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8. Suez

Shortly after an uneasy peace settlement was reached in the Taiwan Straits, longstanding tensions in the Middle East erupted into open conflict during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser—who had already overthrown the Farouk government in 1952, declared Egypt a republic and publicly advocated a Pan-Arab movement against the West—nationalised the Suez Canal after Britain and the United States removed its support for the construction of the Aswan Dam. The canal had previously been under British control since the late nineteenth century and was an important shipping route to countries in Southern Africa and the South Pacific.

Before the crisis reached a climax in late 1956, the Britons and Americans discussed different options for subduing Nasser. Eisenhower hoped to encourage local and international political resistance against him through a secret operation called Operation Omega, which aimed to use both diplomacy and covert action to thwart his ambitions in the Arab world. Anthony Eden—who had succeeded Churchill as British Prime Minister in 1955—instead wanted to take a much more direct approach. In conjunction with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Eden worked on plans to assassinate Nasser either covertly or through a large-scale invasion. In his eyes, Nasser was comparable to Hitler and needed to be eliminated as soon as possible. In letters to Eisenhower and in discussions with the SIS, he made frequent comparisons between Nasser, Hitler and Mussolini.1 “I feel myself that we can no longer safely wait on Nasser”, Eden wrote to Eisenhower in early March, “a policy of appeasement will bring us nothing in Egypt.”2 Eden was particularly convinced of the ineffectiveness of appeasement, as he had previously resigned as foreign secretary during the Neville Chamberlain government in 1938 due in part to growing dissatisfaction over British efforts to appease Nazi Germany in the lead up to World War II.

Resorting to force, however, had much deeper implications in the context of the larger battle between East and West during the Cold War. Eisenhower told Eden that he feared Nasser might work closely with the Soviets if Western powers pushed too aggressively in Egypt. “I share your current concerns over the current developments in the Middle East”, Eisenhower wrote on 9 March, “we face a broad challenge to our position in the Near East […] [as] the Soviets have made it abundantly clear even in their public statements their intentions toward the Near East.” He added that “some moves by Nasser have assisted the Soviets”, and under these circumstances, “it may well be that [the United States and Britain] shall be driven to conclude that it is impossible to do business with Nasser. Yet for all of his concerns, Eisenhower was not willing to completely dismiss finding a peaceful solution with Nasser. “I do not think that we should close the door yet on the possibility of working with him”, he argued in a letter to Eden.3 Eisenhower, in short, wanted to explore all options to maintain the US position in the Middle East in order to stop Soviet expansionism in the region and protect American access to regional oil reserves.

Prelude to Crisis

By mid-1956, the prospect of finding a peaceful solution with Nasser evaporated quickly. On 19 July, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the United States was formally withdrawing aid for the Aswan Dam Project. In a meeting with Egyptian Ambassador in Washington Ahmed Hussein, Dulles suggested that there was “little goodwill toward Egypt on the part of the American public”, so much so that Dulles doubted whether the Administration could obtain the funds from Congress. “For the time being”, Dulles told Hussein, “the Dam project should be put on the shelf while we try to develop a better atmosphere and better relations.”4

One week later, Nasser announced Egyptian plans to nationalise the Suez Canal. Nasser declared that this was the “answer to American and British conspiracies against Egypt” and a response to “imperialistic efforts to thwart Egyptian independence.”5 Nasser’s decision greatly concerned Eden, who immediately began plans to intervene militarily in Egypt. He believed that Nasser’s action was not only a threat to Britain’s economic interests but it was also a provocative attack on British power and authority. Eden immediately established an Egypt Committee (an inner circle of British Cabinet members that planned for a Suez operation) and warned Eisenhower that Britain was prepared to use force in Egypt. “My colleagues and I are convinced that we must be ready, in the last resort, to use force to bring Nasser to his senses”, Eden told Eisenhower on 27 July.6

Figure 17. Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser cheered in Cairo after nationalising the Suez Canal. Photo by unknown (1956), Wikimedia,, public domain.

The surprising extent to which Eden was determined to retain control in Suez reveals much about his character and influence in British politics. After building an international name for himself as British foreign secretary during World War II, Eden worked largely in Churchill’s shadow during the post-war years, first as deputy opposition leader between 1945 and 1951, and then as his deputy prime minister during Churchill’s final term in office between 1951 to 1955. He did, however, exercise considerable influence over the conduct of British foreign policy—so much so that one biographer claimed he bullied Churchill into retreating on commitments regarding Europe and the Middle East that the Conservatives had made while in opposition.7

As prime minister, Suez became Eden’s pivotal issue. He became fixated on Nasser and was determined not to let events in Egypt undermine British prestige. To be sure, while Eden did have some support for his actions in Suez, it was a far cry from what he told Eisenhower about his colleagues being convinced that force would be necessary as a last resort. In fact, his Egypt Committee excluded many top British policymakers and aimed to keep plans for an invasion secret. Indeed, most officials knew nothing about British plans and were astonished when they heard that Eden was potentially planning for an Anglo-French ultimatum and invasion. For one, Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh, who had been responsible for Middle Eastern policy, was not alone in the Foreign Office in thinking that Eden had “gone off his head.”8

