Nuclear Threats - Suez - 1956
The autumn of 1956 saw both Great Powers defied by their allies; the USSR by Poland and Hungary, the USA by Britain and France. Each power found itself unable to act in their rival’s sphere of influence and ended up aiding the other’s attempts to rein in its clients, resulting in a strengthening of the bipolar order.
The Eisenhower administration had come in promising foreign policies of ‘rollback’ and ‘liberation’ as an alternative to the ‘negative, futile and immoral’ policy of containment which abandoned the peoples of Eastern Europe and East Asia to dictatorship.
In office, Republicans were forced by the liability of defence expenditure and the realities of international politics (the Soviets exploded their first nuclear bomb in August 1953) to temper their rhetoric. The result was the ‘New Look’ strategy which became the basis of massive retaliation, the placing of all the US’s eggs in the nuclear basket.
If American inaction during the 1953 riots in East Germany had damaged illusions of the possibility of intervention, Hungary in 1956 ended them. Early in the crisis, the US made its policy of non-involvement clear. While reports of the massive fighting in Budapest on the 24th and 25th October had prompted a condemnatory response from Eisenhower, in private there was concern that the Soviets might spark a confrontation with NATO. Policy was cautious and a military response was almost immediately ruled out. The hope, rather, was for a propaganda victory as the world witnessed the Soviet Union’s harsh repression of the Hungarian rebels.
This policy of restraint formed a background to events in the Middle East, where the United States was trying to ease Britain and France into a back seat role: The US wanted to improve its ties in the region and did not wish to be associated with ‘imperialists.’ Dulles felt that if domination was to be denied to the USSR, America must have control. Britain and France did not share this perception and their determination not to be forced out of Egypt prompted the Suez debacle.
When Israeli forces, in collusion with Britain and France, crossed into Sinai, America’s first concern was the Soviet reaction. Intelligence reports presented to the emergency session of the National Secutiy Council on the 29th October indicated that the Soviets were sending aircraft and supplies to Egypt through Syria. Although these later proved false, they were influential at the time. All at the meeting agreed that if the USSR came to Nasser’s defence, a general war would ensue. But as reports of Soviet airlifts continued, the US administration doubted the practicality of Soviet intervention, the only practicable response being the unlikely use of nuclear weapons.
Rather than nuclear confrontation, it was a massive propaganda victory for the Soviets, resulting in expansion of their influence in the region, that the Americans most feared. To avoid this, Dulles worked for a swift withdrawal of invasion forces. The Soviet Union, while condemning the invasion, responded with caution and began to remove their presence from Egypt to avoid confrontation with Israeli troops. Technical advisers were removed to Sudan, the Soviet Ilyushin-28 bombers to Syria, removing Nasser’s sole hope of stopping the invasion: bombing Israeli cities. Nasser realized that his friends in Moscow would not guarantee his security.
The Soviets had no military alternative to withdrawal, having no air or sealift capability as they would have in the crisis of October 1973. The Mediterranean was controlled by NATO. Zhukov replied to visiting Syrian President Quwatli’s pleas for intervention by spreading a map on the table, saying, ‘Mr. President, here is the map, look at it, how can we intervene?’ Even if the Soviets had been logistically capable of responding, the West’s military advantage in the area was overwhelming: Moscow, in the early days of the crisis, believed that the invasion had American backing, despite America’s protestations to the contrary. The US sixth fleet would have made the military imbalance insurmountable. Involvement in Hungary restricted the Soviet potential for involvement further still. It was only on the 5th November, after the UN had agreed a ceasefire deadline with the Egyptians and Israelis, that the USSR made offers of intangible aid to Egypt.
If US opposition to the invasion was not clear by then, it is unlikely that Kruschchev would have risked his threat of atomic retaliation, delivered on November 5th. The aim of the threats, accompanied by a plan for joint intervention which Kruschchev knew the US would reject, was to force America to defend its allies, damaging its position in the Middle East. The USSR was thus able to turn a defeat for Soviet military interests in the region into a victory for Soviet prestige in the Arab and third worlds. Soviet desertion of Cairo was conveniently forgotten by all in the third world (except Nasser) and American pressure brought ignominious retreat for the British, French and Israelis.
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