Eagle
American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

June 2003

Highlight map


 

Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook


The author has contributed a number of articles to this journal, above all on one aspect or another of life abroad in the Foreign Service. In the following commentary, he discusses the Suez Crisis of 1956 as seen from more than 3,000 miles away in South Asia.—Ed.

War Cries: Variations on the Suez Crisis

“There is a holy mistaken zeal in politics as well as in religion. By persuading others, we convince ourselves.” (From THE LETTERS OF JUNIUS - 1769-1771)

For a long time the aspect of the Suez conflict of 1956 that remained foremost in my mind was that the most crucial part of it coincided with my arrival in Vientiane, Laos, on November 7 of that year, for my first assignment with ICA (later AID). Further, it gave rise to some very heated nightly discussions in the barracks building in which I had a small room for two or three months, pending the time when more adequate living quarters for me and half a dozen other occupants became available. At that time the U. S. Operations Mission (USOM) in Vientiane had been in existence for barely two years and constituted in the eyes of most Americans working there an outpost of civilization, the remotest of all it seemed to me, who had never been any further away from the U. S. A. than France. Basic necessities such as electricity and clean running water were scarce, as was housing for families. I was single at that time, and having been a draftee in the U. S. Army for two years (1953-54), did not find barracks life totally unbearable.

Actually, what eventually became known as the Suez Crisis, which started as a quarrel between Israel and Egypt, had been a major international preoccupation throughout most of 1956. As a student at the University of California in Berkeley preparing for examinations leading to the acquisition of a master’s degree in French literature, I had paid little attention to it until June, when, degree in hand, I began my search for overseas employment. In July 1956 the recently elected president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced in Alexandria the nationalization of the Suez Canal. As everybody knows, the Canal was designed by Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps and finally, after a great deal of bickering between the French and the English, was inaugurated in 1869 by the beauteous Eugénie, empress of the French, whom Loretta Young fetchingly portrayed in a 1938 Hollywood movie not surprisingly entitled "SUEZ." Early in August 1956, Nasser, furious because of U. S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s withdrawal of the United States’ offer to build the billion-dollar Aswan Dam, declared that Egypt would nationalize the World Maritime Company of the Suez Canal and use the canal’s annual income to build the dam. Obviously things began at once to go from bad to worse as far as Great Britain and France were concerned. Determined not to give them clear justification for occupation of the Canal Zone, Nasser scrupulously refrained in August from interfering with canal traffic. To let it be known that he had some doubts, he conferred separately for a number of hours with the Soviet and U. S. ambassadors. TIME magazine reported that to show how unworried he was, he went to see a Jane Russell movie (perhaps "Hot Blood" or "The Revolt of Mamie Stover," both of which came out in 1956), and that a British Laborite had peevishly complained: "Nasser’s behaving like an Anglo-Saxon—we’re behaving like Arabs."

In September, a conference on the Suez Canal was held in London. Anger and a sense of futility prevailed as it began, but Secretary of State Dulles was present as moderator; so it ended with a sense of agreement greater than anybody was expecting and the presentation of a case so reasonable that Nasser could not bring himself to denounce it out of hand. Dulles’s plan was to let Egypt own the canal company but submit its operations to international control. Eighteen nations controlling ninety-five percent of Suez shipping supported this plan, while four—India, Ceylon (later Sri Lanka), Indonesia, and the Soviet Union—opposed it. The conference ended on a note of suspense. Throughout most of the month of September, Secretary Dulles remained at the forefront of international attention. As I recall, he was even the subject of a popular song which rose to hit parade heights in the United States. He drew up a "users’ plan" and succeeded in getting America, Great Britain, and France to stand together in approval of it. Nasser, however, reacted not altogether positively and ordered his ambassador in Washington to inform Dulles that the "users’ plan" meant war.

Thus by November, shortly after Dwight Eisenhower was reelected as the U. S. president and I arrived in Vientiane, Laos, the Suez War broke out on two fronts: Israel carried out a blitz across the Sinai peninsula and the British and French assaulted the Canal itself. In Cairo, radio broadcasting was no longer possible because the Israelis had bombarded the antennas. The Egyptians blocked the canal with sunken ships, showing that they had few illusions about their chances if they should decide to continue their resistance. Moreover, other Arab countries displayed little eagerness to join Egypt openly in waging a war.