For their part, the Americans were not willing to consider the use of force. Instead, policymakers in Washington preferred a peaceful diplomatic approach. US Under Secretary of State Herbert Hoover Jr. urged Eisenhower not to consider military action as there were “grave dangers” in such a response. “While [a] strong position should be taken in order to preserve Western status in [the] Middle East”, Hoover told Eisenhower on 28 July, the “confiscation of the Suez company was not sufficient reason for military intervention.” Hoover added that “unless we (the United States) can introduce an element of restraint, Eden will tend to move much too rapidly and without adequate cause for armed intervention.”9 Eisenhower agreed with Hoover’s assessment. “I cannot over-emphasise the strength of my conviction”, Eisenhower wrote to Eden on 31 July, that all diplomatic routes must be explored “before action such as you contemplate should be undertaken.”10 Hoover and Eisenhower certainly held deep-seated concerns in Washington about Eden’s temperament regarding the use of force in Suez, and needed to garner additional diplomatic support from American allies to persuade Eden not to use this course of action.

To this end, four days later Eisenhower met with Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies and Australian Ambassador Percy Spender in Washington. Eisenhower hoped that the two Australians—both of whom had considerable experience in dealing with Eden—might assist US efforts in advising London against the use of force in the Middle East. As Eisenhower told Menzies, he “hoped that the United Kingdom and France would continue to exercise restraint.” He added that London should be careful not to succumb to the “tyranny of the weak”, a term he used to describe “the difficulty that arises when weak nations are in a position to challenge great powers by taking advantage of certain situations.”11

Attempts to talk to Menzies about the repercussions of Eden’s views on Egypt fell on deaf ears. Even though Australia had withdrawn from its defence commitments in the Middle East, Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal prompted Menzies to pledge his support for British efforts in the region. On 30 July, Menzies suggested to the External Affairs Department that military action might be necessary in order to ensure that Nasser did not “get away with such an act of brigandage.”12 One day later, Menzies made similar comments in a meeting with British Ambassador in Washington Roger Makins and US Under Secretary of State Herbert Hoover. “I made it clear [to Makins and Hoover] that in my opinion Nasser’s action was illegal”, Menzies recalled, “and unless his prestige could be materially diminished, [the United States and Britain] would be exposed to trouble after trouble in the Middle East.”13 Like Eden, Menzies saw developments in Egypt as an affront to British prestige and steadfastly urged the Commonwealth to defend its economic and strategic interests in the canal region. In this instance, Menzies’s British “boot heels” were on clear display.

This view, however, was challenged by several policymakers in Canberra. Australian External Affairs Minister Richard Casey, Defence Minister Philip McBride and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Fadden all urged Menzies against military action, suggesting that they all saw “substantial arguments against the use of force.” If force was used, they claimed that trading vessels in the region would be in danger, the participating powers would be brought before the UN Security Council, and relations with Arab and Asian countries would be jeopardised.14 Adding to these concerns was the complete lack of consultation between Australia and Britain especially in relation to the possibility of resorting to force. “We have had nothing from the UK about their intentions in respect of the use of force nor their appreciation of its military and political effects”, Casey penned in his diary on 7 August.15

Although Casey, Fadden and McBride did not advocate the use of force to retain international control of the Canal, the military recommended that Canberra should support London if a decision was made to intervene. The Australian Defence Committee produced a report on 9 August that concluded that Western control of Suez was of “major importance” because Australia relied heavily on regional oil reserves and free access to the shipping route. The report also concluded that total Egyptian control of the canal would affect “the flow of reinforcements and supplies from the United Kingdom to the Far East in an emergency.”16 In this regard, Australian defence interests in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region became intertwined.

From a military standpoint, Australia fully supported British intervention despite its limited potential to contribute to military action. The “immediate military objective should be to seize and occupy the canal”, the Defence Committee report advised Menzies, even though it conceded that only a token Australian force might be available for deployment while most of its troops were stationed in Malaya. The report outlined that “if the situation was to deteriorate in Southeast Asia or the Far East, it may be necessary to bring back any Australian forces deployed in the Suez Canal area.” In short, Australia was prepared to support Anglo-French military action in Suez. However, an Australian commitment to the region should “be small and limited to the navy and air force.”17

New Zealand reached similar conclusions. Like Australia, Wellington was unable to proffer any significant number of defence forces in the event of an armed intervention (although a New Zealand warship aptly called the Royalist was stationed in the Mediterranean). Diplomatically, Wellington was fully behind any British action in the region to protect Commonwealth interests. As New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland told British Foreign Minister Selwyn Lloyd on 30 July, “you may be assured that New Zealand will as always fully support any steps which the United Kingdom feels obliged to take to ensure that vital British rights are fully protected.”18 Holland’s conviction that New Zealand should stand fully behind Britain was no secret. He made very similar comments in the New Zealand Parliament eight days later. “Where Britain stands, we stand; where she goes we go, in good times and bad”, Holland announced on 7 August. In his estimation, that was the “mood of the New Zealand people” on the topic.19 After Holland’s speech, External Affairs Minister Thomas Macdonald made a similar speech that was particularly scathing of Egyptian action in the canal:

The manner in which the Egyptian government has acted […] has given Britain and other European countries no ground for comfort at all. Egypt has waged over the air against the United Kingdom a constant propaganda campaign which has at times been vicious and virulent. She has endeavoured to create trouble by turning neighbouring countries against the countries of Europe […] Egypt gives us no reassurance at all concerning Egyptian intentions, and the unheralded and arbitrary method of this latest seizure gives no promise of future harmony and can only be deplored.

