The Suez Crisis 1956 Part 3: Arguments, Diplomacy, Lies and Plans

Diplomatic Wrangling

Parts 1 and 2. As for the ‘London Conference’, Eisenhower considered going but was talked out of it. The US would send other representatives but experts advised the president that not only was the UK going to use force anyway, but that it would fail. The British simply weren’t ready. UK plans would only work if the US helped, and the president would not do that. Meanwhile Egypt had refused to go to the conference, rejecting the British proposals for an international canal.

India, under Nehru, and proudly unaligned, tried to mediate with Nasser, but the latter, like many Egyptians, thought the fuss the UK was making meant they never planned to leave in 1968, and would have tried to impose exactly the same conference a few years hence.

Dulles and the US proposed an agreement too: internationalising the canal, with Egypt receiving the profits, which he claimed would respect Egypt’s sovereignty. This idea was supported by a majority of attendees, and was to be proposed to Nasser. However, Dulles declined to go himself, where he could have made a difference, and the Brits wanted this whole thing offered and rejected quickly so their invasion timetable wasn’t delayed. They were hoping negotiations would fail, but needed to have them for public relations reasons. As talks went on, D-Day for the invasion was pushed back. Their plan received a commander: General Charles Keightley, who was appointed in charge of both UK and French forces.

However, while the UK and France still thought they could achieve success in a war over Suez without US forces, what they wanted was US approval, and so US funds and economic support. A British working group now had to formulate a plan for how to replace Nasser, and a related study told the British that without Middle Eastern oil they would cease to be a viable country.

This caused the British to try and hurry things along even quicker, while their troop movements and message to British civilians in Egypt to leave were considered by the US to be unacceptable psychological pressure on Nasser. He, however, was subtly countering, such as removing a UK spy ring. Meanwhile Israel contacted France, the most pro-Israeli of the two plotters, and asked to be involved.

The message to Nasser was to be taken by the Australian Menzies. It looked very much like imperialism, and in the mildest interpretation accused the Egyptians of being too incompetent to run a canal, and in the broadest of Nasser being like Hitler. Nasser replied that he didn’t trust the UK, France or even the US to treaty Egypt fairly if they took the canal again. Why would Egypt surrender sovereignty of her country now? Egypt put forward counter proposals; they weren’t welcomed. Menzies left, empty handed.


In the meantime Dulles had formulated a peaceful way of pushing Egypt to agreement: form an international group who would station their ships at either end of the canal and run it from there, depriving Egypt of the money and making them concede. It sounded odd, but the UK went along with it to enmesh the US in the situation, while the US were using it to delay the UK.

This was to be CASU, later SCUA, the Co-Operative Association of Suez Canal Users.

Seeing the UK still moving to war, Eisenhower banned the UK from attacking, and they responded by saying Hitler should have been stopped in 1936 and Nasser would unite the Middle East, be pro-Soviet, and win the Cold War against them. Eden and company really did believe they would be destroyed if the canal was left Egyptian, even though they had been recently planning to build Nasser up and use him to lead the middle East.  Of particular interest is the economists in Britain who were pointing out that fighting this was without US money might ruin the currency and the UK. Some in the UK thought both fighting and not fighting would destroy the country. The Tsar had been briefed as such in 1914.

Dulles’ plan wasn’t popular with the British canal operators, who saw the result as chaos for no reason.

But it was finally agreed to allow their staff to quit, assuming they wanted to run the Egyptian gauntlet. No one was arrested doing so when ninety pilots and 212 staff walked out. Foreign supporters of Egypt arrived to help. Disappointed in not being given a reason to fight over the fleeing workers, the UK and France decided that the Dulles plan would cause the provocation they needed to attack, and would get them US backing to. Failing this the UK decided to get a pass through the UN security council.

More War Plans

With all these delays, Keightley gained recognition that Musketeer needed revising, so it could work quicker (once begun), and to solve all the problems he had found with it. He was also worried, as were many military men, that the bombardment needed at Alexandria would kill so many women and children as to lose all moral high ground. He wanted the air attacks to be on non-civilian targets and a landing in Port Said. France agreed a three phase plan: 1. destroy the enemy air force, 2. an aerial bombardment over a week avoiding civilians, and 3. easy landings. Cairo’s oil and supplies were to be interdicted, to ruin Egyptian will, and the bombing was to be partly psychological and propaganda based, to make people remove Nasser. Allied radio tried to destabilise Nasser by accusing him of being Zionist.


The canal was still functioning, despite the UK organising a mass of shipping to try and break the system, and then Nasser said CASU could happen. Egypt would wait for it to fail and provide them with a reason to act.

The world was now telling the UK and France to go to the UN, not to attack, and the fallout from Menzies failure meant a new London Conference. It was the sort of conference that complained CASU was a bad acronym, and picked SCUA. The plan was lowered in scope and the UK and France feared it would never provoke Nasser into a new reason to be invaded, so the UK gave in and wrote to the UN.

