(HOST) The current conflict in the Middle East has reminded commentator Peter Gilbert of another crisis, that helped define the role of the United States in the region – fifty years ago today.
(GILBERT) On July 26, 1956, President Nassar of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal Company, which was owned by British and French shareholders. Once the lifeline of empire, the Canal remained Europe’s critical oil lifeline: two-thirds of Europe’s oil passed through the Canal.
Nassar’s action precipitated what we know as the Suez Crisis. It stemmed in part from the American decision to renege on an offer to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam when Nassar began to cozy up to the Communist bloc; Nassar wanted to use the fees from the Canal to pay for the dam. In other words, the Cold War blew a hot wind across the Middle East.
In the months that followed Nassar’s actions, the US encouraged numerous efforts to reduce tensions, but all failed. Only years later would we learn that France, Britain, and Israel had secretly agreed to settle the issue by force, retaining European control of the canal, and, ideally, deposing Nassar.
Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai in late October, and soon occupied the Canal Zone. Following the secret plan, France and Britain offered to reoccupy the area and separate the Egyptian and Israeli armies. When Nassar refused, France and Britain had a pretext to invade. Although their operation was a military success, it was a diplomatic disaster. The Soviet Union threatened to intervene on Egypt’s side and even perhaps to attack Paris and London with nuclear weapons. President Eisenhower, who had vehemently opposed the invasion from the outset, warned the Soviets that if they went in, the U.S. would go in to resist them. The world teetered on the edge of nuclear catastrophe before the Soviets backed off and Ike, in a dramatic break with two NATO allies, forced Britain and France to accept a cease-fire.
Canada’s minister for external affairs, Lester Pearson, went to the UN and proposed the creation of a United Nations Emergency Force to keep the “peace while a political settlement [was] being worked out.” The UN embraced the idea, and UN peacekeepers were sent to the Sinai, improving the situation significantly. The concept of UN peacekeeping is, then, one of the longest-standing legacies of the crisis, one that earned Lester Pearson the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned, and the invading forces withdrew.
The Suez Crisis was widely viewed as marking the end of Britain and France as world powers; the days when the British Empire could unilaterally do as it wished around the world were over. On the other hand, not only did Nassar survive the crisis, his position was strengthened in the Arab world as a fiercely independent nationalist who had defied European empires and survived military invasion. His increased status helped promote pan-Arabism, and further aggravated the Arab-Israeli conflict. The crisis also made the US the major western power in the Middle East.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.