The special relationship is the name given to the Anglo-American military, political and trading alliance that have been apparent through-out most of the 20th century and has continued in to the present century. Having a common language and some shared history and culture created natural political connection between U.S and U.K. The person who coined the phrase ‘Special relationship’ is belief to be Sir Winston Churchill in his sinews of peace address at the Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 (most commonly known as the Iron Curtain Speech). Winston Churchill developed a close working relationship with the then U.S president Franklin Roosevelt. (Bull and Roger-louis, 1986).
The relationship forged during the first and Second World War has had its own share of ups and downs, with the U.K playing second fiddle to the authority of the U.S, one of such strains was the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. In this essay we’ll be taking a look at the brief history of Egypt and Suez Canal, British occupation of Egypt and what led to the crisis, the role of the U.S and U.K in the crisis, the strains in their relationship and the consequences these strains had on both countries.
Positioned between Europe and Asia, Egypt has been a natural crossroad for world trade. The Suez Canal is one of the largest maritime canals of the world, it is considered as the significant geographic oil transit between the Red sea and Mediterranean Sea, almost 80% of the total world shipping traffic is controlled by the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal dated back to 4000 years ago when it was used for travels by the Pharaohs but over the years it was abandoned due to lack of proper care. The canal was a success during the Roman occupation of Egypt from about 30BC to 639AD, exotic animals, textiles, spices and made their way through from the orients to Europe in exchange for gold (Bodden, 2007). But soon afterwards the canal was abandoned. In 1832, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer in Egypt became interested in the canal and finally in 1894 he approached Mohammed Said the then Egyptian viceroy and Said approved of the Canal construction, since Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, permission has to be obtained from the Sultan of Turkey who unfortunately the British has a lot of influence on (Kyle, 2003).
The British occupation marked the peak of developments that had been at work since 1798, the de-facto separation of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire, the attempt of the European powers to influence and control the country and the rivalry of France and Britain for dominance in the country. Because of the last minute withdrawal of the French, the British had secured the sole domination of Egypt. In 1876, the Egyptian leader, the khedive Ismail, sold his 44% stake in the Paris based Suez Canal Company to the British government. Six years later the government of William Gladstone dispatched troops to Egypt to safeguard the investment, it was suppose to be a temporary occupation but it lasted for 75 years (Wilson, 1983).
The British secured joint control with France over the Suez Canal, the Suez is a strategic point for Britain’s trade relations, the canal cut a vast number of mile off a sea journey and made the a journey around the volatile Cape of Good Hope unnecessary, as it leads to Africa, it is a good point of business because of the growing colony of the British empire in Africa. British power in Egypt was exercised by the consul-general, who was the advisor of the Khedive, the actual leader of Egypt, this function was exercised from 1883 to 1908 by Lord Cromer. After riots in 1919 and years of disturbance, Britain finally pronounced Egypt as an independent and sovereign state on 28th February 1922 over which the sultan Fuad must reign as Sultan (Gorst and johnman, 1997).
By 1952, the British had stationed 80,000 troops along the Suez Canal, making it the largest military base in the world, to many in Britain the Canal was a sign of British power overseas. Egyptians even have to take permission before being allowed to go near the canal. All this and more made resistance to the British occupation grow. Colonel Nasser who was aware of the Egyptians unhappiness with the presence of Britain in Egypt wanted to exploit the situation by founding the ‘free-officers’ members of it wanted to overthrow the ‘old’ Egypt to be followed by the removal of all British influence. By 1952 the attack on British troops got worse and but it only took one incident to spark a full scale rebellion and this happened in Ismaila. Most Egyptians were not happy with the incident in Ismaila and this caused fighting between the British troops and Egyptians, many British expatriates and westerners were killed, properties were lost (Robertson, 1964).
To restore peace back to Egypt, Antony Eden who was the then British Foreign secretary wanted 40,000 troops deployed but it was made clear to him by the army that it was impossible. The events in Ismaila and what followed gave Nasser and the ‘free officer’ the right opportunity to overthrow Farouk. This is all happening when Britain was having a major financial setback back home, the cost of financing military commitments to Egypt was huge and this was something the treasury could have done without. Eden took the decision to start negotiation with the revolutionary command council to withdraw British troops from the Suez Canal area, regardless of the objections from the so called ‘Suez Canal group’ in the conservative party, Eden went ahead with the negotiations (Lucas.S, 1996).
The Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 was one of the most important events of the Cold War era, this crisis came to fore as a result of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser on 20th July 1956. Even though it is believed that the war has been brewing over the years due to different factors such as the inability to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the western fear of the Soviet penetration of the middle east, America’s frustration over the continued British imperial presence in the region and the need to protect the west’s oil lifeline, (Freiberger, 1992). Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956 in retaliation to the reneging of an agreement by the American and British governments to finance the Aswan Dam, he hoped to use the revenue raised from the Suez Canal to finance the building of the dam. As the Suez Canal represented the main source of oil supply to Britain and France the situation could not be ignored and this angered both countries a great deal, the canal is now being run by the Egyptian.
