The fighting in Gaza has been in the headlines again recently and harkens memories of past conflicts in the area. That is if you have a memory that goes back over a few decades. The current fighting is certainly nothing new in that region. For most of history it was merely a passage point between Israel and Egypt for whichever armies or conquerors were prevalent at any given point in history. Alexander the Great used it to get to Egypt, Ceasar’s armies used that passage, Napolean passed through there after his conquest of Eypt and on his way chasing the Turks up the Israeli coastline. But over most of recorded history it was a route for armies on their way to fight somewhere else. Fighting in that specific region is relatively new. Mostly it starts with the Israeli independence battles in 1948 and the several subsequent engagments that have occurred between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Only a short distance from there is the Suez Canal where conflicts have been waged for control of that vital waterway since its development by the French in the later part of the 19th century. That waterway has been the sought after prize since its completion by one country or another.
In 1956 Ike was President. He was a good President and a great leader of men. The summer and fall of 1956 was not however his finest hour. Nor was it the best time for Egypt, France, England and Israel. Briefly it must be remembered that since Roman times Egypt was never an independent nation. It had been controlled or dominated by one party after another. The Romans were there for centuries, then came various Muslim factions that ruled over the land loosely for centuries more. Usually the powers that were in control never lasted for long. The longest was the Ottoman Empire that ruled the region for a couple of centuries up to the the time of the First World War. After that the British were given it as a Protectorate just as France was given Syria and Lebanon after that War. Someone had to bring stability to the region. After WWII the British granted independence to Egypt. Part of the agreement was that the Suez Canal would remain under British and European control with compensation going to the Egyptians. Remember that the British Empire of old was being systematically dismantled after the War during the ’40’s all the way into the ’60’s. Nasser simply took the Canal in July of 1956. It was nationalized by him. He had Egyptian troops take physical control. It was European money and engineering that had built the Canal and they were supposed to still have control of it by agreement. His grab may have been applauded by the Arab world and the Egyptians but it was illegal and against the agreements in place. His naked grab infuriated the French and British.
The French and British tried negotiations to obtain its return or a reasonable accomodation with Nassar with perhaps international control. Nassar rejected all such entreaties. The British and French planned military action to recover the Canal and advised Ike. Ike was not supportive because politically the US was not going to help the British or French maintain their former empire or even vestiges of it and Ike was facing re-election that fall. Israel joined in the military planning with the Brits and French. The ploy was that the Israelis would attack Egypt as a “defensive” measure to protect itself from the impending aggression from Nasser’s rekindled Arab/Muslim faction. After the attack was launched by the Israelis then the British and French were to intervene as a “police action” (the phrase used by Truman to describe the Korean War involvement by the US). The attack was made and sure enough the Brits and French were johnny on the spot with troops on the ground. They barely waited long enough to make it appear they were requested. Their ostensible military mission was to separate the warring factions. Of course their target was the Suez Canal. Ike would not help and in fact he made it clear the US would exert all its influence to undo their plan. To the British it was a simple matter of not letting someone ignore law and the rule of law. They viewed the grab by Nasser in the same light as Hitler taking the Rhineland in 1936. Most of the Commonwealth nations supported the British but international opinion and especially American opinion was negative. The plan petered out as did the military action. As he was leaving office Churchill had advised his successors to “Never be separated from the Americans”. The Brits, French and Isrealis withdrew. The actual attack was not until the fall of 1956 because it took that long to plan it, ready the troops and allow time for the negotiations. It was a real battle with real men killed and wounded and all ultimately for naught. The British were furious with us. That marked the lowest point in our relations with the British during the entire 20th century. That action by Nasser emboldened other Arab leaders in the area. Those leaders over the years embarked on more and more hostile actions against the west and western culture. Huessein came from this envoirnment. Ike regretted later not supporting the Brits. In hindsight he viewed it as his greated foreign policy mistake.
Interestingly it was only days later that the Commies, Russian troops, invaded Hungary to quell the uprising there. The world’s attention was diverted on Suez and the US, Britain and France were at loggerheads. Read about the Hungarian uprising. That event let all know how far Russia was willing to go to maintain complete hegemony over eastern Europe and impose its Communist dictatorship on people by force of arms if necessary. Incredibly there were still some that believed the Commies were peace loving; more incredibly there were those who held to that belief even after the Hungarian uprising and the other atrocities committed by Soviet secret police throughout all their domain.
Some of the actions of these nation, on all sides, and the leaders on all sides certainly ring familiar in our time. I wonder who is channelling Anthony Eden, Ike, the Israelis and Nasser today?