Canada & The Suez Crisis

This article will analyze the events of the 1956 Suez Crisis and describe the significance of Canada and Lester Pearson. The Suez Crisis was a series of events involving Egypt nationalizing the Suez Canal that instigated a period of imbalance, warfare, political upheaval, and international tension. This paper argues that Lester Pearson of Canada was the leading figure in solving the Suez Crisis, and in doing so, ushered in a new era of Canadian diplomacy and international peace keeping.

First we will outline a clear understanding as to what the Crisis was and how Canada became involved. Second this paper will establish Pearson’s role and how he responded and acted in relation to the Crisis. Once this is complete, multiple key areas of interest will be discussed including Pearson’s legacy, critiques of Pearson and his plan for peacekeeping, and different interpretations of the Suez Crisis. By the end, this paper will demonstrate that Pearson was monumental in ending the Suez Crisis and influencing the UN Assembly, however it is necessary to contextualize his leadership and the role of Canada in the UN to fully grasp the outcome, legacy, and change in international diplomacy. The principle monograph for this text is John Melady’s Pearson’s Prize: Canada and the Suez Crisis. Multiple texts will be compared and contrasted to this book to fully understand the history, critiques, and various interpretations

The Suez Canal existed in various versions for thousands of years but it was not until the French Ferdinand De Lesseps became interested and invested after the French Revolution that the modern Canal began its existence.1 The purpose of the Suez Canal was to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea which would dramatically decrease shipping routes and increase profits for European businesses and governments. After it was completed by the French and Egyptians, the Khedive of Egypt, Isma’il Pasha, began to incur massive debts due to lavish spending.2 To help with his debts he sold most of the shares of the Suez Canal to the British, who greatly desired the Canal for their own business and colonial interests.3

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In 1952 a coup was staged by military officers in Egypt including the influential Gamal Abdel Nasser.4 The new government’s goal was to become independent, to gather prosperity for the Egyptian people, but importantly also to defend themselves from the threat they saw from the newly established Israel.5 During this period, the Western European powers, the US, and also Canada, were all selling arms to many Middle Eastern countries but especially to Israel.6 Canada’s official stance on arms sales was that they were only to be used for defence and that they would continue to sell arms only on the condition they would not be used aggressively and if conflict erupted in the region that the shipments would stop.7 The Soviet Union offered a massive shipment of arms to Egypt for a very cheap price. Egypt accepted and this greatly angered the US and Britain who decided to end all funding to Egypt, especially in regards to the massive development project the Aswan Dam.8 Desperate for funding and annoyed with the Western powers, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and sparked the Suez Crisis.9

The nationalization of the Canal was an enormous political problem due to the large level of passing shipments, especially of oil, that Europe relied on.10 Britain had soldiers stationed there at all times since its purchase and Egypt was always annoyed with their presence. Nasser repeatedly traveled to London and Washington for negotiations to end the occupation but they never succeeded.11 Britain, and also France, wanted this Canal returned to them for their economic and imperial interests and this coincided with Israel’s expansionist goals.12 The official plan for reclaiming the land would be that Israel would attack Egypt, then Britain and France would “save the canal” from conflict, but the three nations would deny that this was pre-arranged.13 On October 1956 Israel attacked the Sinai region and conflict erupted.14

Likely much to the surprise of the world powers, Canada, at the time a smaller less independent Commonwealth country, would become one of the largest actors in resolving the Crisis. The most important individual was Canada’s secretary of state of external affairs, Lester B. Pearson. Pearson from the beginning was against the conflict, he felt the Canal should remain open and peaceful.15 Pearson stressed that Nasser did not break any laws by nationalizing “as long as the Egyptians do not interfere with shipping through the canal”.16 From the start he was also against the position of Britain. In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Laurent, Pearson criticized the way Britain was handling the situation and said they were not “very skillful in their management of international problems .”17

