Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

The Suez Canal Company: Catalyst for an Egyptian Crisis


The Suez Crisis of 1956 had far-reaching implications not only for Egypt and the Middle East, but throughout the world. President Gamal Abdel Nasser had risen to power determined to rid Egypt of colonial influence and avoid Cold War alignment. When the U.S. and U.K. suddenly withdrew their offer to help finance construction of the Aswan Dam, Nasser accelerated his plan to nationalize the Suez Canal. Nasser’s actions infuriated the British and French who were seeing a steady decline of their influence in the region with the rise of anti-colonial nationalism. The subsequent military incursion into Egypt by the British and the French was rooted in outrage at what these countries perceived to be an attack on their imperial interests. In a tripartite agreement, Israel agreed to launch an invasion force across the Sinai, at which point the British and French could intercede as peacekeepers. While this plan was later exposed, the British and other Western countries found it convenient, especially in the Cold War context, to paint Nasser as the aggressor. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company and the canal remains in Egypt’s hands to this day.  Ambassador Raymond Hare comments on the crisis and shares his experience working with President Nasser. Ambassador Hare was interviewed by Dayton Mak on July 22, 1987.

Read Ambassador Hare’s complete oral history HERE.

“It was the Suez Canal Company that was nationalized, not the canal.”

Hare: I’d like to make a few observations about the 1956 “nationalization” by Nasser of the Suez Canal. The canal itself was NOT nationalized – the canal was always Egyptian. It was the Suez Canal Company that was nationalized, not the canal. You recall that Nasser had been attending one of those non-aligned meetings in Yugoslavia when, on his way back to Cairo, the announcement was made [in the press] that we were pulling out of our offer to help finance the Aswan Dam. It was obviously a blow to him and, when he got back, his counter was to nationalize the Suez Canal Company, something he had in mind for some time. [Secretary of State] Dulles intervened actively and in time came up with the idea of a Suez Canal Users Association (SCUA). I don’t know to what extent he thought it would work, but he was trying to avoid a conflict over the situation, a major problem. This was and remained our policy, and this is what got us into difficulty with the French and British as the situation developed. During that time I had many discussions, particularly with Foreign Minister Fawzi, in Cairo. Fawzi was a delightful man, quiet and highly intellectual, in fact his manner of expression was so finely tuned that I used to say that I was going over to see the Foreign Minister and do a little knitting with him because everything had to be done so very delicately.

As I recall, the Egyptians had made several very affirmative suggestions for the solution of the canal problem, but they were quickly rejected by [British Foreign Secretary] Selwyn Lloyd. As you know, they, the British, had decided with the Israelis and the French on the attack on Egypt, and they didn’t want any peaceful solution. What they wanted was a crack at Nasser [removing him from power]. This was also a dearly held ambition of Prime Minister Anthony Eden.

“Nevertheless, we did . . . take a very strong line against the British and French, much to their anger.”

During this period when the British and the French movement was in full swing I used to see Nasser fairly often at his request. It was rarely at the same place; we used to move around for our meetings. One time he asked to see me at the Army headquarters on the way to Heliopolis airport. On this particular day [future President] Sadat was sitting on a chair outside Nasser’s office. Nasser said that there was a request that he wanted to make. He wanted to request American assistance against the British and the French. As we refined this a bit it turned out that what he meant was that he wanted American military assistance. In effect, he asked for intervention of the Sixth Fleet against the British and the French. I responded, “Mr. President, you have asked me a very serious question, as serious a question as one country can ask another – to intervene militarily against people who are our friends. Now do you mind if I ask you a question?” He said, “No.” “Are you asking my government for active military assistance against the British and the French or are you asking me, expecting that the reply will be negative, and that then you will be free to say, ‘Well, I’ve asked the Americans,’ and then you would be free to turn to the Soviets?” This was the only time I saw Nasser really angry. I said, “Wait a minute now. You asked me a hard question, and I asked you a hard question.” “No” he said. “I really meant it.” I said, “All right, thank you very much.” So I reported this conversation to Washington and got back a reply saying in effect “We would do everything we could in the United Nations.” That was the reply.

When I gave Nasser Washington’s reply, I, of course, got a rather cold response. Nevertheless we did, in the United Nations, take a very strong line against the British and the French, much to their anger. Sometime later Nasser remarked to me, “You remember the time when I asked you that question about helping us?” I said “Yes.” Nasser sort of chuckled. Nasser and I had many talks together. He liked to talk and discuss things. Except for the time mentioned above, most of our talks were about quite routine matters such as questions about property and that sort of thing. As I said, he liked to talk. If I saw him in the morning about ten o’clock he would breeze in smelling of lotion and all fresh. He used to sit up late at night, so he got up rather late. Frequently he would go over to his desk and pull out a paper that he was working on late the night before, and he would say, “Look what this is.” Very often they were questions of an economic nature that he had been working on, such as development plans for Egypt and the like.

“The Egyptians were appreciative of our position in the United Nations.”

Right after the Suez affair the Egyptians were appreciative of our position in the United Nations. But after several months they realized that we had not really changed sides – that we were not anti-French, anti-British, or pro-Egyptian. In other words, we had not changed our spots, and they became very unhappy. To add to their anger we had done some things that were quite unfriendly; we had refused to sell them certain things they badly wanted, and we had held on to some money of theirs. But this anti-American attitude gradually subsided for a time, largely owing to the PL 480 agreement…the remaining months of my time in Egypt were spent working on [this] agreement. My successor in Cairo once said that it gave rise to a sort of honeymoon period.

[Public Law 480 created the Food for Peace program, an international food assistance program that in this case would provide Egypt with much-needed wheat.]

 

Drafted by Tyler Ventura

 

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