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The Suez Crisis — And A Different Side of Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the most influential modern-day leaders in the Middle East. As part of the Free Officers Movement, he helped overthrow King Farouk I in 1952 [read about the U.S. embassy’s response to the 1952 Cairo riots] and began modernizing Egypt. He took a hard-line approach towards Western domination of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. On July 26, 1956 he announced he was nationalizing the Suez Canal Company.

This came on the heels of strengthened ties with the Soviet Union and recognition of the People’s Republic of China, which in turn led the United Kingdom and the U.S. to withdraw funding to build the Aswan Dam, seen as integral to Nasser’s plans for modernization. Nationalization of the Suez Canal Company prompted an attack by the Israeli, British, and French military forces of Sinai and the bombing of Cairo with the objective of reestablishing Western control of the Suez Canal as well as removing Nasser from office.

The United Nations, supported by the United States, condemned the attack and pressured Britain and France to withdraw their forces. However, the Israeli forces remained until March 1957. A UN peacekeeping contingency, the first of its kind, was dispatched to the Suez Canal to ensure and oversee the withdrawal of foreign troops. Nasser’s victory increased his popularity, which helped him create both the Non-Aligned Movement and promote pan-Arab unity. He is viewed as one of the most influential Arab leaders of the 20th century.

Raymond A. Hare, who served as ambassador throughout the Middle East, played a crucial part in mediating the UN intervention during the Suez Crisis and helped contain the escalating conflict. He was also on good terms with Nasser and in these excerpts provides some surprising insights on Nasser’s traits as well as Hare’s efforts to improve bilateral relations with Egypt.

He was interviewed by Dayton Mak, beginning in July 1987. James O’Brien Howard was a regional Agricultural Attache of the U.S. Foreign Agriculture Service in charge of Egypt, Sudan, Syria, and Lebanon and worked on the development of the agricultural infrastructure in Egypt and talks about how his wife and family were evacuated during the Suez Crisis. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 20, 1993.

You can also read about the 1958 Iraqi Revolution and Nasser’s involvement in the 1962 civil war in North Yemen.


The U.S. and others evacuate as UK, France and Israel attack Egypt

Raymond A. Hare

HARE: Turning now to my years as Ambassador to Egypt, 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 that we were pulling out of our offer to help finance the Aswan Dam (an embankment dam across the Nile River).  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.

United States Secretary of State John F. 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….

As I recall it, 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.  This was also a dearly held ambition of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden.…

I was sitting on the roof of the Embassy Residence one Sunday when a U.S. Marine guard came over with a “very important” message. The telegram was to the effect that something was going on in Israel, it wasn’t clear what it was….So I called our staff together and worked through the night trying to puzzle it out.  But we couldn’t figure out any reason why the Israelis at that particular time should be attacking Egypt.  I don’t think my friend [British Ambassador] Humphrey Trevelyan knew either in the beginning. However, soon after, in the evening, he came over and said “It’s Egypt!” I heard it first from him.

This caused us immediately to implement our evacuation plan, which actually took place in stages because the Israelis apparently jumped the gun a bit and had gone as far as really intended before the British and the French had gotten into their ships and lumbered around and gotten into the thing.

When it became clear just how serious the situation was, we began evacuation to Alexandria with the help of the Egyptian officials. One of our problems was that while we had this very carefully planned evacuation, the French, who had none, tried to scramble into our evacuation, which was a bit difficult. Also, our route to Alexandria was across a desert road which went around an Egyptian military installation.

By this time the British were really moving in, and their planes were flying around, making us rather nervous.  I didn’t want them dropping any bombs on our convoy, so I sent several urgent telegrams off to London, which I understand got to the desk of Eden who got very annoyed with one Raymond Hare for bothering him about this.

Anyway, eventually our group got to Alexandria and on to a couple of navy landing crafts which took them to other ships for the final evacuation to Malta or Cyprus, I’ve forgotten which, and they were eventually transferred to American civilian ships.  A curious thing happened in the process, one which had a strange effect on many of our people, leaving then starry-eyed and wondering.

