At the time, Abdel Nasser was the president of Egypt. Sick of imperialism Nasser carried out a nationalistic and anti-imperialistic policy. He started promoting Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East. At the same time he tried to stay neutral in the Cold War conflict. Egypt sought foreign aid for its development program in building the Aswan Dam project which would control the wild Nile River. After earlier promises the United States and Britain declined to help Egypt because of her political and military ties to the Soviet Union. The Anglo-French assault upon Egypt, which began on 31 October 1956 actually provoked a furious response from the USA. Tensions remained high until November 15, when United Nations forces were brought into Egypt to provide a buffer between the Egyptians and the invasion forces. As a result of the war, the canal was closed for several months. The United Nations formally declared the canal Egyptian property.
The crisis also gave way for a new American policy. The 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine introduced two new strategies: The USA would protect nation states in the Middle East against open aggression from any other nation state which was under the control of international communism and the USA would give economical and military aid to governments in the region who were threatened in their independence. Ever since it has been under the control of the Egyptians. The Canal is now being deepened to make sure new, larger oil supertankers can pass through it.
So why didn’t the USA help out their Cold War allies France and Great Britain? And why did the Soviet Union jump in to help Egypt? And what was going on between Israel and Egypt? Let’s walk through the actors in the Suez crisis one by one.
Egypt – Egypt was thoroughly aware of the economic importance of the Suez Canal. But all the money that was made went to the French/English owners of the canal. For Egypt it was therefore of great importance to gain control over the canal. Knowing that without the canal ships would have to make a detour around Africa to reach the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal meant a strong, solid investment in Egyptian economy. In 1954 the British Cabinet signed a treaty agreeing to the evacuation of all British troops from the Canal area- to be reoccupied only in the event of invasion by an unspecified army. After an original agreement in 1952 that the British would eventually give the Suez Canal to the Egyptian government (with compensation!) everything changed in 1956, when the British changed their mind and said that there was ‘no way that a nation with as low technical and managerial skills as Egypt could run the Canal’ (read: Great Britain wanted to maintain control over the Canal in order to make more money and safeguard a very important strategical passage). In October Israel accused Egypt of planning an attack against her and sent troops across the Sinai Peninsula. The Israelis were very much afraid that the passage through the Suez Canal would be blocked for them if the Egyptians had total control of the canal, so that’s why they agreed to help out France and Great Britain in their scheme to regain control of the Suez Canal.
United States of America – At a time when the USA had a lot of things to worry about (the uprise against communism in Hungary, the upcoming presidential elections) the Cold War extended to the Middle East when the Suez crisis started. US president Dwight Eisenhower deemed the attack on Egypt illegal, stating that:
‘We do not accept the use of force as a wise or proper instrument for the settlement of international disputes. (…) The present fact, nonetheless, seems clear: the action taken can scarcely be reconciled with the principles and purposes of the United Nations to which we have all subscribed. And, beyond this, we are forced to doubt that resort to force and war will for long serve the permanent interest of the attacking nations. (…) There can be no peace without law. And there can be no law if we were to invoke one code of international conduct for those who oppose us and another for our friends.’ Also, Eisenhower was afraid that the entire Middle East region could revolt in a unified fashion if the tripartite attackers were allowed to take siege of the Suez Canal. Therefore the USA positioned themselves as an independent, moral and neutral arbiter of the behaviour of states, declaring that ‘the only good reason for a war is self defense.'
Soviet Union– The USSR also had a geopolitical interest in the Middle East. Its army could never leave its port without the west knowing, since all vessels had to pass through the Bosphoros in Turkey; even submarine movements could be tracked. The Suez Canal was their only other way out. A second motivation to help out the Egyptians was that a new found relationship in North Africa would also expand the Russians influence. The Arab world, in theory, would look up to Russia and her sphere of influence would grow throughout the Arab world. In the light of the global spread of communism, intervening in the conflict was a logical move for the Russians., France suspected Egypt of encouraging Algerian rebels, and Israel was looking for an excuse that would allow her to burst out of the 1948 armistic lines and strengthen her vulnerable frontiers, and so on. and he was backed up by former PM Winston Churchill for example, who shortly after the outbreak of the Suez war wrote to the Press, ‘that our American friends will come to realize that not for the first time we have acted independently for the common good.’ The idea was that Nasser was basically the bad guy, who needed to be ‘knocked off his perch’. He pointed to the United Nations as the means to a solution for the crisis, instead of war. The United Nations themselves condemned the attack on Egypt in a resolution that was accepted in a 64 to 1 vote. Like one English politician said: ‘So in world politics we have now basically aligned ourselves with the Soviets?! How is it that only a decade after WWII we have now become the aggressors?’ Egypt was one of the world’s many freshly decolonized sovereign nation states and the message that the United States, the UN and all western countries were spreading was that this sovereignty needed to be safeguarded. Therefore the attack on Egypt by the three invading forces had to be condemned. The secret treaty between the British, French and the Israelis should not have existed. This was not the road to (more) world peace.
The US, UN and also the people on the streets in Great Britain stepping up to the plate were simply defending Egypt’s right of self-determination. In a way their response was one of collective security, where they saw Egypt as a part of the group of sovereign nation states that needed to be protected from foreign aggressors. They believed Nasser when he said that the Egyptians would secure safe passage for every country and that they would ask for fair tolls. They believed in cooperation instead of confrontation, and that was one of the reasons why Eisenhower came with his Eisenhower Doctrine after the crisis, to help out nation states in need.
So in a way both the US and the UN and the Tripartite coalition had the same goals, at least in their official statements, but that is also exactly where the optimistic worldview of the Suez crisis ends: it is not the official statements only that determine why a war is waged. Especially in the case of the Suez crisis the pessimistic perspective has a lot more weight, since most of the evidence is pointing at a conspiracy between Great Britain, France and Israel to regain control of one of the most important regions in the Middle East. And the wish for having control can also be used to explain the interest from the Soviet Union, the United States and Egypt as well. Speaking in terms of power and money unfortunately makes more sense than speaking in terms of freedom, democracy and the likes.
Where in history have we seen this before?
Kirsten Verdel, February 2005 (TBC)
(I am aware that I failed to deliver a truly optimistic perspective. Also I am aware that my effort to do so did not even last two pages. But at least I tried. I am a realist, but not too cynical I hope. And I am also an idealist, but not naive. Hey, life is hard, but worth living!)
07. Dessouki, Sami H. (1982) Suez Canal, Changing World 1956-2000, Heinemann, London, p. 15.
09. Pineau, Christian (1976) 1956/Suez, Le temps des r‚v‚lations, Opera Mundi, Paris, p.185
12. Pudney, John (1968) Suez: De Lesseps Canal, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, p.233
16. Dessouki, Sami H. (1982) Suez Canal, Changing World 1956-2000, Heinemann, London, p. 19
23. Neff, Donald (1981) Warriors at Suez, Eisenhower takes America into the Middle East, The Linden Press, New York, p. 175.
24. Braddon, Russell (1973) Suez: Splitting of a Nation, St Jamess Place, London, p.32-33.
25. Braddon, Russell (1973) Suez: Splitting of a Nation, St Jamess Place, London, p.107.
26. MacMillan Harold, Riding the Storm, p.153.
27. Braddon, Russell (1973) Suez: Splitting of a Nation, St Jamess Place, London, p.108.
28. Fullick, Roy & Powell, Geoffrey (1979) Suez: The Double War, Hamish Hamilton, London, p. 185