Suez Canal Crisis: National Sovereignty versus International Access to Waterways

On July 26, 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nassar nationalized the Suez Canal, intending to take control of the canal’s operation and its revenue.
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Simulation Scenario

The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 to connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas, creating an essential waterway for global trade, as ships no longer had to navigate around the Horn of Africa.

At the time it opened, the canal was 164 kilometers, or roughly 100 miles, long. Without the canal, the circumnavigation around Africa is 9,654 kilometers or 6,000 miles. For most of its existence, the canal was managed by the Suez Canal Company which was owned by Great Britain and France.

On July 26, 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nassar nationalized the canal, intending to take control of the canal’s operation and its revenue.

The world was still recovering from World War II with new national border conflicts and the onset of the Cold War. Many nations depended on the Suez Canal, especially Great Britain and France.

How would they manage their economic and political interests while avoiding conflict?

How would the United States and the Soviet Union support Nassar’s quest for Egypt’s sovereignty and Israel?

How would Great Britain, France, the United States, Israel, and the Soviet Union manage their own economic and political interests while avoiding military conflict?

How would Egypt preserve its national sovereignty?

In this historical scenario, students will have to overcome differing national interests to maintain global security and peace. The exercise will develop skills in leadership, collaboration, composure, analysis, communication, awareness, management, innovation, and advocacy.

Map originating in 1983 depicting the location of the Strait of Tiran
United States Central Intelligence Agency, Strait of Tiran, 1983, 21 x 17 cm, Library of Congress, Map Collections.
 MUSKETEER) 1956 (MH 23509) Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956.
Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said in 1956. Fleet Air Arm official photographer, The Suez Crisis (Operation Musketeer) November 1956, Imperial War Museums.

The Cold War

The Cold War was a period of tense relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies in a political struggle between democracy and communism.

While there were no direct military conflicts between the two global superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union led campaigns against one another through political maneuvers, espionage, propaganda, arms buildup, and instigated conflict in other countries, also known as proxy wars. 

The U.S. Department of State in 1956

The Cold War greatly shaped the policies of the United States. The international spread of communism, the threat of nuclear war, and the growing power of the Soviet Union were of utmost concern to American policymakers and prompting them to pivot their foreign policy in response.  

U.S. officials feared that Soviet influence was driving nationalist movements in Africa and Asia. In response, the United States implemented a foreign policy of containment against the Soviet Union, a strategy first articulated by U.S diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947, to stop the international spread of communism. 

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles used containment as a foreign policy strategy at the time of the Suez Canal Crisis. To deter conventional and nuclear military threats, Eisenhower expanded the strategic nuclear weapons stockpile. In less hostile displays of power, Dulles held the first State Department press conference and continued to hold them regularly in contrast with the Soviet Union’s secrecy and suppression. Additionally, Eisenhower and Dulles secured several international mutual security agreements with allies and provided economic and military aid to countries resisting communism. The State Department also cooperated closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during this period as Secretary Dulles’ brother, Allen Dulles, was its director.

During the Suez Canal Crisis, Secretary Dulles and the American United Nations mediator Dr. Ralph J. Bunche worked closely with key negotiating counterparts such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, and Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan. 

Political Cartoon from 1958 by John Berryman depicting Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Soviet Primer Nikita Khruschev cooking in a cauldron labeled "Middle East".
1958 Political Cartoon, James Berryman, You Stir…I’ll Season!, printed July 1958, Cartoon, Washington Evening Star, National Archives.
Photograph depicting naval blockade in Suez Canal as part of Operation Musketeer.
1956 Port Said Blockade Fleet Air Arm official photographer. The Suez Crisis (Operation Musketeer) 1956, Photograph, Imperial War Museums.

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