THE SUEZ FIASCO of 1956 was for Britain what the Vietnam war a decade later was for the United States. Both were based on an honorable determination to avoid the errors of Munich and appeasement; both were attempts to reassert western control in the Third World. Both failed in their objective, and so provided a source of scandal, gossip and recrimination about who had lost the war, and why they had started it.

In his book, Suez 1956: A Personal Account , published just after his death, Selwyn Lloyd, who was Anthony Eden's foreign secretary at the time, makes full use of the British regulation that only an ex-foreign secretary may read and reveal his Foreign Office and cabinet papers during the 30 years that they are kept secret. He is able to quote the official record endlessly to show that he was quite right all the time, ignoring the fact that the official record is written up to prove that the minister was right all the time.

A perfect example is Lloyd's treatment of a famous meeting at 10 Downing Street on the night that Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The official record shows that the prime minister inquired of the chiefs of staff what military measures might be taken. According to Lloyd it was a gross misinterpretation by Eisenhower to regard this as in any way a threat to use force immediately. What in fact happened at that midnight meeting was that the chiefs of staff firmly announced that there was nothing they could do militarily against Egypt for at least three months. Eden responded indignantly by saying that this was quite unacceptable, and would they come up within a week with plans for the earliest possible intervention.

In spite of frequent reminders written in larger and larger capital letters by one of his secretaries, Eden seemed to forget that there were "strangers present" at this meeting in the cabinet room, and that Britain's aggressive intentions and military impotence were both reported home by representatives of the United States and French embassies. Chester Cooper, who was then the CIA man at the London embassy, writes in The Lion's Last Roar , his evaluation of this meeting. "On that night in that place," he says, "it was revealed that the empire had no clothes."

What makes this pair of books so fascinating to read together is their views of John Foster Dulles. For Lloyd, and the British generally, Dulles was the villain of the peace. Dulles seemed to agree that Nasser was the archenemy, the puppet of the Soviet Union in the Middle East, who must be overthrown; "the only difference was the method" of overthrowing him. The British wanted to do it by force to show -- to Arabs and the British public -- that Britain was still not negligible; Dulles, so Lloyd believes, wanted to do it by guile (as the CIA had overthrown Mossadeq and restored the shah in Iran three years before) so as to avoid a quarrel with the pro-Arab American oil companies, and to demonstrate America's superiority to the colonialist methods of Britain and France. Lloyd seems almost obsessed with America's anti-British bias: "At best [the Americans], were indifferent; at worst, the McGhees in Iran, the Sweeneys in the Sudan, the Cafferys in Cairo, Aramco in Saudi Arabia, had shown themselves openly anti-British.... It was a mixture of anti-colonialism and hardheaded oil tycoonery."

Apparently the Americans in London were almost equally exasperated with Dulles' quick-change policies. According to Cooper, "the Embassy was white with rage and red with embarrassment." But in the most interesting part of his book, he does suggest an explanation of U.S. official vagaries. When Israel, backed by France and Britain, invaded Egypt, Dulles led the pack at the U.N. in denouncing these allies as aggressors. Yet four days later in the middle of the crisis Cooper received a call in the London embassy from the CIA Deputy Director Robert Amory, who shouted in exasperation "'Tell your friends... to comply with the goddamn cease-fire [proclaimed by the U.N. the day before] or go ahead with the goddamn invasion. Either way, we'll back'em up if they do it fast. What we can't stand is their goddamn hesitation waltz while Hungary is burning!'"

Cooper speculates, very persuasively, that Dulles had all along wished to have Nasser overthrown, but insisted that the odium of attacking a small Arab country should not fall on U.S. shoulders. However, with central Europe in flames, and the West in total disarray, he had decided to cut his losses and help dispose of Nasser. No sooner had he sent that message than the secretary of state was removed to the hospital for an emergency operation, leaving Eisenhower and Hoover to carry on the old unreconstructed "anti-British" policy. But a few weeks later from his hospital bed the irrepressible Dulles greeted a chastened and resentful Selwyn Lloyd "Selwyn, why did you stop? Why didn't you go through with it and get Nasser down?"

What was the real lesson of Suez? For Lloyd it was that the British cannot rely on their most powerful ally in matters of crucial national interest. So there followed the era of the British "independent nuclear deterrent." Dulles seems to have concluded that lesser powers cannot act in a "colonial" manner by imposing their will on small nations, however cheeky they may be. Unfortunately he did not learn that this may apply to superpowers also.