Every evening in the small barracks building where I was lodged, echoes of the conflict in the faraway land of the pyramids resounded mightily for at least two hours before it was time to go have dinner at the mess hall next door. This establishment I called “Virgie’s Roadside Inn,” in honor of its manager, Virginia Harting, the USOM controller’s wife, herself capable, it seemed to me, of putting Nasser, the Israelis, the British, the French, and even Dulles to flight, if they did not beware. Usually at least three, and sometimes four or five barracks occupants, assembled in the room at the front of the building occupied by Robert Minges, who had an electric percolator, a few tumblers, chairs, and other luxuries. The topic of conversation turned forthwith to the Suez question. All of the participants except the host, Minges, talked at the top of their lungs as if they were preparing their voices for an Iowa hog callers’ contest, often interrupting each other in mid-sentence or shouting simultaneously. Not yet having acquired any of the gregariousness essential to life in overseas USOM communities, I never attended any of these daily arguing bees; however, short of inflicting deafness upon myself by piercing my eardrums, I could not help hearing them from my room located a short distance down the hall and equipped, like all the other rooms, with a window closed only by a mosquito screen. I could not understand much of the momentous statements being made, first, because I was not nearly so convinced as were most of the arguers that the Department of State could benefit greatly from their opinions and second, because loud, excited voices have always made me feel ill at ease and distraught. Thirdly, I couldn’t understand because when two or three people talk at the same time I cannot follow what any one of them is saying. I think that in this respect, even if in no other, I am relatively normal.

The noisiest two participants were Sam R. and Art Holloway, one of whom, usually Sam, often shouted adamantly to the other, "Will you let me finish what I’m saying!" When eventually I came to know both of them better, I realized that Art was conscientious and competent about his work. In other respects, he was just a resignedly cynical observer of human behavior. Sam, on the other hand, was fundamentally an ill-informed champion of farfetched causes, a self-appointed avenger of Lone Ranger zealousness although easily bribed, and a know-it-all unduly attentive to everything except his assignment at the mission—in other words, an inveterate troublemaker. I later worked with Art Holloway and Bob Minges at other posts. Minges, in fact, was the director of the USAID mission in Quito when I accepted an assignment there in June 1969 as program evaluation officer. Sam stole away unlamented from Vientiane in June 1958, at least four months before the end of his two-year tour of duty, and afterwards I never came across anybody who knew whatever became of him.

In those days long since gone by, when newspapers and magazines reached Laos sometimes weeks after they were issued, most of the daily international news was available only through shortwave radio broadcasts. Aside from the recent presidential elections in the United States, the main topic of conversation in Vientiane at the time of my arrival and for several weeks thereafter was the Suez Crisis. This was so not only in the small barracks building where I lived, but at any other gathering of Americans. Although primarily preoccupied by the demands of my recently undertaken assignment in the Public Safety Division and my determination to become quickly "acclimatized" in Vientiane’s stifling environment, I nevertheless heeded, usually without comment, the opinions which most of my colleagues felt impelled to air. My own sympathies in the matter lay with the British and the French—certainly not with the Egyptians—probably because I had been born and raised in an atmosphere in which admiration of the cultures of France and Great Britain were generally admired and deemed worthy of emulation.

It did not take me long to realize that I was, as often happened, a minority of one. Many changes had occurred in the mentality of my compatriots since May 8, 1945, and the end of the war in Europe. Their outlook was constantly evolving and veering away from all the paragons which I had learned to revere. The British and French, perhaps for ideological reasons, but most likely in the interest of wresting the Suez Canal from Egypt’s clutches, were backing Israel. France’s Guy Mollet and Britain’s Anthony Eden agreed that the military forces of their respective nations would reoccupy the Suez Canal jointly for the proclaimed purpose of protecting it from Israel’s planned attack. Israel, it seems, was deliberately keeping France and Great Britain abreast of its moves. The British and French found it expedient to put much of the blame for the big mess on America’s Dulles, who had precipitated Nasser’s anger by his abrupt decision to withdraw from the Aswan dam deal. Dulles also, after Nasser’s seizure of the canal company, had talked London and Paris out of taking strong measures, thus bestowing triumph upon Nasser. That the British and French should dare imply that any part of the whole jumble was Dulles’s fault generally produced outcries of protest and indignation among Americans, especially most of those who assembled late every afternoon near my room in the barracks building to inform each other vociferously of their latest thoughts on current issues.

