The lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign policymakers in the 1960s


Peter J. Beck at “research gate” June 2006
Aerial view of the oil refinery of Abadan . February 1958 by Roger Viollet
Aerial view of the oil refinery of Abadan . February 1958 by Roger Viollet

 

ABSTRACT

Responding positively to the 1957 initiative encouraging Whitehall departments to use history more systematically in their everyday work, the Foreign Office commissioned a pilot project centred upon the 1951 Anglo-Iranian Abadan crisis. The resulting study, completed by Rohan Butler in 1962, included a lengthy section drawing lessons from the historical narrative. During the early 1960s Butler’s Abadan history, attracting interest and comment from both ministers and officials, fed into ongoing reviews of British foreign policy and methods stimulated by the 1956 Suez debacle and Britain’s initial failure to join the Common Market (1963). Confronting policymakers with the contemporary realities affecting Britain’s role in the world, the history prompted serious thinking about the case for a radical change of direction in both foreign policy and methods. Generally speaking, the Foreign Office has made little use of history in the actual policymaking process. From this perspective, this episode, centred upon Butler’s Abadan history, offers a useful case study illuminating any appraisal of history’s potential as a policy input, most notably concerning the role of historical analogies in the formulation, conduct, and presentation of British foreign policy.

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