Lester B. Pearson

Canadian Parliament member & Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson in Parliament Commons. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Early in the crisis Pearson, as well as Laurent, demonstrated a significant change in Canadian diplomacy. Britain sent a letter to Canada essentially implying that Canada would be on its side in the Crisis; this greatly angered Pearson and Laurent who felt Britain should not be the one to speak on behalf of Canada.18 They refused to join the conflict with Britain. This shows a powerful shift in Canadian international politics. In the World Wars, and in the Boer War, Canada followed Britain’s lead, now with this new conflict, Canada refused to blindly follow and wanted to make its own decisions.19 Pearson and Laurent showed a level autonomy and independence that veered from traditional Canadian diplomacy.

Britain, according to Pearson, and later many historians, was acting foolishly and aggressively. One example of Britain’s selfish actions was in regards to how it viewed the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Following the Soviet Union’s large arms sale to Egypt, Israel requested the same from Britain and France; both denied to sell more arms citing that peace, not armaments was Israel’s only chance for survival in an area dominated by Arabs.20 Britain and France recognized war in the region was dangerous and unlikely to benefit the Middle Eastern countries. Then when the Suez Canal was nationalized they created a plan in which Israel would attack Egypt first. They cared more about their shipping route than Middle Eastern stability and urged an option they considered to be unlikely to guarantee Israel’s survival.21

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Pearson wanted to prevent this conflict from occurring and early on began drafting peace plans with his colleagues. Pearson’s efforts would change the international political environment by introducing the concept of peacekeeping. On November 1 1956 the Canadian Cabinet met and Pearson was urged to go to the UN to express Canada’s views. During this Canadian Cabinet meeting it was also the first time an official made a suggestion to use a “provision of substantial police forces on the Israel-Arab borders to keep peace.”22 Long before Pearson went to the UN, Canada’s Cabinet was discussing peacekeeping and using the UN as a meditator for the conflict. Pearson arrived at the United Nations and was given a time slot to speak to a large crowd of representatives from most of the world’s countries. Pearson pitched his idea of a UN Emergency Force that would act as a peacekeeping unit intended to mobilize between two warring regions encouraging a ceasefire until political negotiations defuse further conflict.23 He ended his speech with monumental implications, “my own government would be glad to recommend Canadian participation in such a United Nations Force, a truly international peace and police force.”24 John Melady called this an irreversible impact, one that changed both Canada and the world forever.25

UN International Emergency Force assembl

UN International Emergency Force assembling. (Photo by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Almost all UN members supported Pearson and he set to work drafting plans to actualize his concept. In the process Pearson worked exhaustively, constantly flying, staying in consistent contact with London, Ottawa, and Washington, and having meetings with officials.26 Historian Geoffrey Murray called Pearson “at home” in the UN General Assembly and argued that he showed impressive leadership, communication, and flexibility.27 Shortly after, Pearson returned to the UN and proposed within 48 hours “an emergency international United Nations force to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities.”28 Within a week of its creation the UN Emergency Force had 5000 troops from 8 nations.29 Pearson helped organize them into a two stage process. First a temporary force would supervise in the conflict region working on a ceasefire and withdrawal, then a second force would help maintain the peace until a political settlement.30 While difficult and not without complications, the peacekeeping effort succeeded.

Pearson had to navigate political hurdles, had to balance his relationship between Britain and the US, had to keep his domestic population happy (with difficulty due to slanderous critics of his such as the Globe and Mail), and had to deal with difficulties in Egypt and Israel.31 His challenge was immense and his success impressive.

Pearson in his efforts changed the world in two ways. First by acting independently as a nation, historian Janice Cavell claims this was a “decisive turning point in Canada’s relations with Britain.”32 Canada demonstrated autonomy in its diplomatic relations and for this Pearson, as well as Laurent, were historically significant. The second way Pearson changed the world was by introducing peacekeeping as a tool for the United Nations in times of conflict and crisis. While most academics agree on these two claims, where some tend to differ is in their interpretation of the events, in their perspective on Pearson’s motives, and in their contextualizing of the narrative.

