American Diplomacy
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September 2006

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The author presents in considerable detail Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' reasoning for his last-minute refusal of U. S. funding for Egypt's Aswan High Dam fifty years ago. This development thereby set off an entirely unexpected series of events: nationalization of the Canal, a heightened Soviet presence in Egypt, a loss of U. S. prestige in the region, a British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, and the unlikely identity (generally speaking) of Washington and Moscow in opposing such intervention. Dulles provided a prime example of the workings of the law of unintended consequences.— Ed.

As the United States continues to struggle with what has become its first “tar baby” of the twenty-first century, the Middle East, it may be instructive to look back at a crisis that took place there precisely fifty years ago: the Suez crisis of 1956, and to measure our progress, or lack of it, in dealing with the area today. Though today's crisis is quite different, there are some striking similarities in both our attitude and approach to the inhabitants of this area then and now.

More than any other man alive at that time our Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had helped to bring on both the Hungarian and Suez crises of that year. He helped to foment the former by loudly proclaiming his policy of “liberation” for the countries of Eastern Europe and “rollback of the Iron Curtain.” He helped to precipitate the latter by his sudden reneging on the American pledge to provide funds, along with Britain and the World Bank, to build Nasser's Aswan Dam. Dulles felt little responsibility for the first crisis. The crisis over the Suez Canal, however, he felt was far more important and dangerous to world peace and thus he devoted most of his time and energy toward solving it. Britain and France were much more heavily involved then than they are today. In examining the origins and development of that crisis, however, this article concentrates on the U. S. role, which boils down largely to that of John Foster Dulles.

From the beginning of the Eisenhower administration in early 1953, Dulles had sought to restore a greater measure of evenhandedness in American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he felt Truman had tilted too much toward Israel. Dulles, a devout Christian, harbored a secret desire to be the man who brought peace to the Holy Land. Like most Americans, he was not about to accept the fact that the conflict was too deep for evenhanded compromise.

Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser had come to power not long after the abdication of the British puppet ruler, King Farouk, in 1952. Britain had concluded an agreement with the newly independent Egypt on July 24, 1954, that allowed for the gradual withdrawal of British troops from its base at Suez, ending in the summer of 1956, by which time the last vestige of colonialism would be dismantled.

Both the Baghdad Pact, which Nasser feared and detested, and an unexpected Israeli raid made the Colonel feel particularly vulnerable. Egypt needed more arms to protect itself. Reluctant to turn to his previous overlords, he called in U. S. Ambassador Henry Byroade on March 10 and presented him with a list of arms he felt he required and hoped to buy from the U. S. When Eisenhower saw the list he called it “peanuts.” But no prompt action was taken. There was Zionist opposition in the U. S. Congress, as well as reluctance to displease the British. And there was also Dulles' well-known prejudice against rewarding neutralists. In Dulles' lexicon “neutralism” was not a viable political status; he regarded it as a morally untenable position. There was something suspect, unstable, dishonest, and even sinful about neutrality. The request was treated routinely and put into the bureaucratic maw.1

Nevertheless, in early May, Ambassador Byroade was able to tell Nasser that his request had been approved, though due to Dulles' dim view of the Egyptian economy, it was to be “cash on the barrel” payment and not barter goods. Dulles had guessed correctly, for Nasser replied that the price of $27 million would put too great a stress on Egypt's foreign exchange reserves. With some reluctance Nasser now turned to the Soviets on May 18th.

The Soviets soon assured Nasser that they would be willing to sell him arms on a barter basis, and Nasser, in turn, went to Ambassador Byroade on June 9th and told him that he had “tentative agreements” with the Soviets, but that he would much prefer to buy his arms from the United States.2 As proof of this he submitted a much pared-down list amounting to less that ten million dollars worth of armaments for which he would pay cash. On June 19, Nasser again told Byroade that he was still hoping to buy arms from the United States and had postponed his military mission to Moscow in hopes of being able to do so. He preferred not to have to go through with investigating the Soviet offer.3 Dulles felt Nasser was just trying to blackmail Washington into better terms; he knew enough, he thought, about the state of the Soviet economy to realize that the Soviet offer was just so much hot air. Even when U. S. intelligence came up with specifics of the Soviet offer, which ranged from ninety to 200 million dollars worth of arms, Dulles refused to believe the evidence.

Meanwhile, Israeli attacks and Egyptian counter-attacks grew more frequent and bloody over the summer, bringing more and more Soviet “salesmen' to Egypt. On August 26, Dulles gave a major speech offering to overcome what he saw as the three main obstacles to peace:

1. The tragic plight of 900,000 Arab refugees,
2. The “pall of fear” of Israeli expansion and eventual Arab retaliation, and
3. The lack of fixed, permanent boundaries.

This last was anathema to Ben-Gurion and he promptly rejected any thought of territorial compromise. The Arabs greeted Dulles' offer with silence.4

Nasser had a dream: to build a high dam south of Aswan on the Nile, which, it was hoped, would end forever Egypt's grinding poverty. It was a mammoth project and the keystone of his popularity. By the energy generated by that dam and the irrigation that it would make possible, Egypt, he said, would be reborn and recapture the greatness of its ancient past. But it would take time and a lot of money, which the nation lacked. As the then chancellor of the British Exchequer, Harold MacMillan, later wrote in his memoirs: “Eden and I agreed with Dulles to help Egypt in the ambitious scheme.”5 This involved not just money from Britain and America, but loans from the World Bank, as well as surveys, which the Bank had begin in 1954.

