Keith Kyle

Keith Kyle is on the staff of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

If not in 1997, soon after

Keith Kyle, 21 July 1994

It was one of the more gratuitous blunders of John Foster Dulles when he was Secretary of State to respond to a question about the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to allow any American Jew to set foot on Saudi soil by alluding to the Saudi conviction that a Jew had been responsible for the murder of the Prophet Muhammad. Although based on an aberration, the story illustrates the extraordinary tangles that democratic countries generally, and the United States in particular, get into as a consequence of their commitment to this strange desert country named after its dynasty and ruled almost entirely by a quite numerous upper class wholly generated from the loins of its founding father, King Abdul Aziz, better known in the West as Ibn Saud. Saudi Arabia was said in the Senate to be ‘scorning basic American interests’, which meant both human rights and Israel. Americans then and since have been obliged to explain that the weapons they were supplying to the Saudis would not work against, for example, Israel yet would come in handy to deter the Soviet Union.

The Forty Years’ Peace

Keith Kyle, 21 October 1993

Early in 1983, when the newly founded Social Democratic Party was acquiring policies by holding study groups, one of these was devoted to East-West relations. At its first session a musty-looking gentleman called Sir John Lawrence proposed that we begin from the assumption that the decline of the Soviet economic system had passed the point of no-return. Any policy recommendations must therefore reckon with the consequences of its collapse within the next few years and the implications of its replacement. Either from genuine scepticism or out of a primitive dread of hubris and what follows from it, the panel did not swallow Lawrence neat. We thus lost the full benefit of almost the only accurate prediction then to be heard concerning the future of the Eastern bloc.

Lacking in style

Keith Kyle, 25 February 1993

The late Lord Caccia, who had the misfortune to arrive in Washington as British Ambassador in November 1956 just as the ‘special relationship’ hit its all-time low with the abrupt American-driven ceasefire on the Suez Canal, was much given in later years to recalling how flabbergasted he had been by an encounter he witnessed on the 17th of that month. He had accompanied his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to visit the American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had been discovered to have cancer during the week of the Suez war. Towards the end of the conversation, Dulles suddenly asked ‘Selwyn, why did you stop? Why didn’t you go through with it and get Nasser down?’ The British visitors fell apart with astonishment. ‘It you had so much as winked at us …’ Lloyd gasped. Although there is no American account available of this conversation, the record of a bedside visit by President Eisenhower five days earlier shows his Secretary of State making an almost identical remark.

As seen on TV

Keith Kyle, 26 September 1991

For many people the BBC Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson, who stayed behind in Baghdad when Armageddon was scheduled to begin, was the civilian hero of the Gulf War. The only thing that may have puzzled them was his title. How could a man edit reports coming from all quarters of the globe if he deliberately isolated himself under conditions of siege? On this matter From the House of War provides little help, except for a passing reference to the author’s ‘rather empty title’, which apparently carries important psychological impact when dealing with Iraqi (and other) civil servants, perhaps pandering, in the case of the Iraqis, to their notion that the whole world ought to be edited from Baghdad. One advantage of Simpson’s position is that in a crisis he seems to be able to post himself wherever he wants to be and to stay on, albeit with a scratch team, even when instructed by the BBC to leave. ‘You’ll have to get yourself a new foreign editor, then,’ he growled on being told to leave Baghdad, admitting now that he had been ‘probably much too heavy-handed in my response; I usually am.’ A large part of his motive was ‘the fact that I was writing a book’.

Baghdad’s Ruling Cliques

Keith Kyle, 15 August 1991

‘Colonel van Ormer has a forceful personality,’ lamented Brigadier Lushington, head of the British Services Mission in Iraq, of his new American colleague in October 1954. ‘I suspect that he has been “hand-picked”. If he is to be believed, he is being given a very free hand indeed. He talks very big.’ The aggrieved brigadier, charged with managing the operational end of what had been, since the creation of the state of Iraq at the conclusion of the First World War, an exclusive relationship between Britain and the Iraqi Armed Forces, was not disposed to ‘belittle the seriousness of this American invasion’. This was a ‘potential threat to British military influence’.

Lines in the Sand

Keith Kyle, 7 February 1991

Of all the many guises in which Saddam Hussein has appeared before the Iraqi people and the world, the most surprising was that of the great white hope of Arab moderation. Formerly known as a rejectionist – a last-ditch opponent of a negotiated Palestine settlement – he emerged in 1987, under the strains of a war against Iran which he appeared to be losing, as a charter member of what the Jordanians were describing as ‘the great moderate centre’. The other members of this new alignment were Egypt, Jordan and the PLO; it was part of the shift in policy towards Israel which the Palestine National Council finally endorsed in November 1988.’

