Royal Marine commando raiding Port Said during Operation Musketeer- Suez Crisis 1956
The Suez Crisis was one of the major events of the Cold War. It ended Britain’s pretensions to be a world superpower, fatally weakened its hold on what remained of its empire, placed a dangerous strain on U. S.-Soviet relations, strengthened the position of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and distracted world attention from the concurrent Soviet military intervention in Hungary.
The Suez Crisis had its origins in the development plans of Nasser. The Egyptian president hoped to enhance his prestige and improve the quality of life for his nation’s growing population by carrying out long-discussed plans to construct a high dam on the upper Nile River at Aswan to provide electric power. To finance the project, he sought assistance from the Western powers. But he had also been endeavoring to build up and modernize the Egyptian military. Toward that end, he had sought to acquire modern weapons from the United States and other Western nations. When the U. S. government refused to supply the advanced arms, which it believed might be used against Israel, in 1955 Nasser turned to the communist bloc. This step incurred the displeasure of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as did Nasser’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and his frequent denunciations of the U. S.-supported Baghdad Pact.
Resentment over Nasser’s efforts to play East against West and especially his decision to turn to the communist bloc for arms led the Eisenhower administration to block financing of the Aswan Dam project through the World Bank. U. S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had earlier assured Nasser of U. S. support, but on 19 June 1956, Dulles announced that U. S. assistance for the Aswan Dam project would not be forthcoming. The British government immediately followed suit.
Nasser’s response to this humiliating rebuff came a week later, on 26 July, when he nationalized the Suez Canal. He had contemplated such a move for some time, but the U. S. decision prompted its timing. Seizure of the canal would not only provide additional funding for the Aswan project but would also make Nasser a hero in the eyes of many Arab nationalists.
The British government regarded the sea-level Suez Canal, which connected the eastern Mediterranean with the Red Sea across Egyptian territory, as its lifeline to Middle Eastern oil and the Far East. The canal, built by a private company headed by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, had opened to much fanfare in 1869. It quickly altered the trade routes of the world, and two-thirds of the tonnage passing through the canal was British. Khedive Ismail Pasha, who owned 44 percent of the company shares, found himself in dire financial straits, and in 1875 the British government stepped in and purchased his shares. In 1878 Britain acquired the island of Cyprus north of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire, further strengthening its position in the eastern Mediterranean north of Egypt. The British also increased their role in Egyptian financial affairs, and in 1882 they intervened militarily in Egypt, promising to depart once order had been restored. Britain remained in Egypt and in effect controlled its affairs through World War II.
In 1952, a nationalist coup d’état took place in Egypt that ultimately brought Nasser to power. He was a staunch Arab nationalist, determined to end British influence in Egypt. In 1954 he succeeded in renegotiating the 1936 treaty with the British to force the withdrawal of British troops from the Suez Canal Zone. The last British forces departed the Canal Zone only a month before Nasser nationalized the canal.
The British government now took the lead in opposing Nasser. London believed that Nasser’s growing popularity in the Arab world was encouraging Arab nationalism and threatening to undermine British influence throughout the Middle East. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1955-1956) developed a deep and abiding hatred of the Egyptian leader. For Eden, ousting Nasser from power became nothing short of an obsession. In the immediate aftermath of Nasser’s nationalization of the canal, the British government called up 200,000 military reservists and dispatched military resources to the eastern Mediterranean.
The French government also had good reason to seek Nasser’s removal. Paris sought to protect its own long-standing interests in the Middle East, but more to the point, the French were now engaged in fighting the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Algeria. The Algerian War, which began in November 1954, had greatly expanded and had become an imbroglio for the government, now led by socialist Premier Guy Mollet (1956-1957). Nasser was a strong and vocal supporter of the NLF, and there were many in the French government and military who believed that overthrowing him would greatly enhance French chances of winning the Algerian War.
Israel formed the third leg in the triad of powers arrayed against Nasser. Egypt had instituted a blockade of Israeli ships at the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel’s outlet to the Indian Ocean. Also, Egypt had never recognized the Jewish state and indeed remained at war with it following the Israeli War of Independence during 1948-1949. In 1955, Israel mounted a half dozen crossborder raids, while Egypt carried out its own raids into Israeli territory by fedayeen, or guerrilla fighters.
During the months that followed Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, the community of interest among British, French, and Israeli leaders developed into secret planning for a joint military operation to topple Nasser. The U. S. government was not consulted and indeed opposed the use of force. The British and French governments either did not understand the American attitude or, if they did, believed that Washington would give approval after the fact to policies undertaken by its major allies, which the latter believed to be absolutely necessary.
The British government first tried diplomacy. Two conferences in London attended by the representatives of twenty-four nations using the canal failed to produce agreement on a course of action, and Egypt refused to participate. A proposal by U. S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for a canal “users’ club” of nations failed, as did an appeal to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. On 1 October, Dulles announced that the United States was disassociating itself from British and French actions in the Middle East and asserted that the United States intended to play a more independent role.
Meanwhile, secret talks were going forward, first between the British and French for joint military action against Egypt. Military representatives of the two governments met in London on 10 August and hammered out the details of a joint military plan known as MUSKETEER that would involve occupation of both Alexandria and Port Said. The French then brought the Israeli government in on the plan, and General Maurice Challe, deputy chief of staff of the French Air Force, undertook a secret trip to the Middle East to meet with Israeli government and military leaders. The Israelis were at first skeptical about British and French support. They also had no intention of moving as far as the canal itself. The Israelis stated that their plan was merely to send light detachments to link up with British and French forces. They also insisted that British and French military intervention occur simultaneously with their own attack.