Now in early September 1955, West German, British, and French companies formed and announced a consortium to bid for the construction contract of the High Dam.6

In the United States it took his brother, Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, to convince Foster Dulles that the Soviets were entirely serious about selling arms to Egypt. The Department of State, much to its dismay, now discovered that Nasser's request of June 30th had never even been acknowledged. “Oh well,” said Dulles, “it doesn't really matter since his offer was surely a bluff—the Soviets just don't have that kind of surplus to sell or give away.”7

Nevertheless, Kermit Roosevelt, a high-ranking CIA official who knew and was liked by Nasser, was dispatched to try to persuade Nasser not to go through with the Soviet deal. He was too late.

On the 27th of September 1955, the announcement was made in Cairo. The size and terms of the deal were breathtaking: 200 MiG-15 fighter planes, fifty Ilyshin bombers, sixty half tracks equipped with 122 mm cannons, 275 T-34 tanks. Not until the following January did Israeli intelligence discover that the actual numbers were far larger.8

Dulles, through his contemptuous attitude toward the upstart “neutral” Nasser, and his conviction that the Soviet economy could not possibly produce what Nasser needed, had, as Townsend Hoopes was later to write, “brought the Soviet Union into the Middle East—a move that destroyed, at one stroke, the main objective of Dulles' Middle East policy and the principal reason he had labored to establish the 'northern tier' barrier. The penetration, moreover, was clothed in irony, for it had been achieved not through dramatic aggression or subversion, but on the invitation of a local government and through a conventional instrumentality (a military assistance program) with respect to which the West had assumed it enjoyed a monopoly position.”9

Russia's penetration into the Middle East led the French to increase immediately their arms shipments to Israel, where the warlike faction, previously forced out, was thus able to recapture the premiership from Moshe Sharett in November. Thereupon Ben-Gurion began his plans for invading the Sinai and seizing the strongpoint at the Strait of Tiran so that Israeli shipping need not go through the Suez Canal.

Three days before Nasser's announcement of the deal, President Eisenhower had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. With American foreign policy on hold for the next two months it was actually the Russians who first made a formal offer to build Nasser's dam. Nasser politely turned the offer aside, saying he was already dealing with the World Bank and a western consortium, so could not consider it. Indeed, Nasser had realized, when he began his plans for the Aswan High Dam, that his entire economy would be tied up for years with whoever provided the money. He much preferred the World Bank and a variety of western sources to putting his economy at the mercy of Soviet Russia. The Egyptian ambassador in Washington, Ahmed Hussein, as pro-American as any foreigner could be, called on Dulles on October 17 to assure him that Egypt much preferred U. S. aid in building the dam to Russia's, despite the latter's easier terms. Three days later the Department of State let it be known that the U. S. was ready to help with the high dam.10

The Western offer was announced in Washington on December 16, 1955. The United States was to contribute $56 million and the British $14 million for a total of $70 for the first stage. The World Bank's share was to be a loan of $200 million, but this was predicated on the Anglo-American grant being raised to match it in later stages. The total western grants thus came to $400 million, against which the Egyptians themselves would be paying more than double this amount. There were certain conditions, both from the World Bank and from the two allies, attached to these loans which were normal in western banking practices but which Nasser, unused to such matters, felt to be invasive and humiliating to Egypt. Thus negotiations continued.11

Already at the end of August, the World Bank had made a preliminary report to Nasser that the project was not only technically sound but also economically sound from the viewpoint of the Egyptian economy. The only effect of the arms deal with Russia, said Eugene Black, American president of the World Bank, “was that it made it easier to get America and Britain to go along. The possibility that the [arms] deal would affect Egypt's economic capacity to sustain the project was proved not to exist.”12

Dulles had been further alienated by Nasser when the latter had recognized Communist China—the most devilish of all Communist countries in Dulles's eyes— with which Nasser had had friendly dealings during the Bandung Conference. Egypt was the first Arab country to recognize Communist China, and it was done not to tweak the noses of the western powers, but hastily, out of fear over something Khrushchev had carelessly said indicating the Soviets might pull back from their arms deal.

The British were as upset as the Americans over what they felt to be Nasser's “flirtation with communism,” and they kept up a flow of what they felt to be helpful suggestions by diplomatic means and private conversations with American officials. As MacMillan put it in his memoirs, “the American response, though friendly, was hesitating. It reflected the strange uncertainty of Dulles's own character and the light rein with which the President chose to ride him. Between the obscurity of the State Department and the shy reticence of the White House, no firm policy evolved. Our proposals were not rejected; they were lost in a vast ocean of prolonged but unfruitful discussions. Eden, baffled by Dulles, was induced to address personal appeals to President Eisenhower. But this tactic … was …neither welcome nor successful.”13

There was another reason for Dulles's coolness toward the British. Direct dealings with the Communist powers, particularly any dealings that smacked of normal behavior, were repugnant to him. And here were the British about to welcome to their country in April, as though the Cold War scarcely existed, Khrushchev and Bulganin, the two top enemy leaders.

Nasser let it be known in January that the Western terms amounted to a demand for “the control of the Egyptian economy.” In point of fact they were not so drastic; for example: a pledge that the Egyptians give the dam priority over other projects, that contracts be awarded on a competitive basis and that aid from communist sources would not be accepted without approval from the World Bank.14

But Nasser saw the maze of interlocking clauses binding the Western offers together as dangerous and the World Bank's stipulations — which would only come into play in the most extreme circumstances —as prejudicial to Egypt's sovereignty and dignity.

Nevertheless, by the end of the spring, Nasser was to swallow his pride and accept all of these terms, so anxious was he to consummate the deal with the Anglo-American team and the World Bank,

But Eden began to see Nasser as today's Mussolini, with Soviet Russia playing the part of Nazi Germany. And he began to feel it was his destiny to stop Nasser before he and his Soviet backers took over the whole Arab world.

Eden decided to associate himself with the French position in Algeria, reverse his feelings about backing the Aswan High Dam and begin to talk with the British military chiefs on what he felt was going to have to be a military confrontation with Nasser.15

Eden's ill health at this time added to the political pressure he was under. The combination of attacks on his political manhood and his physical condition brought him to a state of controlled frenzy.

