The Suez Crisis of 1956 involved Britain, Egypt, US, France, Israel, and Jordan. At the center of this crisis and controversy was the Suez Canal design and built by Frenchman Ferdinand De Lesseps. His vision was to provide a waterway between the Mediterranean and Red Seas this preventing the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The legal rights to the canal and control of access was key to the
David’s book provides a great history of the Suez Canal from inception through modern day operations. The Engineer that designed the canal, Ferdinand De Lesseps, was a great man. Described as a career diplomat who started designing and building the Canal after he had retired. He leveraged his diplomatic skills numerous times to raise money internationally for the building of the Canal. The concept was to build the canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea so that trade routes that normally would have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, Southern Africa, could now traverse the canal for a small fee.
The Canal took 10 years to build, was over budget, and 120,000 Egyptian laborers died during the construction! Can you imagine the uproar if that many people died building a canal today? Regardless if the human tragedy, De Lesseps went on to become an international celebrity for leading the effort. Six years after the Canal was built the Israelis bought out the Egyptian share. Egypt was in turmoil. Britain sent an army to restore order and safeguard the canal mainly because 70% of the traffic was British. The canal was declared a neutral, international waterway even though it was mainly controlled by Britain and France. The Egyptian leader, Nasser, decided to take back the Canal by force.
The British PM decided to plan and intervention with British, French and Israeli troops. They left the US out of the conversation and this would later cause some problems for the relationship.
The Israelis struck first on October 29, 1956 sending tanks via a mechanized column into Egyptian territory. Two days later, British and French military forces joined them. Originally, forces from the three countries were set to strike at once, but the British and French troops were delayed.
Behind schedule but ultimately successful, the British and French troops landed at Port Said and Port Fuad and took control of the area around the Suez Canal. However, their hesitation had given the Soviet Union–also confronted with a growing crisis in Hungary–time to respond. The Soviets, eager to exploit Arab nationalism and gain a foothold in the Middle East, supplied arms from Czechoslovakia to the Egyptian government beginning in 1955, and eventually helped Egypt construct the Aswan Dam on the Nile River after the United States refused to support the project. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) railed against the invasion and threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Western Europe if the Israeli French-British force did not withdraw.
The response of President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration was measured. It warned the Soviets that reckless talk of nuclear conflict would only make matters worse, and cautioned Khrushchev to refrain from direct intervention in the conflict. However, Eisenhower (1890-1969) also issued stern warnings to the French, British and Israelis to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. Eisenhower was upset with the British for not keeping the United States informed about their intentions. The United States threatened all three nations with economic sanctions if they persisted in their attack. The threats did their work. The British and French forces withdrew by December; Israel finally bowed to U.S. pressure in March 1957, relinquishing control over the canal to Egypt.
Aftermath of The Suez Crisis
In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Britain and France found their influence as world powers weakened. The crisis made Nasser a powerful hero in the growing Arab and Egyptian nationalist movements. Israel, while it did not gain the right to use the canal, was once again granted rights to ship goods along the Straits of Tiran.
Ten years later, Egypt shut down the canal following the Six-Day War (June 1967). For almost a decade, the Suez Canal became the front line between the Israeli and Egyptian armies.
In 1975 as a gesture of peace, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat reopened the Suez Canal. Today, about 300 million tons of goods pass through the canal each year.
About the author. David Charlwood obtained a First-Class Honors Degree in history from Royal Holloway, University of London, and has worked as an international journalist and in publishing. His research has been published in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, he has written for BBC History Magazine and has been a contributing historian for BBC radio.
Book review by Christopher (Moon) Mullins