For these reasons, Macdonald argued that New Zealand must stand wholeheartedly behind British action against Egypt, even with the potential use of force. “Britain has every justification for preparing to meet any eventuality”, Macdonald declared. “As to mobilisation”, he added, “I think it has been overlooked, and it should not be.”20 New Zealand support for the use of force, however, was not unanimous. Much as Casey, Fadden and McBride urged Menzies to renounce the use of force as a means to respond to Nasser’s nationalisation, New Zealand High Commissioner in London Thomas Clifton Webb hoped Britain would not respond with military action. “Let us hope they have not committed themselves to something which […] cannot be carried out”, Webb wrote to Macdonald on 31 July, “either because of lack of support from [the] USA […] or even from their own public here.”21

While Britain and France contemplated the use of force in Egypt, an international conference was held in London during mid-August in the hope that a diplomatic solution might be found to return the canal to international control. Before the conference, Menzies made a television address to the British public on 13 August to outline his views toward the developing crisis. Menzies, in no uncertain terms, placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Nasser. “Nasser’s actions in respect of the Suez Canal Company have created a crisis more grave [sic] than any since the Second World War”, Menzies concluded. Menzies did not trust Nasser at all and was convinced that it would be “suicidal” to leave the Commonwealth’s vital trading interests in Suez solely in his hands. Moreover, he stressed that Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal was illegal under international law and would encourage further aggression if left unchecked. By nationalising the canal and rejecting the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, Menzies argued that “Nasser violated the first principle of international law” and this grievance “will encourage other acts of lawlessness if not resisted.”22

At the conference, Menzies maintained that his country was unprepared to accept anything less than a return to international control of the Suez Canal. “Australia has a great interest in freedom of transit” in Suez, Menzies said in a speech in London. According to Menzies, the “essential factor” was the establishment of an efficient administrative body in the canal so that all nations could benefit from its free operation.23 New Zealand External Affairs Minister Thomas Macdonald made a similar statement in London. The organisation of the Suez Canal, Macdonald argued, “must, in our view, be on an international basis […] it should be able to assure free transit of the Canal, it should be efficient, and it should not be subject to financial instability.”24 In other words, both Australian and New Zealand representatives in London thought that international management of the canal was essential.

Even though Menzies announced that his government completely supported British action in Egypt, Australian External Affairs Minister Casey continued to urge him to renounce the use of force as an appropriate solution. “I recommended to Menzies that he should speak against the use of force to Anthony Eden, [as] it would put us completely in the wrong with public opinion in practically every part of the world”, Casey penned in his diary on 17 August. He added that “I recommended that he should seek to get an appreciation from the UK of the military side, of which we were entirely in the dark. I failed to see what could be achieved by action of this sort.”25

Casey’s New Zealand counterpart, Thomas Macdonald, was suspicious that Australia and New Zealand were purposefully “left in the dark” at the conference in order to prepare for Anglo-French military action. Suspecting a secret invasion plot, Macdonald now thought that military action would be disastrous for Britain and Western interests in the region. Writing to the New Zealand Prime Minister on 23 August, Macdonald advised against supporting British military action. He suggested that the entire conference was designed to prepare an unacceptable proposal to offer to Nasser, which he would reject, in order to make the use of force appear more reasonable. This, in Macdonald’s view, was “one of the main reasons for the conference.”26 Macdonald’s suspicions proved to be correct. Eden had planned to take back the canal regardless of the outcome of negotiations. As one British Foreign Service Officer Anthony Nutting recalled later about the crisis, “Eden hoped that the conference would produce a solution unacceptable to Nasser.”27 In other words, the outcome of the Suez Conference was destined to fail. Eden had already authorised that French troops were to be stationed in Cyprus and asked British subjects to leave the Middle East area on 29 August, days before any diplomatic approach was made to Nasser.

Nonetheless a committee was appointed in London, comprised of representatives from Australia, Ethiopia, Iran, Sweden and the United States, in order to present a number of proposals to Nasser that were agreed upon by eighteen of the twenty-two participating powers at the conference. These proposals revolved around returning the canal to international control. On strong insistence from Dulles and Eden, Prime Minister Menzies agreed to lead this committee and present the agreed proposals to Nasser. Menzies surely felt it as a compliment that he might play an instrumental role in resolving a complex international situation. Unaware of Eden’s actual plans, Menzies was especially enthusiastic about leading the committee because he was concerned that the outbreak of war in Egypt was “an even money chance.” There was a “very distinct prospect”, Menzies feared, that Britain and France would use military force should a diplomatic solution not be reached.28