Dulles, meanwhile, recoiled from Nasser's declared “neutrality,” feeling it was hardly “neutral” of Egypt to be buying arms from only one side, even though Nasser had tried his best to purchase arms from America. And Dulles felt Nasser's use of “neutrality” was equivalent to “blackmail.” Neutralism in the West's sphere of influence (i.e. the free world), he told an audience in Iowa on June 9th, “is an immoral and shortsighted conception.”16

Ex-New York Times correspondent in the Middle East, Kennett Love, states in his book, Suez, the Twice Fought War.

“Washington began to treat Nasser's need for the dam as it had treated his need for arms, leaving his messages unanswered and its own promises unhonored. Nasser agreed to give the West the economic guarantees it demanded, but he wanted to be able to deny to critics at home that they would subject Egypt to the humiliation of foreign controls. It was mainly a question of wording.”17

About the only Americans who were still enthusiastic were American Ambassador Henry Byroade and Eugene Black, president of the World Bank. Black had told the BBC earlier in the year that the dam was “the largest single structure ever undertaken in the history of the world” and that the World Bank was “very happy to have the opportunity of participating in such a dramatic undertaking.” No one in the West knew Egypt's economy and economic potential better than Black. He had been shuttling back and forth from Washington to Cairo for two years. In his last trip he told Nasser on June 21st that the World Bank loan awaited only the implementation of the Anglo-American offer. When he returned to Washington he made a point of seeking out Dulles and Under Secretaries Murphy and Hoover to tell them there had been no deterioration of Egypt's ability to sustain its part of the project as a result of the Soviet arms deal. Dulles said, “I just wonder if this isn't too much for the Egyptian government to undertake.” Black assured him that it wasn't and proceeded to cite statistics refuting, he thought, their doubts about the Egyptian economy. It was as though Dulles had turned off his hearing aid. “I just don't know,” he said as he paced back and forth, “whether we should go through with this or not.” Black acknowledged that the project was difficult and large. As a banker he might be relieved of a lot of work if it were called off. But as an American, who realized that the Aswan High Dam was a supremely important project for the Egyptian people and that Nasser had staked his political fortune on it, he was afraid “all hell might break loose” if the American offer were terminated. Dulles, at this point, gave Black a sidewise glance and without another word left the room, thus ending the meeting.18

Dulles had no handle on Black, but Byroade was in a position to make trouble for him, so as early as February he told Byroade to be prepared for a new assignment. That new assignment, Ambassador to South Africa, removed him from Cairo just four days before Dulles pulled the plug on the Aswan venture.

But there was much to occur before the great decision was made. In early July, Dulles heard from Byroade that Nasser now fully accepted all of the Anglo-American stipulations and was sending his ambassador back to Washington to conclude the Aswan deal. This, for Dulles, was unwelcome news. He had hoped that Nasser was sufficiently put off by the Anglo-American requirements to drop the matter and simply choose Moscow's offer, which he was still convinced was bogus. It tended to create an unwanted deadline for a decision. But to Dulles's mind, this still did not alter the basic situation, and it did offer a dramatic opportunity to demonstrate America's staunch opposition to “immoral blackmail.”

When Dulles told British Ambassador Makin he was “dubious” about the loan, but would be seeing the Egyptian ambassador on July 19th, Makin advised that he should consider his decision with the utmost care. Follow-up cables from Eden in London urged Dulles to “play it long,” that is, equivocate and delay to avoid any flat or abrupt rejection.

Partially in response to this advice, Dulles had Robert Bowie of the State Department draft a gentle rejection statement that would minimize the sense of offense to the Egyptian government. The tone turned out to be conciliatory, yet it contained the comment, reflecting Dulles's view, that Egypt's credit standing and economic capacity were dubious, which could only be seen by Cairo as a gratuitous slur. The French ambassador, Couve de Murville, had already warned the Department that “to deny the loan [at this stage] is a very dangerous action.”19

Late in the morning of July 19th, Dulles received Egyptian Ambassador Ahmed Hussein in his office on the top floor of the State Department. He began to explain in a kindly manner all the difficulties he was encountering in Congress. The two of them were not alone, Hussein had brought an Egyptian colleague and Dulles had Under Secretary Hoover and Assistant Secretary Allen in attendance. Dulles sat in an armchair, his long legs stretched out under a table, while Hussein sat nervously on the edge of a divan. Hussein could not hide his pro-American sentiments. To be able to conclude such an all-important matter for his country with the nation he most admired was the acme of his career. He could not hold back his enthusiasm on this occasion. How important it was, he said, that Egypt sign with the United States and not have to risk the consequences of signing with Russia, etc. Dulles nodded in agreement. Then Dulles began to speak in his pedantic, ponderous style. He began to marshal the arguments in support of his sad conclusion that it was not possible at this time for the United States to participate in the Aswan dam project. Long before he had come anywhere near his conclusion Hussein began to get the drift. He became agitated and finally interrupted Dulles with an explosive cry: “Please don't say you are going to withdraw the offer! Because, you see, we have the Russian offer to finance the dam right here.” And as he said “here,” he patted his pocket, meaning “we have it virtually completed,” not that it was physically in his pocket. Not recognizing this as a desperate plea to reconsider, but taking it for impudent bravado, an irritated Dulles, who always hated to be maneuvered, retorted: “Well, then, as you already have the money, you have no need of our support. The offer is withdrawn.”20 For Hussein it was as abrupt as a punch in the stomach, and as humiliating as spit in his face. The meeting, expected to last at least an hour and a half, was over in fifty minutes.21

Doubtless, this was not the way Dulles had planned it. He had reacted emotionally. But had he not been determined to renege on the offer from the start, no matter how he sugarcoated he made the renege sound, he would never had said what he did.

