The Suez Crisis of 1956: Canada the peacemaker – A myth

“CANADA THE PEACEMAKER” is a myth fostered and nurtured by the Canadian government, bourgeois politicians, the mass media, educational institutions, and international agencies in order to camouflage Canada’s participation and assistance in imperialist aggression, intervention and subversion and its participation in the imperialist war preparations of the two superpowers. The myth mainly originates from the glorification of the reactionary activities of the former Canadian Minister for External Affairs, Lester Pearson, during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Pearson is credited with bringing about the cessation of hostilities between Israel, France and Britain, on the one hand, and Egypt, on the other hand, through the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), which he proposed to the United Nations General Assembly on November 4, 1956. Consequently, he was awarded the Nobel. Peace Prize in 1957 – the first Canadian to win such an award – and was elected Prime Minister of Canada.

Today, the Canadian government is reviving the name of Lester Pearson in the context of its imperialist peace demagogy, particularly during Trudeau’s “peace initiative.” During his “peace mission,” Trudeau renamed the Toronto International Airport after Lester Pearson. Furthermore, Lester Pearson’s son, Geoffrey Pearson, was given a very high profile role in Trudeau’s “peace initiative” and he has been nominated a candidate for director of the new “Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security.” While the bourgeoisie is trying to make the name of Lester Pearson synonymous with peace, history shows that his name is synonymous with imperialist domination and intervention.

The Role of Pearson and the UNEF in the Suez Crisis

The creation of the United Nations Emergency Force did not assure progress towards the creation of peaceful conditions in the Middle East. Such progress would have required, first and foremost, the termination of the economic, political and military control and interference in the region by the colonial and imperialist powers. But the UNEF actually served to maintain and strengthen this foreign control and interference.

Lester Pearson actually worked to replace the British and French domination of the Middle East by the U.S. domination. The UNEF, in fact, was an instrument of the United States to oust the Anglo French colonialists from Egypt under the cover of opposing aggression. As soon as the Anglo French forces had withdrawn from Egypt, U.S. President Eisenhower, who supported the UNEF, declared the “Eisenhower Doctrine”, by which the United States gave itself the right to militarily intervene in any country in the Middle East on the pretext of opposing “international communism” and protecting the “vital interests” of the Western imperialists including the oil fields and pipelines and the Suez canal.

At the same time, UNEF was used to satisfy the demands and claims of the Israeli aggressors who had been the instrument of the British and French provocation against Egypt in 1956, and later became a tool of the United States in suppressing the struggles for national liberation in the region.

Lester Pearson and the Canadian government opposed the just struggles of the people of the Middle East for independence and sovereignty from the yoke of colonialism. In 1956 Pearson and the Canadian government supported the stand of Britain, France and the United States to put the Suez Canal, which Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized, back under so-called “international control” even though the Suez Zone belonged to Egypt. Pearson and the Canadian government opposed the Anglo-French aggression only for the purpose of strengthening the position of the United States and Canada in that region.

Israeli British French aggression

suez

British marines at Port Said (Click to enlarge)

On October 29, 1956, Israel launched an aggression against Egypt. According to a secret agreement concluded between Britain, France and Israel at a meeting in Sevres, France from October 22 to 24, 1956, Israel was to attack Egypt on that day and seem to threaten the Suez Canal. The British and French, acting ostensibly to protect the Suez Canal and separate the combatants, would issue an ultimatum calling on Israel and Egypt to withdraw ten miles from the Suez Canal and on Egypt to accept temporary British French occupation of the Suez Canal Zone. The rejection of the ultimatum by Egypt would provide the pretext for Britain and France to invade Egypt and reoccupy the Suez Canal under the hoax of “stopping the fighting” and “safeguarding the canal.” As set out in this secret agreement, Britain and France issued their ultimatum on October 30 and launched their aggression on October 31 involving 100,000 troops. Navigation on the Suez Canal came to a halt because of the sinking of ships along its length.