The traditional narrative is that Pearson’s goal was to achieve peace in the Middle East and his peacekeeping efforts were to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.33 Pearson even won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.34 Many critics argue however, the Arab-Israeli conflict was only a side interest for Pearson and his real interest was preserving Canada’s and the Western Alliance’s security. A. L. Delovie argues that Pearson’s and Canada’s actions, while leading to successes in Middle Eastern stability, were not the main goal. The real importance to Canadian interests were avoiding tensions within NATO and ensuring the Western Alliance remained strong.35

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Furthermore, the risk of damaging the Commonwealth was large since the multi-racial union’s members, such as India, were feeling agitated by Britain’s aggressive action which they saw as colonial and anti-independence.26 In fact, this preservation of the Western Alliance appears to have been the main priority according to many critics. The Canadian ambassador to the US said, in regards to Britain and France not including the US in the initial invasion talks, there “has been as severe a shock to the USA Government, from the President down to the most junior State Department officials, as the nature and circumstances of the Franco-British action itself. There is no doubt whatever that this is regarded here as a very serious blow to the Western alliance and to the cohesion of the free world.”37

Canadian policy was not towards righting the wrong done to Egypt but was what, according to Pearson himself a policy that “would bring us together again within the Western Alliance and which would bring about peace in the area on terms which everybody could accept.”38 Muhammed Cohan, a historian from the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, agrees that “it appears that Canada’s primary concern in the Suez crisis “was not the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict”, rather, “the resolution of differences of opinion within the Western Alliance and within the Commonwealth.”39 This distinction convincingly challenges the traditional narrative argued by some historians who claim Pearson acted out of a singular interest to resolve the Middle Eastern Crisis; critics demonstrate a more complicated and self-interested geopolitical situation.

To understand why Canada refused to help Britain in the Suez Crisis it is necessary to understand the changing relationship between the two. Britain was more than just the “mother country” but now was also a key Cold War ally and leading member of the Commonwealth. To Pearson, peace and stability internationally were the priority, not defending the “mother country”.40 Cohan argues that “a majority of the Commonwealth members resented British policy and threatened to quit the Commonwealth. Canadian diplomacy restored their trust in the alliance at a very sensitive point.”41

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The Cold War hovers over many of the critic’s observations of the traditional narrative. Some argue that it is because of the threat of Soviets getting involved that the Western super powers decided to pull back and allow Canada’s effort to intervene.42 The counter narrative towards the peacekeeping mission is that Britain’s reckless and aggressive actions in the Middle East were dangerous to the West due to the possibility of escalating the conflict, and especially by tangling the Soviet Union into the Crisis. Furthermore, some critics call in into question how “independent” Canada was really acting towards Britain.

Marc O’Reilly argues that Canada was acting less so independent, and more so in line with American policy. He suggests that this shift in diplomacy was less so Canada becoming an independent middle power and more so Canada supporting the US.43 Canada was not acting more independent in the traditional sense, but shifting its super power allegiance to the US. O’Reilly also convincingly argues that while Pearson undoubtedly affected British policy by creating the UN Emergency Force, it was really the US using their financial leverage to squeeze the British Treasury that had a stronger more direct influence on British policy.44

Cavell while admitting that this was a decisive turning point in Canada’s relations with Britain, considers it premature to call this difference in policy a full leap into independence. Many citizens and politicians disapproved of Laurent and Pearson turning their backs on Britain and later this reversed under the next Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who “made no secret of his strong emotional commitment to Britain and the Commonwealth.”45 Pearson and Laurent may have acted independently of Britain’s wishes, but the general public did not approve of this and Canada immediately afterwards rebuilt relations and ties to the “mother country.”