Israel and France Ally

France was fed up with the UK delays and SCUA, and entered into a deal with Israel to work together if the UK did not attack Egypt. They also arranged to send Israel an atomic reactor… France went on a charm offensive and mentioned Israeli support to Eden, who was interested, but then the global eye on Suez moved. There had been a tit for tat lethal border incident between Israel and Jordan and the border began flaring up into violence, and war looked possible. As Israeli-Jordanian reprisals spiraled, Israel seized the chance to form an alliance with a western great power, France, hoping they would neutralise UK support for Jordan and work towards Egypt. Israel aimed to take the land that would end the blockade of Eilat and turn it into a strong port, which France agreed with, but the problem was France wanted Israel to attack first so they could just join in after, whereas Israel wanted a joint attack with the UK and France. Could Israel attack Egypt without Jordan attacking them in support? And how would the UK react to this? Israeli-French planning picked up speed, but it looked more likely that they needed the UK and that depended on the UN.

Behind the scenes at the UN, the UK and France outlined a doomsday scenario if Nasser was left unchecked. The US put the counter scenario that the west would lose the Middle East as allies. Egypt put their case also, and offered to negotiate a little. The UN Security Council now accepted six points: respect of Egypt’s sovereignty, respect for free use of the canal, send the canal company arguments to arbitration, Egypt to negotiate the finances with users, Egypt to use some of the profits for development, and the canal to be left out of politics. For Eisenhower, the crisis had passed. However it was balanced by events in the Middle East, where Israel was increasingly at odds with Jordan (and their Iraqi allies). The UK saw their role in the Middle East about to go wrong on many levels very quickly. Israel was unhappy with the British, believing their attempts to damage Nasser through the radio (calling him Zionist) and trying to get Iraqi troops into Jordan to take the leadership role off Nasser, was damaging their new state. When one Israeli reprisal raid into Jordan looked like the start of a war, Jordan got the UK to threaten a counter war. Relationships between Israel and the UK were at a low ebb. They would change very quickly.

Britain, France and Israel: Secret Plots and Alliance

Then the British stepped back and thought. They concluded Jordan could not win a war against Israel even with RAF bombing, and the UK did not want to be on opposite sides to the US. Equally, helping Jordan to stand up to Israel would stop the latter attacking Egypt. Those below Eden, Mollet and Ben-Gurion in government got together and formed a plan: Israel could attack over to the canal, when the UK and France would pretend to step in as peacemakers, dropping in an army pretending to be a police force on the canal. Eden liked the idea but Ben-Gurion hated it, seeing all the blame placed on his new state. Nasser, meanwhile, was telling Jordan to refuse any provocation into war with Israel.

Eden now met the French Prime Minister for further talks over their plans, which were held in secret, with key military commanders not involved. The UK and France agreed: if Israel attacked Egypt they would ignore the tripartite agreements to defend Egypt and call for both sides to withdraw, then go into the canal. Eden liked it, and faced the fact his force could not just sit waiting for much longer before it fell apart, so a decision needed to be made if they were to attack. He pushed the plan, but only a small number of people in each nation knew what it was, and thanks to Jordan UK forces were sat wondering whether they would be fighting Egypt or Israel.

At this point, Nasser decided to join in the UN led discussions personally. Meanwhile Ben-Gurion had been invited to a discussion on the secret plan, a plan he hated led by a UK he distrusted. Why would his country take the blame and the UK the canal? Advisors told him Israel had ample justification to attack Egypt, and should take the chance to conquer land and get France as a major ally. Ben-Gurion flew to France to speak to them, and it was stressed the UK needed a pretext to burst into action. Totally in secret, the UK now sent their Foreign Secretary so discussions between the UK and Israel could take place: they were difficult. Israel feared Egyptian bombers hitting their cities if the UK and France didn’t destroy the Egyptian air force quickly enough after the invasion. The group paused with no decision. France now offered piloted fighter planes to Israel.

The rest of the world was still moving. Hungary flared into rebellion against the USSR, the US was nearing a presidential election, and Jordan elected a nationalist government. France formed up a plan to keep the UK and Israel involved: an Israeli attack into Egypt, followed thirty six hours later by the UK and France getting involved. There was a new meeting, again at Sevres, and here the secret Protocol of Sevres was drawn up. Israel would mount a massive raid, to take the land needed to halt the blockade and also to approach the canal, followed by the UK and France calling for both forces to withdraw away from the canal, which they would occupy. Egypt was to be told to allow the UK and France to land here for security reasons. If Egypt refused, it would be invaded anyway. Israel agreed not to attack Jordan, and if Jordan attacked first the UK would not aid them. All this planning was top secret; Eden was unhappy there were even three typed copies created. Nasser had not been resting, and organised an alliance with Syria and Jordan, creating an allied counter round Israel’s borders, all under Egyptian command. Israel intended to destroy it.