President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt

What was the objective of the Anglo-French aggression? On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company and the Suez Canal, both of which belonged to Egypt. Previously the Suez Canal was governed by a board of thirty-two administrators (18 French, 10 British, 2 Egyptian, 1 American, and 1 Dutch) and was operated by the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal, a French company, with 80 per cent of the shares held by British and French investors. Nasser guaranteed compensation to the shareholders and the normal operation of the canal without discrimination to users that, at that time, were mainly British and French ships. He declared his intention of using canal tolls and charges, which had previously gone into the coffers of the foreign investors, to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam along the Nile River.

Geopolitics – the strategic location of the Suez Canal

Geopolitics – the strategic location of the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea.

Thus, the Suez Canal passed from so-called “international control” to Egyptian control and Egypt further consolidated its independence. Britain and France opposed the nationalization of the canal and immediately planned their aggression against Egypt. The nationalization of the canal company was a pretext for launching an offensive on all the Arab countries. The struggle of Egypt and the Arab peoples for independence had caused great damage especially to the major colonialist powers, Britain and France, whose monopolies were losing, the colossal super profits they made by plundering the tremendous resources of these countries. Tunis and Morocco had won their independence, while Algeria was fighting to throw off the yoke of French colonialism. These countries of the Middle East possessed three quarters of the oil reserves of the capitalist world and 60 to 70 per cent of the oil requirements of Britain and 48 per cent of the oil requirements of France came from the Middle East and were transported through the Suez Canal. Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company greatly inspired the peoples of that region in their struggles against British and French colonialism.

By attacking Egypt, the Anglo-French imperialists intended to deprive it of ownership of the Suez Canal, to put down Egypt’s resistance and, by crushing the resistance of one of the major Arab peoples, to demoralize the other Arab states, to pave the way for depriving them of their national independence and for re-establishing the colonial domination. The assault on Egypt was the first step in this scheme. But the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt failed from the standpoint of re-establishing “international control” of the Suez Canal, subduing the Egyptian people, or demoralizing the other Arab states and peoples.

The main battles occurred in Port Said, which played a historic role in the Suez Crisis. The city lies in north east Egypt extending about 30 km (19 mi) along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of the Suez Canal. It was established in 1859 during the building of the Suez Canal.

The main battles occurred in Port Said, which played a historic role in the Suez Crisis. British bombing was intended to terrorize the Egyptian people; 1,000 civilians are estimated to have died. The city lies in north east Egypt extending about 30 km (19 mi) along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of the Suez Canal. It was established in 1859 during the building of the Suez Canal.

The U.S. and Canadian response

The United States supported the British and French desire for re-establishing “international control” over the Suez Canal but opposed the use of force against Egypt. But this was not from any sense of justice. U.S. President Eisenhower wrote to British Prime Minister Eden on September 2, 1956:

“We have two problems, the first of which is the assurance of permanent and efficient operation on the Suez Canal with justice for all concerned. The second is to see that Nasser shall not grow as a menace to the peace and vital interests of the West. In my view, these two problems need not and possibly cannot be solved simultaneously and by the same methods, although we are exploring further means to this end. The first is the most important for the moment and must be solved in such a way as not to make the second more difficult. Above all, there must be no grounds for our several peoples to believe that anyone is using the Canal difficulty as an excuse to proceed forcibly against Nasser. And we have friends in the Middle East who tell us they would like to see Nasser’s deflation brought about. But they seem unanimous in feeling that the Suez is not the issue on which to attempt to do this by force.”

Eisenhower went on to state that there were many means of pressure including canal user co-operation, economic measures, exploitation of Arab rivalries, and development of newer tankers and pipelines. “Even though this procedure”, he said, “may fail to give the set-back to Nasser that he so much deserves, we can better retrieve our position subsequently than if military force were hastily invoked.” This is the stand of the United States, which was posing as such a great champion of the independent countries against colonialism in the 1950s.