A final critique of the Suez Crisis and Pearson’s creation of a peacekeeping force is on the powerful effect it had on Canadian discourse. Canada in modern times views itself as a peacekeeping nation and this narrative is often unchallenged and taken for granted.46 Some critics consider the narrative that Canada is a peacekeeping nation problematic because during the time of the Suez Crisis, much of the public was not in favour of Canada’s actions. Furthermore, following the Crisis the Laurent government lost power to Diefenbaker. Creating a national identity that claims it has peacekeeping embedded is problematic when at the point of the peacekeeping origins in Canada, popular support was missing. By understanding that peace keeping and the handling of the crisis was outside of the norm and not popular, it undermines the idea that the values were inherently Canadian by nature.47

While this articles agrees that all these critiques show valuable merit, the underlying successes of Pearson are still present. Regardless of the degree, or of the intentions, a few facts remain true. Pearson ushered in a new era in Canadian diplomacy, and Pearson established a new precedent in international relations with the creation of a peacekeeping force. Pearson used the UN Assembly in a more constructive way than was traditional. The Assembly was often used more as a tool for shaping international public opinion, however with Pearson’s leadership the UN mobilized to create real quick-pace proceedings in order to solve the issue.48 At the time a few countries, including the US and Britain, critiqued Pearson that his plans were impractical, or were too complicated to organize quickly, Pearson proved them wrong.49

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In the Canadian context, while questions exist on how independent Canada truly was during and after the Crisis, it remains true that Pearson brought Canada into the international arena as never before and also established new relations and precedents with the Middle East. Pearson and Laurent’s actions set a precedent in Canada to not get involved in Middle Eastern arms sales. When Golda Meir in 1958 requested arms Canada responded by saying “our recent approach to the Middle East problem has been to advocate methods of mediation, conciliation and restraint, preferably using UN machinery rather than the precarious balancing of positions of strength.”50 Following the Crisis Canada opened a new department called the Middle Eastern Division, it also opened new embassies in Israel and Lebanon, and more broadly Canada developed more relations with other states such as Iran and Iraq.51

Pearson showed passionate effort, he traveled constantly to make meetings, he meticulously reported back to Laurent and the Canadian government, and he consistently tried to assist all parties.52 Pearson’s success came not from solving large principle problems, but by urging practical responses to encourage stability. His goal was not to solve broad political questions, but to reinstate order, security, and cohesion among allies.53 This he succeeded in doing.

In conclusion, Pearson during the Suez Crisis had two main contributions. He ushered in a new era of Canadian diplomacy by asserting Canada into the international sphere and making decisions and contributions more independently and with clear leadership. He also created a new era in international relations where peacekeeping became a new tool for stability and global peace. While some critics have legitimate claims questioning the degree of Canadian independence, the motives or values behind Pearson’s actions, or the discourse shaping Canadian national identity as a peacekeeping nation inherently, it remains true that Pearson’s accomplishments and two main contributions hold strong. Pearson during the 1956 Suez Crisis changed both Canada and the World. 

By Daniel Govedar (March 2016)