The Soviet Union meanwhile was keeping a baleful eye on all of these goings-on in the Suez affair, opportunely making two-faced offers or ominous threats to various parties. At a meeting of the UN Security Council concerning the Israeli invasion of Egypt, the British delegate, Sir Pierson Dixon, said he trusted that "the great majority of my colleagues will agree that the action taken is in the interest of security and peace," and that he hoped that the U. S. delegate, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., would agree that nothing would be gained through consideration of the U. S. resolution asking Israel to withdraw immediately from Egypt. Lodge’s angry reaction was to add a stipulation to the U. S. resolution urging all UN members not to give any military, economic or financial assistance to Israel so long as it did not comply with this resolution. In the ensuing debate Soviet delegate Arkady Sobolev eagerly stated that the Soviet delegation was prepared to vote in favor of the U. S. draft resolution. When it was time to vote, the two historic U. S. allies, Great Britain and France, vetoed the U. S. proposal.

The usual order of things in the world seemed to have fallen apart. In the barracks confrontations fierce arguments took place concerning the true merits of the Soviets. I do not recall having heard anybody defend the point of view of the British and French.

When Dulles spoke on the subject, he sorrowfully referred to "a matter of great importance where the U. S. finds itself unable to agree with three nations with whom it has ties and two of whom constitute our oldest, most trusted and reliable allies." He proposed a resolution urging all parties then involved in hostilities to cease fire; sixty-four nations voted in favor of it, while six abstained. Only Australia and New Zealand joined Great Britain, France, and Israel in voting against the cease-fire.

Meanwhile, back in my barracks building. outrage towards all parties including the Russians rose to a hysterical pitch. In a seven-day military operation, Israel lay claim to practically all of the Sinai peninsula and the Anglo-French showed a determination to ignore the cease-fire and continue to try to achieve their goal of grabbing the canal zone. Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin thereupon threatened Britain and France with "rocket weapons" and other "modern and terrible means" of warfare. Although this was regarded as propaganda, Israeli intelligence reported that twenty-four MIG-17s manned by Soviets and accompanied by Soviet transports bearing technicians, radar, and ground equipment had landed in Syria, whose government included more communists than that of any other Arab state. The fever did not subside when news broadcasts revealed that President Eisenhower had sent a personal message to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion letting him know that unless he agreed to retreat from the Sinai peninsula, he could expect no U. S. assistance from in the event of a Soviet attack. At approximately the same time, the White House informed the British and French ambassadors in Israel that Washington "would not feel compelled to take action" in case the Soviets attacked their forces in Suez and Cyprus.

With all of the world’s major powers at odds with each other, it was neither President Eisenhower nor Dulles nor Ben-Gurion nor Nasser nor Anthony Eden nor Guy Mollet nor Nikolai Bulganin who managed to achieve the semblance of peace which eventually resulted in a détente: It was the United Nations in the person of Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. By the end of the week of November 18, 1956, he set up a UN staging area outside Naples and began to assemble there 6,000 soldiers from Denmark, Norway, Canada, Colombia, Finland, India, and Sweden to cross over to the Suez area. The United Nations had to race against the Soviets, who were hastily raising thousands of what they called volunteers to move into the Middle East as "peacemakers." Hammarskjold’s army seemed small indeed compared to the British and French invasion force of 50,000. He was concerned by the British and French vetoes of two cease-fire proposals, for he had always had closer intellectual and emotional ties with Britain and France than with any other group in the UN Organization. After a sleepless night and much meditation, he wrote out a statement in longhand; then a few hours later, still very tense, he stood before the UN Security Council and read it. Very diplomatically expressed, it was his offer to resign.

What followed was a rare manifestation of international unanimity. One after another, all members of the Security Council stood up and expressed their confidence in the secretary general. Even Nasser sent a personal cable from Cairo urging him to stay on the job. With such a unanimous vote of confidence, Hammarskjold promptly moved into action. In early December 1956, the British and French began to withdraw their forces from the Suez zone, and by the end of that month the Israelis had pulled slowly back from the Sinai. Efforts to clear the canal of obstacles began and Dulles urged that a channel in the Suez canal be opened as soon as possible to allow ships of less than 10,000 tons to go through. Saudi Arabia showed its willingness to resume diplomatic relations with Paris and London.

The UN peace-keeping force remained on duty in the Suez region until May 19, 1967, when the new secretary general, U Thant, withdrew it at Nasser’s request. Soon thereafter came a third Arab-Israeli war which lasted a week and ended in an even more one-sided Israeli victory.

But the Suez Crisis was over. In my barracks building in Vientiane, all of the shouting matches, never having in any case done anybody any good, gradually gave way to comparatively harmonious and convivial merrymaking for Christmas and the New Year. New topics for shouted arguments loomed.


Jack Nixon is retired from the U. S. Foreign Service after more than thirty years and resides in a small town in southwestern France. There he pursues several intellectual interests, including writing, and maintains an extensive garden.

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC
www.americandiplomacy.org