They were transferred to a small ship called the Chilton, as I recall.  When they boarded the Chilton they were met by the ship’s crew with a degree of warmth and friendliness that touched them deeply, so much so that whenever our group could talk about it afterwards tears would come to their eyes.  The sudden spirit of camaraderie had come like a miracle, and they would talk about it as a sort of “Chilton miracle.”

“It was one of the most traumatic experiences in our whole career”

James O’Brien Howard

HOWARD: There was considerable concern about security. The Embassy buildings were all within a compound with a wall around them. On this particular day, I was somewhere around town and I decided to stop by the Embassy and get briefed on what the latest news was.

When we got to the Embassy the gates were closed. That was a traumatic experience to drive up there and see those gates closed.

You may recall that the Brits were bringing out their dependents and the French were bringing out their dependents. We were not. We were saying that we were going to work with Nasser and saw nothing to worry about and left our dependents there.

This was a source of some anxiety for all of us in the Embassy. My home was out in Maadi, which is on the desert in a suburban area some distance from downtown Cairo. In this desert area lived a number of Americans. We had a network of communications. It was my job to contact six families and give the word, whatever the word might be. We wouldn’t depend on the telephone for fairly obvious reasons.

When the British decided to bring out their dependents, there was a big debate in the Embassy. The Ambassador brought in the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], the Administrative Officer, etc. and they debated until well into the evening what word they were going to pass out through this network. By the time it got to me, it was 9:00 in the evening. The word was that the Ambassador said the Embassy was watching things very carefully. There was nothing to be concerned about at the moment….

I have to get into my car and drive around to these six neighbors. One of these neighbors was a young Naval MD research officer who was over there on a Naval research project. He had just moved into his house and had been unpacking all day and hadn’t been into the Embassy.

I went up and introduced myself and said, “The Ambassador says to tell you you are not to worry.” His wife is standing there too.

“I am not to worry about what?” I told him about the Brits withdrawing their dependents, etc. This got him so upset he didn’t get any sleep all night.

Before the war happened, before the invasion, things had been getting somewhat better. It looked as though the UN was going to be able to negotiate a settlement. So, I talked to Pete Hart about resuming travel….

I got to Port Sudan and just as I arrived the hotel clerk said that my wife had called. This is in the middle of Africa and you know your wife is not going to call to say howdy. I didn’t want to show too much concern for obvious diplomatic reasons. I tried to call her but there wasn’t any chance of getting through to Cairo.

After asking, I was told that the next plane flew in the next morning. None of this news had reached Port Sudan. So when the plane arrived there was Jim Howard out on the tarmac…. Thank heavens it was a British captain.

As he stepped out of the plane I said, “Captain, what’s happening around the world?”

He says, “Well, do you want to start with Hungary or with Cairo?” The Hungarian revolution was taking place. I said, “Well, Cairo was closer.” And he told me what had happened.

Later my wife got through a message saying that the Ambassador said I was not to come back but to go to Rome and join them there. Now think about that. I have a wife and two small children, an office and I am told not to come back.

Well, I got back to Khartoum, Sudan pretty quickly and here was Ambassador Pinkerton [from Lebanon] and a couple of assistants, that was all the staff he had, and Jim Howard sitting around this big radio with ears glued to BBC, listening to the news. Eventually I flew out from there via Libya to Rome.

Meanwhile, the decision had been immediate to evacuate the dependents. But how do you get them out? At first we were going to send in American planes to take them out. Winifred, my wife, was teaching math in the Cairo-American College, a high school, because they couldn’t get teachers due to the crisis.

All the American dependents went out and all but a small nucleus of the Embassy staff left too. Somehow our house became a source of information for that area out there in the desert. She said people were there until 10:00 that evening. She finally got the two small children asleep and the phone rang and she was told a plane was coming at 1:00 or 2:00 to take out dependents.

