There's a lesson in the 1956 Suez Crisis as Gaza war rages on

Biden can learn important lessons from how Eisenhower handled the 1956 Suez war, argues Syrian historian Sami Moubayed

A soldier on board a tank looks out over an Egyptian street during the Suez Crisis
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A soldier on board a tank looks out over an Egyptian street during the Suez Crisis

There's a lesson in the 1956 Suez Crisis as Gaza war rages on

On 23 October 1956, a university student riot in Budapest snowballed into a popular revolt against the Hungarian People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite during the Cold War. It would last for twelve days before being crushed by the Soviet Army on 4 November 1956.

It caught the Americans off-guard, but they were quick to embrace it, with President Dwight Eisenhower saying that the demonstrations reflected an “intense desire for freedom” while CIA director Allen Dulles describing them as noting less than a “miracle.”

In its midst, another crisis would erupt that autumn, putting the Eisenhower Administration in a very difficult situation, when the Suez Canal War broke out on 29 October 1956.

Eisenhower was a decorated officer who had led his troops to victory during World War II. He had a strong moral fiber and firmly believed that as leader of a Super Power, he couldn’t condemn one invasion while shamelessly turning a blind eye to another. His dilemma strikes a particularly raw nerve when compared to President Joe Biden’s opposition to the Russian war in Ukraine and his total support for the Israeli one in Gaza, which began in October 2023.

Read more: 40 years on: US Marine Barrack Bombing in Beirut

Some attribute what they perceive as Biden’s total submissiveness to the fact that in less than two months, it will be Election Year in the US and he is actively trying to secure the American-Jewish vote for a second term at the White House. The same applied to Eisenhower, only in his case, the US was in Election Week, not just Election Year. Voting was scheduled for 6 November 1956, days into the Suez War, and yet, that didn’t prevent him from taking a tough stance on the invasion of Egypt.

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5th November 1956: Dwight D Eisenhower (1890 - 1969) the 34th President of the United States of America

Caught off-guard

The Israelis had been mobilizing troops for a week, ostensibly in response to a joint military pact between Egypt, Syria and Jordan, signed earlier that October. The full-fledged war decision, however, had been taken in response to President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s very popular nationalization of the Suez Canal earlier that July.

On 24 October 1956 a secret meeting was held in a mansion in Sevres, near Paris, between Israeli premier David Ben Gurion, French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau and his British counterpart, Selwyn Lloyd. The Israeli chief-of-staff Moshe Dayan was also present, when the three states agreed to present Nasser with an ultimatum to retract his seizure of the canal, knowing that he would refuse. And when he did, Israel would start by bombing Egypt, followed by France and Great Britain.

US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called the ultimatum “crude, brutal...and utterly unacceptable.” Both he and the president were worried about how the USSR would respond, given Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin’s immediate threat to restore to force. Bulganin sent messages to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and prime ministers Guy Mollet of France and David Ben-Gurion, warning of a “third World War.” He also said: “We are full of determination to crush the aggressor and reestablish peace in the Middle East by using force.”

Read more: A history of American destroyers in Arab waters

For his part, Eisenhower had spoken forcefully against Bulganin’s threats to invade Hungary, which he described as “unacceptable” but now, an equally “unacceptable” invasion was unfolding, not by the communists but by friendly states that with him, had fought the Nazis in World War II. Eisenhower was furious, fuming: “They haven’t consulted with us on anything.” The White House issued a statement saying that the president had heard of the attack through “press reports.”

The White House issued a statement saying that the president had heard of the attack through "press reports."

'Boil in their Oil'

Dulles tried to get in touch with the ambassadors of all three countries, who were suspiciously unavailable. He had to settle for a meeting with their deputies, while Eisenhower wrote to Ben Gurion, who calmly replied that Israel was breaking what he called a "ring of steel" wrapped around its borders by Egypt and the rest of the Arab World.

Eisenhower had to cancel scheduled speaking engagements in Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, letting Vice-President Richard Nixon do the speaking on his behalf as he went into open sessions with Dulles, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, and Arthur Flemming, the director of defense mobilization.

In his last speech from Philadelphia, Eisenhower stressed: "there can be no second-class citizens before the law of America." The Suez War was a "test of our principles" adding that he had decided to pursue "a path of honor" against the use of force, both by his allies in Egypt and the Soviets in Hungary. "We cannot—in the world any more than in our own nation—subscribe to one law for the weak, another law for the strong; one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us. There can be only one law or there will be no peace." He anticipated that if the Suez campaign dragged into the winter, then the British and the French would soon be in-need of cash, expecting him to pay the bills. Under no circumstances would he do that, he said to Flemming, adding: "Those who began this operation should be left to work out their own problems—to boil in their own oil."

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A troop of French parachutists during the Suez Crisis

Dulles penned a strong-worded draft letter that Eisenhower was supposed to send to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. It read: "I must say, that it is hard for me to see any good final result emerging from a scheme that seems certain to antagonize the entire Muslim world."

