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Summer, 1956: Eden, Nasser, Suez

In retirement, Eisenhower admitted privately that his failure to support the British was his greatest foreign policy mistake.

A couple of excerpts from the article, which also presents a timeline:

What We Failed to Learn from Suez

Fifty years on, D R Thorpe – Anthony Eden’s biographer – analyses the lasting impact of this crisis on Britain’s standing in the world

. . .

While British actions in 1956 are routinely described as “imperialistic”, the motivation was in fact economic. As a liberal supporter of nationalist ambitions – as over Sudanese independence – Eden had been ahead of his times, certainly in Conservative ranks.

His 1954 Suez Canal Base Agreement (withdrawing British troops from Suez in return for certain guarantees) was sold to the Conservative Party against Churchill’s wishes.

Nasser broke the agreement six weeks after the troops had left, in June 1956, leaving Eden politically exposed in his own ranks. In retrospect, the nationalisation of Suez seems inevitable – but Eden’s fall did not. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, was initially supportive of a firm response. “It is all very familiar. It is exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war,” he said.

[ ... ]

At the outset, the main aims had been to keep the canal open, to maintain oil supplies, to remove Nasser, and to keep the Russians out of the Middle East.

The results were that the canal was blocked, petrol rationing began in Britain on December 12, Nasser became the established leader of Arab nationalism, the Russians strengthened their influence in the area and the Arab and Muslim world turned against Britain.

Nasser also suffered in the long term. Suez gave him an inflated view of his own power. In his mind, he had “defeated” the combined forces of Great Britain, France and Israel, whereas in fact Britain had been “defeated” by America.

The Six Day War against Israel in 1967 was when reality kicked in….


  1. Paul Marks says:

    Both Ike and John D. (the Sec of State) eventually (too late) accepted the correctness of the principle of the Anglo-French action. Herbert Hoover Junior (the number two at the State Department) appears to have been the leading anti British voice in the Administration in 1956 – that the fear of looking “pro war” in an election year (the Hungarians also suffered from 1956 being an election year in the United States).

    It should be pointed out that in 1956 there still was no real way that the Soviets could have nuked American cities – there were few (if any) accurate long range Soviet missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and the Soviet Air Force was no match for the USAF. The Soviet Navy was also no match for NATO naval forces in 1956.

    There is no way that the Soviets could or would have come to the aid of Egypt (in the case of Hungary their tanks and troops could just roll over the border).

    It is depressing that the above is not understood – modern history books just assume that we entered the period of “MAD” (mutually assured destruction) in 1949 – when the Soviets got the atomic bomb, but that is just not correct.

    In 1956 it would still have been possible to terminate the Soviet (and Maoist) threat – without terminating the United States.

    The B52s and (British) Vulcan bombers would have destroyed Soviet nuclear bases – but the Soviet Airforce could not have destroyed American cities. Long range enemy missiles were hopelessly inaccurate (in 1956) and enemy naval forces would have been easy to destroy.

    There was no possibility (none) that the Soviets would have risked WWIII over Egypt – because they would have LOST.

  2. Paul Marks says:

    Sadly even Egypt is not understood now – i.e. just what a monster the socialist Nasser was.

    Nasser was organising violent subversion all over the Middle East – as far away as Iraq and Yemen.

    The violent coups in many counties were Nasser’s work.

    At home Nasser turned Egypt into a basket case – dependent on aid, with penny packet sized farms and government control of the distribution of basic goods and services.

    Yet modern writers (even so called “conservatives” and, yes, so called “libertarians”) seem to have no knowledge of the total mess Nasser made of Egypt and what a monster he was.

    The news that the “liberals” in Egypt admire Nasser informed me as to what these “liberals” really are.

  3. NickM says:

    Paul, I gotta disagree. No, in 1956 there wasn’t a way the Sov’s could have destroyed the USA by nukes. But they could have done damage on an epic scale. In the ’20s and ’30s “theorists” (mainly British and Italian” were keen on the idea “the bomber would always get through”. This was central to the entire concept of terror bombing. It was wrong. But it was made “right” on August 6th 1945. One bomb (and OK the 1,500 strong B-20 napalm raid at low altitude on Tokyo as well as bombing Nagasaki to kibbles and bits played their part too.

    But the “the bomber would always get through” mantra became real in an unexpected way. I think the RAF worked out that something around a 7% loss-rate per mission would nix the future night area bombing campaign. That was a tipping point but what if to flatten a city you don’t need 300, 500, 1000 bombers on time and target getting through the flack and fighters (and SAMs later) but just one. Just one. That is a game changer.

    It was enough of a game changer to make The Japanese Empire fold in days. A Japanese Empire previously training school girls to defend the beaches against battle-hardened US Marines in a desperate last-stand with improvised spears. That is the deliberate reason the strike were made with a minimal number of aircraft. Basically a vic of 3. One to bomb and two to record details.The point was to show this was something orders of magnitude greater.

    If equipped with conventional bombs the Sovs could have done the USA harm in the 1950s though not existential harm. So your argument might work on that point but they had nukes and that means the interception rate can be far higher (a moot point) and a mere dozen Soviet bombers getting through could have been a total disaster area. Obviously Russia would have been turned to kibbles and bits.

    Now I talk about the interception rate. It was not that high. A T-95 bomber could out-turn a Sabre at operational altitude and it’s prop-wash was not something to get caught in. Of course the F-100 Super Sabre had entered service but it’s early control problems were still an issue.

    Enough bombers would have got through.

  4. Paul Marks says:

    We will have to agree to disagree about the Soviet Airforce in 1956 (my position is that they were useless).


    The enemy would not have fought over Egypt – they actually made that clear.


    The American support for Nasser (from 1952 onwards) was wrong headed “Progressivism”.

    Rather like the “old China hands” and the sabotage of the Manchurian offensive in 1946.

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