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.”
Four years later, in “Suez in Retrospect” (April 1960),Chalmers Roberts, a foreign affairs writer for The Washington Post, reviewed the memoir of Anthony Eden, who had been England’s Prime Minister at the time of the crisis. Eden’s book, Roberts suggested, raised questions about Eden’s true motives at the time of the invasion. Roberts focused particularly on the details of a now-famous October 16th meeting between Britain and France. At the beginning of the Suez crisis, Eden had told the House of Commons that his objective was not to go after Nasser but to “separate the belligerents and to guarantee freedom of transit through the canal by the ships of all nations.” Roberts presented a different version of the story. “There is circumstantial evidence,” he wrote, “that Britain and France agreed to strike at Egypt in concert with an Israeli attack.” Roberts argued that Britain and France had long seen the Egyptian President as a threat to their own influence in the region, and that their decision to invade was “only a device to strike at Nasser in hopes of bringing him down.” Because the European powers knew that Dulles had been working for months to prevent their going to war, American officials might have been intentionally kept in the dark about Britain’s true intentions.