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To what extent was the military action undertaken by the British and French in the Suez Crisis 1956 really necessary?
This historical investigation seeks to evaluate and compare the factors influencing the relationships and discussions between France and Britain during the Suez Crisis and thereby provoked them to commit military force to the region. The mainbody will look at the differences and similarities in Britain’s and France’s intentions in the Middle East, the internal situation (mainly in Britain), Nasserï¿½s actions, public opinion in Western Europe as well as American and UN policies on the crisis. In order to carry out his investigation a variety of sources will be consulted primary and secondary, from which relevant information will be selected. Carltonï¿½s “Britain and the Suez Crisis” and Thomas “The Suez Affair” will be of particular use. The sources used reliability (date of publication, author etc) will be discussed. An analysis of the main arguments of the authors as well as an evaluation of different historical interpretations will be carried out.
B. Summary of evidence
When Britain and France cancelled the loans to the Egyptian president, Nasser’s hydropower project, the Aswan dam, Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company on the 26th of July 1956. Information given in the book “The Suez Affair” tells us that the company was largely owned by British and French shareholders.1
Britain and France saw the Nasserï¿½s nationalization as a violation of international law and feared that this could create a power of vacuum, which could be filled by the Soviets, who were their communist enemy in the Cold War. Along with this, the nationalization of the canal directly threatened British and French influences in the area, which was rich on oilsupplies and secured Britain’s way to India. In a letter to the US President in September 1958, the British Prime Minister Eden wrote:
“…We ought in the first instance to bring the maximum political pressure to bear on Egypt… (but) my colleagues and I are convinced that we must be ready, in the last resort, to use force to bring Nasser to his senses. ” 2
In “Mastering Modern World History” it is revealed that a secret Anglo-American plan called Omega suggested to overthrow Nasser by using political and economic pressure3. Despite of this plan, the issue of using military force in Egypt remained a burning issue among the British Conservatives. According to Carlton, the British Cabinet, appeared divided on the matter of “straight bash” on the Canal issue by early September.4 The public opinion was strongly pro-military actions and called Nasser a new Hitler.5 The French Minister Mollet, did not attempt to keep in good terms with any Arab, whom he felt distrust towards, and was to be a strong supporter of the decision to use military force. They believed that the money of the Algerian rebels, which they fought against, came from Cairo.
Both the French and the British associated Nasserï¿½s nationalization of the Canal with historical analogies, which was not going to be repeated: Hitlerï¿½s occupation of The Rhineland as well as his take over of Czechoslovakia. The US-president, Eisenhower, strongly expressed his hostility on the matter of forces being used in Egypt. According to Peter L. Hahn, Eisenhower viewed Nasser as a danger of Western threat but believed that force only would facilitate Soviet infiltration in the region.6 So the Americans proposed an association of canal users, the SCUA, when it was revealed that the British and French tried to seek approval in the UN, where their actions could be justified due to the Soviet veto. The British did accept the SCUA, but its impact on Nasser was destined to be negligible.
With the end of the SCUA Conference, French and British Ministers, engaged in negotiations with their Egyptian counterpart and agreed to the Six Principles7 (see Appendix). Although this seemed to suggest a peaceful settlement, French and British military preparations to invade Egypt continued. On 24 October the British and the French Foreign Ministers held a secret meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister who was determined to force Egypt to recognize the state of Israel. Five days after this meeting, Israeli forces invaded Egypt. When Egypt refused to withdraw from the Suez Canal, British and French bombed Egyptian airfields and landed troops at Port Said.
The British-French attack on Egypt was greeted with angry protests all over the world.
According to Keith Robbin, the UN unanimously condemned the Franco-British action on 2nd November8 At last, the UN proclaimed cease-fire on November 6 and British and French forces withdrew.
C. Evaluation of sources
“The Suez Affair” was published in 1966 (latest edition published in 1986), and was written by Hugh Thomas who resigned from the British Government after the Suez Crisis. Thomas stated purpose for this book is that “It is an interim Report.”9 in which he has used materials available and interviewed people, mainly British, involved in the Crisis. The value of this book is that it is a detailed and fascinating description of the British government’s handling of the Crisis, professionally narrated by Thomas who himself experienced the Suez Crisis has an insight in the internal situation in Britain during this period of time. However, this may also make the source biased as it is very much written from a British standpoint. This method has certain limitations as memories can alter and are not reliable.
David Carlton, who also has written a bibliography about Anthony Eden, published “Britain and the Suez Crisis” in 1988. The book is aimed at undergraduates; school students and other interested in post war British history. The purpose of the book is to inform people about the recent past, in order to prevent recent political indoctrination. Although it is acknowledged in the preface that there are problems of bias, subjectivity and perspectives in studying the past, the value of reading history “outweigh the drawbacks”10. Carltonï¿½s book is far more analytical than Thomasï¿½ and includes different historical interpretations of the Crisis, which is of usefulness when studying the crisis from a broader perspective. However, Carltonï¿½s book might be quite biased as it is very much written from a British perspective.
Although both Carltonï¿½s and Thomasï¿½s books are British, they present a different view of the Suez Crisis, probably due to the different date of publication of the sources first edition. Although Thomas rewrote some parts of the book in his latest edition, the most substantial parts of his book, are based on sources available when the condemnation of the military action after the crisis made the propaganda turn against the British and French. In Carlton case, he has made an extensive use of materials released in the 80s, which seem to be friendlier towards he British and the French. By taking both sources in account they tell us how the history of the Suez Crisis has been reshaped due to political controversy and propaganda.
