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The errors and lessons associated with the Suez Crisis.

In this video, Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan consider the errors and lessons associated with the Suez Crisis.

An error in Egypt.

In this video we explore the questions and comments:

  1. The Suez crisis can be seen as the (last) flexing of French and British imperialism. Diplomatically, it was something of a disaster.
  2. How did the RAF participate in the attempts to retake the Canal?
  3. Suez drove a temporary rift with Eisenhower and ended Anthony Eden’s political career. How were bridges built after Suez with our allies?

As ever, this is how Ross and I thought about shaping the discussions in the video. You, undoubtedly, will have your own questions for the comments.

The Suez Crisis

This terrible error in British foreign policy cost political careers in this country. This short article will deal with the background of the event.

An embarrassing political and international relations failure

The Suez Crisis of 1956 remains one of Britain’s most embarrassing political and international relations failures in peacetime during the twentieth century. ‘Peacetime’ might seem ironic, and this was principally a military engagement, but here it is used to mean outside a major national war.

It was akin to the 1938 ‘Munich Crisis’ (appeasement) in its political repercussions and ended the political career of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden.

In an era of decolonisation, and two years after France had withdrawn from Indochina, the whole episode smacked of imperialism of the nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy’ age; except the weapons of intimidation were jet bombers and paratroopers.

The attempt to annex the Suez Canal

Initially, Israel in October 1956, and then France and Britain the following month, attempted to annex the Suez Canal from Egypt. The 1869 shipping canal allowed cargo to bypass Africa entirely, sailing from the Mediterranean through the canal onto the Red Sea.

For British Imperial trade, this was critically important for trade with India, Australia and New Zealand, and South-East and East Asia.

In July 1956 Egypt’s President Nasser annexed the canal and nationalised it for his nation. While the Anglo-French owners of the canal company would be offered financial compensation equivalent to market valuation, Egypt’s unilateral action shocked the Commonwealth, and looked to threaten Britain’s strategic interests ‘east of Suez’.

The Anglo-French Operation Musketeer

The Anglo-French Operation Musketeer followed on from the Israeli intervention, and it became immediately apparent that this was all part of a planned tripartite scheme.

A more cynical reading of the history of this event looks to U.S. President Eisenhower’s chagrin at not being consulted over this action; and informal communications between the British and the office of U.S. Secretary John Foster Dulles not being passed on to the President. Either way, the whole plan was misconceived with respect to international diplomacy, and without international support, the British and French were forced into a humiliating retreat.

The end of Britain as a world power

A number of commentators believe the Suez crisis signalled the end of Britain as a ‘world power’. Even with atomic weapons – something we will deal with next week – Britain’s status had already declined below that of the US and the USSR sometime before.

From a Cold War perspective, Suez gave the Soviets increased propaganda against the West; and the actions of Britain and France in Suez carry unwanted comparisons to Soviet actions in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956).

The canal itself was kept in Egyptian hands; and following an Israeli withdrawal in March of 1957, the canal itself opened again. However, Suez represents a humiliating miscalculation of the former European imperial powers, one which sixty years on appears an appalling mistake.

If you wish to read more on this topic, there is a vast literature that is easily accessible:

The US State Department


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