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 Shortly thereafter, Britain and the United States had withdrawn promises to help Egypt build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River.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.”
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.
Britain and France eventually did withdraw from Egypt in response to mounting U.S. pressure. But even after the ceasefire, tensions between the United States and Britain continued to simmer, as evidenced by Eisenhower’s November 1956 snub of Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet after having said he would meet with them. A month later, Vice President Richard Nixon irked Eden even more when he explicitly linked the Suez crisis to colonialism. “For the first time in history,” Nixon stated, “we have shown independence of Anglo-French policies towards Asia and Africa which seemed to us to reflect the colonial tradition. This declaration of independence has had an electrifying effect throughout the world.” Eden’s memoir sharply refuted this claim, insisting that “if the United States had to defend her treaty rights in the Panama Canal, she would not regard such action as colonialism.”
In the end, the Anglo-French withdrawal did help to hasten the end of colonialism, but it did nothing to reduce Nasser’s influence in the region. As Roberts tells it:
The Anglo-French forces were withdrawn rather ingloriously and Eden collapsed physically. Nasser played from weakness, taking advantage of the strange American-Soviet alliance at the UN council tables to hold on to his power. What might have been, had Eden got the hostile neutrality he had expected from the United States instead of the positive hostility he received, is only a matter of speculation.
Whatever its long-term outcome, the Suez crisis was significant on many levels. It was one of the first times that U.S. foreign policy diverged from that of France and Britain. It also marked a shift in global power away from Europe and toward the United States, and a symbolic victory for the United States over the entire colonial enterprise. Most of all, it demonstrated that American leaders are capable of meeting tense situations with thoughtful and nuanced diplomacy. As Eisenhower stated in a press conference on September 11, 1956, exactly forty-five years before two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, even the most valid concerns about Nasser ought not to provoke hasty military force. “I think this: We established the United Nations to abolish aggression, and I am not going to be a party to aggression if it is humanly possible to avoid it or I can detect it before it occurs.”