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July 26, 1956

Speech by President Nasser, Alexandria, July 26 [1956] (Extract)

Eighty-seven years after the Suez Canal’s completion in 1869 and less than two months after the last British troops had left it in June 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) on July 26, 1956, nationalized the Suez Canal Company.

Nasser announced the step in the text printed here: a speech that would become a classic in the annals of twentieth-century decolonization worldwide. The English translation used here is included in a documentary publication printed in 1956 by the US State Department in Washington, DC, titled The Suez Canal Problem; it is an excerpt of the whole speech.

Nasser pronounced the speech in the Egyptian Mediterranean city of Alexandria in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, during which he also uttered the code word signaling his security forces to occupy the company’s assets and offices in Egypt. Nasser’s step took the world by surprise. The French government, the Suez Canal Company’s Paris headquarters and its many French shareholders, and the British government that was the company’s largest shareholder and that on July 23, following Washington’s lead, had retracted a 1955 offer to back a World Bank loan to Egypt: all they were outraged. (France and Britain would fail to reverse nationalization in court; the outcome, in Britain, of the ensuing Franco-British-Israeli attack is the focus of another document dated 1956 in this collection). Diametrically opposed was the dominant reaction among Egyptians, other Arabs, and people in newly independent and still colonialized countries. They were ecstatic. The reason was not so much that Nasser nationalized the canal in order to find a new way to finance a dam at Aswan, on the Nile, although that project was a linchpin of Egypt’s modernization, a history analyzed in Guy Laron’s Origins of the Suez Crisis (2013). The reason was more existential. Nasser’s act turned himself, Egypt, and by proxy the entire non-white world from a passive object of history into an active subject. “Die of your fury,” Nasser told the Americans, and by extension Europe’s descending imperial powers. And by calling the shots—“Today, citizens, the Suez Canal Company has been nationalized. This order has been published in the Official Journal. It has become a matter of fact”—he symbolically subjugated Britain and France, humiliating those once so powerful empires as only a non-white ex-colonial subject could. Even a cut as historic as India’s independence, in 1947, had not hurt Britain this much. Technically speaking Britain had co-initiated that final act of the British Raj, and it was a loss of a limb, however crucial. Nasser, by contrast, had stabbed the empire in its very heart—a story classically narrated in Keith Kyle’s Suez (1991).

December 3, 1956

Middle East (Situation): Debated in the Commons Chamber, Monday, 3 December 1956

In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) nationalized the Suez Canal Company, surprising the world. The government of France, in whose capital of Paris the company was headquartered, and the British government, the company’s plurality shareholder, sought to reverse nationalization in court, but failed—even though they clad their case in the language not of imperial self-interest but, rather, of international public interest. The time in which such language was somewhat acceptable, even at home, was passing, and the Suez Crisis played a big part in this final act.

At the same time, the two governments early on after the canal nationalization decided to remove Nasser by force, for re-compensation was not their central concern. France believed Nasser was enabling the FLN, which in 1954 had started Algeria’s War for Independence, and Britain wanted some say in the canal, which had for decades been its worldwide empire’s “swing-door,” as a member of parliament, Anthony Eden (1897-1977), called it in 1929. In August 1956 France began discussing a joint operation with Israel, which wanted Nasser gone, too, and the Red Sea opened for Israel-bound ships. In early October the two were joined by Britain. On the 29th, Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. On the 30th, France and Britain gave Israel and Egypt a 12-hour ultimatum to cease hostilities, or they would intervene—and Anglo-French forces bombed Egyptian forces from the 31st and on November 5-6 occupied the canal’s northern tip. Although a power play, “Operation Musketeer,” like the court case, could not be an open imperial move anymore, then, and did not present itself to the world as such. No matter: especially in colonies and postcolonial countries, people were outraged.

More problematically for France and Britain, Washington was incredulous. This Middle Eastern affair triggered the worst crisis of the 1950s between America’s rising international empire and Europe’s descending empires, and indeed clarified and accelerated that descent. President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) fumed that Prime Ministers Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet (1905-1977) had disregarded his administration’s opposition to military action. Worse, they had deceived him about their intentions. And worst, their attack on Egypt undermined the supreme US tenet: Soviet containment. The Americans were by association tainted by their NATO allies’ imperialist move while the Soviets looked good—on November 5 they offered Egypt troops and threatened to nuke London, Paris, and Tel Aviv—and that although they had just repressed an uprising in Hungary.

On the very day of the ultimatum, October 30, Eisenhower washed his hands of that move on live US television, and the US mission at the UN organized a cease-fire resolution vote in the Security Council. France and Britain vetoed it. Although sharing its European allies’ emotions about Nasser, the US administration withheld critical oil and monetary supplies from them to bring them to heel and withdraw from Egypt—after which, it promised, they would be warmly welcomed back. It ceased most bilateral communications and froze almost all everyday social interactions with its two allies, even cancelling a scheduled visit by Eden. And it badgered its allies at the UN, supporting an Afro-Asian resolution that on November 24 called Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw forthwith. On December 3, the British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd took the floor in the House of Commons.

November 10, 1956

Gazette of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, 1956, No. 40 (Overall Issue No. 66)

This issue begins by denouncing British and French aggression against Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis. It also includes a Chinese statement about the Soviet Declaration "to Strengthen Friendship and Cooperation [with] Other Socialist States," which acknowledges tensions between socialist countries and the need to address people's demands in Hungary and Poland. The next sections feature a message from Zhou Enlai to János Kádár, who would lead Hungary after the failed Revolution of 1956, and Sino-Nepali correspondence.

April 3, 1972

Note regarding the Personal Conversation that took place between Nicolae Ceausescu and Anwar El-Sadat, Monday, 3 April 1972, in Cairo

Nicolae Ceausescu and Anwar El-Sadat discuss foreign policy with relation to Israel, the United States, and the USSR. Sadat discusses future relations with Israel and strategic closure of the Suez Canal.

July 11, 1967

Polish Record of Meeting of Soviet-bloc leaders (and Tito) in Budapest (excerpts)

Soviet-bloc leaders discuss fallout of the Six Day War on the Arab countries. The focus particularly on the critical need to support the "progressive" Nasser regime. There is some debate over whether more military aid to the Arabs is necessary or wasteful. The leaders make it clear that they support the existence of the State of Israel and want to avoid getting dragged into a wider Middle East War. The idea of UAR recognition of Israel in exchange for the right of return is floated. Kosygin also gives a summary of his meeting with Johnson in New York.