Since she had a diplomatic passport and could get through barriers easier than some others, she was told to be present with her two children and one suitcase a piece that she would be able to carry. She said, “My children have just gotten to sleep. Can’t I come on a later plane?” They finally agreed that she could.

Well, the plane got there and Nasser wouldn’t let it land and it had to go back to Greece. So it would have been a waste anyway. They finally — several days later — were allowed to go by car convey to Alexandria. You may recall that by that time [U.S. Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles had rattled the sword a bit and said that Nasser was going to allow an American ship to get in there and get those dependents or there would be trouble.

So she drove across the desert with these two small children and an Egyptian and got to Alexandria. There was antiaircraft fire and bombs were falling, but they were not hurt. She said that somebody struck a match to light a cigarette and was almost jumped on.

So they stayed that night and the next day they were loaded on this Naval vessel that had been sent in to bring them out. This was done on a 24-hours basis. It was a troop ship full of Marines. There were two compartments. Winifred was put in charge of the women and children in one of these two compartments. She said, “There were women who were pulled out like that, who didn’t know where their husbands were or couldn’t get in touch with them and didn’t have any money, who were pregnant, etc. It was a terrible thing.”

They sat there in the harbor for hours because Nasser wouldn’t pull up the mines. They had to keep the kids out on the deck with life jackets in case they were bombed…. Finally Nasser did pull up the mines. The Egyptian ships were right under the edge of our ship, shooting, antiaircraft fire, using our ship for protection, which didn’t make them feel any happier.

But, anyway, when they did bring up the nets, every ship in the harbor started out and one cut across in front of ours. By this time Winifred was privy to the captain’s discussions with the key people. He said, “Don’t worry, let him go first. If there are mines out there, they will harvest them.”

Well, they did get out and went to Crete where they changed ships and then on to Naples where I met them….It was one of the most traumatic experiences in our whole career.

A request for U.S. assistance

Raymond A. Hare

HARE:  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 [Anwar] Sadat [close confidant and later President] was sitting on a chair outside Nasser’s office. Nasser said to me 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.  We got over a tough one that time….

Nasser wanted to be non-aligned

Nasser and I had many talks together….When Nasser and I met about a particular matter or project, we wouldn’t talk just about that subject.  He liked to talk about many things.  We could talk about world affairs, about area problems and just about anything.

In one of these conversations he told me his concept of how to handle the Palestinian matter.  “As long as the Arabs and the Israelis are across an unmarked border or at least an unmanned border, there would be trouble.

The best thing, he said, “would be for the United Nations to station a force completely around Israel, and then just wait and see what happened.” I think that is sometimes called the “refrigerator” concept, and while it had certain appeal, the idea was never pursued.

Another problem we discussed was the Lebanon situation, when Syria was so much involved there, with the support of Egypt.  I remember that he told me: “You know, I wouldn’t get involved there as long as one Lebanese faction opposed me. I would stay out of the place because it would be poison and I would be miserable” He was right.  He was right!

We also talked about Yemen sometimes.  He was interested in talking to me about Yemen as Egypt was having trouble down there, and they were thinking of moving in more heavily.  I remember I told him, “Mr. President, there’s one thing to remember about Yemen.  Everybody, including the Romans, who went into Yemen got burned doing it. If I could give you any advice, stay out of there!” My advice was not followed, and Nasser had reason to regret it.

Then also we would talk about the Soviets.  You recall that at the time of the British and French invasion threat, the Soviets did a lot of saber rattling, or missile rattling as you call it.

It became clear to me in talking to him that Nasser realized that this was a missile-rattling gesture rather than the real thing.  At least he didn’t take it for the real thing. This leads me to say a word about his attitude toward the Soviets in general.

As Nasser would put it, his attitude was the same as he had toward the United States:  Nasser didn’t want to be allies with either of us.  He didn’t even want to be seen neutral, either; he wanted to be non-aligned, not tied to anybody, anybody at all.