Before the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression, therefore, the United States strove to put the Suez Canal under international control once again. From July 31 to August 2, 1956 the U.S. met with Britain and France, and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed an international agency to control the Suez Canal. The three powers then proceeded to organize the London Conference of August 16 to 23, 1956 at which eighteen countries adopted the proposal for international control and operation of the canal. This proposal became known as the Eighteen Power Proposal. Egypt rejected it.

Suez newspaper headlines

British jingoist headlines

On September 4, 1956, U.S. Secretary of State Dulles proposed a Suez Canal Users’ Association, another way of exercising international control over the canal, but scheme was rejected by Egypt too. The Canadian government, however, supported the Eighteen Power P

roposal, showing its hostility towards Egypt. On August 29, 1956 Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson told the press that the Canadian government feels that “these proposals are reasonable and satisfactory and deserve our support as a basis for negotiation” and that they make “adequate provision for safeguarding, through cooperative international arrangements … the international character, use and maintenance of the canal.”

Canada in the United Nations

On November 2, 1956 a ceasefire and withdrawal resolution was passed by the United Nations General Assembly. After its adoption, Pearson proposed linking the ceasefire with a “political settlement in Palestine and for the Suez,” complaining that a ceasefire and withdrawal of the Anglo-French and Israeli troops would only constitute a return to the status quo but not “security” or “peace.” He proposed that the, Secretary-General of the U.N. be authorized to make arrangements for a U.N. force to keep the “peace” while a “political settlement” was worked out. In his memoirs, Pearson disclosed that he had consulted John Foster Dulles before making the proposal.

Pearson wrote that Dulles stated in the U.N. General Assembly that “he welcomed this statement, and he asked the Canadian ‘representative to formulate and introduce a concrete proposal for an international force. I had earlier suggested to him that he might do this if he felt that it was a good idea’.” On November 4, 1956 Pearson presented such a proposal to the U.N.

Lester Pearson presenting resolution – on behalf of the United States

Lester Pearson presenting resolution – on behalf of the United States

The Canadian resolution requested the Secretary-General of the U.N. to submit within 48 hours a plan for the setting up with the consent of the nations concerned, of an emergency international United Nations force to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities. Because of the U.S. domination of the United Nations, this illegal resolution was adopted. According to the U.N. Charter only the Security Council is empowered to establish such a military force and to authorize its use. Furthermore, the resolution was completely worked out in collaboration with the U.S. State Department. Pearson refers to the discussion within the Canadian Cabinet and with U.S. State Department officials between November 2 and 4:

“At the Cabinet meeting that Saturday morning … Cabinet approved in principle a U.N. police action in two stages. The first or short-term stage would be conducted by troops immediately available, but not exclusively British and French. We would try to get a U.S, contingent sent in and Canada would also help. The temporary force would remain between Egyptian and Israeli forces until a more permanent U.N. police force could be provided. If the U.S. government thought this approach was in any way promising, we would try to convince the British to agree and to undertake that there would be no Anglo-French troop landings until the U.N. Assembly had passed the required resolution which we proposed to sponsor with United States support. Alternatively, if they were willing, it might be sponsored by the United States.

“While the Cabinet was still meeting, Heeney was instructed to get State Department reaction. They were interested but skeptical. Although they were anxious, as we were to extricate Britain from her present position, it was important that they should not give occasion for a charge of collusion with others to that end. That might deprive them of such influence as they now had. Furthermore, they were doubtful that the landings (by the British and French) could be stopped at this stage. The addition of token forces to the Franco-British occupation might be taken as legitimizing the present operation. This would be interpreted as an attempt to bring under U.N. auspices an action, which the majority of the U.N. opposed.

“As a consequence of the U.S. attitude, Cabinet approved in principle a somewhat different approach The new proposal would have the Assembly create a Committee of Five to consider and report within forty-eight hours upon the immediate establishment of an ‘international force’.”