Menzies and the Suez Committee met with Nasser in Cairo on 3 and 4 September to present the agreements reached in London. While making clear that there was “no spirit of hostility” about the agreements being proposed, Menzies emphasised to Nasser that the use of force was a realistic possibility should he choose to reject the proposals. As he warned Nasser, it would be “a mistake for you to exclude the possible use of force from your reckoning.” Nasser, however, did not budge in the face of this possibility. “President Nasser took our proposals apart, tore them up, and metaphorically consigned them to the wastepaper basket”, Menzies recalled. Nasser then rejected the proposals formally on 9 September, claiming that they were a form of “collective colonialism.”29

Menzies returned to Australia disappointed and frustrated by Nasser’s stubbornness. Fending off media criticism that he had failed in his efforts to convince Nasser to agree to the committee’s proposals, he stressed that Nasser was uncooperative and entirely to blame for the crisis. “This repudiation by the President of Egypt was committed without notice, without consent, and in fact, by force”, Menzies said at a press conference in Sydney on 18 September, “those things are worth remembering.” “It is quite true that I was appointed as chief spokesman for presenting these matters to the President of Egypt”, Menzies added, but “I don’t think anyone could challenge the fairness or indeed the generosity of one item in the proposals.” He also rejected Nasser’s claim that the Suez Committee’s proposals were a form of collective colonialism. “I hope it will be remembered that under the proposals put forward Egypt’s position as landlord was recognised completely”, Menzies argued, stressing that “Egypt was to be the only nation deriving any profit from the Canal at all.”30

Since it paved the way for military action, Eden was surely pleased by Nasser’s rejection of the committee’s proposals. Eden, however, placed the committee’s failure squarely on Eisenhower, who during the conference told the media that he hoped for a peaceful solution to the crisis while the British were threatening Nasser with the use of force. This, in London’s view, completely undermined their negotiating position with Egypt. “We must […] show that Nasser is not going to get his way”, Eden urged in a letter to Eisenhower on 6 September.31 Meanwhile, Eisenhower continued to stress publicly that he would not use force in order to find a resolution to the crisis. “This country will not got go war ever while I am occupying my present post unless the Congress declares such a war”, Eisenhower said at a press conference on 11 September. Dulles made similar remarks in a press conference the next day, suggesting that even if the United States had a right to intervene militarily “we (the United States) did not intend to shoot our way through.”32

Many policymakers in New Zealand, who continued to be very supportive of the British during negotiations over Suez, similarly placed blame on Eisenhower and the Americans for doing little to support British diplomatic efforts. As New Zealand External Affairs Secretary Alister McIntosh told his former Deputy Foss Shanahan on 24 August,

How infuriating the British must find the Americans over Suez […] when it comes to ostriches I am sure that bigger birds never stuck their heads into a bigger expanse of sand than Dulles is now doing in the undignified spectacle they present near the Pyramids.33

In reality, there were no major differences with respect to US and British views about the threat Nasser posed. Anglo-American tensions were rather a result of differences about how they should respond to this threat. As Eisenhower described in a letter to Eden on 8 September, the United States and Britain had a “grave problem confronting Nasser’s reckless adventure with the Canal” and did not differ in their “estimates of his intentions and purposes.” The main point of Anglo-American disagreement, according to Eisenhower, was resorting to force and “the probable effects in the Arab world of the various possible reactions by the Western world.” The possibility of a Western military response clearly concerned Eisenhower, which in his estimation would be a disaster and hurt US prestige in the Arab world. According to Eisenhower resorting to war “when the world believes there are other means available for resolving the dispute would set in motion forces that could lead, in the years to come, to the most distressing results.”34

Eisenhower and Dulles were especially fearful that after the failed Menzies mission, Eden was even more likely to pursue military options in Egypt. On 6 September, Dulles held a Congressional meeting with Senators Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield and William Langer to brief them on the Suez situation and gather bipartisan approval for renouncing the use of force in Egypt. Dulles warned that the British and the French thought that it was necessary to “begin military operations to curb Nasser.” “The British feel that if Nasser gets away with it”, Dulles said, “it will start a chain of events in the Near East that will reduce the UK to another Netherlands or Portugal in a very few years.” Dulles told the Senators that he and Eisenhower were doing everything in their power to “strongly discourage” the use of force, as they felt it would be “disastrous for the French and the UK militarily to intervene at this point.”35 There were no criticisms or partisanship injected during the meeting. All three Senators agreed with Dulles’s efforts to prevent the use of force in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Eisenhower sent several letters directly to Eden in the hope he might convince him to reconsider military action. Eden was, however, unconvinced by Eisenhower’s reasoning. Instead, Eden argued that anything other than the use of force would be appeasement, a policy that could lead to catastrophic results. “There is no doubt in our minds that Nasser, whether he likes it or not, is now effectively in Russian hands, just as Mussolini was in Hitler’s”, Eden said to Eisenhower. He argued that “it would be as ineffective to show weakness to Nasser now in order to placate him as it was to show weakness to Mussolini […] that is why we must do everything we can.”36 Seemingly out of touch with British thinking on the matter, Dulles also turned to Australia to express his concerns. “I am beginning to feel concerned”, Dulles wrote to Menzies and Casey on 27 October, “I am not myself in close touch with recent British-French thinking but in view of [the] leading role Australia has played, I feel it appropriate to express my concern.”37

