David Fromkin: How Suez changed history

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Fromkin, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the author of “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.”]

FIFTY years ago tomorrow — on Oct. 29, 1956 — Israeli paratroops were dropped deep behind Egyptian lines in the Sinai peninsula, opening the way for the ground troops that followed. In a lightning campaign lasting less than five days, the Israelis took control of the entire peninsula. The Israelis had a rendezvous at the Suez Canal with the armed forces of Britain and France. But the British and French stopped short of their goal. Like out of shape ex-champions attempting a comeback, the Europeans were unable to get past the first round in their effort to return to the Middle East.

The Suez crisis was a divide in the history of the Middle East. It was the moment when America pushed out the Europeans and then tried to take their place — and the reverberations are still felt today. The road that led to Suez began in 1947, when the British Foreign Office notified the American Department of State that Britain could no longer afford to hold its positions in Greece and Turkey against pressure from Russia. Soon the United States was engaged in an effort to hold the line against Russia — there, but also all around the world.

The Middle East was essential to this policy of containment. The Arabic-speaking Muslim world had been taken in hand by Britain and France after the First World War, and though they had since achieved independence, the countries of the Middle East remained predominantly Western-influenced. European and American oil companies played an important role in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain retained a presence at the strategically vital Suez Canal in the form of a major military base and a garrison of more than 80,000 men. Not until the autumn of 1954 did Britain agree to withdraw from this installation.

The United States had always deplored European — especially British — imperialism. In the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson seemingly hesitated as to which side to join (or whether to at all), and in the end joined Britain and France only as an “associated power” rather than as an ally, thus making clear that our country did not share the goals of the other belligerents — goals that Wilson claimed were imperialistic.

As the United States accepted the responsibility, therefore, of defending the Middle East against possible Soviet aggression, its government was conflicted. In the interest of cold war containment, the United States should have wanted to shore up whatever remained of British and French presence and power in the Middle East, but at the same time the worry was that any association with the Europeans would drag America down.....

comments powered by Disqus