This excerpt from Pearson’s memoirs reveals that the Canadian government was actually planning to propose a U.N. “peacekeeping” force comprised of the Anglo-French aggressors against Egypt, along with American troops and Canadian troops, but because of the certain opposition of the Afro-Asian countries such a plan had to be rejected in favour of a less obvious scheme.

The Anglo-French withdrawal

The United Nations Emergency Force was established by the United Nations with a mandate to supervise the ceasefire and withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops out of Egyptian territory. Egypt consented to the entry of UNEF troops into its territory provided its sovereignty was not violated, which meant that withdrawal of consent would require the withdrawal of UNEF from Egypt. U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold opposed this view and insisted that the UNEF was entitled to remain until the completion of its prescribed task. A compromise “good faith” agreement was reached and UNEF entered. Egyptian territory on November 12, 1956 commanded by Canadian Major-General E.L.M. Burns. But from the prescribed task of supervising the ceasefire and withdrawal of the foreign troops from Egypt, after which the UNEF should have ceased to function, the United States, Canada and the U.N. Secretary General expanded the function of the UNEF to make it a permanent army of occupation in Egypt which was not withdrawn until 1967.

By December 22, 1956, Britain and France had completely withdrawn their troops from Egypt, which had advanced within twenty miles of the Suez Canal. On December 31, 1956, the clearance of the Suez Canal began under U.N. auspices. With the British and French out of the way, the United States took steps to fill what Eisenhower called the “existing vacuum in the Middle East.” The United States had exerted considerable pressure to create this “vacuum.”

Demonstration in support of Iranian leader Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952

Demonstration in support of Iranian leader Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952, who proposed restricting the Anglo-American oil multinationals. Despite a stubborn battle, a CIA coup d’état on August 19, 1953 installed the fascist, royalist regime of Reza Shah Pahlevi.

Prior to the 1940s, British, French and Dutch corporations almost exclusively exploited the oil in the Middle East. But around the time of the war, the American petroleum companies had become active in the Middle East. Mobil and Exxon had a stake in Iraq; Gulf in the newly developing field in Kuwait; and four American companies – Standard of California, Texaco, Mobil and Exxon – became partners in the American Arabian Oil Company in 1948 to exploit the virtually untapped resources in Saudi Arabia. Anglo-French and American rivalry for economic, political arid military control of this region was quite acute during the period. Through the Tripartite Declaration issued by France, Britain and the U.S. on May 25, 1950, the United States established itself as the gendarme in the Middle East, where previously the British and French exercised military domination. Through a C.I.A. coup in Iran, the United States established its political domination in that country and used its position to take for the American oil companies 40 per cent interest in the former British oil company, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

The Suez Crisis was an opportunity for the United States, among other things, to weaken its British and French rivals in the Middle East. British oil reserves were rapidly depleted with the blocking of the Suez Canal, yet no move was made by the United States to implement contingency plans for diversion of American petroleum to Europe to replace inaccessible Middle East oil. At that time, the U.S. was the largest oil producer in the world and was not dependent on Middle East oil. Furthermore, the British were facing a financial crisis. Attempts to draw on International Monetary Fund reserves were obstructed by the United States, which refused to consider financial assistance to rescue the pound unless Britain abandoned the Suez invasion. A loan of $1,000 million was promised as soon as Britain decided to withdraw its troops from Suez.

USS nuclear aircraft carrier Eisenhower, shown traversing the Suez Canal

USS nuclear aircraft carrier Eisenhower, shown traversing the Suez Canal

After the British and French withdrawal, the U.S. took their place in the Middle East. On January 5, 1957 Eisenhower asked the U.S. Congress to grant him authority to take action in the Middle East. First, he asked for $200 million in economic “aid” for any nation in the area. Second he asked for military assistance for the same countries. And finally, he requested permission to use the armed forces to “protect” Middle East nations against “international communism.” This “Eisenhower Doctrine” was approved by the U.S. Congress and implemented when the U.S. invaded Lebanon and assisted the British occupation of Jordan in 1958.