Israel Invades Egypt

Eisenhower’s and Dulles’s messages to London and Canberra could not prevent the escalation of the crisis in the Suez Canal. Despite American efforts, Eden remained inclined to use military action to topple Nasser and re-internationalise the Suez Canal. Tensions in Suez reached a climax on 29 October when Israeli forces, in collusion with Britain and France, invaded the Sinai Peninsula. None of the ANZUS powers, nor other Commonwealth countries, were informed beforehand of this secret Anglo-French plan. “For a long time the Middle East has been simmering”, Eden said in a message to all Commonwealth Prime Ministers a day later, “now it is boiling over.”38 In the message, Eden detailed plans for an Anglo-French response, omitting entirely that London and Paris secretly supported the Israeli invasion in the first place. He explained that unless the Israelis and Egyptians withdrew within twelve hours, Anglo-French forces would seize the canal and overthrow Nasser. Nasser predictably rejected the ultimatum, which ultimately led to an Anglo-French invasion of Egypt on 5 November.

Figure 18. British Naval Carriers during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Photo by British Royal Navy official photographer (1956), Wikimedia,, public domain.

In Washington, the Eisenhower Administration was shocked and angered by Anglo-French action without American consultation. “I think the British made a bad error”, Eisenhower told Senator William Knowland on 31 October, “I think it is the biggest error of our time.” In a meeting with Dulles, Eisenhower said he was “astonished” that Eden avoided informing Washington of its decision. “They are our friends and allies [Britain and France]”, Eisenhower said, “and suddenly they put us in a hole and expect us to rescue them.”39 At an NSC meeting on 1 November, Eisenhower and Dulles argued that the United States must do all it could to push for a peaceful resolution by exerting the greatest possible pressure on Britain and France. “Recent events are close to marking a death knell for Britain and France”, Dulles described, and the United States had to decide whether it would side with its oldest allies or the Arab world. Eisenhower made his choice clear: in his eyes, the action Eden had taken was “nothing short of disastrous.” “How could we possibly support Britain and France if in so doing we lose the whole Arab world”, Eisenhower asked rhetorically.40

In discussing the international reaction, Dulles specified that there was so far very little support for British-French action in Egypt. He stressed that the “verdict of the rest of the world [was] altogether unanimous” in its opposition to the use of force in Egypt. There were, however, two exceptions to this opposition to British-French action: as Secretary Dulles told the NSC, approval for the attacks had only come from Australia and New Zealand. However, as explained, there were extenuating factors in their cases. In Australia there was “much unhappiness” amongst the public about British action. Moreover, at the political level, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Allen Dulles (John Foster Dulles’s younger brother) suggested that there was “a wide split of opinion between Menzies and Casey.” In New Zealand’s case, John Foster Dulles simply suggested that “it was virtually a colony and almost invariably followed the lead of the United Kingdom.”41

Meanwhile, angered by Eden’s betrayal, Eisenhower wrote to the British Prime Minister to express his concern about the Anglo-French ultimatum. “I feel I must urgently express to you my deep concern at the prospect of this drastic action”, he wrote, “even at the very time when the matter is under consideration in the United Nations Security Council.”42 Privately, Eisenhower followed the decisions reached at the NSC meeting on 1 November and put severe economic and military pressure on the British, hoping this would sway London to agree to a UN ceasefire and withdraw from the Canal area. The US Sixth Fleet harassed the Anglo-French invasion fleet in the Mediterranean and delayed its arrival into Egypt, while in Washington, Eisenhower approved a series of economic sanctions against Britain to compel the British to withdraw.

Eisenhower likewise put diplomatic pressure on Britain and France through the introduction of a UN ceasefire resolution. After consultation with Dulles and the NSC, Eisenhower argued that the United States must present a ceasefire resolution to the United Nations as soon as possible. In his estimation, the United States must lead this ceasefire resolution before the Soviet Union presented its own resolution in order to prevent Moscow from “seizing a mantle of world leadership through a false but convincing exhibition of concern for smaller nations.” Overall, in an effort not to embarrass the British and French by specifically naming them, US action in the UN aimed to avoid “singling out or condemning any one nation, but should serve to emphasise to the world our hope for a quick ceasefire.”43 An emergency United Nations session was then called on 1 November. Dulles introduced a ceasefire resolution that passed by a margin of 64-5. Along with Britain, France and Israel, Australia and New Zealand were the only other countries to oppose the resolution.

As Dulles predicted, then, Australia and New Zealand both publicly supported British action in the Suez Canal. While disturbed by conflict in the Middle East, New Zealand Prime Minister Holland believed that the British response protected Commonwealth interests and was necessary to preserve Britain’s vital interests in the region. “We are naturally gravely concerned”, Holland wrote to the New Zealand High Commission in London, yet he added that “there is no need for me to stress New Zealand’s ties of blood and empire and our traditional attitude of standing by Britain in her difficulties. He added that “I can assure you of our deepest sympathy for the United Kingdom in the situation now confronting her. It is our desire, as always, to be of the most utmost assistance.” Holland also shared these thoughts to the New Zealand public. In a statement on 1 November, Holland announced that “I have the full confidence in the United Kingdom’s intentions in moving forces into the Canal area” and declared New Zealand would do all it could to assist Eden and the Britons in their hour of need.44