Memories of Eden

Keith Kyle, 13 September 1990

Anthony Eden should be living at this hour. He would hear the President of the United States say: ‘Half a century ago the world had the chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it. I pledge to you we will not make that mistake again.’ He would see the United States, uninhibited as she apparently was in 1956 by the separation of powers and the prerogatives of Congress, move with sureness and speed to confront a dictator in the Middle East. He would think that, as he had always predicted, the United States, when faced, to use his words, with ‘what is in fact an act of force which, if it is not resisted, if it is not checked, will lead to others’, had at last come round to his way of thinking. And, having indulged himself for a while with the thought that when the chips were down he would be able to count on Hugh Gaitskell, only to be sadly disappointed, he would note, with a tinge of envy, the degree of political support enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher, with Neil Kinnock and Gerald Kaufman endorsing her every move.

Leap to Unity

Keith Kyle, 22 March 1990

The Second World War is rapidly approaching its formal end, amid scenes of a re-uniting and putatively dominant Germany and of a disintegrating Soviet Union. The British and French, while acknowledging with a gulp that this is, to everyone’s astonishment, a total victory for the West, can be heard nervously reflecting about how they are going to live with it. ‘In Paris,’ writes Professor Joseph Rovan in the Frankfurter All-gemeine Zeitung of 8 February, ‘people are alarmed at the idea of the enormous economic and political influence of a united Germany in Eastern Europe and the even greater clout of a united Germany in the European Community.’ It remained for the Gaullist ex-premier Michel Debré to predict gloomily in Le Monde that the age of Yalta (of which he also disapproved) would be followed by a repeat of Rapallo. Being well-practised in the protocol of Germanophilia, the French Government has had a better record in making the correct noises than the British, or rather than No 10, whose principal inhabitant has had a great time ‘speaking out’, regardless of time or place. The Germans, meanwhile, are rather too visibly marking their book according to how their allies perform, bearing in mind that what is happening is the ‘impossible solution’ to which they have been fervently committed since 1954.

‘I was a more man’

Keith Kyle, 12 October 1989

One of the ways politics has changed over the last three decades is illustrated by the fact that in 1956 there were only two Jews in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, both of them baronets – and one of them had been elected in a by-election in February of that year. He was Sir Keith Joseph, son of a Lord Mayor of London and director of the family construction firm of Bovis. It was the year of Suez and in a very gentle way he was a rebel. He did not think that Nasser should be destroyed because he might be replaced by someone worse, and he felt that any British action should be under the auspices of the United Nations. As a consequence of these views becoming known, he was taken out to lunch by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. ‘That,’ as his new biographer Morrison Halcrow puts it, ‘more or less ended his excursion into foreign affairs.’ He was, however, given one small but important duty, not mentioned in this book. He was sent round to the offices of the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review to try to persuade its editor, Jon Kimche, not to persist with the story, which he alone was publishing, of MI6’s ‘black radio’ stations which were blackguarding Nasser in Arabic as a closet pro-Zionist. But Sir Keith had less luck with the editor than the Earl of Selkirk had had with Sir Keith.’

Impressions of Nietzsche

Keith Kyle, 27 July 1989

What makes the House of Commons more than an antechamber to government and an endless dry run of the next general election is the presence on its benches of some individuals of great character, great intellect or great oddity. Few moments have more become the House of Commons since the war than the speech of Enoch Powell in the early hours of 28 July 1959 on the scandalous deaths of Kikuyu prisoners at Hola camp in Kenya. It was delivered with precision of language, in ordered sequence and with what the present author calls ‘an incandescent emotion’. Few who were present on that occasion would ever forget it. Yet this combination of remorseless logic and volcanic emotion could at times, and at one time in particular, be directed at a target which seemed chillingly unsuited to it.