General André Beaufre, the designated French military commander for the operation, then came up with a new plan. Under it, the Israelis would initiate hostilities against Egypt in order to provide the pretext for military intervention by French and British forces to protect the canal. This action would technically be in accord with the terms of the 1954 treaty between Egypt and Britain that had given Britain the right to send forces to occupy the Suez Canal Zone in the event of an attack against Egypt by a third power.
All parties agreed to this new plan. Meanwhile, unrest began in Hungary on 23 October, and the next day Soviet tanks entered Budapest to put down what had become the Hungarian Revolution. French and British planners were delighted at the news of an international distraction that seemed to provide them a degree of freedom of action.
On 29 October, Israeli forces began an invasion of the Sinai Peninsula with the announced aim of eradicating the fedayeen bases. A day later, on 30 October, the British and French governments issued an ultimatum, nominally to both the Egyptian and Israeli governments but in reality only to Egypt, expressing the need to separate the combatants and demanding the right to provide for the security of the Suez Canal. The ultimatum called on both sides to withdraw their forces 10 miles from the canal and gave them twelve hours to reply. The Israelis, of course, immediately accepted the ultimatum, while the Egyptians just as promptly rejected it.
On 31 October, the British began bombing Egyptian airfields and military installations from bases on Cyprus. British aircraft attacked four Egyptian bases that day and nine the next. When Eden reported to the House of Commons on events, he encountered a surprisingly strong negative reaction from the opposition Labour Party.
Following the British military action, the Egyptians immediately sank a number of ships in the canal to make it unusable. The Israelis, meanwhile, broke into the Sinai and swept across it in only four days against ineffective Egyptian forces. Finally, on 5 November, British and French paratroopers began an invasion of Port Said, Egypt, at the Mediterranean terminus of the canal.
The Eisenhower administration had already entered the picture. On 31 October, President Eisenhower described the British attack as “taken in error.” He was personally furious at Eden over events and is supposed to have asked when he first telephoned the British leader, “Anthony, have you gone out of your mind?” The United States applied immediate and heavy financial threats, both on a bilateral basis and through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to bring the British government to heel. Eisenhower also refused any further dealings with Eden personally.
A threat by the Soviet government against Britain on 5 November to send “volunteers” to Egypt proved a further embarrassment for the British government, but it was U. S. pressure that was decisive. Nonetheless, the world beheld the strange spectacle of the United States cooperating with the Soviet Union to condemn Britain and France in the UN Security Council and call for an end to the use of force. Although Britain and France vetoed the Security Council resolution, the matter was referred to the UN General Assembly, which demanded a cease-fire and withdrawal.
Israel and Egypt had agreed to a cease-fire on 4 November. At midnight on 6 November, the day of the U. S. presidential election, the British and French governments were also obliged to accept a cease-fire, the French only with the greatest reluctance. A 4,000-man UN Emergency Force (UNEF)- authorized on 4 November and made up of contingents from Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, and the Scandinavian countries-arrived in Egypt to take up positions to keep Israeli and Egyptian forces separated. At the end of November, the British and French governments both agreed to withdraw their forces from Egypt by 22 December, and on 1 December Eisenhower announced that he had instructed U. S. oil companies to begin shipping supplies to both Britain and France.
Nasser and Arab self-confidence were the chief beneficiaries of the crisis. The abysmal performance of Egyptian military forces in the crisis was forgotten in Nasser’s ultimate triumph. He found his prestige dramatically increased throughout the Arab world. Israel also benefited. The presence of the UN force guaranteed an end to the fedayeen raids, and Israel had also broken the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, although its ships could still not transit the Suez Canal. The crisis also enhanced Soviet prestige in the Middle East, and the UN emerged from the crisis with enhanced prestige, helping to boost world confidence in that organization.
The Suez Crisis ended Eden’s political career. Ill and under tremendous criticism in Parliament from the Labour Party, he resigned from office in January 1957. Events also placed a serious, albeit temporary, strain on U. S.- British relations. More importantly, they revealed the serious limitations in British military strength. Indeed, observers are unanimous in declaring 1956 a seminal date in British imperial history that marked the effective end of Britain’s tenure as a great power. The events had less impact in France. Mollet left office in May 1957 but not as a result of the Suez intervention. The crisis was costly to both Britain and France in economic terms, for Saudi Arabia had halted oil shipments to both countries.
Finally, the Suez Crisis could not have come at a worst time for the West, because the crisis diverted world attention from the concurrent brutal Soviet military intervention in Hungary. Eisenhower believed, rightly or wrongly, that without the Suez diversion there would have been far stronger Western reaction to the Soviet invasion of its satellite.
References Beaufre, André. The Suez Expedition, 1956. Translated by Richard Barry. New York: Praeger, 1969. Cooper, Chester L. The Lion’s Last Roar: Suez, 1956. New York: Harper and Row, 1978. Eden, Anthony. The Suez Crisis of 1956. Boston: Beacon, 1968. Freiberger, Steven Z. Dawn over Suez: The Rise of American Power in the Middle East, 1953-1957. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Gorst, Anthony, and Lewis Johnman. The Suez Crisis. London: Routledge, 1997. Hahn, Peter L. The United States, Great Britain, and Egypt, 1945-1956: Strategy and Diplomacy in the Early Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Kelly, Saul, and Anthony Gorst, eds. Whitehall and the Suez Crisis. London: Frank Cass, 2000. Kingseed, Cole C. Eisenhower and the Suez Crisis of 1956. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. Kyle, Keith. Suez. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991. Louis, William R., and Roger Owen, eds. Suez, 1956: The Crisis and Its Consequences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Lucas, W. Scott. Divided We Stand: Britain, the United States and the Suez Crisis. Rev. ed. London: Spectre, 1996.
SUEZ CAMPAIGN, OPERATION MUSKETEER, November to December 1956