In Canberra, Menzies pledged similar public support for British action. Writing to Dulles, he stated that his government supported Anglo-French action. “Quite frankly I do not believe that it would be in the interests of any of us to have [the] Canal closed for weeks and possibly months”, Menzies said; “from this point of view my colleagues and I see considerable merit in police action which is involved in the Anglo-French ultimatum.”45 He made a similar statement to the Australian public on 3 November, stressing his opinion that Anglo-French action was necessary. “The action taken by the United Kingdom and France was the only quick and practical means of separating the belligerents and protecting the Canal”, Menzies announced. He also argued that it was “wrong and absurd” to consider Nasser, the “author of the Canal confiscation and promoter of anti-British activities in the Middle East”, as an “innocent victim of unprovoked aggression.”46 Put another way, Menzies clearly thought that Nasser’s actions had caused military action against Egypt and on some level Nasser deserved it.

Privately, however, policymakers in the Tasman countries expressed grave concerns about British action. Canberra and Wellington were also concerned that pledging public support for Britain compromised their security relationship with the United States. New Zealand reports from Washington confirmed these concerns shortly after the Israeli invasion on 29 October. As the crisis escalated, New Zealand Ambassador in Washington Leslie Munro met with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Rountree in Washington to discuss the American reaction to the crisis. He reported to Wellington on 31 October that the situation was of the “utmost gravity, both from [the] point of view of [an] Anglo-American breach and in terms of general security in the Middle East.” Munro warned that the situation could develop to a point where the Western position in the Middle East became “irretrievable.”47 In a subsequent cablegram to Prime Minister Holland later that day, Munro stressed that Anglo-French action “put New Zealand in a difficult position vis-à-vis its ANZUS partner, the United States, and confronts us with a critical choice between British and American policies in the Middle East.”48

Australia was caught in a similarly difficult position. In Canberra, Menzies stressed that a rift in Anglo-American relations was deeply concerning to Australia. “I have myself urged upon both British and American leaders that consultations should speedily occur to reconcile any differences of opinion”, Menzies said to the House of Representatives on 1 November. He added that “it is a great misfortune that there have been public differences between those great democracies whose friendly cooperation is so vital to us all.” Nonetheless, despite this rift in Anglo-American relations, Menzies remained supportive of British action. Menzies echoed this belief in an address to Parliament on 3 November, stating that Anglo-French action was “the only quick and practical means of separating the belligerents and protecting the Canal.”49 He then wrote to Eden, reassuring the British Prime Minister that he had Australia’s full support:

You have indeed had a difficult decision to take but I am sure that you are right. Under these circumstances, an abandonment of operations by [Britain] and France would have left the Canal unprotected, would have given fresh heart to Egypt and would have meant a lot of destructive fighting around and over the Canal itself […] our support remains undiminished and that we think that you were and are right. It is tragic at a time like this you should have to encounter such intemperate and stupid attack.50

It is indeed telling that, even without any consultation from London, Australia chose to place its support behind British action. As far as Canberra was concerned, Britain’s vital interests came before any possible diplomatic backlash in Washington. “I believe that Anglo-French action was correct”, Menzies later told Eisenhower, “in Australia I believe that approval of the British action is widespread.”51

Even then, choosing sides between the United States and Britain was quite difficult for Australian policymakers. Casey, fearing the effect this crisis would have on Australian-American relations, did not stand completely beside Menzies in his support for British action. For Casey, it was greatly concerning that a rift in Anglo-American relations was so publicly exposed. During discussions for a ceasefire in the United Nations, Casey reported to Menzies that “I was greatly distressed by [the] atmosphere at [the] United Nations.” He added that “the almost physical cleavage between United Kingdom and United States was one of the most distressing things I had [sic] ever experienced.”52

Casey was not alone. Many Australian and New Zealand diplomats were privately concerned by an Anglo-American rift over Suez because it put Canberra and Wellington in a very difficult position between its two most important allies. To this end, Australian and New Zealand diplomats agreed that they faced the same dire situation. Writing about a meeting he had with New Zealand High Commissioner in London Clifton Webb as well as other British Ministers on 2 November, Casey recalled that:

There is a great deal of doubt, to put it mildly, in most people’s minds, about the wisdom of the enterprise on which the UK has launched. The fact is that I have met no-one (apart from senior Ministers) amongst the many friends with whom I have been in contact, who are in favour of it, and many of them are genuinely and greatly distressed. Their fears are not on account of the outcome of the military operation, but for the effect on the position and prestige of Britain and as to whether the operation will not have a longstanding effect the reverse of what is intended.53

In Wellington, the New Zealand External Affairs Department expressed deep concern about London’s decision to intervene. In a letter to Foss Shanahan, External Affairs Secretary Alister McIntosh compared the Suez Crisis to the outbreak of the Second World War. “The last few days have been all too reminiscent of 1939”, McIntosh told Shanahan; “we in the Department have been horrified at the implications of British action, but Cabinet as a whole and the Prime Minister have been thoroughly in favour of backing the United Kingdom.”54

