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The Book of the Week is “Suez, 10 years after Suez, questions are still being asked…” by Hugh Thomas, originally published in 1966. This volume was penned by and through the eyes of a British journalist.
In 1875, on behalf of the British government, Benjamin Disraeli purchased a controlling interest (45%) of shares in the Suez Canal Company. By 1956, a little less than 25% of the imports, and about 33% of the ships passing through the canal, were British.
There was arrogance all around, among the top leaders of countries involved in the Suez Canal Crisis: Egypt’s Nasser, Great Britain’s Eden, France’s Mollet and Israel’s Ben Gurion.
Other leaders, such as America’s president Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles refrained from a hawkish stance for their own country, letting the British and French make fools of themselves in sending troops. The author described the whole episode thusly: “… the spectacle of over one hundred thousand men setting off for a war which lasted barely a day and then returning has few parallels in the long gallery of military imbecility.”
Eden was ready to fight the Egyptians when Nasser declared he was nationalizing the canal’s holding company, which was based in Paris. The declaration meant that Nasser would charge dues on ships passing through.
The international contract governing the canal stipulated that Egypt would own the canal itself in 1968. The Treaty of Constantinople, signed in 1888 deemed the canal an international waterway. Nasser could be removed as a custodian of sorts only “for cause” but arguably one cause could be the fact that, beginning in 1951, he banned Israeli ships from the canal.
One other piece of documentation associated with the canal included the United Nations Charter’s Article 51. It was kind of a worthless passage, as its provisions were unenforceable unless nations agreed on how to interpret it and chose to abide by it. That passage said military action was justified if any entity took over the canal.
Eden came of age in the generation who fought in WWI and was of the mind that appeasement didn’t work on Hitler. Wiser world leaders whose experiences and intelligence differed, knew that Nasser was no Hitler. Eden’s cabinet ministers were men of different ages, some of whom disagreed with him.
Britain’s options included resolving the complicated dispute with the assistance of the United Nations (UN), or the International Court. Britain’s troops stationed geographically nearby (in Malta, Port Said, Libya, Jordan and Cyprus) were unprepared to fight a war in or near Egypt, and it would take a few months to move supplies, equipment, etc. to where they needed to be. The Soviets were supplying weapons to the Egyptians, and those weapons would be superior in the event of an air war.
The European government officials who were dovish, argued that it was wrong to use force just to safeguard oil supplies, and that the conflict should be settled through the UN. The situation became more complex (as though the propaganda war, Hungarian suffering and upcoming elections in Jordan and the United States, Britain’s lingering pro-Arab stance and France’s sending arms to Israel weren’t enough) when, in the second week of October 1956, there occurred a border skirmish between Israel and Jordan. About a week later, Israel attacked Egypt.
Yet another set of conditions on paper by which specific nations agreed to abide, came into play: the 1940 Tripartite Pact stated that when lands around Israel (pursuant to the geography of 1950) were crossed by people with war in mind, both Britain and France together were obligated to take some kind of action.
Read the book to learn more details of the diplomatic and political events leading up to and during the conflict (or war, as interpreted by some), its exciting conclusion, and the death tolls of the parties involved.