Thus, UNEF had little influence in bringing about the withdrawal of the Anglo-French forces or the Israeli forces. The resistance of the Egyptian people, the struggles of the Arab people, who bad gone on general strike in all the countries to protest against the aggression, and the ‘inter-imperialist contradictions were the biggest factors in forcing the withdrawal.

The Israeli withdrawal

Downed Israeli warplane

Downed Israeli warplane

Israel had occupied much of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the land and island points controlling the Gulf of Aqaba. The United States, on which Israel depended financially and militarily, backed up Israel’s demands to make the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egypt conditional on satisfying various demands of Israel on Egypt relating to Israeli shipping through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal and administering the Gaza Strip. This was the “political settlement” which Pearson had urged from the beginning. Basically, the United States and Canada, together with Dag Hammarskjold, undertook to use the UNEF as a force occupying key areas indefinitely in order to meet the demands of Israel. In other words, they worked to reward the aggressors instead of demanding their unconditional withdrawal from occupied territory.

With these guarantees, Israel withdrew its troops from the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran and from the Gaza Strip on March 7-8, 1957. The UNEF remained in Egypt until requested to leave by Egypt and completely withdrew from Egypt by June 17, 1967. The United States, while acting as the protector of Israel, also put on a big show of opposition to continued Israeli occupation of these territories, a drama that it performs every time Israel commits aggression against a neighbouring country. The game was well described by Pearson in his memoirs. Relating a discussion he had with U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles before the Suez Crisis to Canadian Prime Minister St. Laurent, Pearson states:

“Mr. Dulles discussed with me in Paris the question of arms shipments to the Middle East. He knew that we were faced with a request for 24 F-86 jet interceptors from Israel and he wished, very frankly and confidentially, to explain to me the policy of his government on these requests, as it might help us in the decision we would have to make.

“The United States had decided to release shortly some miscellaneous military supplies for Israel, but not, at least at this time, aircraft… The American government was not releasing these aircraft primarily because of their anxiety not to be identified conclusively with the Israeli side and not to participate in an arms race… These considerations did not apply, at least to the same extent, to other countries. Mr. Dulles hoped, therefore, that their inconsistency in refusing to supply Israel with the equipment, which they hoped other countries would be able to supply, would be understood.

“He then gave me some very confidential information about American policy, which was known to only a very few people in Washington, and to no one else except, I think, the British Foreign Minister. He was giving me this information because he felt it had a bearing on the Israeli request for Canadian jet interceptors. While the United States would not at this time ship F-86s to Israel, they did intend to have 2 or 3 squadrons of them available at air bases close to Israel under United States control, so that they could reach Israel within an hour or two if that country became the victim of aggression. However, it would not help Israel very much to have 50 or 60 F-86s land at Tel Aviv if there were no Israeli pilots trained to fly them. For this reason F-86s from Canada at this time could be particularly important to Israel; she could train pilots in their use who would be, therefore, ready to man the additional machines, if and when they were sent.”

“Chore boy”

From the above is seen the kind of duplicity used by the big powers and particularly the kind of role assigned by U.S. imperialism to Canada in the international arena. In the Canadian Parliament, a Conservative Party critic for the opposition described Pearson as a “chore boy” for the United States during the Suez Crisis. Although the remark comes from the mouth of a defender of British colonialism, it accurately described Pearson’s real role in the Suez Crisis and throughout his political career.

Published in Voice of the People, ­ National Newsmagazine of the People’s Front, Vol. 3, No. 4, July-August 1984, Pages 31 – 34

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3 Comments

Filed under Canada, Palestine, West Asia (Middle East)

3 responses to “The Suez Crisis of 1956: Canada the peacemaker – A myth

  1. Pingback: Trudeau’s self-righteous pitch for UN Security Council seat | Tony Seed's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Canada’s promotion of neo-liberal imperialist internationalism | Tony Seed's Weblog

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