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Such terribly British problems: The Suez Crisis

Such terribly British problems: The ‘Suez Crisis’

‘We are not at war with Egypt. We are in an armed conflict’. Sir Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister in 1956

The years after 1945 were a time of great discomfort and challenge for Britain as it faced up to an era of inevitable decline in the wake of World War II. While the establishment might try to carry on with an attitude of ‘business as usual’, the shift in the balance of power, which saw the rise of the USA and the USSR as the dominant ‘Super-powers’ in the Cold War, was such that London could no longer dictate terms or set the global agenda as it had done for more than a century. However, managing decline is one of the most difficult and horrifying tasks in many areas, be it sport, business or politics, and despite the obvious difficulties of near bankruptcy and the break-up of the Empire, there was much in the language and culture of the Establishment that still smacked of being a ‘great power’.

There was some evidence to support this position, of course, for even though the USA and the USSR were clearly the ones dictating the pace and direction of international affairs, Britain still sat at the top table and was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. There was still a aura of splendour amidst the relative decay, a glorious history for which the ‘free-world’ could offer thanks with regard to the two world wars if not for every aspect of empire, but the world had changed and Britain was no longer ‘top-dog’. It had become more of a lap-dog for the USA, the ‘special relationship’ proclaiming its role in the new gang which had gathered around, or behind, Washington.  The country had changed so that an uncertain future loomed, economically, politically and militarily, putting new threats and demands on politicians and other leaders who had grown up in a different age.

No group or class could exclude itself from the enormous social and political changes that swept through Britain in the wake of the World Wars. The structure of life and its accepted core values were shaken by the turmoil of the previous decades, so that new ideas and expectations came to the fore. Industrialisation, education, political ideology, the media, the arts and other factors, combined to create a society which was radically different from that which had shaped Britain, for better and for worse, in the years up to 1945. Peace did not bring a simple desire to return to the past, to 1939, as though that were some glorious, halcyon year in which everyone wished to live. The dawn of a new era was announced with Labour’s election victory over Churchill’s tired Conservative Party, a shocking landslide that led to the creation of the ‘Welfare State’. So many ideas and actual changes  that marked the ‘post-war consensus’ were introduced under Attlee’s Government, such as the creation of the NHS and changes in the benefit system, higher rates of income tax for the rich, fundamental changes to the education system. For the next three decades and more, there was to be a greater role for the state in most areas of life, a change so clearly expressed in the huge programme of nationalisation that brought coal production, the railways, the Bank of England and, of course, the health service under State control.

In 1945, Labour took control of a country which had its most powerful days behind it. The devastating effects of the two world wars and the economic depression, it was clear that, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, there could be no going back to the days of Empire and influence. The world had changed and there were now two new superpowers, the USA and the USSR, on the  world stage. Britain had to find a new role as it tried to ensure that a ‘managed decline’ could be achieved without dramas, pain or, indeed, revolution. Much of this was achieved with surprising dignity and control, with events like the break-up of the Empire after India was granted independence in 1947, the hosting of the Olympic Games in London in 1948, the ‘Festival of Britain’ in 1951 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, showing the country in a positive light despite the many troubles. However, as the years went on, other events shone a light on a country which was struggling to adapt to the post-war changes. One which may sum up the confusion and fragility of the state was the ‘Suez Crisis’ of late October, 1956. It centred on control of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which had been the key link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea for nearly a century and was especially important to Britain and France, primarily as the shipping route to India, South and East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Map showing the location of the Suez Canal as it links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Image: here; Source: here

The Suez Canal was hailed as a major feat of engineering when it opened on 17th November, 1869. Under the guidance of Ferdinand de Lesseps,  in collaboration with the Egyptian authorities and the Emperor Napoleon III, the canal was built over a period of about ten years. Its impact was significant and, although France maintained a majority interest, Britain came to exercise some influence when it bought up Egypt’s share in the project as a result of its external debts. Although it was open to all shipping, the British saw the canal as being especially significant to its position, and through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, it was allowed to maintain a military presence along the ‘Suez Canal Zone’. The changed nature of world affairs and international relations in the post-World War II era saw the decline of the old Imperial powers, in Britain and France, and the rise of national and independence movements in the former colonies. In Egypt, the nationalist movement was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), and an aspect of this development was a 1954 agreement with Britain which provided for the removal of the military presence over a seven year period. This was the back-drop to what happened in the ‘Suez Crisis’ but there were other factors at work in the 1950s.

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) in 1968. Image: here; Source: here

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw some astonishing changes in the geo-political landscape of the world; indeed few periods in world history can match the post-war decade for the scale of its shift in the balance of power. The USA had established itself as the leader of the western world with incredible speed, just as a family of Communism had been built around the USSR, and reached from the heart of Europe away to the Pacific. The old Empires of Britain and France were in decline, with major developments seen in India receiving independence from Britain in 1947 and France withdrawing from Vietnam in 1954. Across Africa, Asia and South America, nationalist and independence movements were on the rise, making demands on the former colonial powers at a time when they faced significant political change alongside economic and social challenges at home. The world of the early 1950s was far from having the clarity, stability and security that had existed for the ‘Great Powers’ at the opening of the Suez Canal eight decades earlier.

The early years of the Cold War saw the establishment of the battle-lines for supremacy between the USA and the USSR. Under the leadership of Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin, the likelihood seemed that a conflict of some kind, triggered by an event such as the Korean War or the Chinese Revolution, might lead to the end of humanity. The Superpowers seemed set on a course of probable destruction due to the logic rooted in meeting force with force; no compromise nor tolerance of the other power seemed possible. The initial period of tension and hostility then received a major jolt in 1953 when Truman came to the end of his term in office and was replaced by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for the Republicans, and in Moscow, Joseph Stalin died, with Nikita Khrushchev coming to replace him. It is a sign of the relative decline of Britain and France that it was changes in Washington and Moscow that should shape their actions; they had become rather marginal, second-class powers.

Fundamental to what happened at Suez was the fall-out from the change in the leadership of the USSR. By 1956, the USA in particular had become rather concerned about the increasingly close relationship which seemed to be developing between Egypt and the USSR. This change was a direct consequence of Khrushchev’s ideas known as ‘Peaceful coexistence’, whereby he wanted to challenge the USA and the West by competing with them directly so as to show the supremacy of the Communist system. In the arts, sport, science and industry, the USSR and its allies would show how its ways and values were stronger than those produced by capitalism and democracy. This ideology would see visits to the West by circuses, orchestras and ballet dancers, intensive competition in the Olympic Games and, of course, the dramas of the Space Race, but it would also see a struggle for influence in what was known as ‘The Third World’, the developing and, largely, non-aligned countries and the colonies that were emerging from Imperial control.

President Gamal Nasser and Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the ceremony to divert the course of the River Nile for the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1964, eight years after the ‘Suez Crisis’.  Image: here; Source: here

In the early years of the Cold War, the USA has established its hegemony, expanding its influence through its economic influence and military deals. Khrushchev believed that American influence was actually very shallow and short-term, rooted in the dollar and the gun, so that if he offered the benefits of Communism to these countries, they would actually choose to ally themselves with Moscow. ‘The Third World’ became a major ideological battlefield where the struggle was fought by engineers, doctors and educators, and it was one in which the USSR had some significant successes as it gained influence in numerous countries, not the least of them being Egypt.

Egypt is, of course, an ancient country in a strategically powerful position. At the mouth of the Nile as it enters the Mediterranean, it is forever associated with the Pharaohs and pyramids, but that was long ago. However, as with the influence of the Romans on Italy, there is something of that ancient story which has continued to shape the aspirations of many people in the modern Egypt; past glories are powerful memories, and their influence could be seen just as clearly in the way Britain and France reacted in the post-war period.  Egypt had long been a part of the Ottoman Empire but had then come under British control before attaining a level of independence in 1921-22 although, as has been mentioned, British troops remained to oversee communications and to protect European ‘interests’, namely the Suez Canal. There was a growing sense of unrest and a rejection of a certain ‘colonial’ status amongst some sectors of Egyptian society and in 1952, a military coup saw King Farouk removed with, first General Neguib, and later Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, in power.

Nasser had various goals as leader of Egypt. He wanted to forge a new identity for an ancient country and ensure its security, prosperity and independence from the old European powers. To enable this to happen, he needed more money, the full control of the River Nile and more electricity which could drive economic development. To make this happen, he planned to build the Aswan Dam, a project which would require massive investment from overseas. Initially, the funding and technology for the dam was to have come from the USA but this was withdrawn when it was realised that Egypt was developing closer links with the USSR, an example of ‘Peaceful coexistence’ in action. There was a great concern in Washington that Communism was going to leap into North Africa, a sign of the feared ‘domino effect’ which could see region of vital interests fall under Moscow’s control, and a direct threat to oil production in the Middle East. In retaliation against this withdrawal of promised aid, and as an act of strength and independence, Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal, knowing it would inconvenience and threaten the Western powers, giving him some leverage in future negotiations.

When the Egyptian Government announced its intention to nationalise the Suez Canal and take control away from Britain and France, there was great alarm in London and Paris, as well the recently formed Israel, which was in a tense relationship with Egypt and other countries of the region. For western countries, the added cost and uncertainty from having to travel around South Africa to reach India, Australia and the Far East, would have had a huge impact on costs, safety and time. It was also a humiliation that they no longer seemed able to pull the strings in Egypt, a sign which they thought might encourage similar acts of independence and confrontation in other countries and colonies. In what always seemed to be a desperate action, Britain and France, together with Israel, decided to invade Egypt and to take back control of the canal-zone. It was always a risky project but what made it more foolhardy was that they never consulted the USA. In the context of the Cold War, and with NATO being such a key organisation, to act in such a way was simply dangerous, especially if it went wrong – which it did.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ happened in late October-early November, 1956. The plan for the attack, codenamed ‘Operation Musketeer’, had been drawn up between the three Prime Ministers in a meeting at Sèvres near Paris: Guy Mollet of France, Anthony Eden of Britain and David Ben-Gurion of Israel. It is interesting to note that Eden had been Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary during appeasement in the 1930s and he was determined that such an approach should not be followed again. The plan set out was that Israel should attack Egypt on grounds that it was concerned about Egyptian forces being armed with Soviet weapons. In response to this, Britain and France would issue an ultimatum that both sides should stop fighting, believing that Egypt would then launch a counter-attack against Israel. This would give them the excuse of sending in troops to aid Israel as Egypt had ignored the warning. As it happened, Nasser started to withdraw Egypt’s forces in response to the ultimatum but Britain and France invaded anyway. The Egyptian air force was destroyed and Anglo-French forces made quick progress but could not reach the Suez Canal before the UN called for a ceasefire and an end to all actions.

Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

File:Guy Mollet Archief.PNG

Guy Mollet, the French Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

In a military sense, victory and control of the canal would have been easily achieved. But politically, the ‘Suez Crisis’ was a disaster for both Britain and France: Eisenhower in the USA was furious, their standing with the UN and in the Middle East was seriously weakened and, in the British Empire in particular, the colonies were concerned and disturbed by what they had seen. A UN Peacekeeping mission was sent into control the canal-zone and neither Britain nor France ever regained its influence. In Parliament, Eden basically lied and said that there was absolutely no planning or pre-meditation in what had happened, a direct denial of the meeting at Sèvres. That statement in the House of Commons was made in December, 1956, and was to be his last as Prime Minister. Eden resigned in January, 1957, largely as a result of stress and ill-health linked with those events.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was especially significant because it happened at exactly the same time as the ‘Hungarian Revolution’ of October-November, 1956, took place, an event which painted the USSR as a power-hungry state, imposing its will on other countries and using unacceptable violence to achieve its goals – exactly the same as the two western powers did. Suez made it impossible for the West to level criticism against the USSR for its intervention in Hungary. It was a disaster of both planning and public relations, indicating that neither Britain nor France was any longer able to act alone militarily and also raised great concerns in Washington about the relationship with its two main Cold War allies. It weakened the West’s ‘moral status’ in the world and caused many smaller countries to seek independence from the old Empires. Overall, the ‘Suez Crisis’ was a disaster and a real low-point in international affairs for both Britain and France. It also threw Israel into some chaos which would entrench positions against the Arab states which surrounded it. The USA would eventually step in to ensure Israeli security in the aftermath of the ‘Suez Crisis’, an action which has repercussions to this day.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was an easy military success but a disaster for both the British and French Governments, an example of the danger inherent in being driven by a memory of greatness and ignoring reality, no matter how unpleasant that might be. Like a punch-drunk ex-champion in boxing, Eden (and Mollet, of course) went into the ring once too often and suffered a humiliating defeat. The Establishment was shaken to its core by these events as a once mighty group, which prized its ability to discern, to manage and to act, as well as to win, had failed to read the rather obvious ‘signs of the times’. Suez was a stab to the heart that caused even the stiffest of upper lips to quiver.

Find out more
Books: ‘Suez’ by Keith Kyle; ‘Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War’ by Barry Turner