The angry British and French who have been thrust into a domain of loss by the nationalisation of the canal, the British having withdrawn 90,000 troops from the area in June due to American pressure and the French having troubles with their colonials in Algeria saw the seizure of the canal as a total loss of their colonial position in both African and Asia regions. During the Suez crisis President Eisenhower’s perspective was quite different from the Europeans, this could be because America had a different goals and stakes in the canal than the British and the French did. America’s initial reaction to the nationalisation of the canal was to attempt to diffuse the situation in order to reduce the likelihood of a military clash by sending Secretary Dulles to London with a plan for international board to operate the canal, a plan which Nasser rejected. The second attempt was a proposal to create the Suez Canal user association to run the place, simultaneously the British and the French referred the Suez crisis to the U.N Security Council, the United States had opposed involving the U.N in the dispute and the end of the day Egypt did not agree with the U.N’s proposal (Freiberger, 1992).
Sensing opposition by the Eisenhower administration, the British and French had ceased communications with U.S concerning their military plans. The British and French joined forces with Israel who had been a long time enemy of Egypt and they drew up a military plan to re-capture the Suez Canal. In Cyprus the British and French troops were massing out and Israeli troops were concentrated near the Jordanian border, this move deceived the U.S in believing that Israel was planning an attack against Jordan with whom they have independent conflicts. At this point Eisenhower has reasons for concern because of increased communication between the three countries so he set up U2 spy plane to get a picture of what is really on ground. The President surprised and infuriated by what he saw as a British deception, and this allied invasion of Egypt irrevocably changed Anglo-American relations (Freiberger, 1992). The truth about the planned action came out when Israel attacked the Egyptian by surprise on 29th October and two days later the British and French bombed Egyptian airfields, landing at Port Said, by this time Israel has captured Sinai.
President Eisenhower was outraged with all this event and he went on Television and announced that the U.S was not informed nor consulted in any way about this action and made it clear that the U.S does not believe in the use of force in settling international disputes. The United Nations made many efforts to initiate a cease fire but the situation continues to deteriorate. By this time the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary but the Soviet Union Premier took time out to send Britain, France and the U.S which in a way threatened to use nuclear weapon against France and Britain if they refuse to withdraw from the Suez. The Soviets letter to President Eisenhower proposed that the U.S and Soviet should join forces against the allied European power (Britain and France) in the region. Eisenhower rejected this proposal, he saw this as an attempt by the Soviet to infiltrate the region during the crisis which could result in a full fledge war. While Eisenhower opposed the allied military action in Egypt he also refused to tolerate Soviet Union’s intervention in the matter (Kyle, 2003).
A cease-fire was announced on November 7 through the intermediation of the United Nations but until a U.N peacekeeping force was put in place the British forces refuse to withdraw from the area. During this period in Europe, economic situation has deteriorated, the oil shortage became severe. Eisenhower refused to help in any way until their troops were withdrawn, he refused to deliver any oil to them or allow any financial aid (Freiberger, 1992). Even though in this time of trouble the British expected the Americans to provide support but were shocked not to get any help from them. Britain saw the decline of its empire and power in the Middle East, it was a big blow playing second fiddle to the U.S in their former colony. It could be said to be the fault of wrong decision making or an overzealous Prime Minister and wrong foreign policy making. at the end of the day America rose up to assume power in the Middle East, right from the start of the crisis Eisenhower has been in a position of gains, at the beginning America could have used military power to compel Egypt to succumb to its demands but he chose not to do so instead he used tactical means and common sense. America sure maintained its prestige with Third worlds by having military restraints, something that Britain could have learnt from, although it was risk on America’s part because it would have been a great loss if Britain and France had succeeded in their attacks on Egypt.
In conclusion the Anglo-America relations suffered serious strains during the Suez crisis but who or what could be blamed for the cause of the strains, it could be that the actions of Eden or Dulles, or the misconceptions, breakdown in communication and different objectives all contributed to this crisis. Though the level of closeness between U.S and U.K is largely determined by mutual political, military and trading benefits and it hasn’t been clear which is first policy or friendship? The relationship between the leaders has contributed to the state of the relationship over the years, Churchill and Roosevelt had a close working relationship while it has been said that Bill Clinton and John Major didn’t like each other. There has always been imbalance between the relative power of both nations and it has always been one sided whereby Britain has been made to appear compliant. Well the ‘special relationship’ still continues till today but how strong it is, is anybody’s guess.