The Suez Crisis was a mass failing of diplomacy that would diminish Britain’s world standing and severely damage relationships with other nations for years to come.
Using a false pretext, Britain, France and Israel united to invade Egypt in order to wrest the Suez Canal from the grip of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the passionate new President of Egypt.
When the secret plot unravelled, it was a diplomatic catastrophe that launched the start of a new era of post colonial politics.
Here are ten facts about the crisis:
1. Gamal Abdel Nasser used a code word to seize the canal
On 26 July 1956, President Nasser gave a speech in Alexandria in which he spoke extensively about the canal – which had been open for nearly 90 years – and its creator, Ferdinand de Lesseps.
The Economist estimates that he said “de Lesseps” at least 13 times. “De Lesseps”, it turned out, was a codeword for the Egyptian army to start the seizure, and nationalisation of the canal.
2. Britain, France and Israel had separate reasons for wanting the end of Nasser
Both Britain and France were major shareholders in the Suez Canal Company, but France also believed that Nasser was assisting Algerian rebels fighting for independence.
Israel, on the other hand, was furious that Nasser would not allow ships through the canal, and his government was also sponsoring Fedayeen terrorist raids in Israel.
3. They colluded on a secret invasion
In October 1956, France, Israel and Britain agreed on the Protocol of Sèvres: Israel would invade, providing Britain and France with a fabricated casus belli of invading as supposed peacemakers.
They would occupy the canal, ostensibly to guarantee the free passage of shipping.
Prime Minister Anthony Eden ordered all evidence of the plot destroyed, and both he and his foreign minister, Selwyn Lloyd, told the House of Commons that “there was no prior agreement” with Israel. But the details were leaked, causing international outrage.
4. American President Dwight Eisenhower was furious
“I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things,” he said at the time. “I think that Britain and France have made a terrible mistake.”
Eisenhower wanted to be known as a “peace” president, and knew voters wouldn’t thank him for embroiling them in foreign affairs they had no direct link to. He was also motivated by an anti-imperialist attitude.
Intensifying his scepticism was a fear that any British and French bullying of Egypt might drive Arabs, Asians and Africans towards the communist camp.
5. Eisenhower effectively stopped the invasion
Eisenhower pressured the IMF to withhold emergency loans to the UK unless they called off the invasion.
Faced by imminent financial collapse, on 7 November Eden surrendered to American demands and stopped the invasion – with his troops stranded half way down the canal.
The French were livid, but agreed; their troops were under British command.
6. Russians voted with the Americans on a UN resolution about the Canal
On 2 November, an American resolution demanding a ceasefire was passed in the UN by a majority of 64 to 5, with the USSR agreeing with the US.
7. The crisis provoked the first armed UN peacekeeping mission
After a ceasefire was accepted by Britain and France on 7 November 1956, the UN dispatched a delegation to monitor the armistice and restore order.
8. This peacekeeping mission led to the group’s nickname, ‘the blue helmets’
The UN had wanted to send the taskforce in with blue berets, but they didn’t have enough time to assemble the uniforms. So instead they spray-painted the linings of their plastic helmets blue.
9. Anthony Eden went to Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate to recover
Soon after the ceasefire, Eden was ordered by his doctor to rest and so flew to Jamaica for three weeks to recover. Once there, he stayed at the James Bond writer’s beautiful estate.
He resigned on 10 January 1957, with a report from four doctors stating ‘his health will no longer enable him to sustain the heavy burdens inseparable from the office of Prime Minister’. Many believe that Eden’s reliance on Benzedrine was at least partially to blame for his skewed judgement.
10. It led to significant changes in global leadership
The Suez Canal crisis cost Anthony Eden his job, and, by showing the shortcomings of the Fourth Republic in France, hastened the arrival of Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic.
It also made America’s supremacy in world politics unambiguous, and so strengthened the resolve of many Europeans to create what became the European Union.