The president decided not to send the latter, however, waiting to see how the Soviets would respond to Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli's visit to Moscow, where speaking on the behalf of Nasser, he asked for military intervention and pleaded: "Where is the big Red Army that defeated Hitler?" By 31 October, the British had began bombing Egyptian railways and lines of communication, in addition to eliminating military aircraft at the Almaza airbase near Cairo.

Read more: From normalisation with Israel to severing Iran ties, documents reveal shifting US policy priorities for Syria

The Suez Canal was blocked and the Israelis were advancing in Sinai. On the very same day, The New York Times ran an article entitled "Washington Loses Grip" saying: "The United States has lost control of events in areas vital to its security" and that its president "could no longer speak as keeper of the peace."

Making things worse for Eisenhower was his presidential rival was both using and abusing the Suez Canal to win the minds and hearts of voters. The Democratic candidate Aldai Stevenson lashed out against the Eisenhower Administration from from his campaign in New York, four times mentioning Suez in his speeches. "In a few months" he said, "the Russian communists have acquired a bridgehead in the Middle East which the Czars sought for centuries."

The New York Times ran an article entitled "Washington Loses Grip".

The option of military intervention

At the president's request, Dulles asked the chief of naval operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, if his force were capable of stopping the aggression, to which he replied, without even trying to mince his words: "Mr. Secretary, there is only one way to stop them. But we will blast the hell out of them." Dulles replied, "Can't you stop them some other way?" Burke's snapped: "No! If we're going to threaten, if we're going to turn them, then you've got to be ready to shoot." He did put the Sixth Fleet on high alert, but didn't hide his confusion on who exactly the enemy should be. Was it Grear Britain and France, America's wartime allies who had fought the Nazis in Europe? Or Egypt, a long-time ally of the USSR?

Sanctions on Israel

When the military option was called off, Eisenhower decided to take the matter to the United Nations on 1 November 1956, presenting a draft resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire, withdrawal of troops behind the armistice lines, and international efforts to open the Suez Canal.

He ordered Dulles to raise the matter at the UN "…first thing in the morning, when the door opens, before the USSR gets there." He even toyed with the idea of slapping sanctions on all three allies, Great Britain, France, and Israel, although Dulles argued that only Israel should be sanctioned, albeit mildly.

The president replied: "Foster, you tell 'em, God dam it, that we're gonna apply sanctions. We are going to the United Nations. We're going to do anything there is to stop this. Nothing justifies double-crossing us!"

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Scuttled ships at the entrance to the Suez Canal, at Port Said, as seen from over Port Fuad, Egypt, November 19, 1956

He was surprised by Dulles opposition to sanctioning Britain and France, arguing that if sanctions were to be applied, then they should fall on all the aggressors. Eisenhower sent the draft resolution to the US National Security Council before presenting it at the UN. Dulles led the discussion, saying that if the US did not seize the initiative at the UN, the Soviets surely would.

To this Harold Stassen, the president's assistant for disarmament, replied that the US should seek a ceasefire without condemning any of the three aggressors. Britain, he admitted, had committed "a terrible error" but remained a "vital friend of the United States." The real enemy, he reminded the National Security Council, should always be the USSR.

The real enemy, Harold Stassen reminded the National Security Council, should always be the USSR.

Economic Pressure

Eisenhower then began thinking about severe yet backdoor pressure on his allies, telling Dulles: "You are not going to get a cease-fire by saying everybody please stop." He knew that the finances of Great Britain were in distress, having heard it personally from Anthony Eden during a January 1956 visit to the US.

He also knew how unpopular the Suez War was becoming in Britain, as daily protests were taking the streets of London, demanding a ceasefire. Even the London press was critical, while Oxford University professors had signed a statement condemning Eden's war in Egypt, describing it "morally wrong."

The archbishop of Canterbury addressed the House of Lords, saying that "world opinion on the whole— almost entirely—is convinced we have made a grave error." When appearing at a Conservative Party rally, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd had been confronted with angry protestors chanting "Warmonger."

The archbishop of Canterbury addressed the House of Lords, saying that "world opinion on the whole— almost entirely—is convinced we have made a grave error."

It was the right moment to use his country's economic weight to pressure the British into reconsidering its war on Egypt. Great Britain had lost $50 million in reserves during the first two days of the Suez campaign and in order to maintain a balance, was being forced to consider a currency devaluation.

The pound sterling was pegged to the American dollar at the rate of $2.80, and as British forces were landing in Egypt, speculation accelerated against the pound in the currency markets. Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan asked for immediate help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was vetoed by the US. Eisenhower had even instructed the Treasury Department to prepare to sell parts of the US government's sterling bond holdings, to show Eden just how serious he was about Egypt.

When Saudi king Saud ordered an oil embargo against Great Britain and France, Eisenhower stood by his word and refused to help until they agreed to a ceasefire, followed by withdrawal of troops.

Hours earlier, approximately 2:00 AM Cairo time, the fighting stopped in Egypt. It was 6 November 1956, Election Day in the United States. If Eisenhower could do it, then so can Joe Biden.

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