Protocols of Sèvres

Keith Kyle, 21 January 1988

At first sight, The Failure of the Eden Government suggests the beginning of a new series to be continued with The Failure of the Macmillan Government, The Failure of the Wilson Government, The Failure of the Heath Government and so forth. As the 30-year rule uncovers the frailties of each in turn of a not particularly glorious row of administrations, opportunities will accumulate. Besides its fairly average quota of what might be called ordinary failures – failure to anticipate problems or failure to act on problems anticipated – the Eden Government will go down in history for the resounding fiasco of its handling of the problem of the Suez Canal. The story has a certain tragic grandeur because Eden had hitherto enjoyed a glamorous and successful career in the field of foreign affairs; it was a massive misjudgment in his own area of expertise that brought him down. Although Richard Lamb says that ‘Eden’s premiership foundered solely because of the Suez affair’ (which begs the question, much discussed at the time in the press, of whether it would not otherwise have soon foundered on something else), his book deals with the record of the Government as a whole. Half of it concerns Suez, its Middle Eastern antecedents and its political and financial consequences; the rest deals with domestic affairs and with other foreign issues.’

What do you know about Chekhov?

Keith Kyle, 19 December 1985

‘If my assessment of what is going on is correct, then you will have to go through very serious examinations. If you wish to pass them you must always be yourself. There is something crooked, something faulty about you. Don’t try to conceal it.’


Keith Kyle, 4 July 1985

The 40th anniversary of Victory in Europe is a good vantage-point from which to look back on the career of the Supreme Allied Commander under whom in the West that victory was won. It should come as no surprise that in the light of history Dwight Eisenhower’s personal contribution to that immense achievement should appear more considerable than is implied by the titular and public relations role that was sometimes attributed to him. When he went on to become President of the United States, he once more found himself described as a constitutional monarch rather than an executive leader. Yet in the perspective of an unlucky line of successors his completion of two terms of office as popular at the end as at the beginning, with a record of peace and prosperity, a balanced budget for two years running, and a long succession of crises deftly and coolly managed, looks scarcely accidental. The author of this two-volume life, based on prodigious familiarity with the archives and an admirably assured and unfussy style, has been at work on it for twenty years. In the course of that period he has spun off various lengthy by-products, such as a 732-page study of The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-volume edition of Eisenhower’s war papers, and special studies of Eisenhower and Berlin and even Ike’s Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment.

Nuclear Argument

Keith Kyle, 18 April 1985

‘It’s not that Ronald Reagan hasn’t got any ideas of his own,’ an American who held high office in the Pentagon under Jimmy Carter remarked recently. ‘The trouble is that he has such peculiar ones.’ He was referring to what has been officially termed the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) but what is much more appropriately called Star Wars. It is the President’s idea for making nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete’. With all the fervour of a true believer he has announced that he is staking his faith in America’s scientific and technological genius on the proposition that a carapace can be erected over the United States – and (why not?) over Nato Europe as well. Any and every incoming missile is to be intercepted at some place along the flight path starting with the initial boost phase. After all, Americans produced the atom bomb, they got to the Moon, why not this as well? Reagan wants $26 billion spent on research and then, when American scientists have come up with the secret, they can share it with the Russians – then they will both be safe. Anyone who opposes the project – and some of America’s most distinguished citizens have explained, in lucid prose and with impeccable logic, why it cannot succeed and why it is dangerous to try – can be shown either to lack faith in America’s ability to do anything it really sets out to do or to be morally unwilling to depart from the appalling implications of Mutual Assured Destruction.’

Orders of Empire

Keith Kyle, 7 March 1985

‘There is racial discrimination in Ethiopia,’ a Kenya Luo friend working for the United Nations told me when I arrived in Addis Ababa for the first time some twenty years ago. ‘The Ethiopians are while: everyone else is black, except that a few Europeans and Americans are honorary whites.’ Evelyn Waugh had the same experience. He went to the imperial coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 and wrote the country up in fiction (Black Mischief) and non-fiction (Remote People). In 1935, he was sent back by the Daily Mail to record the coming Italian invasion (Scoop in fiction and Waugh in Abyssinia in non-fiction). ‘The Abyssinians,’ he writes in Waugh in Abyssinia, ‘in spite of being by any possible standard an inferior race, persisted in behaving as superiors; it was not that they were hostile, but contemptuous.’ They had something to be superior about. At the end of an age of imperialism in which Europeans had made it apparent that an African society was to be judged by whether it had a recognisable government and was ripe for conversion to Christianity. Ethiopia presented the picture of an established ruler and an indigenous Christian tradition of great antiquity.