If the Suez problem possibly could have been solved in a more diplomatic way, British and French prestige during the Cold War would doubtlessly have been more favorably after the crisis. According to the American journalist Donald Neff the Suez Crisis was a “hinge point in history” as it discredited France and Britain as participators in the Cold War: it strained the Anglo-American alliance, intensified Egyptian nationalism and increased Soviet influences in the region. Along with that, the attention was driven away from the Hungary uprising, for the Soviets advantage, as the shadow of Europe fell over the Suez.
Hugh Thomas presents a view in his book “The Suez Affair” that the French and the British initially were determined to use military force in Egypt. He suggests that they acted in an opportunistic way: Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Crisis gave them the opportunity to justify the use of military force. He suggests that the British and the French had strong intentions in the Middle East and to weld as many countries of the area as possible into an anticommunist defense pact. This can to some extent be true, as the Suez Crisis was an event in the Cold War, when the British and French democracies tried to, together with America, contain the expanding Communist bloc. However, other possible interpretations of the Crisis and the British and French intentions contradict this view.
The historian Lowe presents evidence of the Omega plan, which suggests that Britain intended to get rid of Nasser by more peaceful means. Other evidence also supports this view. For example Eden, as quoted in section B, wanted to use military power as only “a last resort.” As we can see from the evidence given, the Americans tried to pursue a more peaceful policy in Suez. The Six Principles, as well as the acceptance of the SCUA, showed signs that the British were approaching a peaceful settlement, on America’s initiative which, perhaps, could have saved them from an international defeat. However, one can argue that these diplomatic negotiations can be seen as prolonging the process in order to convince America to accept the use of military force. They were not real but merely a facade, which covered the militant intentions of Britain and France.
The more contemporary view suggests different circumstances drew Eden take the fatal decision to use military force. “Eden was faced with unprecedented pressures (…).” 11. According to Carlton, the conspiracy between France and Israel was not really in the hands of Eden. “Eden didn’t know with certainty that Israel would attack Egypt”.12 The role of France in the Suez Crisis must not be underestimated as she actually, in contrast to Britain, wanted to undermine Arab influences in the Middle East.
Hahn and Carlton suggests that France and Britain didn’t fully understand that the Americans were going to fear that military action would open Egypt and other Middle East states to Soviet influences, undermining the policy of containment. They didn’t calculate with the fact that the Americans were going to choose to, in the first place, pursue containment rather than endorse the ally’s action. One can argue that if the American standpoint had been clearer for the French and the British, perhaps the course wouldn’t have taken the militant direction that it took.
Whether the military action undertaken by the French and the British was really necessary is a mere question of speculation. It is difficult to make a valid judgement on the issue as different sources present different information, which is one of the major difficulties in studying contemporary history and finding its “truth”. Sources published not a very long time after the Crisis, such as Thomas first edition “The Suez Affair” indicate that the military action undertaken by the British and the French was inevitable: the countries were highly determined to use force against Egypt. More recent materials about the Suez Crisis, presented by historians such as Lowe and Carlton, suggest that Britain and France could have solved the Suez Crisis with more peaceful means. However, it is most likely that the British and French response to the nationalization of the Suez Canal will remain an issue of controversy among the historians for the nearest future.
F. List of sources
Robbins, Keith, The eclipse of Great power, Modern Britain 1870 – 1975, Longman, New Work, U.S, 1983
Eden, Anthony, Memoirs: Full Circle, Book three: Suez, Cassell & Company Ltd, London, 1960
Carlton, David, Britain and the Suez Crisis, Basil Backwell, Northern Ireland, 1968
Calhoun, Daniel F. , Hungary and Suez, 1956: An exploration of who makes history, University Press of America, United States of America, 1991
Thomas, Hugh, The Suez Affair, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson Limited, London, 1967
Hahn, Peter L., The United States, Great Britain and Egypt, 1945-1956 – Strategy and Diplomacy in the early Cold War, The University of North Carolina Press, United States of America, 1991
Bowne, Colin and Mooney, Peter J., Cold War to Dï¿½tente 1945-85, Second Edition, Heinemann Educational Books, printed by Richard Clay Ltd in Great Britain 198i
Calvacocoressi, Peter, World politics since 1945, sixth edition: The Arabs and Israel to the Suez War, Longman, New York, 1991
Cornwell, R.D, World History in the twentieth century, Longman, England, 1984
Lowe, Norman, Mastering Modern World History, Third Edition, Macmillian Master Series, Biddles Ltd, Britain, 1997
Gildea, Robert, France since 194, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
The Six Principles:
1. There should be free and open transit through the Canal without discrimination, overt or covert.
2. The sovereignty of Egypt should be respected.
3. The operation of the Canal should be insulated from the politics of any country.
4. The manner of fixing tolls and charges should be decided by agreements between Egypt and the users.
5. Unresolved disputes between the Suez Canal Company and Egypt should be settles by arbitration.
1 Hugh Thomas, The Suez Affair, page 39
2 Ibid., page 41
3 Norman Lowe, Mastering Modern World History, page 230
4 David Carlton, Britain and the Suez Crisis, page 50
5 Hugh Thomas, The Suez Affair, page 40
6 Peter L. Hahn, The United States, Great Britain, and Egypt, 1945-1956, page 211
7 David Carlton, Britain and the Suez Crisis, page 52
8 Keith Robbins, The Eclipse of a Great Power, page 195
9 Hugh Thomas, The Suez Affair, page 7
10 David Carlton, Britain and The Suez Crisis, General Editor’s Preface
11 David Carlton, Britain and the Suez Crisis, page 109
12 Ibid., page 63