The Suez Crisis was a major international confrontation that started when the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956 and climaxed in November when the British and French, in league with Israel, invaded Egypt. International pressure, especially from the United States, forced the invaders to withdraw, leaving Egypt still in control of the canal. The debacle hastened the decline of European influence in the Middle East and drew the superpowers more deeply into the region.
Since its opening in 1869, the Suez Canal had been owned and operated by an Anglo-French company. To protect this important link to its Indian empire, the British occupied Egypt in 1882, running the country as a client state until the Free Officers, a nationalist military group, seized control in July 1952. Under intense pressure from the leader of the coup, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), the British signed an agreement in October 1954 for a twenty-month phased withdrawal from the canal zone, a vast area of military bases roughly the size of Wales. The position of the Suez Canal Company remained unaffected, however, and, with Western Europe now reliant on the Middle East for 80 percent of its oil, the canal assumed a new strategic importance.
Despite the 1954 agreement, Nasser's position was fragile. In the spring of 1955, Iraq, Turkey, and Britain joined together in what became known as the Baghdad Pact. Intended by the British as an anti-Soviet bulwark in the Middle East, the pact was seen by Nasser as a threat to his own aspirations as regional leader. Tit-for-tat raids across Egypt's long border with Israel were a constant reminder of the unresolved legacy of Israel's war for independence in 1948, and the Americans, British, and French sought to reduce the violence by rationing arms supplies to the Middle East. Feeling increasingly encircled, Nasser concluded an arms deal with the Soviet bloc, announced in September 1955, whereupon Washington and London froze their financial support for the Aswan High Dam, centerpiece of his program of modernization.
The British hoped to let the offer of aid wither on the vine, but pressure from Congress and determination to teach Nasser a lesson prompted John Foster Dulles, the U.S. secretary of state, to end the project publicly and bluntly on 19 July 1956. A week later, on 26 July, Nasser announced that the Suez Canal Company would be nationalized, with Egypt taking over the running of the waterway. Revenue from the canal would help pay for the dam; more fundamentally, economic independence would make possible full political independence.
Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, was furious and, as the architect of the 1954 agreement, also felt betrayed. Likening Nasser to Mussolini, he was convinced that appeasement would be as disastrous as in the 1930s and that Nasser must now be removed. The British and French began plans for an invasion of Egypt. The problem was that Nasser had promised to compensate shareholders and maintain freedom of navigation; on 15 September, the canal reopened under Egyptian management. Frustrated, the British took the issue to the United Nations, and by mid-October negotiations were under way between Egypt and an association of user nations about future Egyptian operation of the canal. It seemed that the crisis could be resolved peacefully.
For Britain and France, however, the stakes had now become much higher than simply the canal. The British regarded Nasser as a destabilizing force throughout the Middle East; the abrupt dismissal in March 1956 of Sir John Glubb, commander of the Jordanian army, was taken as another sign of his insidious influence. The French, for their part, believed Nasser was behind the escalating rebellion against their rule in Algeria. Both governments were under strong domestic pressure to be tough, with the lessons of appeasement regularly cited. But the successful Egyptian operation of the canal denied them a pretext for military action. That was where the Israelis came in.
For months the Israeli military had been agitating for a preemptive war against Egypt, but Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion would not go ahead without great-power support. In the summer of 1956 the Israelis opened up contacts with Guy Mollet, the French prime minister and a longstanding supporter of Israel, who drew in Eden. Increasingly desperate, the British prime minister worked behind the backs of most of the Foreign Office, mounting what was almost an alternative foreign policy using the intelligence service, MI6.
At a series of secret meetings on 22–24 October in the fashionable Paris suburb of Sèvres, representatives of the three governments confirmed their conspiracy. The Israelis would invade the Sinai peninsula to destroy Palestinian guerrilla bases and wreck the Egyptian military machine. Their thrust would threaten the canal and give the British and French a pretext to invade—ostensibly to separate the belligerents and safeguard their property, more fundamentally to kill Nasser and install a pro-Western regime.
The cover plan was, of course, transparently specious; so much so that Eden was appalled to learn of a written record, the Protocol of Sèvres, and had all the British copies destroyed. Moreover, the underlying set of alliances ran counter to national traditions. Eden, a consistent Arabist all his life, was now allied with the Arabs' greatest enemy. France, anxious for British support, was willing to abandon its cherished precept of independence and place French forces under British command. Above all, in turning to France, the British were violating the cardinal principle of their postwar policy, namely to keep in step with the United States. This proved the fatal mistake. President Dwight D. Eisenhower shared their view that Nasser was a threat to Western interests, but he was equally sure that the canal was "not the issue on which to try to downgrade Nasser," smacking as it did of old-fashioned European imperialism. On several occasions he made this clear to Eden but the British went ahead with the conspiracy, cutting Washington completely out of the loop, though American intelligence soon divined what was going on.
