Sixty Years After the Suez Crisis, It’s Time to Correct Misconceptions

tags: britain, Egypt, Eisenhower, Suez Canal Crisis, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anthony Eden

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the graduate Diplomacy Program (Political Science Department), Tel Aviv University, Israel. He holds a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and a master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University.

On the 26th of July, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser delivered a speech in which he announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, which had been owned and operated by the British and French governments. The code word “Lesseps” uttered by Nasser during his speech was the signal to his forces to seize the Canal by force.

Thus began what came to be known as the Suez Crisis. Nasser's announcement led to a diplomatic process headed by the United States aimed at resolving the Crisis and a military attempt by Britain and France to recapture the Suez Canal following the failure of diplomacy. Faced with an unprecedented US hostile reaction, a thinly veiled threat by the Soviet Union that it would use nuclear weapons against Britain and France and a volte face by members of his own Cabinet and of the opposition, Anthony Eden, Britain's Prime Minister, gave in ordering a halt to a military operation that was close to being completed successfully.

The Suez Crisis was to become the greatest foreign policy trauma of Britain since World War II, casting a shadow on the British decision-making process up to the Falklands-Malvinas Crisis of 1982 and beyond.  

Sixty years to the beginning of the Suez Crisis is an appropriate moment to correct a few misconceptions about it.

To begin with, and contrary to what may transpire from most accounts of the Suez Crisis, Anthony Eden, who served as British Prime Minister, was not the only one, nor indeed the first one, in Britain to have drawn a historical analogy between the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the dictators of the 1930s in Europe, an analogy which has ignited much criticism both from contemporaries and future historians.

In his diary for the 27th of July, 1956 (a day subsequent to Nasser’s announcement that Egypt was nationalizing the Suez Canal and seizing it by force), Harold Macmillan, who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was to become Prime Minister in 1957, called the Egyptian leader “an Asiatic Mussolini.”

The Leader of the Opposition and Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, who was to become a fierce critic of Eden’s policy, made the following statement in the House of Commons on the 2nd of August, 1956: “It is all very familiar. It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler.”

Even the left-wing press was quite explicit in this regard. The socialist Daily Herald declared in the wake of Nasser’s announcement: “’No more Hitlers’”

Secondly, Eden is widely accused of being obsessed with Nasser. Well, if by being obsessed one means that he thought a lot about Nasser and the danger he represented to Western interests in the Middle East, then yes, he was obsessed.

Eden, and indeed most British decision-makers and politicians from all parties in Britain, believed that Nasser’s policies were detrimental to the stability of the region. Nasser was seen by July 1956 as a revolutionary leader bent on expanding his vision of Pan-Arabism. His aim, so it was thought, was to destabilize pro-Western regimes in the Arab world and bring to an end all Western influence in the region.

Nasser’s move with regard to the Suez Canal was seen in Britain as a continuation of a coherent strategy. To try to understand British policy from the 26th of July onwards without taking into account the widely-held perception that prevailed in Britain with regard to Nasser and his objectives is akin to endeavoring to understand why a person would go out with an umbrella when it is cloudy, following two weeks of non-stop rain.

Thirdly, both the British and the French went along with every diplomatic compromise formula advanced by the United States aimed at solving the Crisis. It was Nasser who consistently refused to accept any compromise.

Whether one agrees or not with the final decision by the British and the French to resort to arms in order to put an end to the Crisis, it must be stressed that it came in the wake of a long diplomatic process, with which both countries cooperated.

Contrary to the impression one gets from accounts about it, the Suez Crisis did not start with the military operation undertaken by Britain and France against Egypt at the end of October and beginning of November, but with Nasser’s speech on the 26th of July. During those three months, Britain and France fully cooperated with the United States in trying to solve the crisis peacefully.

Fourth, the United States adopted a diplomacy that was aimed at gaining – wasting – time, but which ended up leading both Britain and France to war. There was an inherent contradiction in the US policy: on the one hand, both President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John F. Dulles, made it clear that they strongly opposed Nasser’s move, and yet on the other they foiled every diplomatic formula they proposed by stating publicly that they were against the use of force in any circumstance.

In other words, Nasser knew that no matter how intransigent he was, the US would not support a resort to arms, no matter what. Nasser had no incentive to compromise. The British and the French, for their part, had no incentive to desist from adopting a military option.

The Suez Crisis was a failure of US policy not less than of British or French policy. The US failed in preventing the Crisis from descending into war by adopting a disingenuous and inefficient policy and by drawing its two closest European allies further away from its overall objectives.

Not in vain would Eisenhower say subsequently that the Suez Crisis was his greatest foreign policy failure. He should have supported Britain and France, he stressed in a post-mortem of the Suez Crisis, according to his Vice President, Richard Nixon.

Eden may have been responsible for not anticipating correctly in advance the adverse reactions in the world and in his country to the military operation undertaken by Britain and France; for not conducting a more thorough decision-making process aimed at assessing the pros and cons of a military intervention in the Suez Canal conducted without US knowledge; for not preparing beforehand for different scenarios entailed in adopting such a policy; and perhaps for not being sufficiently sensitive to Eisenhower’s domestic political constraints on the eve of presidential elections in the United States.

He cannot be held responsible, though, for factors beyond his control, such as an inept diplomacy by the United States during the Crisis, or an obdurate posture on the part of Nasser, who relied on the support of the Soviet Union and a timid US stance. Eden can certainly not be held responsible for the widely-accepted historical narrative that ignores the importance of those critical three months that preceded the military intervention in which Britain and France accepted every compromise formula advanced to end the Crisis peacefully.

It may be contended that Britain and France were playing for time as they could not launch a military operation immediately at the start of the Suez Crisis. The problem with this argument is that if Egypt had accepted any of the diplomatic formulae proposed by the United States, there would most probably have been no military intervention as both Britain and France had already committed themselves to them. Also, once Nasser had given his consent to a compromise formula, the position of Britain and France would have been untenable had they decided to conduct a military operation.

In a sense, it could be said that Nasser's position played into the hands of Britain and France and US policy played into the hands of Nasser. Ultimately, though, the British and the French came out with their reputation tarnished and without either an honorable diplomatic solution or a clear military victory.

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