Given the extent to which the United States has lately been criticized as imperialist for its military actions in Iraq and elsewhere, it is difficult to imagine a time when the country actively sought to limit its influence abroad. The recent anniversary of the Suez crisis, however, reminds us that it was not so long ago that the country adopted just such a policy. Indeed, when Britain and France, together with Israel, invaded Egypt in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the United States called on its European allies to withdraw their forces.
As an Atlantic World Report written just a few months after the crisis made clear, the Suez crisis arose at a transitional moment in world politics. Cold War tensions were mounting, and Egypt had lately been forming ties with Communist nations, purchasing tanks from Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia and establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Shortly thereafter, Britain and the United States had withdrawn promises to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River.
Meanwhile, an era of European colonialism in Africa was drawing to an end. The Suez Canal had been built in the mid-1800s by the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company, a private corporation in which France was the major shareholder. Egypt initially owned stock in the company, but in 1875, financial hardships forced the Egyptian government to sell its shares to the British government. This transfer was deeply demoralizing to Egyptian people, especially given that the canal had been built through forced Egyptian labor. An estimated 120,000 Egyptian workers had died during the eleven-year construction period.
On July 26, 1956, when Nassar announced his plans to nationalize the Suez Canal, he was aware that he was taking a profoundly anti-colonial stance. He had previously written a manifesto called The Philosophy of the Revolution in which he condemned Western powers for amassing great fortunes while paying “less than a subsistence wage” to Arab laborers. He called attention to the “terrible and sanguinary struggle” taking place between the ruling white minority and the native African majority, and he urged Muslims from Africa to China to rise up against Western forces, joining together into an Islamic zone that would sweep “across continents and oceans.”
According to the Atlantic report, John Foster Dulles—the Secretary of State under Eisenhower—was concerned about what he saw as Nassar’s “nationalism unbridled,” but he was determined to resolve the situation without igniting a world war. His most pressing challenge was to prevent France, Britain, and Israel from attacking Egypt “without seeming to abandon his major European allies”—after all, the report emphasized, the United States depended on those allies to maintain an “Atlantic community strong enough to stand against the Communist orbit.” Dulles initially tried to buy time, drawing out diplomatic talks for a number of reasons:
He wanted time to permit a cooling of hot tempers in London, Paris, and Cairo. He wanted time to make sure that the Russians were worried about the noisy Anglo-French military preparations, which Dulles felt had a definite value if restrained short of the brink of war. And he wanted time for the Asian and Middle East nations to absorb the full meaning of Nasser’s dreams of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islam, as well as the possible economic cost to them if Nasser alone controlled Suez toll rates.
Moreover, Dulles was intent on avoiding a confrontation between First World and Third World nations. “By playing upon economic interests from Scandinavia to India and Indonesia,” the report explains, Dulles was able to establish an international consensus that crossed political, ethnic, and geographic lines, even drawing in underdeveloped nations such as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. In this way, he was able to protect global interest in the Canal while “avoiding an East-West, or white nations versus colored nations, split.”