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Work Cited

  1. Melady, John. 2006. “Pearson’s Prize: Canada and the Suez Crisis”. Dundurn. Toronto, ON. Pg. 24
  2. Melady, John. Pg. 27
  3. Melady, John. Pg. 28
  4. Melady, John. Pg. 29
  5. Melady, John. Pg. 30
  6. Oren, Michael B.. 1990. “Canada, the Great Powers, and the Middle Eastern Arms Race, 1950-1956”.The International History Review 12 (2): 286
  7. Oren, Michael B. Pg. 298
  8. Melady, John. Pg. 36
  9. Ibid
  10. Melady, John. Pg. 30
  11. Ibid
  12. O’Reilly, Marc J. 1997. “Following Ike? Explaining Canadian‐US co‐operation during the 1956 Suez Crisis.”The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 35 (3): Pg. 75
  13. Melady, John. Pg. 75
  14. Melady, John. Pg. 92
  15. Melady, John. Pg. 53
  16. Melady, John. Pg. 54
  17. Melady, John. Pg. 79
  18. Melady, John. Pg. 110
  19. Ibid
  20. Oren, Michael B. Pg. 290
  21. Ibid
  22. Melady, John. Pg. 122
  23. Melady, John. Pg. 127
  24. Ibid
  25. Melady, John. Pg. 128
  26. Melady, John. Pg. 139
  27. Murray, Geoffrey. 1973. “Glimpses of Suez 1956”.International Journal 29 (1): Pg. 50
  28. Melady, John. Pg. 144
  29. Melady, John. Pg. 146
  30. Ibid
  31. Ibid
  32. Cavell, Janice. 2007. “Suez and After: Canada and British Policy in the Middle East, 1956-1960.” Journal of The Canadian Historical Association 18 (1): Pg. 157
  33. Chohan, Muhammad Anwar. 1985. “The Evolution of Canadian Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East (1945-67)”.Pakistan Horizon 38 (3). Pakistan Institute of International Affairs: Pg. 26
  34. “Lester Bowles Pearson – Facts”. Noble Peace Prize. Nobel Media AB. Web.
  35. Delvoie, L. A.. 1997. “Canada and Egypt: From Antagonism to Partnership”. International Journal52 (4): Pg. 661
  36. Delvoie, L. A. Pg. 662
  37. Cavell, Janice. Pg. 163
  38. Delvoie, L. A. Pg. 663
  39. Chohan, Muhammad Anwar. Pg. 26
  40. Cavell, Janice. Pg. 160
  41. Chohan, Muhammad Anwar. Pg. 27
  42. O’Reilly, Marc J. Pg. 91
  43. O’Reilly, Marc J. Pg. 75
  44. O’Reilly, Marc J. Pg. 76
  45. Cavell, Janice. Pg. 158
  46. Thomsen, Robert C., and Nikola Hynek. 2006. “Keeping the Peace and National Unity: Canada’s National and International Identity Nexus”. International Journal61 (4): Pg. 850
  47. Ibid
  48. Murray, Geoffrey. Pg. 51
  49. Ibid
  50. Oren, Michael B. Pg. 300
  51. Cavell, Janice. Pg. 169
  52. Murray, Geoffrey. Pg. 62
  53. Murray, Geoffrey. Pg. 64

 

Bibliography

  1. Cavell, Janice. 2007. “Suez and After: Canada and British Policy in the Middle East, 1956-1960.” Journal of The Canadian Historical Association 18 (1): 157-178.
  1. Chohan, Muhammad Anwar. 1985. “The Evolution of Canadian Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East (1945-67)”.Pakistan Horizon 38 (3). Pakistan Institute of International Affairs: 12–32.
  1. Delvoie, L. A.. 1997. “Canada and Egypt: From Antagonism to Partnership”. International Journal52 (4): 657–76.
  1. “Lester Bowles Pearson – Facts”. Noble Peace Prize. Nobel Media AB. Web. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1957/pearson-facts.html
  1. Melady, John. 2006. “Pearson’s Prize: Canada and the Suez Crisis”. Dundurn. Toronto, ON.
  1. Murray, Geoffrey. 1973. “Glimpses of Suez 1956”.International Journal 29 (1): 46–66.
  1. O’Reilly, Marc J. 1997. “Following Ike? Explaining Canadian‐US co‐operation during the 1956 Suez Crisis.”The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 35 (3): 75-107.
  1. Oren, Michael B.. 1990. “Canada, the Great Powers, and the Middle Eastern Arms Race, 1950-1956”.The International History Review 12 (2): 280–300.
  1. Thomsen, Robert C., and Nikola Hynek. 2006. “Keeping the Peace and National Unity: Canada’s National and International Identity Nexus”. International Journal61 (4): 845–58.
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