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The Suez Crisis began on October 29, 1956, when Israeli armed forces pushed into Egypt toward the Suez Canal, a valuable waterway that controlled two-thirds of the oil used by Europe. In July of that year, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal. The Israelis were joined by French and British forces, which damaged their relationships with the United States and nearly brought the Soviet Union into the conflict. In the end, Egypt emerged victorious, and the British, French and Israeli governments withdrew their troops in late 1956 and early 1957. The event was a pivotal event among Cold War superpowers.

WATCH: Why Suez Crisis Almost Led to Nuclear War

Suez Canal Nationalized

The Suez Canal was built in Egypt under the supervision of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and was run jointly by a British-French organization. The man-made waterway—which opened in 1869 after ten years of construction—separates most of Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula.

At 120 miles long, the Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean by way of the Red Sea, allowing goods to be shipped between Europe and Asia more directly. Its value to international trade made it a nearly instant source of conflict among Egypt’s neighbors—and Cold War superpowers vying for dominance.

The catalyst for the joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt was the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in July 1956. The situation had been brewing for some time.

Two years earlier, in the wake of World War II, the Egyptian military had begun pressuring the British to end their colonial-era military presence (which had been granted in the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty) in the canal zone. Nasser’s armed forces also engaged in sporadic battles with Israeli soldiers along the border between the two countries, and the Egyptian leader did nothing to conceal his antipathy toward the Zionist nation.

Supported by Soviet arms and money, and furious with the United States for reneging on a promise to provide funds for construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River, Nasser ordered the Suez Canal seized and nationalized, arguing tolls from the ships passing through the canal would pay for the Aswan Dam.

The British were angered by the move and, during secret military consultations, sought the support of the French (who believed that Nasser was supporting rebels in the French colony of Algeria) and of neighboring Israel for an armed assault to retake the canal.

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Suez Crisis Begins

The Israelis struck first on October 29, 1956. Two days later, British and French military forces joined them. Originally, forces from the three countries were set to strike at once, but the British and French troops were delayed.

Behind schedule but ultimately successful, the British and French troops landed at Port Said and Port Fuad and took control of the area around the Suez Canal. However, their hesitation had given the Soviet Union—also confronted with a growing crisis in Hungary—time to respond.

The Soviets, eager to exploit Arab nationalism and gain a foothold in the Middle East, supplied arms from Czechoslovakia to the Egyptian government beginning in 1955, and eventually helped Egypt construct the Aswan Dam on the Nile River after the United States refused to support the project.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev railed against the invasion and threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Western Europe if the triple Israeli-French-British force did not withdraw.

America Intervenes

The response of President Dwight Eisenhower and his administration was measured. It warned the Soviets that reckless talk of nuclear conflict would only make matters worse, and cautioned Khrushchev to refrain from direct intervention in the conflict.

However, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles also issued stern warnings to the French, British and Israelis to give up their campaign and withdraw from Egyptian soil. Eisenhower was upset with the British in particular for not keeping the United States informed about their intentions.

The United States threatened all three nations with economic sanctions if they persisted in their attack. The threats did their work: British and French forces withdrew by December, and Israel finally bowed to U.S. pressure, relinquishing control over the canal to Egypt, which reopened the Suez Canal canal in March 1957.

The Suez Crisis marked the first use of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was an armed group dispatched to the area to supervise the end of hostilities and the withdrawal of the three occupying forces.

Aftermath of the Suez Crisis

In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Britain and France—once the seat of vast colonial empires—found their influence as world powers weakened as the United States and Soviet Union took a more powerful role in global affairs. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned two months after withdrawing British troops.

The crisis made Nasser a powerful hero in the growing Arab and Egyptian nationalist movements. Israel, while it did not gain the right to utilize the canal, was once again granted rights to ship goods along the Straits of Tiran.

Ten years later, Egypt again shut down the canal following the Six-Day War in June 1967. For almost a decade, the Suez Canal became the front line between the Israeli and Egyptian armies. In 1975, as a gesture of peace, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat reopened the Suez Canal. Today, about 300 million tons of goods pass through the canal each year.

Sources

Why Was The Suez Crisis So Important? Imperial War Museums.
The Suez Crisis, 1956. U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian.
The Suez Crisis (1956). Ohio State University, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective.

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