Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
It's often tempting to over analyze events in world history, to look back and impose motives and causes and factors that might not have really been that important to everyday people at the time. But the 1956 Suez Crisis - on the surface a mere power-grab of important real estate - really was complicated. It was the convergence of three conflicts: old empires vs. their colonies, a very young Israel vs. its Arab neighbors, and the Cold War showdown of the United States vs. the Soviet Union. All for 120 miles of waterfront property.
The Suez Canal opened in 1869, connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas. At first, it was a private corporation owned by French investors and the Egyptian government. But Egypt sold its shares to Britain in 1875, and although the Suez Canal was primarily a commercial venture, Britain secured permission from Egypt to maintain a military presence in the Canal Zone to reinforce its status as the world's supreme naval power.
But in the 1950s, Egypt's monarchy was overthrown. Gamal Nasser soon seized power and the title of president. Nasser advocated for pan-Arab nationalism and took steps to strengthen his own nation's position in the world, accepting aid from any side if it would benefit these goals, regardless of who it might anger:
- In 1954, he brokered a seven-year treaty removing Britain's military presence from the Canal Zone.
- He cut off Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran.
- He supported rebels fighting French colonial forces in Algeria.
- He bought weapons from both Britain and the U.S.S.R. as his troops engaged in sporadic conflict with Israeli forces along their border.
This complicated and tense situation unraveled in 1956. The United States, wanting to stifle Soviet influence while increasing American influence in the region, had agreed to loan money to Egypt for construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River. But within six months, the U.S. backed out of the deal, prompting Britain and the World Bank to withdraw their loans as well.
Egypt's president was furious. Seeing an opportunity to assert his independence from the colonial empires, Nasser announced that Egypt was taking over the Suez Canal and would use its income to finance construction of his dam. The Soviets backed him up; the Egyptian people were jubilant. It was July 1956.
British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden quickly organized an international conference to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. They offered Egypt a seat on the board of the Suez Canal Company, among other concessions. Nasser refused. The United States made its own proposal to the United Nations, creating a new international consortium to operate the canal. The Soviet Union vetoed it.
European nations recalled how appeasement had led directly to World War II and didn't want to make that same mistake again. Britain was ready to deal with Nasser by force, but the United States would not condone unjustified military action. So Britain, France and Israel secretly agreed on a plan. Israel would attack, and as soon as the battle was within ten miles of the water, Britain and France would 'intervene' and seize the canal to protect it from the fighting. They also hoped to depose Nasser, while Israel wanted rights of passage through the waterways.
The Suez Crisis Unfolds
Israel attacked first on October 29, 1956. A few days later, Britain and France entered the fray. By the morning of November 6 (the same day as the U.S. presidential election in which Eisenhower was re-elected), British and French troops had successfully invaded the Canal Zone. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened nuclear strikes on Europe if the hostilities did not end immediately. Canada's Prime Minister Lester Pearson desperately tried to intervene, to no avail.
The United States was in a delicate position. Britain was a strong ally, but Eisenhower had distanced himself from European colonial conflicts throughout his re-election campaign. Yet, he was clearly concerned about the Soviet Union; just a few days before the Suez Crisis, the U.S. had condemned Soviet intervention in a Hungarian revolt. Eisenhower had no desire to see Soviet influence spread into the Middle East. The U.S. scolded the Soviets for their reckless threats, and then threatened Britain, France and Israel with economic sanctions. The United States also officially condemned the military action in the U.N.
Although British military advisors assured Prime Minister Eden that they would control the entire length of the canal within 24 hours, he backed down. His economy was slipping and America wouldn't help, and public support even within Britain was deeply divided. Eden called a ceasefire the night of November 6. British and French forces withdrew in December, and Israel fell back in March. In the meantime, the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was authorized and deployed to the region.
Effects of the 1956 Suez Crisis
- Despite his military defeat, Egyptian President Nasser was a hero in the Arab world - the man who had called the bluff of the imperial powers. His nation won operational control of the Suez Canal, although he had to pay reparations.
- Soviet Premier Khrushchev was emboldened, writing in his memoirs that nuclear brinksmanship was a successful tool against Western powers. He also avoided serious repercussions for his actions in Hungary and strengthened Soviet influence in the Middle East.
- France and Britain were humiliated, showing that they were no longer world powers, and rapidly lost control of their remaining colonies in the coming years. British Prime Minister Eden resigned, but in his memoirs, claimed he had averted a much larger crisis in the Middle East in which Egypt planned to invade Israel while the Soviet Union invaded Syria.
- Israel regained access to the Straits of Tiran. But historians point to the lack of a distinct peace treaty as paving the way for the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and three Arab neighbors.
- The United States Congress approved the Eisenhower Doctrine. This provided funding and presidential authority to assist Middle East nations fighting Soviet influence. The U.S. also improved its relationship with Egypt.
- UN peacekeepers remained in Egypt for nearly a decade, until expelled by Nasser on the eve of his next invasion of Israel.
Let's review. In the summer of 1956, three major world conflicts converged in the Middle East. Egyptian President Nasser asserted his nation's power in the world by nationalizing the Suez Canal. This angered France and Great Britain who had previously controlled the shipping lanes and who already distrusted Nasser for some other actions he'd recently taken. Israel was also concerned about increasing Egyptian strength.
When diplomacy failed, Israel attacked in October 1956, in collusion with France and Britain. The Soviet Union took Egypt's side. The United States, in spite of its heated rivalry with the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, would not fully support its western allies. They withdrew and lost their international prestige, while Egypt and its ally the U.S.S.R. strengthened their standing in the world.
When you finish the video, you should be able to:
- Explain what the Suez Crisis was
- Describe the conflicts and complications that led to the Suez Crisis
- Recount what happened in the 1956 attack
- Recognize the impact and effects that the Suez Crisis had
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