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.
Eisenhower, who had been kept in the dark about what his NATO allies were up to, was livid. Speaking at a Republican rally in Philadelphia on Nov. 1, Eisenhower said: “We cannot and will not condone armed aggression — no matter who the attacker, and no matter who the victim. We cannot — in the world, any more than in our nation — subscribe to one law for the weak, another law for the strong; one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us.”
Then, compounding Eisenhower's fury, events in Eastern Europe exploded. In his book “Eisenhower: In War and Peace,” biographer Jean Edward Smith writes, “The fighting in Egypt was upstaged early on Sunday, November 4, when Eisenhower learned that the Soviet Union had intervened with a massive military force to snuff out Hungary's brief experiment in democracy... Eisenhower dispatched a sharp letter to (Soviet Premier Nikolai) Bulganin asking that the Soviet troops be withdrawn from Hungary, but with the Middle East on fire, chose not to press the issue further.”
Eisenhower recognized how hypocritical it was for the leader of the Western world to criticize the Soviets on their heavy-handedness in Hungary even as Britain and France had invaded Egypt. Eisenhower demanded that British Prime Minister Anthony Eden agree to a cease-fire and begin to pull out of Egypt. When Eden equivocated, Eisenhower said bluntly, “If you don't get out of Port Said tomorrow, I'll cause a run on the pound and drive it down to zero.”
With the United States actively hostile to its aims, Britain and its allies signed the cease-fire on Nov. 6, the same day that Eisenhower won his second presidential election. Eisenhower's tough stand during the crisis did much to convince voters that he was much better suited to international affairs than his Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson. British and French units were required to be out of Egypt by mid-December.
The Suez Crisis is seen as Britain's last great attempt at imperialism. It ended in a loss of prestige for Great Britain and the resignation of Eden. Within a few years France would lose Algeria to the rebels, and Israel would face an increasingly militant, hostile and humiliated Egypt.
Ultimately, the UN placed the canal under the Suez Canal Authority of Egypt, which agreed to pay off the shareholders of the Suez Canal Company and maintain a neutral right of passage for all ships.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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