September 2016’s BBC History magazine marks some important historical anniversaries for Britain, such as the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Whilst these are both highly significant and highly colourful events in British history, they are not, in my view, more significant in context than the Suez Crisis of 1956. After all, the succession of the House of Wessex, usurped by both Harold II and William I, was restored by Matilda of Scotland and Henry I, and the Great Fire destroyed little over the square mile covered by the City of London today. The Luftwaffe did far more damage in this century. However, the Suez Crisis was not simply a major event in British history, but also in the history of the British Empire in the Middle East, as well as in Cold War European history.
The crisis began with a decision taken in the US by the US Secretary of State, Dulles. In July the Americans announced that they would not give financial assistance to the Egyptians for the construction of the Aswan Dam. Their relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the dictatorial ruler of Egypt, had always been ambivalent. Within a few days the British followed suit. For Nasser, the dam was a symbol of the re-building of Arab nationalism, and the withdrawal of western aid in this peremptory manner was a stinging personal rebuff. The British tried to claim, somewhat improbably, that their decision had been taken almost entirely on economic grounds; the immense political implications of the step do not seem to have been apparent to either the State Department or the Foreign Office. As one statesman commented in 1964, the decision was taken which was to plunge the world into a desperate crisis.
Nevertheless, this was the first of two key global events which defined the autumn of 1956. The Suez crisis saw Britain, France and Israel launch a politically disastrous assault on Egypt, which was both condemned by US President Dwight D Eisenhower and the cause of rising tensions with the Soviet Union. The subsequent and near simultaneous Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule, meanwhile, was brutally crushed. These episodes led to the escalation of the nuclear arms race in addition to lasting tensions in the Middle East.
Alex Von Tunzelmann, an Oxford graduate, has worked as a researcher, screenwriter and columnist for The Guardian and The New York Times, among other publications. She has also written books about the Cold War in the Caribbean (2011) and Reel History: The World According to the Movies (2015). Her book, Blood and Sand (details above) looks at the Suez crisis simultaneously with the Hungarian Uprising. When she began researching, she found that many people didn’t appreciate that, although tensions emerged first in Egypt, both ‘eruptions’ took place within the same fortnight in the autumn of 1956, and interacted with each other in a significant way. Together, these explosive events propelled the world as close as it got to nuclear war until the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The Suez crisis was the tipping point between the period of imperial rule, in which France and Britain had a major say in the world, and the rising superpower status of the United States and the USSR. It was these superpowers, not the empires, who were now running the show.
Tunzelmann argues that there really aren’t rational explanations for a lot of what happened in the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Uprising, but that both sets of events were driven by national emotions. For the French, it was about the revolt against their rule in Algeria, which, they had wrongly convinced themselves, was the surreptitious work of Nasser. Getting rid of him would calm the situation across North Africa. Britain wanted to overthrow Nasser and keep control of the Suez Canal because it was the main conduit for its global trade, especially in oil. The two nations considered different options to achieve their main aim, including assassination. The parallels with the 21st century conflict in Iraq are uncanny. They went into Suez having no real plan for what would happen if they did assassinate or topple Nasser, no idea of what type of government they would replace his rule with, and no exit strategy at all.
The Tripartite Aggression – Britain, France and Israel – was a secret plan which was so crazy that, afterwards, many of the British establishment refused to believe it had just happened, and were ‘in denial’ for a long time afterwards. Israel undertook to stage a raid on Egypt, due to tensions which already existed between the two countries. This would take them towards the Suez Canal so that Britain and France could then intervene as peacekeepers and occupy the canal for the benefit of the world. When Egypt refused to accept a ceasefire, the British and French troops would advance to Cairo and overthrow Nasser. It was a thinly disguised bluff, and how the ‘allies’ thought they would get away with it is beyond comprehension. Everyone quickly spotted the collusion, and the Soviet Union was convinced that the US was also involved. In the second part, we’ll consider the relationships between the events in Egypt and Hungary, and their outcomes in Cold War history.