McIntosh was particularly alarmed by British action. Writing to New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner in London Frank Corner, McIntosh described Eden’s decision to intervene in the Suez area as “criminal.” “In my view”, McIntosh concluded, “he [Eden] ought to be impeached.” He was particularly concerned that the crisis had developed so suddenly and without any consultation with Wellington. In another letter to Corner, McIntosh wrote that “one of the features about this Middle East Crisis that has shaken me most is not only the lack of consultation between the United Kingdom and the Dominions but also the slackening flow of information as the crisis has proceeded.” Corner agreed with McIntosh’s grim assessment of the deteriorating situation and criticised the lack of information that came from London, suggesting that Eden must be quite mad. “It is said that the Arabs have enormous respect for madmen”, Corner said memorably, “because Allah is supposed to reveal himself through them. If only the doctors would confirm the diagnosis of Whitehall and certify Eden.”55 Corner’s comments were particularly intriguing because rumours about Eden’s health and its impact on his decision-making had been circulating for quite some time. Many historical studies have also raised this concern in analyses of British policy during the Suez Crisis.56

In the end, enormous diplomatic, economic and military pressure eventually forced Britain and France to agree to another UN ceasefire and an emergency peacekeeping operation on 6 November, enabling an Anglo-French withdraw from the canal. London and Paris had nothing to show for all their efforts in Suez except failure and embarrassment. As the US Embassy in Cairo reported to Washington, the British and French “gained nothing except loss of prestige and increased hatred of Arabs.”57 Shouldering the brunt of the blame and embarrassment for the crisis—as well as struggling with several health issues—Eden resigned as Prime Minister on 9 January 1957. For all the shock and surprise surrounding events in Suez, his resignation was predicted. “Eden has had a physical breakdown and will have to go on vacation immediately […] this will lead to his retirement”, the US Embassy in London cabled Washington on 19 November. His replacement, Harold Macmillan, quickly asked the United States to provide a “fig leaf to cover our nakedness” in early January so that British troops could finally withdraw from Egypt.58 As Anglo-French forces withdrew, even those in Australia and New Zealand who wholeheartedly supported British policy recognised that the crisis signalled the end of Britain’s claim to major power status. As New Zealand External Affairs Officer Frank Corner told Secretary Alister McIntosh “the centre of effective power and decision has, I think, passed away from London. Washington and New York are likely to be the most interesting places from now on.”59

Since the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula failed due to American diplomatic, economic and military pressure, the end of the 1956 Suez Crisis publicly exposed a bitter rift in Anglo-American relations and essentially confirmed the end of British world leadership. It also exposed noticeable differences between Australia, New Zealand and the United States over the control of the Suez Canal, defence policy in the region, and Britain’s role in world affairs. While each of the ANZUS powers had defence interests in the Middle East, both the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers declared their support for British action during the 1956 Suez Crisis despite strong private reservations in their respective Cabinets and External Affairs Ministries. The United States, in contrast, bitterly opposed British action and forced their withdrawal from Egypt. Defence interests in the Middle East and responses to the Suez Crisis demonstrated clear policy differences between the ANZUS powers that stemmed from trans-Tasman British ties and views surrounding US leadership. It also demonstrated a critical point in alliance diplomacy for both Canberra and Wellington. During the Suez Crisis, Australia and New Zealand held similar views and were not prepared to defer to US leadership when vital British interests were at stake. In short, five years after the conclusion of ANZUS, Australia and New Zealand were still prepared to pledge support for vital British interests instead of aligning all strategic policies with their chief protector, the United States. For Canberra and Wellington, Suez starkly exposed the limitations of British power when London’s views were at odds with those in Washington.

1 Eden to Eisenhower, 5 March 1956, in The Eden-Eisenhower Correspondence, 1955-1957, Peter Boyle ed. (hereafter Eden-Eisenhower Correspondence) (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 119; Eden to Eisenhower, 5 August 1956, Eden-Eisenhower Correspondence, 113; David Nichols, Eisenhower 1956 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 164.

2 Eden to Eisenhower, 6 March 1956, NARA, RG 59, 780.5/3-656.

3 Eisenhower to Eden, 9 March 1956, in Eden-Eisenhower Correspondence, 122.

4 Memorandum of Conversation, 19 July 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XV, 871.

5 Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State, 26 July 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XVI, 1.

6 Eden to Eisenhower, 27 July 1956, in Eden-Eisenhower Correspondence, 153-155.

7 Richard Lamb, The Failure of the Eden Government (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987).

8 G.C. Peden, “Suez and Britain’s Decline as a World Power”, The Historical Journal 55, no. 4 (2012), 1079,

9 Department of State to the Secretary of State, 28 July 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XVI, 25.

10 Eisenhower to Eden, 31 July 1956, 31 July 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XVI, 70.

11 Meeting between Eisenhower, Menzies and Spender, 3 August 1956, Ann Whitman File, International Series, Box 2, EL.

12 Menzies to Casey, Fadden and McBride, 29 July 1956, NAA, A1838, 163/4/7/3/3 Part 1.

13 Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light (London: Cassell, 1969), 149-150.

