Suez is a ship canal joining the Mediterranean Sea (at Port Said) with the Red Sea (at the Gulf of Suez). It was built to provide a sea route from Europe to Asia that did not involve having to sail all the way round Africa. It was built by French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps between 1859 and 1869. It is unusual for a canal in that it has no locks, as the two sea levels are almost the same.
The British bought holding shares in the canal in 1875, and the entire Canal Zone was held as a British base from 1882 to 1955. Egypt nationalized the canal company in 1956, which started the Suez War and briefly closed the canal. It was closed again from 1967 to 1975 after the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars.
The Suez War involved British, French, Israeli and Egyptian armed forces, and came only eleven years after the end of the Second World War. After General Abdel Nasser, a forthright and not unaggressive Egyptian president had nationalized the canal (for reasons of his own) attempts were made to operate an international corporation to operate the canal. They failed; Britain and France entered into a secret military agreement with Israel, a new state constantly threatened by Nasser and other Middle Eastern leaders.
On 29 October, Israel launched a successful surprise attack into Sinai, and Britain and France issued an ultimatum demanding Israel and Egypt’s immediate withdrawal from the canal. This was just as quickly rejected by President Nasser. British and French fighter bombers attacked Egyptian bases, destroying them with inevitable loss of life, and troops landed at Port Said.
The United Nations Security Council had not been approached, as Prime Minister Anthony Eden had memorably remarked that if Britain and France were to await a decision from that body Nasser would have enough time to build a twin canal alongside the original.
It was at this point that the United States, using her eagle’s eye for any chance to finish off the remains of the British Empire and take its place, arranged for such international monetary pressure to be applied that Sterling itself was threatened. There was even belligerent talk of American force being used ‘if necessary’. The ‘special relationship’ seemed to be toppling into the brink. The US insisted on immediate withdrawal and the entry of UN (e.g. American-led) forces into Egypt and the Canal Zone. There was mounting criticism from outraged nations, but especially the usualBritish crowd of liberals, socialists, intellectuals and armchair philosophers. Inevitably, the Anglo-French forces were halted, humiliated, and withdrawn. They were soon evacuated.
US Secretary of State J.F. Dulles drew up the short-lived ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’, offering US economic and military aid to Middle Eastern governments ‘whose independence was threatened’. Israeli forces withdrew in March 1957 following an international agreement to install a United Nations Emergency Force in Sinai, and to open the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
Britain had suffered tragedy in the war years of 1940 – 45. It was not only the loss of its imperial power, or the ruin of its exchequer – both of which had been the specific (and documented) war aims of US President Roosevelt and US Treasury Secretary H. Morgentau Jnr. The tragedy was that it led to a socialist government determined to continue ruling in the same way it had done under the wartime coalition, that is, implicit control over everything, supported by the Law. Churchill was out – old, bitter and frequently drunk. Attlee was in – a cold bone of a man – convinced of his rightness, but more than capable of clearly explaining his belt-tightening policies. The people of Britain had never spoken so clearly. They dismissed the man who for many (at that time and since) ‘had won the war for them’. The election was in July 1945, and the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August. Just to make sure this stopped the war with Japan, they dropped another one on Nagasaki.
Clement Attlee wanted state control of supplies and food, fuel and production. He had had this control during the war. In the dreary, bleak post-war years, while countries (France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark and Germany itself) that had been occupied by the Nazis recovered their pride and prosperity, the socialists were perfectly happy with the first global consequence of the United States having entered the war on the side of the allies. That consequence was the dismantlement of the British Empire. Under considerable pressure ‘from over the pond’, Attlee lost no time in organizing the ‘liberation’ of India. In no time at all the other colonies in Africa and Asia would be ‘free’ too. Britain had been bankrupted by the Second War, which had happened only 21 years after the First War had ended.
Now in the light of what the Americans have been trying to do in the Middle East in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it must seem at least rather rather ironic that President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles would not support Eden’s policy. Looking at the Suez Crisis now, it seems that the Anglo-French decision (even if it were a little underhand) was in fact a masterpiece of what is called realpolitik.
The great ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, who had handled the invasion and occupation of Europe in 1944/45 so slowly that he had guaranteed the enslavement to Soviet tyranny of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, was presently engaged in what he termed ‘the war on Communism’. This is odd, because it had been his own military blunders that had empowered Soviet Russia. Ike had no wish to antagonise certain members of the Security Council, such as the oil-rich Saudis. If Britain were to be further bankrupted and humiliated it would not be a disaster for this President who had followed Roosevelt and Truman in planning the collapse of the vestigial remains of the Empire. From the ashes would arise the Phoenix of the Industrial/Military Complex. Everyone could pursue happiness.
The final irony was that the Suez War distracted the world’s attention from something far more serious: Soviet tanks crashed into Budapest, where Hungarians were making a first bid for freedom, and their revolution collapsed. Ike had said to the US troops in June 1944: ‘the eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you’. There was not a single military threat (or even a clever financial one) from the great enemy of communism.
When Britain announced its withdrawal from Suez (effectively its defeat) the American response was immediate. American oil companies shipped more than 200,000 barrels of oil to oil-starved Britain. The US Export-Import Bank announced a loan of $500 million on easy terms, and the IMF approved the idea of Britain withdrawing the sum of $561 million from it. Nothing could be more transparent: “if you Brits act alone and without permission from our President, we bust your ass! If you toe the line, however, we will make you solvent and really quite well”.
The process of dismantling the British Empire started when the Americans waited until 1917 before ‘coming to the aid of Europe against the Kaiser’. In fact they waited until Britain seemed bankrupt of men, supplies, food, fuel and spirit. The process continued quietly, but it was the Suez Crisis that gave them the biggest chance to do what Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower had all planned. It is a matter for debate whether recent American warlike actions in the Middle East are in the best traditions of being ‘the policeman’ of this small planet.
A man, a plan, a canal (Suez, 1956)
America’s Greatest Foreign policy Blunder ?
Edited by Christian Crossing-Taylor
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