital region of the modern world has been handed to the Kremlin on a silver platter —with the American Government as a rather conspicuous platter-bearer.”

Angry U.S. officials were convinced that “friendly embassies” tipped key correspondents that President Eisenhower intended to deliver a “strong” statement against Russian intervention in the Middle East at his press conference. When the President stuck by his policy of talking softly and backing the U.N., a new spate of punditry and radio-TV commentary bewailed his “disappointing” stand.

Remember the Duke. Eight days after arriving in the U.S., Britain’s new Ambassador Sir Harold Caccia turned bravely to his public duties. Speaking before Washington’s National Press Club, he had warm words for the President, Secretary Dulles and U.S.-British relations (“of capital importance”). As for that canard about British-French-Israeli ganging up on Egypt behind the U.S.’s back, Sir Harold was reminded of a story about the Duke of Wellington which ended with the punch line: “Sir, if you believe that, you are capable of believing anything.” (Laughter.) And in any case, Sir Harold noted gracefully (and correctly), the point for now was that the Suez Canal was blocked, and Western Europe’s oil shortage was bound to weaken NATO. Ergo: “Additional supplies will be needed from the Western Hemisphere.”

Public Rebuff. The irony of last week’s oerformance was that the only foreign lion to roar forth his sentiments bluntly was the only diplomat who did not get away with it. Before a meeting of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia (the kind of audience diplomats pant after), in the Mayflower Hotel, French Embassy Counselor Robert Valeur proclaimed that Dulles had been “taken in” on Suez and that Dulles’ policy had been a “tragic failure.” Before Valeur was through, some 20 people walked out.

Afterwards the State Department, wondering about diplomatic impropriety, asked the French embassy for a text of what Valeur had said. There was none, said the French embassy; Valeur had spoken only from rough notes. But two days later, Thomas M. Raysor, president of the D.C. bar, administered the public rebuff: “The Association greatly regrets that [M. Valeur] chose to inject personal references to leading officials of our Government or to comment on official U.S. Government policy.”

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