Dulles had a luncheon engagement with the publisher Henry R. Luce and C.D. Jackson, one of Luce's lieutenants who had earlier been Eisenhower's advisor on psychological warfare before returning to the TIME Inc. fold. Jackson recalls the “Sekatary of State,” as Dulles called himself, being exhilarated as he recounted how he told Hussein that Nasser could “go to Moscow” for his money. But he also got the impression that Nasser was not the real target of his action, but that Dulles had hurled his spear at the Soviet Union in an effort to meet Russia's “economic counteroffensive …there and then.” Moreover, Dulles seemed little concerned with Egypt's reaction.22

William Macomber, one of Dulles' special assistants, recalls sitting in an outer office sorting through cables and memoranda at 7:30 p.m. at the end of that day. Suddenly he glanced up and there was Dulles sitting directly in front of him, hat on his head and briefcase in hand.. Macomber jumped to his feet, but Dulles waved him back down again and the following conversation ensued:

Dulles: Well, this has been quite a day.
Macomber: Yes, sir.
Dulles: Well, I certainly hope we did the right thing.
Macomber: Yes, sir, I hope so.
Dulles: I certainly hope we did the right thing.

Dulles then got up and walked out to the elevator. He had never before stopped at Macomber's desk, and he never did again.23

Nasser received the news by radio while flying back to Cairo from Brioni where he had been meeting with Tito and Nehru. “This is not a withdrawal,” he told his foreign minister, “It is an attack on the Egyptian government and an invitation to the people of Egypt to bring it down.”24

The official explanation given in the State Department press release was that because of “developments” in the intervening seven months, “the ability of Egypt to devote adequate resources to assure the project's success has become more uncertain than at the time the offer was made.” “A transparent cover story” was the reaction of most people in Washington. Eugene Black's reaction to this statement was that it was both cruel and mendacious.

“Imagine going to the Chase Bank and asking to borrow $10,000,,“ he exclaimed, “and then reading in the newspapers that you were turned down on the grounds that your credit was not good.”25

The explanation of “developments” referred to in the press release which caused Dulles to renege on the deal were given out subsequently by the State Department. Chief among them was that the Russian arms deals “mortgaged” Egypt's cotton stockpile, making it impossible for Egypt to fulfill her part of the dam's financing. Black responded tartly that this excuse for the renege was not good enough because the World Bank found the Egyptian economy quite capable of paying for both the arms purchases and its massive obligation to the Aswan High Dam. There were other excuses, such as Egypt's recognition of China. Dulles himself, at a luncheon meeting of Latin American ambassadors on August 7th, gave this explanation: “…We would not go ahead with the Aswan Dam project because we felt that, in effect, the Egyptian Government was trying to blackmail us … and we are not willing to be blackmailed.” (Far from blackmailing the West to accept his terms, Nasser had accepted all of the Western terms at some personal risk to himself.) And then it was said the renege came as retaliation for the arms deals with Russia. But as Senator Fulbright observed in the Senate's investigation of the Suez crisis some months later, “the arms deal was the principal reason for the offer [on the dam] being made. So to argue that the arms deal was both the reason for making the offer and the reason for withdrawing the offer is wholly illogical.”26

C.D. Jackson had spotted the real reason on the very day the renege was made. The real target was the Soviet Union. Dulles was convinced that a system as evil as Soviet Communism could not possibly compete with the great citadel of American capitalism, that the Russian offer was pure bombast; they were overreaching themselves. By calling the Russians' bluff and letting Russian backwardness join with Egyptian incompetence he would be striking two important blows. He would be exposing the USSR's weakness — their backward economy —and he would be sending a message to all of the other third world would-be neutrals, that linking up with Russia was a fatal mistake, their place should be in the free world with the United States.27

Exactly one week after Dulles' renege on the Aswan Dam project, Nasser acted by “nationalizing” the Suez Canal. He said he was forced to do it because, with the withdrawal of the Anglo-American offer, which had automatically cancelled the World Bank's portion, he now had to find money from another source if work on the dam was to go ahead. He promised to pay off all the shareholders of the Suez Canal Company and urged all of the present employees to stay in place; their jobs were secure and they had nothing to fear. Only now the future profits of the canal's operations would go toward building the dam.

To Nasser and his fellow Egyptians it was a perfectly natural thing to do. By international treaty the canal, in any case, was due to revert to Egypt in twelve more years. Nasser was simply moving up the timetable. But to the French who had built the canal and the British, for whom it was a lifeline and whose ships constituted seventy percent of its traffic, it was an outrageous seizure of … “international” private property. Nasser had already prevented Israeli ships from using the canal. Now he had a stranglehold on Britain's and much of Europe's lifeline. The situation was wholly unacceptable. Public threats and clandestine plans to seize it back were immediately set in motion. The day after Nasser's announcement, Israel, which now had a special military alliance with France, requested a big increase in French arms shipments. Massive arms shipments were approved by the French on August 7th.28

In Washington a storm of criticism broke loose and Dulles had to hunker down under his homburg. The Egyptian reaction to his decision came as a complete surprise to him and for a time he seemed utterly bewildered. He had a pretty tough hide and had already been skewered by a number of Herblock cartoons in the Washington Post, but now the criticism came from every quarter. Worst of all it came from his boss, President Eisenhower. It was a long time coming. Eisenhower never called him in on the carpet, but as the storm of criticism continued to rise, Eisenhower began to see that “we might have been undiplomatic in the way the cancellation was handled. A short time after the cancellation I said as much to Foster.” We do not know what “Foster” verbally replied, but this is what he later wrote:

“Dear Mr. President:
You asked whether our withdrawal from the Aswan Damn project could properly be deemed 'abrupt.'
I think not, at least so far as Egypt was concerned….
“If I had not announced our withdrawal when I did, the Congress would certainly have imposed it on us, almost unanimously. As it was, we retained some flexibility.
“Of course Egypt, in its flirtations with the Soviet Union, had itself consciously jeopardized our sharing in this project, and they had tried to bluff us by pretending to [accept] Soviet 'offers.'
“The outcome was not in fact anything in the nature of a 'shock' or 'surprise' to the Egyptians.
Faithfully yours,
John Foster Dulles”

The thesis that Egypt (read Nasser) “consciously jeopardized” the deal so that Nasser would have an excuse to seize the canal now became Dulles' favorite explanation. Dulles remained extremely sensitive to doubts he suspected Eisenhower still harbored about his mishandling the Aswan Dam issue. His “Nasser-made-me-do-it” argument apparently annoyed Eisenhower and a full year later a critical comment he made to Dulles evoked yet another written explanation.

“Dear Mr. President:
“…President Nasser has since said that he planned for nearly two years to seize the Suez Canal Company, but was waiting for a good occasion. He knew that if he pressed for a decision from us when he did the result would be negative because the Congressional action had been announced. Nevertheless he pressed for a definitive answer, and I suspect he did so in order to create the 'occasion' for which he said he was looking….”
Faithfully yours,
John Foster Dulles”

To argue that Nasser gave up the dam in order to seize the canal has it quite backward. The dam was the thing that mattered most to Nasser; seizing the canal was merely a means toward the end of building it.

Having first accomplished what he had been feverishly trying to prevent, bringing the Russians into the Middle East where they had never been before, and now jeopardizing his European allies by personally precipitating the seizure of the Suez Canal, Dulles felt it was time to make amends by doing his utmost to salvage the situation. He was particularly upset by all the talk of retaking the canal by force.

On August 1st he arrived in London for urgent talks with Eden and his Defense Minister Anthony Nutting. At first Eden, who really could not stand Dulles, was pleased with what Dulles had to say. Having the canal dominated by a single country and not under international control was intolerable; to avoid complications with the Panama Canal, the 1888 Constantinople Convention (establishing the Suez Canal Company) should be the basis for discussion; force should be the very last method tried, but should not to be ruled out; world opinion in favor of internationalization should be mobilized, and the tripartite (England, France and the U. S. ) views should dominate the coming international conference which was to occur in London.

Britain and France wanted the international conference to convene immediately. Dulles, thinking as a lawyer preparing a brief, preferred several weeks of preparation. His view prevailed.31

Invitations were sent to the eight signatories of the Constantinople Convention, Russia included. In addition Dulles agreed to sending sixteen invitations to the sixteen principal users of the canal.

The Egyptian government declined to attend. The Russians, while willing to come, wanted it postponed, held in Cairo not London, and wanted twenty more countries included. They also pointed out that since the United States was not a signatory to the Constantinople Convention, they had no business acting as one of the inviting nations.

Russia's objections and suggestions were ignored, but the Russian delegation came in any case, just to make trouble and act as observers for Egypt.

The conference got underway on August 15th and Dulles was very active behind the scenes, advising and helping to shape a document to be presented to Nasser which would, in effect, re-internationalize the canal. Prime Minister Robert Menzies of Australia was selected to head a small delegation to take the declaration to Cairo for talks with Nasser.

All the while, the French and British were mobilizing reserves and preparing for military action to take back the canal, should all other options fail. The French, in fact, who had ceased to report on their shipments to Israel as they were supposed to do under the tripartite agreement, had secretly asked the Israelis if they were willing to go to war against Egypt with them. On receiving an enthusiastic affirmative reply, the French then began to plot with Israel a joint attack. They had long been convinced that Nasser with his secret arms shipments to Algerian rebels was the root cause of all of their troubles, and they were determined to get rid of him.32

The pretext for recovering the canal by force faded quickly in the days immediately following Nasser's announcement. The world soon saw that no one had suffered any material damage through the change in management and the only thing which had been violated were feelings in Britain, France and the U. S. , which many, even outside the Arab world, rather relished.

So a pretext for military action had to be found. While the London meeting was in progress and even during the Menzies mission to Cairo, the British, French and Israelis plotted to have the pilots working the canal join in a walkout, on the pretext that they were being denied their right to repatriation. The resulting confusion and bottlenecks in the canal would then be a pretext for a “police action” by the three colluding countries.

Eden, for whom this plot was a godsend, nonetheless had a more difficult dilemma, for Britain had always been a champion of the Arab world, while the other two nations were traditionally anti-Arab. And it was even more complicated for him, for he not only had to fool the Arabs about his purpose in acting against Nasser, he had to fool Washington and half of his compatriots, at least until they were confronted with his victory over Nasser as a fait accompli.

When the Menzies mission to Cairo failed, the colluders felt they were that much closer to their concerted use of force. Dulles, however, now came up with an ingenious scheme for getting the canal back to international ownership without having to resort to force: a Suez Canal Users' Association, or SCUA, as it came to be known. Members of this new organization, instead of paying dues and fees to the old Canal Company, would pay them to the new Association. It would take some time, for a majority of countries would have to become members before it would begin to work, but Eden and company were intrigued by the idea and were willing to call a second London Conference. Invitations went out on September 15th, the same day that the non-Arab pilots —the vast majority —walked off their jobs in the Canal. Within three days, before bottlenecks could develop, it was obvious the walkout strike was fizzling. The Egyptians, anticipating just such a maneuver, had many pilots in reserve to hire as replacements, and many of those who had walked out changed their minds when they saw they were going to lose their jobs. Another pretext for Britain, France and Israel for using force had been lost.

Of the eighteen nations that attended the second London Conference, three, Japan, Ethiopia and Pakistan, decided not to join the new organization, SCUA. (Russia was not eligible, as the annual tonnage level for membership had carefully been placed well above Russia's tonnage through the canal.)