From Sahib to Satan

Keith Kyle, 15 November 1984

‘It was generally agreed that the British had played a lamentable if not altogether duplicitous role in the Palestine situation and that their last-minute approaches and indications of a change of heart could have no effect on our policy.’ This is the only point of agreement that is recorded in the minute of an otherwise extremely disputatious encounter between President Truman and his closest advisers on the eve of the expiry of the British mandate in Palestine and the proclamation of the state of Israel. Besides demonstrating that General Al Haig was not without precedent in terming his British opposite number ‘a duplicitous bastard’, it betrays the degree of exasperation that frequently prevailed in the relations between a rapidly declining British Empire and a slowly emerging American superpower. Yet this was the period during which Truman and Attlee, Marshall and Bevin were laying the foundations of a lasting Western alliance system. The story of the British Empire in the Middle East at this time is the story of Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy with the successes left out; it is also in part Truman’s Presidency without the greatness. Yet the worst that was anticipated at the time – that Russia would walk in to fill any vacuum left behind by the capsizing of British power and prestige – did not occur.’

Passionate Purposes

Keith Kyle, 6 September 1984

There used to be a type of book known as the ‘Secret History’ of some international problem. With some passion, extensive citation of material, and a somewhat self-regarding manner, such books made it apparent that there was a great deal in the way of conspiracy and intrigue that ought to be told. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was a great practitioner of the art in the last century and in this short, sparkling and committed essay Christopher Hitchens writes in somewhat the same tradition. He is a radical British journalist living in the United States who is married to a Greek Cypriot and has an understanding of and love for this unfortunately-placed island. For him, enjoyment of the great beauty of Cyprus, Aphrodite’s putative birthplace, is spoiled by recollection of the ugly things done there during the last thirty years, and he writes in hot refutation of the message he sees in Nancy Crawshaw’s major study The Cyprus Revolt – that it was primarily the victim’s fault. What he calls the axis of his book is the summer of 1974 when a Turkish invasion transformed the demography of the island – a third of the 80 per cent Greek population of Cyprus abandoning their homes in the north and about half of the 18 per cent Turkish population heading from the south to the north. For this, Hitchens maintains, four countries – Britain, Greece, Turkey and the United States – are principally to blame.–

Haig speaks back

Keith Kyle, 17 May 1984

Considering how essential one might suppose it to be that the President who is in charge of American foreign policy and the Secretary of State who heads the department which specialises in it should not only get on well but be able, under the pressure of competing crises, to operate in almost telepathic harmony with one another, it is remarkable how seldom a new President’s choice of his senior cabinet member is made on more than casual acquaintance. It is well-known that John F. Kennedy met Dean Rusk for the first time when he interviewed him for the job: Reagan and Haig had seen each other three times before the Election of 1980 but on only one of these occasions, shortly before Reagan’s nomination, had there been anything that might be described as a talk. Then they traded political clichés and thought that they were at one except over conscription (Haig was for, Reagan against); and Haig went away with the comforting impression that Reagan was a genuinely ‘nice guy’ who had spoken to him as if he had really liked him. In Haig’s book there are periodic references to this disarming quality, which gradually comes to seem rather sinister. ‘Because of habitual courtesy,’ Haig says of Reagan at one point, ‘it is at times difficult to know when he is agreeing or disagreeing, approving or disapproving.’

Picking the winner

Keith Kyle, 7 July 1983

In December 1963 when Kenya at last achieved her uhuru – her freedom – two topics were most prominent in the gossip centres of Nairobi. How long would Mzee – Jomo Kenyatta, ‘The Old Man’ – last? And what was to be done about Tom Mboya? Kenya had emerged from the anti-colonial struggle with two leaders of world renown, one young, dynamic and immensely talented, the other old (no one was quite sure how old) and respected as much for what he had suffered as for what he had done: a mythical figure who until recently had been cut off from all political and virtually all social life by a decade of imprisonment and detention compounded by an extraordinary propaganda campaign – comparable only to the Stalinist attempt to eliminate any reference to Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution – aimed at reducing him to the status of a non-person. Everyone was by now agreed that Jomo Kenyatta should become the first President of Kenya, but it was widely thought that, aged and enfeebled by his harsh treatment, he would soon die or retire: many felt that, cost what it might, Mboya, for all his manifest ability, should never succeed him. Some who were both proud of Mboya’s celebrity and embarrassed by it dreamt up exotic careers for him: when the expected East African Federation came into existence he could become its Foreign Minister, or, better still because further away, he could be the first African Secretary-General of the United Nations – anything so long as he did not become the ruler of Kenya.–

