The Suez Crisis
The reasoning for President Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the crisis’s initiation, lies in the seventy-four years of Egyptian colonial and quasi-independent status, subject to the imperial whims of Britain. Britain conquered Egypt in 1882, in the midst of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa,” economically serving to fuel the industrial and commercial behemoths of Europe with raw materials. Moreover, the Western literary voice of Rudyard Kipling had enabled the rise of “white man’s burden” colonialism. As a result of these two factors, Britain not only swiftly and truculently drubbed Egypt, but maintained a forceful iron fist active in Egyptian affairs. However, the combination of “white man’s burden” with a British decline gave way to both a backlash and the underpinnings of Egyptian nationalism, as seen in the Denshawai Incident of 1906. Costly WWI and Britain’s austere economy in the aftermath proved a blessing for the Egyptians, who procured semi-independence under “Dominion of Britain” status. However, semi-autonomy only whetted Egyptian appetites for freedom, as anti-British riots broke out in 1935 and 1946, both times at which imperial Britain was at its weakest, and thus perhaps most vulnerable to revolution. Moreover, it is evident that frequent Western intervention during semi-independence soured Egyptian views toward the West, as Fascist Italy bombed the Suez Canal Zone in 1940, as both Axis and Ally razed Egyptian land at El Alamein in the 1941 “battle for oil,” and as Britain forced Egypt to reassemble a more pro-British government in 1942. Plagued with a corrupt government, the bubble of the Egyptian public insurgency finally popped with the military coup of 1952, which deposed King Farouk and mantled General Naguib as president. However, Naguib often clashed with his colleagues, and as a result was a perfect target for rival Nasser’s slanderous accusations. And so, in the revolution of 1954, Nasser assumed the presidency, sweeping up his countrymen in a whirlwind of nationalism, officially severing colonial ties with Britain, thereupon implementing a spate of forward-looking, anti-western, leftist reforms. Independence, the seed of “a New World Order,” had come to once-scrambled Africa.
The official stimulus for the eruption of the Suez Crisis was not in the actions of Nasser, but rather in the overstretched policies of the U.S. The U.S., stuck in the “Marshall Plan” mindset, had promised to aid Egypt in the construction of the Aswan Dam. However, after learning that Nasser had contacted Warsaw Pact communists, the U.S. withdrew its financial aid. In retaliation, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the West’s lifeline to lucrative Asia. And so the fiasco began. Galled by such an upstart act, British P.M. Anthony Eden began to develop an Anglo-French alliance, also including a bumptious Israel, ever ready to prove itself, into the secrecy. The tripartite then reached a consensus on October 5th. The devious plan entailed Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, while Britain and France would intervene on a “peacekeeping” mission, thereby achieving discreet encroachment onto Egyptian soil. After separating the belligerents, Britain and France would subtly occupy the canal, and, out of “goodwill,” protect the volatile tract that surrounded it. However, the plan lacked one stipulation: America’s support. The economies of Britain and France could not possibly sustain such a costly, overstretching intervention alone, without an IMF loan: gone were their days of empire. And yet, the stubborn leaders followed through with the invasion anyway, unwilling to relinquish the Old World ideology of “The West is best.” Despite Eisenhower’s olive branches, Israel also pressed forward, launching the Sinai invasion on October 27th. In response, Eisenhower placed the U.S. Sixth Fleet, stationed in the Mediterranean, on alert. Three days later, the Anglo-French force also mobilized, issuing an ultimatum for Israel and Egypt to distance their forces ten miles from the Suez, and for the Franco-British force to occupy strategic posts along the Suez. Muddling their “peacekeeping” pretenses, the Anglo-French forces launched air offensives at dusk. On November 5th, the U.S.S.R. entered the fray, globalizing and enlarging the possible catastrophes in the process. The U.S.S.R. too issued an ultimatum, countering the Franco-British force’s capture of Port Said along the Suez. The U.S.S.R.’s entrance did succeed in mitigating some of the carnage, but it also spelled the increased wariness and brinkmanship of a new, inexorably anti-communist player: the United States.
For the original combatants, the tension only relaxed after the U.S.S.R.’s belligerency, as Britain P.M. Anthony Eden acquiesced to a cease-fire on November 6th. However, the Soviet Red Army still remained mobile, as President Eisenhower uttered, “If those fellows start something, we may have to hit ‘em – and, if necessary, with everything in the bucket.” Eisenhower’s utterance typified his policy of Massive Retaliation, as “everything in the bucket” entailed an all-out nuclear assault. Into this cauldron of hostility stepped Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson, who proposed the usage of a U.N. Emergency Force for peacekeeping in Egypt. U.N. Emergency Forces then landed in Egypt on November 15th, and shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union, perhaps satisfied with its recent putdown of the Hungarian Revolution, withdrew. With the waning of the Soviet threat came the reciprocal resolution of the crisis- every single Briton or Frenchman left Egypt by December. The U.S. also relaxed its grip on the Mediterranean, although it issued the Eisenhower Doctrine the following year, stipulating that the U.S. would aid any African nation opposing communism. Among the impacts of the Suez Crisis, the unquestionable fall of Old World imperialism is prominent, as the tumult of decolonization expedited in the subsequent years of the Cold War. Also evident was the solidification of both the Anglo-American special relationship and Britain’s digression towards reliance on the U.S. and European cooperation, thus enabling the establishment of the European Common Market (later renamed the European Union). However, the crisis impacted France in quite the opposite manner. Feeling deceived by Britain’s sudden cease-fire, snubbed by the U.S., and burdened by the notion of “European cooperation,” French President Charles de Gaulle fomented French nationalism and “freedom of action.” The “reassertion campaign” encompassed the rejection of Common Market membership, French radiation of anti-American sentiment, the withdrawal from the N.A.T.O. integrated military command, and the creation of the nuclear armament program, Force de Frappe. On a nonwestern standpoint, the eruption of the Suez Crisis served the purpose of sparking decolonization, a process that illuminated the origin of a tangled, muddily diplomatic, New World Order. Moreover, Nasser’s supposed heroism proved inspirational for the Islamic World, which witnessed the proliferation of “Pan-Arabism,” an ideology that entailed anti-Western intervention, leftism, and multinational unity. For the Cold War, the impact illuminated not only this New World Order, but also the growing workload of the U.S., mandated to contain communism, maintain peace, fight ideological and proxy wars with the U.S.S.R., honor anti-imperialism, and uphold massive economic and military commitments, somehow, in the midst of this inundating tangle, avoiding nuclear war.
Researched by Brady Garrison
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School
Luscombe, Stephen. "British Empire: The Map Room: Africa: Egypt." britishempire.co.uk. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Jun 2010.
Pike, John. "Suez Crisis." globalsecurity.org. GlobalSecurity.org, 26 Apr 2010. Web. 24 May 2010.
Reynolds, Paul. "Suez: End of Empire." BBC News. BBC, 24 July 2006. Web. 26 May 2010.
"The Suez Crisis ." Bodleian Library: University of Oxford . University of Oxford, 14 Apr 2009. Web. 28 May 2010.
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