The actual founding of SCUA took place in London at a two-day conference of ambassadors of the fifteen participating countries beginning October 2nd. But the very next day at a press conference in Washington, Dulles as much as scuttled his own brainchild.

In answer to a question of what might happen if Nasser tried to prevent a U. S. ship from passing through the canal, Dulles, instead of leaving Nasser in any doubt as to what might happen, said: “American ships would not, repeat not, shoot their way through the canal. No, they would go 'round the Cape.” He then added:

“I think that each nation has to decide for itself what action it will have to take to defend and if possible realize its rights which it believes it has as a matter of treaty. I do not recall just exactly what Sir Ant'ny Eden said on this point. I did not get the impression that there was any undertaking or pledge given by him to shoot their way through the canal.”

“It would be hard,” wrote Eden in his memoirs, “to imagine a statement more likely to cause the maximum allied disunity and disarray. The Americans having themselves volunteered that the new arrangements (i.e. SCUA —ed.) would be less acceptable to the Egyptians than the eighteen-power proposals, Mr.Dulles proceeded to make plain at this juncture that the United States did not intend to use force, even though it had the right to do so…. Here was the spokesman of the United States saying that each nation must decide for itself and expressing himself unable to recall what the spokesman of a principal ally had said. Such cynicism toward allies destroys partnership…. The whole purpose of the Users' Club had been, by a display of unity in association with the United States, to avoid having recourse to force. American torpedoing of their own plan on the first day of launching it, left no alternative but to use force or acquiesce in Nasser's triumph.”

MacMillan's comment was “Once again 'no comment' would have held the position and kept the Egyptians guessing.”33

In answer to another question about “teeth” in the new organization, Dulles answered: “I know of no teeth: there were no teeth in it so far as I am aware.”

The dues and fees paid to SCUA instead of the Canal Company were to be the “teeth” of the new organization. In London where the SCUA ambassadors were all waiting for the U. S. announcement that it was paying its dues, there was consternation.

But this was not all. In the same press conference Dulles explained that there were indeed differences between the United States on the one hand and Britain and France on the other, insofar as their views toward the emerging countries, former colonies, was concerned. And then he went into considerable, unnecessary detail. True as this may have been, the timing of the statement, which was not only tactless, but overdone, was bound to rub salt into the wounds of France and Britain, wounds which did not heal for many years to come.

(In 1989 the scholar William Roger Louis wrote, “The phrases 'up the garden path,' 'dishonest,' and 'doublecross' characterized British thought at the time, and the interpretation of Dulles as a devious politician has persisted. Dulles not only managed to poison Anglo-American relations, but also, according to the extreme judgement of the time, bears the responsibility for the catastrophe of Suez.”34

While keeping his war plans secret, Eden was nonetheless trying to get President Eisenhower to see things more his way. He found Dulles more and more impossible to deal with, so he cabled the President with some frequency. One of these cables read:

“There is no doubt in our minds that Nasser, whether he likes it or not, is now effectively in Russian hands, just as Mussolini was in Hitler's. It would be as ineffective to show weakness to Nasser now in order to placate him as it was to show weakness to Mussolini….”35

Dulles, who had earlier prevented the British and French from going to the UN because he feared complications for the U. S. , as single owner and operator of the Panama Canal, was surprised to find foreign ministers Lloyd and Pineau at the UN on October 5. After all, he had pointed out that the Security Council could be like “quicksand.”36 Why were they bringing the Suez case before the UN now? “Was it for war or peace?” The two foreign ministers told Dulles that they doubted any peaceful way existed. Only the capitulation of Nasser could restore western standing in the Middle East and Africa. Dulles disagreed vehemently, repeating warnings he and Eisenhower had given earlier. Nevertheless, his European allies, in their frustration, were willing to exhaust the UN option to satisfy world public opinion. 37

In this they almost outsmarted themselves for the list of principles they came up with was so cleverly and diplomatically worded that both Egypt and the Soviet Union found it acceptable. Only by quickly attaching a totally unacceptable rider were the British able to force a Soviet veto. A senior Cabinet member later told Kennett Love: “Eden regarded this as too near a solution for comfort; he was determined on war from the beginning.”38

On the secret military front things were well advanced. British troops were ready to go into action as soon as September 8th. It was all planned with such secrecy that the British Cabinet did not learn of it for over a month. The Israelis had kept up raid attacks on Syria and Jordan, but all the while they were planning the invasion of the Egyptian-held Sinai peninsula.

When the Canal pilot walkout failed, a new strategy had to be devised. Since Israel was intent on attacking Egypt in any case, it was decided that Israel should go ahead and launch its attack. The French and British would, in the interests of world peace, then demand that both Israel and Egypt pull back and cease-fire, or they would be forced to invade to separate the “combatants.” The ultimatum, to be made to both parties, would be so worded that it would be totally unacceptable to the Egyptians, while the Israelis would accept, thus giving an excuse for Britain and France to attack Egypt and take over the Suez Canal under the guise of peacemakers.

The original date set for the attack was October 20th. For a variety of reasons it had to be postponed. The next date was set for October 29th.

By now the Hungarian Revolution had broken out. Ben-Gurion only learned of it around midday on the 25th when he returned to Israel. 40 On the 26th, Eisenhower, as he writes in his memoirs, was already worried “that Russia might start a military movement to put down her rebellious satellites which could develop to the proportions of a major war…. Though the situation was cloudy, we put the Defense Department and other security agencies on special alert.”39 MacMillan, about this time, writes that “the American administration, although friendly, seemed incapable of following any clear and consistent policy. The President, naturally preoccupied with his health as well as with his election, seemed unwilling to give a lead… he seemed unable to make up his mind. I sometimes felt that both he and Dulles had lost their nerve and really believed that, if we were to act strongly, the Russians would intervene and the Third World War be launched.”40

Now Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad, in addition to accurately identifying Egypt's entire deployment of weaponry, spread two bits of misinformation into the intelligence world that were quite crucial to success. They convinced the CIA and other western intelligence agencies, by planting false information with agents known to them, that Israel was about to attack Jordan, not Egypt. This was so convincing that Eisenhower cabled Ben-Gurion only hours before the attack on Egypt urging him not to attack Jordan.