“As for the Russians, he said, “We try to have correct relations with them, and we exchange visits occasionally,” which they did.  But he added “If they ever interfere in Arab politics, then they will hear from us.” And sure enough, they did in Iraq.  All the public relations facilities were turned loose against the Russians.  Even in the mosques, which I would often visit because of my interest in architecture.  I would hear the mullahs there preaching against the Russians.  They turned it on really full blast….

Sometimes, toward the end of our conversations, we would go over the fact that really our relations ought to be better.  Our discussions would go something like this:  One of us would say, “Our relations ought to be better,” and we would agree to that.  Then I would say, “The problem is, what do we do about it?  We talk about having better relations, but what can we do to symbolize what we really mean?” He didn’t ever want to suggest anything that would be refused, he didn’t like that.

So he would say, “Oh, we should turn over a new page.” One day when he said that I said, “Fine.  What should we write on the new page?” Then you would get a reply something like this.  “You must understand Arab psychology better” or something of that kind.  We always seemed to end up this way….

Turning over a new leaf

One day I went around to visit the Lebanese Minister to Cairo, Ghaleb Turk, whom I had known previously in Saudi Arabia. He asked me, “How are things going?”

I said: “All right.” And I told him much the same as I have just described.  I told him that we’d had these conversations and we had agreed that we should have better relations, but I could never get Nasser to say anything specific about what they really would like us to do.

He said, “Do you mind?  I have some good relations at the top of the government in the Presidency.  Do you mind if I say a word about this?” I said I didn’t mind….

Shortly after that, Hassanein Heikal, an important journalist and confidante of Nasser, came to see me.  Well, he bounced in and said “I hear you were talking to Ghaleb Turk.” I said that indeed I had.  Heikal then asked, “Do you know what we want?” “That is what I am asking all the time.  Can you tell me?”

He replied, “Yes.  We would like PL 480 wheat!” Well, this fit right in to my own thinking at the time.  This was something that we could easily do, as we had wheat practically running out of the bins. Mainly we were selling this PL 480 [Public Law 480, which established the Food for Peace program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development] for what we could call “wooden nickels” – that is, you got local currency in payment for it.

This PL 480 idea was to me an ideal answer. I felt strongly that in a situation in which the Russians were being aggressive in the area, we should not try to do them one better of the same kind.  If we wanted to do something we should make it an American move, and preferably an American move that would have some broad appeal.

Well, here was an American move that would have some broad appeal.  I telegraphed this back to Washington and got clearance to discuss the matter. Heikal came in to see me, and when I told him we were willing to discuss it he nearly fell out of his chair, he didn’t think we would do it.  We did, of course, and the remaining months of my time in Egypt were spent working on the PL 480 agreement.  My successor in Cairo once said that it gave rise to a sort of honeymoon period.  Before this our relations with Egypt had been difficult….

Now finally, whenever you talk about Egypt at that particular period of time, Nasser looms very, very large.  This is understandable because in a sense Nasser was Egypt at that particular time.  He was not the typical hard-boiled dictator that one might think; he didn’t like blood, he didn’t liked violence.  He was rather restrained except for those speeches….

In considering Nasser one must understand that he was born of conspiracy.  The revolution in Egypt had been brought about by a group of bright young officers.  They had thought things out seriously and drawn on such sources as communism and Thomas Jefferson.

Nevertheless, their methodology had by circumstances to be undercover.  Out of these years of conspiracy, Nasser, and I think most of that group, were willing to discuss matters with you, but they were always suspicious, and you had always to keep that in mind.

Now, one last observation about Nasser.  There were always lots of visitors who came to Cairo and most of them wanted to meet Nasser. Some were notables…such as Hubert Humphrey…

But a fair number of those who came were what I called the “belligerent.” They saw in Nasser a dictator type and wanted to give him a piece of their mind.  Over a period of time Nasser developed a marvelous technique of speaking to such visitors.  And it was rather amusing, because these people who had gone in with eyes flashing used to come out with stars in their eyes.