War for peace

Keith Kyle, 3 March 1983

When the American, Soviet and British representatives recently presented themselves together before the Secretary-General of the United Nations to object to that organisation’s extravagance, it must have seemed like very old times indeed. The guise of colluding overlords was the one in which the Great Powers who were about to become the victors of World War Two confronted the ‘hoi polloi’ at San Francisco. Stalin had confided in Churchill at Yalta that he was worried that the spirit of wartime solidarity would not outlast the first decade of peace. In this history of the UN’s pursuit of world security during that decade, Evan Luard recalls that it did not outlast the first year. According to Churchill’s account, the Soviet leader particularly distrusted the deciding of issues by votes, recalling with bitterness how the Soviet Union was punished for its aggression against Finland by expulsion from a dying League of Nations. He was much comforted by Churchill’s meticulous explanation of the working of the veto in the Security Council, the example cited being that of Britain’s ability to prevent in this way any attempt by Egypt to dislodge her from the Suez Canal.

Believing in the Alliance

Keith Kyle, 19 November 1981

‘We have defied the laws of arithmetic,’ declared a buoyant David Steel after he had heard the result of the Croydon, North-West by-election, ‘One plus one really does equal three.’ It is now apparent that the public opinion polls were consistently correct in showing that, while support for the Liberal Party as such remained of a traditionally modest order and support for the Social Democrats alone was a similar or even smaller percentage, backing for the two-party alliance as a third force in British politics was a wholly different matter, and promised the chance of a complete breakthrough under the existing electoral system. The evidence for this in the public opinion polls and on the hustings at Warrington and Croydon has been so over whelming that the response at the grass roots of the Liberal Party had already been recognised as decisive, even before the opening of this year’s Liberal Assembly at Llandudno, by such instinctive opponents of the Alliance as the writers in the radical journal New Out-look. Liberals less weighed down with misgivings have begun sporting party buttons that emphasise the word ‘Alliance’ at the expense of ‘Liberal and Social Democratic’.

Apartheid gains a constitution

Keith Kyle, 1 May 1980

The Habsburg monarchy two decades before its total collapse might seem an odd source to go to for contemporary political solutions. But it is to that period, and above all to the writings of the Social Democratic leader (and later Austrian President) Karl Renner, that Afrikaner intellectuals are turning in their desperate search for a constitutional way out in South Africa. The ideas which are traced back to Renner and recommended as an intellectual basis for the replacement, or, alternatively, the gentrification, of apartheid derive from the principles of consociationalism: that is, a high degree of devolution down to the lowest possible unit of government organised either on a personal or on a territorial basis; proportionality between ethnic groups in the distribution of public positions; acompulsory coalition at the top between the leaders of the groups and a mutual group veto on matters to be decided in common. These ideas are discussed in the first two of the books under review; they were the main theme of a conference staged in New York in October 1978 by Dr NicRhoodie’s Institute for Plural Societies at the University of Pretoria, with a view to spreading the idea that South Africa was to be thought of as just one of several states confronted with the intellectually challenging problems of plural societies; and they partially inspired the influential Theron Commission report on the condition of the Coloureds in South Africa.

Middle Eastern Passions

Keith Kyle, 21 February 1980

The Palestinians are the people who were living in Palestine when it was decided to build a Jewish homeland there and who fled from their homes in great numbers when the Jewish state was proclaimed. There has been fierce controversy about the exact circumstances in which the diaspora started, although spontaneously generated columns of civilian refugees have been a characteristic of all modern war, generally requiring no further explanation than the outbreak or rumour of fighting. It has been an important part of Israeli belief, supported by scarcely anything in the way of hard evidence, that the Arab states instructed the Palestinian Arab civilians to get out of the way so as to provide free-fire zones for the Arab armies. The Arabs, as Jonathan Dimbleby shows in his book, stick passionately by the contention tint they were either physically ejected by the Israelis or impelled to flee by Jewish psychological warfare.

Scram from Africa

John Reader, 16 March 2000

Tom Mboya, a leading minister in the Kenyan Government and widely spoken of as the man who would succeed President Jomo Kenyatta, was shot dead on a Nairobi street on Saturday, 5 July 1969....

Read More

Hook and Crook

Peter Clarke, 15 August 1991

There was a message on the piece of paper which fluttered to the floor when someone opened the door of the Commander-in-Chief’s room: ‘Hooknoses’ D-Day – 29 Oct.’...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences