Sixty Years after Suez

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Richard Toye
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History

Cross-posted from Politics Home

On 29 October 1956, Israeli forces launched an attack on Egypt. The following day Britain and France quickly issued an ultimatum to both sides to stop fighting. There was no compliance and, on 5 November, Anglo-French forces invaded Egypt in order to ‘separate the combatants’. The operation was a military success – and a catastrophic political failure.

For Britain and France’s actions had been based on a lie, and a pretty see-through one at that. The real motivation was to overthrow Egypt’s President Nasser, who just over three months earlier had nationalised the Suez Canal Company. In Paris and London, this was seen as a threat to Western Europe’s oil supply and to international order more generally. Initial efforts to get Nasser to ‘disgorge’ what he had seized, via diplomacy backed by coded threats, were unsuccessful.

Dwight Eisenhower, running for re-election to the White House on a platform of peace and prosperity, was not willing to back the use of force, and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was similarly cautious. Both men might have been willing to turn a blind eye to a spot of old-fashioned colonial atavism if the British and French had simply got on with it and launched an attack. Yet British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had a reputation to protect as an internationalist and a man of peace. To the frustration of his French allies, there was delay after delay as he looked for a pretext for action that would both allow him to destroy Nasser and to satisfy world opinion. Continue reading “Sixty Years after Suez”