Note: Our accounts contain the personal recollections and opinions of the individual interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government or the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. ADST conducts oral history interviews with retired U.S. diplomats, and uses their accounts to form narratives around specific events or concepts, in order to further the study of American diplomatic history and provide the historical perspective of those directly involved.
Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the most influential modern-day leaders in the Middle East. He took a hard-line approach towards Western domination of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
On July 26, 1956 he announced he was nationalizing the Suez Canal Company. This came on the heels of strengthened ties with the Soviet Union and recognition of the People's Republic of China. Nationalization of the Suez Canal Company prompted an attack by the Israeli, British, and French military forces of Sinai and the bombing of Cairo with the objective of reestablishing Western control of the Suez Canal as well as removing Nasser from office.
The United Nations, supported by the United States, condemned the attack and pressured Britain and France to withdraw their forces. A UN peacekeeping contingency, the first of its kind, was dispatched to the Suez Canal to ensure and oversee the withdrawal of foreign troops. Nasser's victory increased his popularity, which helped him create both the Non-Aligned Movement and promote pan-Arab unity. This account was compiled from interviews done by ADST with Raymond A. Hare (beginning in 1987), who served as ambassador throughout the Middle East, and James O'Brien Howard (1993), a regional Agricultural Attache in charge of Egypt, Sudan, Syria, and Lebanon. Read the entire account on ADST.org.
HARE: The canal itself was NOT nationalized - the canal was always Egyptian. It was the Suez Canal Company that was nationalized, not the canal. Nasser had been attending one of those non-aligned meetings in Yugoslavia when the announcement was made that we were pulling out of our offer to help finance the Aswan Dam. It was obviously a blow to him and, when he got back, his counter was to nationalize the Suez Canal Company, something he had in mind for some time.
United States Secretary of State John F. Dulles intervened actively and in time came up with the idea of a Suez Canal Users Association (SCUA). I don't know to what extent he thought it would work, but he was trying to avoid a conflict over the situation, a major problem. This was and remained our policy, and this is what got us into difficulty with the French and British as the situation developed....
As I recall it, the Egyptians had made several very affirmative suggestions for the solution of the canal problem, but they were quickly rejected by [British Foreign Secretary] Selwyn Lloyd. As you know, they, the British, had decided with the Israelis and the French on the attack on Egypt, and they didn't want any peaceful solution. What they wanted was a crack at Nasser. This was also a dearly held ambition of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden...
I was sitting on the roof of the Embassy Residence one Sunday when a U.S. Marine guard came over with a "very important" message. The telegram was to the effect that something was going on in Israel, it wasn't clear what it was....So I called our staff together and worked through the night trying to puzzle it out. But we couldn't figure out any reason why the Israelis at that particular time should be attacking Egypt. I don't think my friend [British Ambassador] Humphrey Trevelyan knew either in the beginning. However, soon after, in the evening, he came over and said "It's Egypt!" I heard it first from him.
This caused us immediately to implement our evacuation plan, which actually took place in stages because the Israelis apparently jumped the gun a bit and had gone as far as really intended before the British and the French had gotten into their ships and lumbered around and gotten into the thing. When it became clear just how serious the situation was, we began evacuation to Alexandria with the help of the Egyptian officials. One of our problems was that while we had this very carefully planned evacuation, the French, who had none, tried to scramble into our evacuation, which was a bit difficult. By this time the British were really moving in, and their planes were flying around, making us rather nervous. I didn't want them dropping any bombs on our convoy, so I sent several urgent telegrams off to London, which I understand got to the desk of Eden who got very annoyed with one Raymond Hare for bothering him about this.
HOWARD: There was considerable concern about security. On this particular day, I was somewhere around town and I decided to stop by the Embassy and get briefed on what the latest news was. When we got to the Embassy the gates were closed.
You may recall that the Brits were bringing out their dependents and the French were bringing out their dependents. We were not. We were saying that we were going to work with Nasser and saw nothing to worry about and left our dependents there. This was a source of some anxiety for all of us in the Embassy. My home was out in Maadi, which is on the desert in a suburban area some distance from downtown Cairo. In this desert area lived a number of Americans. We had a network of communications. It was my job to contact six families and give the word, whatever the word might be. We wouldn't depend on the telephone for fairly obvious reasons.
When the British decided to bring out their dependents, there was a big debate in the Embassy. The Ambassador brought in the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], the Administrative Officer, etc. and they debated until well into the evening what word they were going to pass out through this network. By the time it got to me, it was 9:00 in the evening. The word was that the Ambassador said the Embassy was watching things very carefully.
I got to Port Sudan and just as I arrived the hotel clerk said that my wife had called. This is in the middle of Africa and you know your wife is not going to call to say howdy. I didn't want to show too much concern for obvious diplomatic reasons. I tried to call her but there wasn't any chance of getting through to Cairo. After asking, I was told that the next plane flew in the next morning.
None of this news had reached Port Sudan. So when the plane arrived there was Jim Howard out on the tarmac.... Thank heavens it was a British captain. As he stepped out of the plane I said, "Captain, what's happening around the world?" He says, "Well, do you want to start with Hungary or with Cairo?" The Hungarian revolution was taking place. I said, "Well, Cairo was closer." And he told me what had happened.
Later my wife got through a message saying that the Ambassador said I was not to come back but to go to Rome and join them there. Now think about that. I have a wife and two small children, an office and I am told not to come back. Well, I got back to Khartoum, Sudan pretty quickly and here was Ambassador Pinkerton [from Lebanon] and a couple of assistants, that was all the staff he had, and Jim Howard sitting around this big radio with ears glued to BBC, listening to the news. Eventually I flew out from there via Libya to Rome.
