At about 7 o'clock on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 31, more than 25 years ago , this writer stood on the southward-facing balcony of his apartment building situated on an island in the Nile in Cairo.
It was a moment he will never forget. The doubts and wondering of the three preceding months had been ended. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had not been bluffing: The first British bombs had just fallen on Egypt in the Suez War of 1956. Their dull thud on airfields on the desert rim of Cairo had brought the writer and his servant to the balcony.
The British were resorting to force in the hope of making Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ''disgorge'' the Suez Canal Company, which he had nationalized in July of that year. Nasser had observed all the legal niceties and had kept the canal operating smoothly. But in the mood of 1956, that counted for virtually nothing in London - or Paris.
On that somber October night, the writer could see the outline of the teeming heart of the city of Cairo, little more than a stone's throw to the east. It was unusually hushed and imperfectly blacked out. Above it in the darkness was Saladin's Citadel on the lower slope of the Mokattam Hills, watching over history as it had for centuries. And away to the west, on the edge of the desert escarpment above the narrow slit of the Nile Valley, were the Pyramids, silent witnesses of history not for merely centuries but for millenniums.
History was being made that October night. Forty-eight hours earlier, Israel - after a feint in the direction of Jordan - had launched the second of the four Arab-Israeli wars we have had since World War II. But Suez was much more than that because of British and French collusion with Israel.
In a global, as distinct from a regional context, Suez was the final, convincing, painful, and humiliating proof that Britain and France were finished as global, imperial powers. World War II had brought that about a decade earlier , but the British and the French were as poignantly reluctant to recognize the harsh fact as is boxer Muhammad Ali to concede he is no longer ''the greatest.''
But if Britain and France were finished as imperial powers in the Middle East , who was to step in as a counterweight to the pressure the Russians could so much more easily bring on the region from the Black Sea and the Caucasus? Inevitably the United States. In 1956, the full implications of this for the US were not so clear. Today, with two more Arab-Israeli wars, the oil crisis, Iran and Afghanistan behind us, they are better understood.
Donald Neff's meticulously researched and finely written book is the story of Suez in this broad global context. It will probably become the definitive work on the subject.
Of the principals in the whole complicated, Byzantine story, the two men who come out of it best are President Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser himself - the latter, at the time, represented as the villain in much of the Western world. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold's record is impeccably honorable, but in this book he figures more in the supporting cast than as a principal.
Anthony Eden is the most tragically flawed of Mr. Neff's ''warriors.'' He was not the only one who lied and deceived. The French and Israeli prime ministers, Guy Mollet and David Ben-Gurion, did too. But unlike their British co-conspirators, they did not try to mask their unashamed Realpolitik behind hypocritically moral considerations.
Lumbering center-stage most of the time is the often brilliant but equally often obtuse and baffling John Foster Dulles. His resourcefulness in finding ways to thwart Eden's determination on war was impressive. And war came only when Eden decided to put an end to this by keeping Eisenhower and Dulles completely in the dark about what the British were up to.
Dulles, with the anticolonial US experience from 1776 onward in his thinking, understood as did neither Eden nor Mollet the anticolonialism of Nasser and the Arabs. But what Dulles could not understand was why Nasser and other anticolonial Arabs were not automatically pro-American. In the end, this put him and Eisenhower in the anti-Nasser camp.
If Neff does not spare the British, the French, and the Israelis in his revelations and confirmation of long circulating suspicions, he also makes embarrassing disclosures about the way American officials were running certain aspects of foreign policy in those days.
Most egregious was the way the State Department and the CIA ran separate operations - with occasional farcical results. Each had separate pipelines to Nasser. And the CIA had its own plans to make the late King Saud, of all people, the champion of modern Arab nationalism and to overthrow the government of Syria.
What made this situation piquant was that the State Department and the CIA were then being run by the two Dulles brothers - John Foster and Allen Welsh.
Yet what one carries away from this book is the decency and calm, principled approach of the often underestimated Eisenhower. He kept his cool when others were losing theirs. And his basic affection for the British shines through even when the latter were double-crossing him.
Neff quotes Eisenhower as saying to his speechwriter, Emmet Hughes: ''I've never seen great powers make such a complete mess of things. Of course, there's nobody, in a war, I'd rather have fighting alongside me than the British. But this thing? My God!''
That is as fitting an epilogue as any on the whole Suez fiasco.
Geoffrey Godsell, now a Monitor correspondent, reported from Cairo for the BBC during the Suez crisis.