top of page

Ike and the Suez Crisis - a Guest Post

A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker


Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest achievement as President was keeping the peace during the height of the Cold War and creating conditions that made the avoidance of nuclear war managable for future Presidents. He confronted a major nuclear foreign policy crisis about once a year while in office. He had to deter communist aggression and withstrain his own trigger-happy advisors each time. The Suez Canal Crisis was the most dangerous episode of his presidency and arguably of the entire Cold War. His management of it was a masterpiece of crisis leadership and one of the finest moments of his career.

Eisenhower (Ike) did not know any Jews growing up. He told a friend that, as a boy, he did not think there were any Jews on Earth, and that they were “all in heaven as angels.” Years later, Ike’s military forces were key to defeating Nazi Germany and ending the Holocaust. He became the governor of the American-occupation zone in Germany after the war. Ike met David Ben-Gurion, leader of the Zionist movement, at this time. At Ben-Gurion’s urging, Ike redistributed German farms to train Jews in agriculture.


Eisenhower Conference on the Suez Crisis News Reel at this link:


Ike gave humanitarian aid to Holocaust survivors, but this did not translate into support for a Jewish state in Palestine. He feared that supporting a Jewish state would turn Arabs away from the US and toward the USSR. He said of Israel, “But now it was done. We’ll have to live with it,” suggesting his dedication to Israeli security. Most Israelis were disappointed by Ike’s 1952 election victory. Truman had supported Israel and had endorsed Stevenson. Israelis feared Ike, a military man, would treat the Middle East as a realist through cold calculations instead of moral considerations.

Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952. He preached Arab nationalism and spoke of uniting all Arabs into a single state. He denounced Israel. Ike feared Nasser’s pan-Arabism and the possibility that Nasser could unite the Arabs and ally with the USSR. He compared Nasser’s bid for Middle Eastern hegemony to Rommel. Ike analyzed the Arab-Israeli conflict in his diary, writing, “The oil of the Arab world has grown increasingly important to all of Europe. The economy of European countries would collapse if those oil supplies were cut off. If the economy of Europe would collapse, the US would be in a situation of which the difficulty can scarcely be exaggerated. On the other hand, Israel, a tiny country surrounded by enemies, is nonetheless one we had recognized, and top of this, that has a very strong position in the heart and emotions of the Western world because of the tragic suffering of the Jew throughout twenty-five hundred years of history.”

NSC 5428 was issued in 1954. It said that peace between Arab states and the Israelis was America’s ultimate objective. Ike offered foreign aid to any Middle Eastern country that would make peace with Israel. He said the Palestinian refugees should be integrated into Arab countries if their reintegration into Israel proved impossible. Ike opposed Israeli settlements in disputed territories. He sought to treat the Arabs and Israelis equally and did not want to be seen as Israel’s protector. He refused to sell Israel weapons even after the Soviets sold weapons to Egypt because he wanted to prevent a Middle Eastern arms race. Nasser, meanwhile, sought to play the US and USSR off of one another. Ike played Nasser’s game and pledged financial support to help Nasser build the Aswan Dam in 1955 as long as Egypt worked toward peace with Israel.

Ike had a heart attack in September 1955. Nasser officially recognized Mao’s People’s Republic of China while Ike was in the hospital. Dulles, who was running US foreign policy, retaliated by severing aid to the Dam. This led to Nasser nationalizing the Suez Canal in July 1956. Ike believed Nasser was within his rights to nationalize the Canal, since it was located in Egypt. Ike knew that Americans would not want the Panama Canal placed under international control; Egyptians felt similarly about Suez. Britain and France, which had controlled the Suez Canal before Nasser nationalized it, were outraged. They wanted it back. Ike warned them against rash action and decided not to work in lock step with the Europeans on this issue. Britain’s Anthony Eden and France’s Rene Coty knew that Ike faced reelection in November 1956. They timed their scheme for the election so Ike would be unable to react. They convinced Israel to invade the Sinai in October 1956, beginning the most dangerous crisis of Ike’s presidency.

Ike was campaigning when he learned of the Israeli invasion. He immediately returned to the White House and shouted at Dulles, “Foster, you tell ‘em, God-damit, that we’re going to apply sanctions, we’re going to the UN, we’re going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing.” Israel’s aggression led Ike to believe that Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister, was an extremist who cared more about conquering more land than about peace. He angrily referred to Ben-Gurion as an “Albert Einstein-looking midget” during the crisis. Ike was determined to stop Israel, and even contemplated using force. That would sacrifice his reelection, but Ike was determined to restore the peace, no matter the political cost.

Britain and France gave an ultimatum to Israel and Egypt, with one condition being that London and Paris got control of the Suez Canal. Ike denounced the ultimatum and called it “Victorian.” Israel accepted the ultimatum (Ben-Gurion knew of the proposal in advance) but Nasser rejected it. Britain and France dropped paratroopers into Egypt to retake the Canal and topple Nasser. Britain’s Parliament gave Eden permission to continue the war with a 270-217 vote. Ike muttered, “I could not dream of committing this nation to war on such a vote.”

Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev, who were simultaneously crushing the Hungarian Revolution, escalated the Suez Crisis by sending messages to Eden, Coty, and Ben-Gurion that said the Soviets wanted to restore peace to the Middle East and suggested they would use force to do so. They even said they would use nuclear weapons against the Allies. Bulganin and Khrushchev also sent a letter to Ike saying the US and USSR should ally together to fight Britain, France, and Israel. Ike immediately rejected the Soviet proposal. He believed Bulganin and Khrushchev were exploiting the Suez crisis to “extend the Iron Curtain to the Middle East.” Ike said, “If these fellows [the Soviets] start something, we may have to hit them with everything in the bucket.” He put America’s navy and nuclear forces on alert. The Soviets knew this was a warning that any intervention into the Middle East or against Britain and France meant World War III. They decided against further escalation.

Ike sanctioned Israel and pressured the British pound. Britain was forced to liquidate much of its gold and dollar reserves. Treasury Secretary Humphrey offered the British government a $1.5 billion loan if they withdrew from Egypt. Eden asked the IMF to make available the dollar funds Britain had on deposit. Humphrey blocked the move. Britain capitulated to Ike’s demands and withdrew on November 6. France and Israel soon followed. A UN peacekeeping force moved in to secure the canal before it was returned to Egyptian control. Ike insisted that none of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council should be among the peacekeeping force.

Ike later compared his management of the Suez Crisis to his role in WWII. He had simultaneously dealt with the Hungarian Revolution and won a landslide reelection. Ike proposed the Eisenhower Doctrine in January 1957. The Doctrine proposed sending aid and weapons to Middle Eastern countries in case of Soviet attack. Israel endorsed the Doctrine while Nasser opposed it. This was a turning point for Ike. He saw Israel as dedicated to the West and viewed Nasser as a Soviet puppet.

Ben-Gurion visited Ike in 1960. Ike told his guest that Israel would never be destroyed. They left respecting one another. The US, through the IAEA, gave Israel nuclear material. France helped the Israelis construct nuclear weapons under ground. American U2 planes discovered this in December 1960, leading to a debate within Ike’s NSC. Ike was indifferent but suggested sending inspectors. The administration decided that no solution was possible until JFK took office in January 1961.


Get M. B. Zucker's book "The Eisenhower Chronicles" today!



Eisenhower: In War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower 1956 by David Nichols

Eisenhower and Israel by Isaac Alteras


bottom of page