Meanwhile, the decision had been immediate to evacuate the dependents. But how do you get them out? At first we were going to send in American planes to take them out. Winifred, my wife, was teaching math in the Cairo-American College, a high school, because they couldn't get teachers due to the crisis. All the American dependents went out and all but a small nucleus of the Embassy staff left too. Somehow our house became a source of information for that area out there in the desert. She said people were there until 10:00 that evening. She finally got the two small children asleep and the phone rang and she was told a plane was coming at 1:00 or 2:00 to take out dependents. She said, "My children have just gotten to sleep. Can't I come on a later plane?" They finally agreed that she could. Well, the plane got there and Nasser wouldn't let it land and it had to go back to Greece. finally -- several days later -- were allowed to go by car convey to Alexandria. You may recall that by that time Dulles had rattled the sword a bit and said that Nasser was going to allow an American ship to get in there and get those dependents or there would be trouble.
So she drove across the desert with these two small children and an Egyptian and got to Alexandria. There was antiaircraft fire and bombs were falling, but they were not hurt. They sat there in the harbor for hours because Nasser wouldn't pull up the mines. They had to keep the kids out on the deck with life jackets in case they were bombed.... Finally Nasser did pull up the mines. The Egyptian ships were right under the edge of our ship, shooting, antiaircraft fire, using our ship for protection, which didn't make them feel any happier.
But, anyway, when they did bring up the nets, every ship in the harbor started out and one cut across in front of ours. By this time Winifred was privy to the captain's discussions with the key people. He said, "Don't worry, let him go first. If there are mines out there, they will harvest them."
HARE: During this period when the British and the French movement was in full swing, I used to see Nasser fairly often at his request. It was rarely at the same place; we used to move around for our meetings. One time he asked to see me at the Army headquarters on the way to Heliopolis airport. On this particular day [Anwar] Sadat [close confidant and later President] was sitting on a chair outside Nasser's office. Nasser said to me that there was a request that he wanted to make.
He wanted to request American assistance against the British and the French. As we refined this a bit it turned out that what he meant was that he wanted American military assistance. In effect, he asked for intervention of the Sixth Fleet against the British and the French. I responded, "Mr. President, you have asked me a very serious question, as serious a question as one country can ask another - to intervene militarily against people who are our friends. Now do you mind if I ask you a question?" He said, "No."
"Are you asking my government for active military assistance against the British and the French or are you asking me, expecting that the reply will be negative, and that then you will be free to say, 'Well, I've asked the Americans,' and then you would be free to turn to the Soviets?"
This was the only time I saw Nasser really angry. I said, "Wait a minute now. You asked me a hard question, and I asked you a hard question." "No" he said. "I really meant it." I said, "All right, thank you very much." So I reported this conversation to Washington and got back a reply saying in effect "We would do everything we could in the United Nations." That was the reply.
When I gave Nasser Washington's reply, I, of course, got a rather cold response. Nevertheless we did, in the United Nations, take a very strong line against the British and the French, much to their anger. Sometime later Nasser remarked to me, "You remember the time when I asked you that question about helping us?" I said "Yes." Nasser sort of chuckled. We got over a tough one that time....
Sometimes, toward the end of our conversations, we would go over the fact that really our relations ought to be better. Our discussions would go something like this: One of us would say, "Our relations ought to be better," and we would agree to that. Then I would say, "The problem is, what do we do about it? We talk about having better relations, but what can we do to symbolize what we really mean?" He didn't ever want to suggest anything that would be refused, he didn't like that. So he would say, "Oh, we should turn over a new page." One day when he said that I said, "Fine. What should we write on the new page?" Then you would get a reply something like this. "You must understand Arab psychology better" or something of that kind. We always seemed to end up this way....
One day I went around to visit the Lebanese Minister to Cairo, Ghaleb Turk, whom I had known previously in Saudi Arabia. He asked me, "How are things going?" I said: "All right." And I told him much the same as I have just described. I told him that we'd had these conversations and we had agreed that we should have better relations, but I could never get Nasser to say anything specific about what they really would like us to do. He said, "Do you mind? I have some good relations at the top of the government in the Presidency. Do you mind if I say a word about this?" I said I didn't mind....
Shortly after that, Hassanein Heikal, an important journalist and confidante of Nasser, came to see me. Well, he bounced in and said "I hear you were talking to Ghaleb Turk." I said that indeed I had. Heikal then asked, "Do you know what we want?" "That is what I am asking all the time. Can you tell me?" He replied, "Yes. We would like PL 480 wheat!" This was something that we could easily do, as we had wheat practically running out of the bins. Mainly we were selling this PL 480 [Public Law 480, which established the Food for Peace program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development] for what we could call "wooden nickels" - that is, you got local currency in payment for it. This PL 480 idea was to me an ideal answer. I felt strongly that in a situation in which the Russians were being aggressive in the area, we should not try to do them one better of the same kind. If we wanted to do something we should make it an American move, and preferably an American move that would have some broad appeal. Well, here was an American move that would have some broad appeal. I telegraphed this back to Washington and got clearance to discuss the matter. Heikal came in to see me, and when I told him we were willing to discuss it he nearly fell out of his chair, he didn't think we would do it. My successor in Cairo once said that it gave rise to a sort of honeymoon period. Before this our relations with Egypt had been difficult....
Now, one last observation about Nasser. There were always lots of visitors who came to Cairo and most of them wanted to meet Nasser. A fair number of those who came were what I called the "belligerent." They saw in Nasser a dictator type and wanted to give him a piece of their mind. Over a period of time Nasser developed a marvelous technique of speaking to such visitors. And it was rather amusing, because these people who had gone in with eyes flashing used to come out with stars in their eyes....