14 Casey, Fadden and McBride to Menzies, 1 August 1956, NAA, A4926, 14.

15 Casey Diary Entry, 7 August 1956, Casey’s Diaries, 237.

16 Australian Strategic Interests in the Middle East, 9 August 1956, NAA, A5954, 1410/1.

17 Defence Committee Report to Menzies, 9 August 1956, NAA, A5954, 1410/1.

18 Holland to Lloyd, 30 July 1956, Archives NZ, EA, 217/1/6 Part 1.

19 Holland Statement, 7 August 1956, New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (hereafter NZPD), 1956 Vol. 309, 885-894.

20 Macdonald Statement, 7 August 1956, NZPD 1956 Vol. 309, 904-908.

21 Webb to Macdonald, 31 July 1956, Archives NZ, EA, 217/1/6 Part 1.

22 Menzies Statement, 13 August 1956, Menzies Papers, Box 423, NLA.

23 Menzies Statement at Suez Conference in London, 18 August 1956, NAA, A1838, 163/4/7/3/3 Part 4.

24 Macdonald Statement, 17 August 1956, NZFP: SD, 444-448.

25 Casey Diary Entry, 17 August 1956, NAA, M1153, 38.

26 Macdonald to Holland, 23 August 1956, NAA, A5462, 118/2/4 Part 2.

27 Anthony Nutting, No End of a Lesson: The Story of Suez (London: Constable, 1967), 53.

28 Menzies to Fadden, 22 August 1956, NAA, A4926, 13; Menzies Memorandum, 25 August 1956, Menzies Papers, Box 423, NLA.

29 Menzies, Afternoon Light, 168. See also Menzies Memorandum, 4 September 1956, Menzies Papers, Box 423, NLA.

30 Menzies Statement, 18 September 1956, Menzies Papers, Box 423, NLA.

31 Eden to Eisenhower, 6 September 1956, in Eden-Eisenhower Correspondence, 164-167.

32 Dulles Press Statement, 12 September 1956, in Watry, Diplomacy at the Brink, 126.

33 McIntosh to Shanahan, 24 August 1956, in Unofficial Channels, 208.

34 Eisenhower to Eden, 8 September 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XVI, 431-33.

35 Meeting between Dulles, Humphrey, Mansfield and Langer, 6 September 1956, John Foster Dulles Papers, Subject Series, Box 7, EL; Conversation between Eisenhower and Dulles, 7 September 1956, John Foster Dulles Papers, Subject Series, Box 7, EL.

36 Eden to Eisenhower, 1 October 1956, Ann Whitman File, International Series, Box 6, EL.

37 Dulles to Menzies and Casey, 27 October 1956, NARA, RG 59, 974.7301/10-2756.

38 Eden to Commonwealth Prime Ministers, 30 October 1956, Archives NZ, EA, 217/1/12 Part 1.

39 Eisenhower to Knowland, 30 October 1956, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 18, EL; Eisenhower to Dulles, 30 October 1956, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 18, EL.

40 NSC Meeting, 1 November 1956, Ann Whitman File, NSC Series, Box 8, EL.

41 Ibid.

42 Eisenhower to Eden, 30 October 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XVI, 866.

43 Eisenhower Memorandum, 1 November 1956, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 18, EL.

44 Holland to the NZ High Commission in London, 1 November 1956, Archives NZ, EA, 217/1/12 Part 1; Holland Statement, 1 November 1956, NZFP: SD, 452.

45 Menzies to Dulles, 1 November 1956, 1 November 1956, NAA, A1838, S170 Part 5.

46 Menzies Statement, 3 November 1956, Menzies Papers, Box 423, NLA.

47 Munro to NZ Department of External Affairs, 31 October 1956, Archives NZ, EA, 217/1/12 Part 1.

48 Munro to Holland, 31 October 1956, Archives NZ, EA, 217/1/12 Part 1.

49 Menzies Address to the House of Representatives, 1 November 1956, NAA, A2908, S170 Part 5; Menzies Statement, 3 November 1956, 1 November 1956, NAA, A1838, S170 Part 5.

50 Menzies to Holland, 6 November 1956, NAA, A1838, S170 Part 5.

51 Menzies to Eisenhower, 20 November 1956, DDE Diary Papers, International Series, Box 2, EL.

52 Casey to Menzies, 22 November 1956, NAA, A1838, S170 Part 5.

53 Casey Diary Entry, 2 November 1956, NAA, M1153, 49D.

54 McIntosh to Shanahan, 8 November 1956, in Unofficial Channels, 209.

55 Corner to McIntosh, 23 November 1956, in Unofficial Channels, 212-215.

56 See, for example, The Rt Hon Lord Owen CH, “The Effect of Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s Illness on his Decision-making During the Suez Crisis”, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 98, No. 6 (2005), 387–402,; Eamon Hamilton, Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis of 1956: The Anatomy of a Flawed Personality, MA Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2015.

57 US Embassy in Cairo to the Department of State, 10 November 1956, Dulles-Herter Series, Box 8, EL.

58 US Ambassador in London to Eisenhower and Dulles 19 November 1956, Ann Whitman File, DDE Diary Series, Box 18, EL.

59 Corner to McIntosh, 10 November 1956, in Unofficial Channels, 210.

© 2018 Andrew Kelly, CC BY 4.0