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The Suez Crisis: How a Single Canal Almost Caused Nuclear War

When Britain, France, and Israel tried to push Egypt out of the Suez Canal, the Soviets threated nuclear attacks.

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The Suez crisis, which occurred in 1956, was yet another pivotal incident in the Cold War. It was one of several events in which the governments of superpowers came close to all-out war. It also marked another conflict between Israel and Egypt, which was part of larger tensions between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

What Is the Suez Canal?

The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway built in Egypt that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is located near the border between Egypt and Israel and is 120 miles long.

The canal is a crucial waterway through which goods are shipped between European and Asian nations. Its importance to international trade has made it a prime area of conflict between various nations.

The canal was built in 1869 and took ten years to complete. A French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps oversaw the building of the waterway.

Beginnings of the Conflict

The origin of the struggle over the canal occurred when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalize the waterway. Previously, it had been owned by the Suez Canal Company, which was founded by Lesseps. Later, both British and French interests owned the organization, which meant the two nations controlled trade that was conducted through the canal.

Tensions between Egypt and the British and French governments had been growing for years. The Egyptian military was pushing the British to pull the troops from the region. Nasser’s military also engaged in skirmishes against Israel’s Armed Forces at the border.

Nasser was also angry at the United States for refusing to provide funding for a construction project at the Aswan Dam after having promised to do so. With the support from the Soviet Union, he decided to seize control of the Suez Canal, stating that the tolls they would charge to allow ships to pass through the canal would pay for the completion of the construction.

The British were not happy about this move and called on France and Israel to help stop Nasser from carrying out his plan.

The Battle Begins

On October 29, 1956, the Israeli military struck at Egypt’s Armed Forces. The British and French joined the battle two days later, having been delayed. The coalition’s forces seized control of Port Said and Port Fuad and the area surrounding the Suez Canal.

The Soviets, who had become close allies with Egypt by supplying them with weapons since 1955, responded to the hostilities by issuing a threat against the British and French. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said he would use nuclear force against the two countries if they did not stop their attack.

Meanwhile, the United States took a more measured approach to the situation. President Dwight Eisenhower admonished the Soviets that their nuclear threat made the situation more volatile and urged Khrushchev not to become involved in the conflict. The American president also scolded the British, French, and Israelis, calling on them to withdraw from Egypt. Eisenhower went so far as to threaten to impose economic sanctions if they refused.

The president’s words did the trick. The British and French left the country in December 1956. Israel finally left in March 1957. The withdrawal led to Egyptian control over the Suez Canal and its government has controlled it ever since.

What Happened After?

After the short war was concluded, Nasser became even more powerful. Britain and France began to lose influence worldwide as the United States and the Soviet Union began flexing their muscles more.

Israel and Egypt would later engage in military confrontations on at least two occasions, during the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The two nations later hashed out a peace deal in 1979 and have acted as strategic partners ever since.

Race Relations & Media Affairs Correspondent at and A self-confessed news and political junkie, Jeff’s writing has been featured in Small Business Trends, Business2Community, and The Huffington Post. Born in Southern California and having experienced the 1992 L.A. Riots up close and personal, Jeff’s insights are informed by his experiences as a black man and a conservative.

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