Then the Mossad planted the misinformation with Arab intelligence agencies that Israel had greatly strengthened its anti-aircraft defenses around Israeli cities so that any future raids would be extremely costly. This prevented those fifty Ilyushin bombers from taking off to retaliate against Israeli cities, with the result that the British and French aircraft were then able to bomb them on the ground.41

The attack began at dusk that same day, October 29th. In a three pronged drive into the Sinai peninsula Israeli mechanized forces smashed several Egyptian positions near the southern end of the border, while a main force drove towards Cairo and the Suez Canal. But simultaneously, some 400 paratroopers under the command of a young Ariel Sharon were landed over a hundred miles inside the Sinai, less than twenty-five miles from the Suez Canal, near a mountain pass called Mitla. The main purpose of gaining this forward position immediately was to be able to claim that Israeli forces had advanced to within twenty-five miles of the Canal. This, in turn, gave the French and British the excuse of saying the canal was “threatened.” The Israelis never had any intention of reaching or threatening the canal.42

When he heard of the attack eight hours later, President Eisenhower blew his stack. “All right, Foster,” he almost shouted at Dulles, “your tell them, goddam it, that we're going to apply sanctions, we're going to the United Nations, we're going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing!”43

With British and French ships, including aircraft carriers, steaming from Malta and Cyprus toward Egypt, for the past several days, it was obvious that something big was under way. Eisenhower had already cabled Ben-Gurion: ”Do nothing which would endanger the peace.”44 Now he was engaged in what he later referred to as “a sort of transatlantic essay contest” with Eden urging him not to do what he suspected Eden, from his evasive but petulant replies, was in fact doing.45 Nonetheless, news of the Anglo-French “ultimatum” on October 30th came as a shock. Eden felt later that delaying his notice to Eisenhower long enough for him to get the news first from the press was a mistake; “but I didn't want to give time for Ike to ring up and say: 'Dulles is on his way again.'”46

The ultimatum, which was too diplomatic to sound like one, said that the two governments “request an answer to this communication within twelve hours…47

As predicted, Egypt did not comply and Israel did. The “strength” selected to make Egypt comply was full-scale warfare. At dusk on the 30th British and French bombers began flying sorties over Egyptian territory. Bombing of the airfields began in earnest with the coming of the daylight hours. The raids were to continue all day and into the night of the 31st. Cairo was plunged into darkness three times during the night as waves of British bombers attacked. Caught unprepared by the first raid, Egyptian anti-aircraft guns sent up fierce barrages in the second and third attacks, as British flares lit up the desert skies.48

The United States had introduced a resolution condemning Israel in the UN Security Council on the 30th. Now it was forced to expand its wrath to its long-time allies Britain and France. Though they had both been tricked and lied to, the wrath was more Dulles' than Eisenhower's, for Dulles felt he had done his best for his “clients” and now the clients, behind his back, were going off and doing just what he had advised against. He felt utterly betrayed.

Since the U. S. delegate to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, had written the resolution calling for an Israeli pullback in such a way that it explicitly constrained Anglo-French military action in the area, the British felt obliged to use their first veto ever. When the Russians came up with basically the same resolution minus the hard words against Britain and France, the British abstained, whereas the French had orders to use their veto. The Yugoslavs, on Indian advice, then made a procedural resolution, not subject to a veto, to move the whole matter to the General Assembly as had been done at the time of Korea, so as to avoid a veto preventing action. This carried the day, and now, in a special General Assembly called for November 1st., the U. S. was including Britain and France as well as Israel as the offending parties and found itself voting with the USSR.

In the House of Commons, the Opposition moved to censure the government, a resolution which, to Eden's chagrin and embarrassment, finally carried.49

The U. S. Resolution, which came to a vote on November 2nd, called for a cease-fire and withdrawal of all forces engaged. It called for “immediate” withdrawal, and its language was uncompromising and bitterly harsh toward the French and British.

The real reason why the United States acted with such alacrity and firmness is stated by Eisenhower in his book, Waging Peace. “We could not permit,” he writes, “the Soviet Union to seize the leadership in the struggle against the use of force in the Middle East and thus win the confidence of the new independent nations of the world. But on the other hand I by no means wanted the British and French to be branded as naked aggressors without provocation. I therefore instructed Foster to draft two statements: an announcement of our suspension of all military and some governmental economic aid to Israel; and a moderate resolution for submission to the General Assembly in an effort to block a resolution—certain to be objectionable—by the Soviet Union. …. The [U. S.] resolution called for an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of all troops behind the armistice lines, a ban on all military shipments into the area of hostilities, and action to open the Canal.” Note that Eisenhower did not call for an “immediate” withdrawal.

That night, November 1st in Philadelphia, in his last speech of the political campaign, he said, “We value — deeply and lastingly —the bonds with those great nations [Britain and France], those great friends, with whom we now so plainly disagree. And I, for one, am confident that those bonds will … grow to new and greater strength.” This scarcely jibes with Lodge's rigidity and hostility the following day. And yet further on in the speech Eisenhower said: “This we know above all: there are some firm principles that cannot bend — they can only break. And we shall not break ours.”50 Perhaps the severity of U. S. diplomatic behavior did, in fact, emanate from him, but it was not in his character. The United States had won its case in the vote on November 2nd.