On 29 October—the day that Britain, France, and Egypt were scheduled to open discussions in Geneva about the operation of the canal—the Israeli Defense Forces invaded Sinai. Enjoying complete surprise, they made rapid gains. The following day the British and French issued their ultimatum to the belligerents; on the 31st their planes started bombing Egyptian bases. On 5 November, British and French paratroops landed around Port Said, at the Mediterranean end of the canal, followed the next day by amphibious troops. It was Nasser's turn to be wrong-footed. Back in July he had assumed that the chances of war would diminish every week and that "if we succeed in gaining two months by politics, we shall be safe." Now, in a fatalistic mood, he prepared to die with his troops in a last-ditch defense of the capital, Cairo.
But then Eisenhower came to his rescue. The president was incensed at the Anglo-French deception and also embarrassed by its timing—just before the presidential election on 6 November and at the height of the Red Army's suppression of Hungary's revolt against Soviet rule. Just when he wanted to demonstrate the moral distance between East and West in the Cold War, his allies seemed to be behaving as badly as his adversaries. "I've never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things," he fumed. The United States therefore took the lead in sponsoring a ceasefire resolution in the United Nations, where Britain and France were virtually isolated—an unprecedented shock for two of the UN's founders. In Britain, public opinion was deeply and passionately divided. The Soviets threatened military action against the belligerents unless the fighting stopped. Most serious of all, the Americans refused to help stop the wartime run on sterling unless a ceasefire was implemented.
Eden, seriously ill with a damaged gall bladder and running a high temperature, watched aghast as the fragile coalition of support unravelled. As early as 3–4 November the Egyptians and Israelis were talking about a ceasefire in Sinai, undercutting the case for sending in British and French troops. And at home, Harold Macmillan, his chancellor of the exchequer, panicked about the sterling crisis. Having previously ignored warnings from Treasury officials about the vulnerability of the pound, this previously ferocious hawk turned almost overnight into a flapping dove.
On the morning of 6 November, the British cabinet agreed to an immediate ceasefire and Mollet, bitterly, was forced to follow suit. Ben-Gurion, also ill and overwrought, agreed to pull back from Sinai. All three powers still hoped to exploit their territorial gains as diplomatic leverage but the Americans kept up the political and financial pressure. On 18 November, Eden's doctors advised a complete rest; five days later he flew to Jamaica, leaving his colleagues to negotiate the denouement. Here Macmillan took the lead, persuading the cabinet to accept an unconditional withdrawal, devoid of the strings Eden had wanted, in return for American support of sterling. This was announced on 3 December. British and French troops completed their pull-out on 22 December and a United Nations force took their place, in a pioneering example of this kind of peacekeeping operation.
Eden returned to London on 14 December, hopeful of remaining prime minister. But his performances in the House of Commons did not reassure his party. Under severe pressure about reports of "collusion" with Israel, he lied blatantly to the members of Parliament on 20 December, insisting that "there were no plans got together to attack Egypt" and that "there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt." Eden remained seriously ill and on 9 January 1957 he resigned as prime minister. After soundings of the cabinet, the Queen appointed Macmillan, the main architect of his political downfall, as Eden's successor.
In France, opinion had been less polarized by the war and Mollet continued in power until May 1957. But the French were bitter at their betrayal yet again, as they saw it, by "perfidious Albion." Konrad Adenauer, the West German chancellor, told Mollet that "Europe will be your revenge," and it was no accident that the winter of 1956–1957 saw increased French interest in plans for European integration, culminating in the Treaty of Rome signed in March 1957. The new nationalism often ascribed to the era of Charles de Gaulle actually had its roots in the mood of 1956–1957.
Of the three unlikely allies, the biggest beneficiary was Israel. The damage it had inflicted on Egypt and the Palestinians kept the country safe from attack for a decade. But it was Nasser, of course, who gained most from the crisis. Egypt, a British protectorate till only five years before, had humiliated the two greatest powers of Europe. Nasser's stock soared at home and abroad, as his example emboldened other nationalist leaders, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, to intensify their agitation against colonial rule.
Meanwhile, the United States moved hurriedly to fill the vacuum created by the Anglo-French collapse and the growing Soviet influence in Egypt. On 5 January 1957 the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine declared that the United States would use its armed forces in the event of Soviet or communist aggression in the Middle East. Thus, the Suez crisis proved a turning point both in Europe's retreat from empire and also in the progressive globalization of the Cold War.
Gorst, Anthony, and Lewis Johnman. The Suez Crisis. London, 1997. Useful short introduction, with extensive documents.
U.S. Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957. Vol. 16: Suez Crisis July 26–December 31, 1956. Washington, D.C., 1990. The crisis as seen in American documents.
Carlton, David. Britain and the Suez Crisis. Oxford, U.K., 1988. A short account, with numerous British documents.
Kelly, Saul, and Anthony Gorst, eds. Whitehall and the Suez Crisis. London, 2000. Essays on key British policy-makers, updating Carlton.
Kyle, Keith. Suez. London, 1991. A massive, detailed history.
Louis, William Roger, and Roger Owen, eds. Suez 1956: The Crisis and Its Consequences. Oxford, U.K., 1989. A truly international view, with essays on all the major players.