IT IS JUST a quarter of a century since Britain and France in an unholy, and secret, alliance with Israel, invaded Egypt, supposedly to rescue the Suez Canal which President Nasser had nationalized. Even now, books on the topic continue to pour out because--as with Watergate--the atmosphere of fraudulent intrigue surrounding "the Suez Crisis" fascinates the English-speaking public (but, interestingly, not the French or Israelis who were indicted co-conspirators).

Warriors at Suez, by Time magazine correspondent Donald Neff, is one of the most interesting accounts because it has the advantage (under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act) of access to almost all the American papers of the time, whereas we in Britain have to wait until 1987 before our cabinet papers on Suez are made public--and I will wager they have been heavily sanitized by then.

It is not an altogether pleasant picture of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that emerges in Neff's book. At his first meeting with French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau in Karachi, during a SEATO pact conference, he greeted him with this forthright statement of belief: "For me, there are two types of people in the world. Those who are Christians and partisan of free enterprise --and the others." For Dulles there was only one enemy --atheistic, anti-capitalist communism. To oppose that he was prepared to do anything, even to use nuclear weapons in Indochina in support of the French, which was only prevented by the veto cast by Anthony Eden on that well-named "Operation Vulture." Then why did he not support France and Britain against Nasser in 1956, when Egypt had gone into the Soviet camp for arms in 1955? That was a question that Eden constantly asked to the end of his days. The answers to this and other questions of Dulles' motives and actions are certainly made clearer by Neff's book. As a result of his publication of the transcripts of Dulles' telephone conversations with senators and cabinet colleagues, it is possible to understand (as those of us working in 10 Downing Street at the time never did) what lay behind his shifts and turns during the three-month crisis.

As Warriors at Suez demonstrates, the Dulles brothers went far in trying to destabilize Nasser and the other leftward-leaning regimes in the Arab world. The British intelligence services proposed to America (as revealed by the now-open CIA files) a plan for overthrowing the governments of Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and putting all its trust in Iraq. Unfortunately for Britain, President Eisenhower wanted King Saud, rather than the Iraquis, to replace Nasser as the leader of the Arab world, and the CIA's Omega task force was duly set up to destabilize the other two regimes, beginning with Syria. The Anglo-French Operation Suez effectively defused that effort and, incidentally, resulted in the overthrow in 1958 of Iraq's pro-West government.

The picture in this book of Allen Dulles' CIA agents competing with John Foster Dulles' ambassadors helps to explain some of the bafflement felt by most of the British establishment, and particularly Eden, about American policy. But the key factor in Dulles' policy which was not understood was his anti-colonialism, or to be more specific his opposition to any support for the failing British and French empires. In speaking to Eisenhower's National Security Council on day three of the Suez hostilities Dulles is quoted as saying:

"Basically we have reached the point of deciding today whether we think the future lies with a policy of reasserting by force colonial control over the less developed nations, or whether we will oppose such a course of action by every appropriate means."

What was difficult for the British to understand was that he favored the use of force and subversion to replace awkward governments with pro-American clients, but totally abhorred the reestablishment of British or French control in Cairo or Algiers. With hindsight we can see that Dulles had perceived the winds of change that were blowing away the Western empires, but did not accept that they would be replaced by a prickly nationalism which was not likely to be pro-American.

In contrast to Dulles, President Eisenhower emerges as a straightforward and commonsensical leader. His summing up of the Suez affair just as it began was superb: "I've never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things. Of course there's nobody in a war I'd rather have fighting along side me than the British. But this thing? My God!"

In my view the most interesting parts of this book are the insights into Ike's thinking and outlook, given in his diaries and in his letters to a childhood friend in Kansas with whom he maintained a regular correspondence that rivals the fictional letters by Denis Thatcher from 10 Downing Street published in the British humor magazine Private Eye. In spite of his fury at Eden over Suez Ike remained resolutely pro-British and would have made up "the family spat" at once if he had not been prevented by the State Department.

But lest we British suppose our special relationship makes us immune from American intrigues, there is an hilarious picture of Eisenhower plotting over an open phone with his ambassador in London to replace Eden by either "Rab" Butler or Harold Macmillan. Could it be, after all, that the illness which drove Eden from office in January 1957 was a rare success for the CIA's dirty tricks department?