A diplomatic and military crisis of the first order began on Oct. 29, 1956 when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt, thus beginning the Suez crisis.
First opened in November 1869, the Suez Canal in Egypt dramatically expanded world trade and the British soon dubbed it the “Highway to India.” Though open to ships from all nations, the Convention of Constantinople in 1888 confirmed Britain's control over the canal. The canal soon became a critical supply line of the British empire, significantly shortening travel time to the Indian Ocean, and was heavily defended during both World Wars. During the Second World War, German General Erwin Rommel's North Africa campaign was fought largely to deny the British this supply line.
When in the 1950s Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser appeared to draw too close to the Soviet bloc by recognizing Communist China and accepting arms from the Soviet Union, relations with the West degenerated. Nasser's pet project, the Aswan Dam, was meant to provide electricity for Egyptian cities and became a symbol of Egyptian industrialization. Though both the United States and Britain had originally agreed to fund the dam, Nasser's foreign policy cooled Western interest in the project.
Acting on advice from his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower canceled American participation in the project and the British did the same a few days later. In violation of agreements he had signed only a few years earlier, the next week, on July 26, 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, the agency through which the British maintained control over the canal.
Nasser's action was met with cheering crowds and soaring popularity in Egypt, but in London the nationalization of the canal was totally unacceptable. Eisenhower was sympathetic to the Egyptian move, stating, “Egypt was within its rights and until its operation of the Canal proves incompetent, there is nothing we can do.”
Historian Carroll Quigley writes in his book, “Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time”: “The British (maintained)... that the company was not an Egyptian corporation but an international organization, that the Egyptians could not operate it at all, and that Britain would use force, if necessary, to prevent Nasser from obtaining control of the Canal.”
France was willing to back Britain because of Nassar's support to the Algerian rebellion, which threatened French control of that North African colony. Though careful not to align its policy too closely with that of Britain and France, the nation of Israel, at this point less than a decade old, agreed to support them. This was largely because of Israel's fear of Arab encirclement and the belief that the survival of the infant state depended upon humbling Egypt's power.
With the diplomatic crisis at a deadlock, Britain, France and Israel set a plan in motion. Though not carefully coordinated to maintain plausible deniabilty, Israel would attack Egypt, beginning a new Arab-Israeli war. Then Britain and France could move military assets into the canal zone to maintain order. Britain would gain control of the canal, France would warn Nasser against supporting its enemies and Israel would deal a blow to Egypt’s military might.
On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel launched its attack upon Egypt. Quigley writes: “The nine-day Israeli Sinai campaign was a brilliant military success. Individual Egyptians and small units often fought fiercely, but the command was incompetent, morale was almost totally absent, and training was equally bad. Whole units fled like sheep, and much of the newly acquired heavy equipment (from the Soviets) was abandoned and unused.”
The next day, the British and French issued a public warning for each side to back down, though this only provided the pretext for the next move. On Nov. 5, British and French paratroops dropped into the canal zone and the next day saw the beginning of their seaborne invasion.