9/25/12 - the egyptian suez canal crisis

In today's excerpt - in the light of headlines regarding the current Egyptian crisis, it is fascinating to note a very different Egyptian crisis -- one in which America surprised the world by standing against a coalition of Israel, Britain and France to support a belligerent Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser had helped end de facto British control of Egypt and later become president. America had offered to help finance his high-profile Aswan Dam project, but Nasser had been too coy in trying to preserve a neutral international posture and America withdrew the offer. Nasser then unexpectedly took over the Suez Canal, which had been built and was owned by the British and French:

"Nasser did not help his own case. With America's offer still on the table, he recognized China's Communist government, purchased weapons from Czechoslovakia, and fortified his military presence along the border with Israel. By July, when he decided to accept American support for the dam, he had exhausted Washington's patience, and the offer was effectively with­drawn. Nasser was furious. He publicly denounced the United States on July 24. Two days later, he seized the Suez Canal, announcing that Egypt would henceforth operate the canal and use revenue from it to help pay for the dam. He ordered canal employees to stay at work or face imprisonment.

"The Suez Canal Company was an international institution, but the gov­ernment of Britain and French investors were its principal owners, and trade through the canal was vital to the economic and security interests of both nations. Consequently, Nasser's action was guaranteed to infuri­ate leaders of both countries. Eisenhower tried to head off a confrontation that he believed would lead to profoundly uncertain consequences for the world. On July 31, he wrote to [British Prime Minister] Anthony Eden and urged calm in the face of provocation. Eisenhower had received word through an intermediary that Eden was already considering a military response, and Ike pleaded with his counterpart, whom he addressed as 'Anthony,' to refrain. Eisen­hower recommended convening an international conference to exert pres­sure on Egypt to insure continued, efficient operation of the canal, and he grimly warned against precipitous resort to force. 'For my part,' he wrote, 'I cannot over-emphasize the strength of my conviction that some such method must be attempted before action such as you contemplate should be undertaken.' The American people, Eisenhower warned, would balk at military action to resolve the crisis, as would those of other nations. The Western alliance would be sorely tested: 'I do not want to exaggerate, but I assure you that this could grow to such an intensity as to have the most far-reaching consequences.'

"Those were the prudent words of a wise military leader, but Eden ignored them. Although Britain, France, and other nations -- though not Egypt -- agreed to attend an August conference in London, Nasser rejected the conference's recommendation for an international oversight board to supervise the workings of the canal. [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles scrambled to negotiate a solu­tion but succeeded mainly in alienating his allies. Angry nations now hurtled toward the confrontation that Eisenhower most feared. Israel called up troops; Britain and France became suspiciously quiet. ...

"Then, with the world's attention focused on [the concurrent Soviet Union-Hungary crisis], Israel stunned that same world by pivoting away from Lebanon and attacking Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula. Overnight, Israeli forces penetrated seventy-five miles into Egypt and by daybreak were just twenty-five miles east of Suez. The day before, Eisenhower had urged the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to 'do nothing which would endanger the peace.' Now Israeli forces parachuted into position and out-maneuvered the Egyptians. Not believing that Britain was behind this assault, Eisenhower asked Britain's UN ambassador to consider UN action against Israel. 'We were astonished to find that he was completely unsym­pathetic,' Eisenhower wrote to Eden. In fact, Britain's ambassador was openly hostile, 'virtually snarling,' in [UN Ambassador Henry Cabot] Lodge's words.

"Even that brusque dismissal was not enough to jolt Ike into realizing Britain's complicity, though the actions of both Britain and France were tellingly suspicious. The two nations urged a cease-fire and suggested that Israeli and Egyptian forces back up ten miles each, leaving a safe zone around the canal. 'Anglo-French' forces would then fill in the gap and secure the peace -- while, coincidentally, wresting control of the canal from Nasser, as they had been attempting to do since July. The French-British communique was backed by a threat: if Israel and Egypt did not agree, the joint forces would attack Suez. Israel predictably agreed -- the proposed withdrawal still left its troops deep in Egyptian territory -- and Nasser just as swiftly refused. Ike urged Eden and Prime Minister Guy Mollet of France to reconsider what he described as 'drastic action,' advising instead that the nations pursue 'peaceful processes.' On October 31, without so much as a warning to Eisenhower, British bombers attacked airfields in Egypt. The United Nations convened in emergency session.

"Eisenhower was stunned and despondent: his most dependable allies, two nations whose destinies he had played a weighty role in shaping, double-crossed him. They had taken advantage of his preoccupations with Hungary and his reelection, then just a week away. Why the deception? ...

"Eisenhower's objective was the long-term preservation of democracy and American leadership; he calibrated his responses accordingly. To the amaze­ment of the Third World, Eisenhower stood solidly behind Egypt. He demanded that his wayward allies end hostilities around Suez and pressed his case with the United Nations despite British and French fury. The administration's armistice proposal, advanced by the still-ailing Dulles. was approved by a vote of 64-5 -- the no votes came from Britain, France, and Israel, as well as Australia and New Zealand. When the British and French -- as well as Israel -- still resisted leaving, Eisenhower applied eco­nomic pressure, denying his allies oil and refusing British access to capital during a run on the pound. Eventually, Eden succumbed; he left office in near-collapse, and Britain at last withdrew along with its allies in that misadventure."


Jim Newton


Eisenhower: The White House Years


Doubleday a division of Random House


Copyright 2011 by Jim Newton


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