Henry Falconer looks at A Legacy of the 1956 Suez Crisis
50 years ago this month a combined Anglo-French military force invaded Egypt in an attempt to win back control of the Suez Canal, which had been nationalised by the Egyptian President Nasser a few months earlier. The British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, thought that Nasser was another Hitler who would go on to commit further acts of aggression unless he were stopped, threatening Britain`s powerful interests in the Middle East. The French were angered by Nasser`s support for the Algerian nationalists (F.L.N.) who were fighting to win their freedom from French colonial rule. Both Eden and the French Prime Minister (the Socialist Guy Mollet) believed that vital national interests would be secured by Nasser`s defeat. The United States President (Eisenhower) and Secretary of State (John Foster Dulles) were not consulted and reacted furiously against this demonstration of Britain and France pursuing independent foreign policies. Faced by this display of American opposition, the Anglo-French military operations were suspended and their forces were withdrawn from Egypt.
British and French reactions to the Suez fiasco differed profoundly, and these differences continue to resonate 50 years later.
The British concluded that their future foreign policy must be based firmly on their special relationship with the United States. This did not mean slavish subservience to American policy (at least it didn`t until the lapdog antics of Tony Blair and the war on terror post-2001) as is exemplified by Harold Wilson`s refusal to commit any British forces to the Vietnam war and by Margaret Thatcher`s policies over both the Falklands and Grenada. Harold Macmillan sought to exercise the special relationship through informal family connections (both he and President Kennedy`s sister had married into the Duke of Devonshire`s family at Chatsworth, so Macmillan and JFK were related through marriage). It is worth remembering too that British membership of the E.E.C. (now the European Union) during Edward Heath`s premiership in 1973 was in no way anti-American indeed it had full American backing. But Suez was the last occasion on which Britain was to embark on a foreign policy initiative which it knew to be against American wishes and interests.
The Suez Crisis was one of the factors which led to the fall of the Fourth Republic in France in 1958 and the coming to power of Charles De Gaulle. The Gaullist attitude to the United States has continued down to the present day and is very different from that of the British. At least partly because of his experiences as leader of the Free French during the Second World War, De Gaulle had a profound mistrust of the “Anglo-Saxon” Atlanticism of Britain and the United States and believed that France should pursue its interests through closer links with continental Europe. Hence his opposition to British membership of the E.E.C. (he thought that Britain would act as a Trojan Horse for U.S. interests), withdrawal from N.A.T.O. and his own special relationship with Adenauer and West Germany. Suez merely confirmed De Gaulle`s view that the U.S. was not to be relied upon and that France must pursue its own independent foreign policy. President Chirac`s refusal to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was entirely consistent with this view and a continuation of Gaullist policy.
Thus the Suez Crisis of 1956 marks a watershed in post-Second World War French and British foreign policies. Gaullist foreign policy enjoys widespread support in France right across the political spectrum. In Britain, a near-uncritical support for the special relationship unites New Labour, most Conservatives and even UKIP, although a continuation of the foreign policies of the Bush presidency might ultimately threaten this.