On November 3rd the Washington Post carried a letter from George F. Kennan, the career diplomat whom Dulles had so coldly “let go” upon becoming Secretary of State. “We bear a heavy measure of responsibility,” wrote Kennan, “for the desperation that has driven the French and British governments to this ill-conceived and pathetic action.” This, he felt, should have encouraged some humility on the United States' part. “Instead of this, we have chosen to join, in part with the communist nations, with Nasser, and with the others who have only contempt and hatred for the Western World, in an effort which, if successful, can only pillory our oldest friends before world opinion, and destroy what remains of their positions in the Middle East and Africa.”

The matter of Suez continued to preoccupy the U. S. government as its chief concern for months to come. “The United States Government,” complained Harold MacMillan, “never relaxed its pressure.” When MacMillan attended a meeting on November 15 in Paris, “all assistance over oil, for which plans were ready, were sternly refused.” Not even the approaching threat to Western Europe's economy made any impression on the Americans. When the British Ambassador in Washington asked why this rigid stance, he was told that “it is a great moral issue.”51

But while Americans thought that they had shown moral superiority to the world in halting the invasion of Egypt and rebuffing France and England, that was not the perception of the Arabs and much of the Third World. Three days after the vote and just one day after the Soviet Union moved to crush the Hungarian Revolution, Moscow threatened to bombard France and England with rocket-borne atomic bombs if they did not cease and pull back. The Anglo-French force had already ceased and had been pulling back for two days, but most Arabs and Third World people did not know that. The Kremlin, which broadcast the threats even before the notes were delivered, continued to do so loudly for several days and thereafter claimed full credit for halting the Anglo-French adventure. The French and British governments knew it was pure bluff for the Soviets had neither the rockets nor the warheads at this time. But the people in Western Europe, particularly in the countries threatened, could only react in horror and fear when they saw the headlines. Only the day before, the headlines told of the massive Soviet intervention in Hungary.

Of course, the crisis in the Middle East was not settled by the forced pull-back of French, British and Israeli forces. But Eden's predictions of disaster if the Egyptians held the canal did not materialize and Dulles' prediction that the Egyptians, relying on Soviet aid, could never build the Aswan Dam also proved erroneous. Nasser's prediction that the dam was the answer to all of Egypt's troubles proved equally untrue, but Egypt did become a stronger, more stable country capable of making peace with Israel and attracting massive aid from the U. S.

Looking back over the fifty years one can scarcely avoid making comparisons between U. S. precipitous action bringing on the Suez crisis of 1956 and U. S. actions in the Middle Eastern crisis of today. So much of both crises have been of our own making.

It seems not to matter whether our policy makers are from Princeton, Harvard, Yale or Stanford. If the primary policy they espouse is bringing down and punishing “the bad guy” — in Dulles's case he had two “bad guys," Nasser and Khrushchev— this simplistic approach will always fail. The real world is never that simple. No international situation is without unseen complexity. Unintended consequences of precipitous, preemptive action always quickly envelop the perpetrator, and these unintended consequences nearly always prove disastrous. Is it possible that we have learned nothing over these past fifty years?


1 The Devil and John Foster Dulles, Townsend Hoopes, Atlantic-Little Brown & Co., 1973, pp. 323-4
2 Hoopes, p. 325
3 Ibid. p. 235
4 Suez: the Twice Fought War, Kennett Love, McGraw-Hill, N.Y. 1969, pp. 303-4
5 Riding the Storm, Harold MacMillan, MacMillan, London, 1971, p. 90
6 Love, p. 302
7 Hoopes, p. 326
8 Israel's Secret Wars, A History of Israel's Intelligence Services, Ian Black & Benny Morris, Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1991, p. 128
9 Hoopes, p. 328
10 Love, p. 303
11 MacMillan, p. 94
12 Hoopes, pp 334-5
13 Full Circle, Anthony Eden, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1960, p. 468
14 Hoopes, p. 336
15 Love, p. 316
16 Hoopes, 338
17 Love, 416
18 Hoopes, pp. 338-9
19 Ibid. p. 341
20 Ibid. p 340-1
21 Ibid, pp. 341-2
22 C.D. Jackson Papers, Box 47, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library,
Abilene, Kansas
23 Hoopes, p. 342
24 Love, pp. 316, 317
25 Hoopes, p 339
26 Love, p. 433
27 Ibid, 320
28 Eden, pp. 486, 7 & 8
29 Waging Peace, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1965, p. 32
30 Hoopes, p. 320
31 Eden, pp. 539, 540
32 Love, p. 435
33 MacMillann, p. 125
34 John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War, Richard H. Immerman, editor, Princeton University Press, 1990, Chap.5, Dulles, Suez and the British, William Roger Louis, p. 133
35 Eden, p. 55, 56
36 MacMillan, p. 118
37 Love, p. 446
38 Csaba Bekes, Working Paper no. 16, Cold War History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D. C. 1996
39 Eisenhower, p. 68
40 MacMillan. p. 148
41 Israel's Secret Wars, p. 131
42 Love, p. 503
43 Ibid., p. 474
44 Ibid., p. 505
45 Ibid., p. 506
46 Ibid. pp. 506-7
47 Love, p. 464
48 AP & Reuters, Cairo, Nov.1, 1956, RFE' CNR items B-61, B-105, a.p.a.
49 Eden, p. 591
50 Eisenhower, p. 83
51 MacMillan, p. 169

John P. C. Matthews spent ten years with the Free Europe Committee in Munich and New York, serving for nearly five years with Radio Free Europe, and the remainder with the Free Europe Press. He later was program director of the Foreign Policy Association's World Affairs Center, New York. Mr. Matthews, the author of Tinderbox: East Central Europe In the Spring, Summer, and Early Fall of 1956 (Tucson, Arizona: Fenestra Books, 2003), is currently working on a book dealing with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

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