149. Memorandum of Discussion at the 295th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, August 30, 1956, 9 a.m.1

[Here follows a paragraph listing the participants at the meeting.]

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1. The Suez Canal Situation (Memo for NSC from Executive Secretary, subject: “Nationalization of the Suez Maritime Canal Company by the Egyptian Government”, dated August 3, 1956;2 Memos for NSC from Executive Secretary, subject: “Nationalization of the Suez Canal; Consequences and Possible Related Reactions”, dated August 73 and 22,4 1956; NSC Action No. 1593)

Mr. Anderson informed the Council that the Secretary of State would make a brief report on the London conference on the Suez Canal problem. He also reminded the Council of the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on this problem, and pointed out that Admiral Radford would probably wish to make some remarks when Secretary Dulles had concluded his.

Secretary Dulles first recalled the circumstances which led up to the London conference, emphasizing his own anxiety to avoid resort to military force against Egypt at least until such time as world public opinion had been mobilized and tested. He then indicated the basis of the invitations which had been issued to 24 nations to meet at London. 22 of the 24 nations invited had finally accepted. Egypt itself did not accept, perhaps, thought Secretary Dulles, because of the strong personal attack on President Nasser by Sir Anthony Eden just prior to the opening of the meeting. Greece had likewise refused to attend, because of the Cyprus affair. Secretary Dulles said that we had informed the Greeks that we perfectly understood the reason for their failure to attend.

Secretary Dulles went on to explain that the London conference concluded with approval by 18 of the 22 nations of his proposal to settle the Suez problem. This proposal involved the association of Egypt and certain foreign powers in the administration of the Suez Canal. Secretary Dulles thought it important that Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Ethiopia had been among the nations approving the plan, since he was particularly anxious that there should be no clear-cut division between the Western powers and the Moslem states on the Suez issue. Much credit for winning the allegiance of the aforesaid countries went to the Turkish Foreign Minister. The latter had not had an easy task, in view of the wrought-up state of public opinion, particularly in Iran and Pakistan. Ethiopia’s adherence to the U.S. plan Secretary Dulles attributed entirely to the cordiality of the U.S. relations with Ethiopia.

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The other main plan for settling the Canal problem was offered by India. The Indian plan emphasized that the connection of any foreign powers with the Suez Canal should be solely consultative in character, and that no nation except Egypt should have a voice in the actual control of shipping through the Suez Canal. Secretary Dulles said that the Indian plan was accordingly not satisfactory to France or Britain, for both of which countries the Suez Canal constituted a lifeline.

The main objective of the U.S. plan was to take the Suez Canal out of politics. Secretary Dulles speculated that perhaps in past years the French and British had been guilty of involving the Canal too much in politics. In any event, the U.S. plan envisaged that foreign association with the new Suez Canal operation should not be confined to the powerful Western nations, but that prominence should be given to neutral states who had not had in the past any special political interest in the Suez Canal.

The Indian plan was, of course, backed by the USSR. The Soviets did not particularly like the Indian plan, but did not wish to be completely isolated. The Indian plan was also supported by Indonesia and Ceylon, both of which countries were undoubtedly sincere in their desire to find a solution to this crisis. Secretary Dulles added that Krishna Menon was largely responsible for preventing the Indian delegation from accepting the U.S. plan, because Menon was anxious to bring the USSR and the Western powers into agreement and believed that he was capable of doing so.

In point of fact, of course, the Soviet Union obviously did not wish to find any solution to the Suez crisis, in which respect its attitude differed fundamentally from that of India, Indonesia and Ceylon. The Soviet Union had done everything possible to make it difficult for Nasser to accept the U.S. proposal for a settlement of the Suez Canal crisis.

Secretary Dulles commented that the British and French had gone along with the U.S. plan very reluctantly and in obvious hope that Nasser would not ultimately accept the plan. They calculated that his refusal to accept the plan would permit them to resort to military force with better grace. In the first instance the British and French were concerned with the Canal issue itself because the Canal was vital to the economic health of Western Europe in general and to the United Kingdom in particular. For this reason the British were wholly unwilling to permit the Canal to be subject to the whims of Egyptian politics, realizing full well the depths of Nasser’s hatred for Britain. On the other hand, both the British and the French looked at this crisis in broader terms than the Suez Canal itself. These two countries were greatly concerned about Nasser’s growing stature in the Middle East, and the resultant jeopardy to their whole position [Page 327] in the Middle East and North Africa. Secretary Dulles admitted that the U.S. plan could be made to appear to be a victory for Nasser, or at least so the British and French argued. They therefore felt that they must come out of the crisis with some action that would cut Nasser down to size. Otherwise they felt that they would lose their entire positions in the Middle East and North Africa. These sentiments explained the hope and expectation of the British and French that Nasser would reject our London proposal.

After the acceptance of the London proposal by the 18 nations, the conference proceeded to create a committee charged with going to Nasser to explain the agreed plan. Initially they had wanted Secretary Dulles along to present the plan to Nasser. Secretary Dulles, however, had resisted this suggestion, and accordingly a committee of five nations was selected, headed by Prime Minister Menzies of Australia. Actually, said Secretary Dulles, he would have preferred that the United States not be represented at all on the five-nation committee, but the other four nations had all insisted on U.S. membership if they themselves were to agree to serve on the committee. The indications were that this committee would have very rough going in presenting the plan to Nasser, and Secretary Dulles believed that Nasser would end by rejecting the proposal. Secretary Dulles pointed out that the USSR had been playing a very reckless game in its effort to induce Nasser to reject the plan; unless, of course, the Soviet Union was actually hopeful that war would break out. Indeed, at the very time that Secretary Dulles was personally trying to gain the cooperation of Foreign Minister Shepilov at London, the Soviet radio was viciously attacking the U.S. plan as an example of Western imperialism and colonialism. Such attacks had continued without interruption ever since.

Secretary Dulles pointed out that there existed some division of opinion within the five-nation committee as to the committee’s mandate for its forthcoming dealings with President Nasser. The British and French were insistent that the committee make no effort to try to sell the plan to Nasser, and that the committee should avoid any negotiating role. The majority of the nations, however, took the view of the United States, that an effort at least should be made to explain to Nasser the basis of the plan that was being proposed to him. The final attitude of the committee in its dealings with Nasser would depend fundamentally on the view of Prime Minister Menzies.

Meanwhile, said Secretary Dulles, both the British and the French were continuing their military preparations to deal with the Suez crisis. They seemed to be extremely serious in their intention to resort to military force if no other acceptable solution is found. At this juncture, thought Secretary Dulles, the strongest elements in the [Page 328] British Cabinet were Macmillan and Lord Salisbury. Sir Anthony Eden had shown himself to be somewhat vacillating. Even so, Eden had informed Secretary Dulles that on or about the 10th of September, the British Government would have to make decisions with respect to the resort to force which, once made, would be irrevocable. Moreover, the Secretary of State said, he had word from London yesterday that in order to prepare British public opinion, the British Government proposed to take the Canal issue to the United Nations the moment that Nasser rejected the plan. The general British objective appeared to be to secure a UN Security Council resolution backing the British and French point of view. Of course, the British realized that such a resolution would be vetoed in the Security Council by the USSR. Nevertheless, the British believed that the backing they would gain in the Security Council (despite the Soviet veto) would provide a better basis on which to proceed with the invocation of force against Egypt. In any event, such a procedure would free Britain and France from the charge of having resorted to war without paying any attention to the United Nations.

Secretary Dulles stated that French public opinion was, if anything, more wrought-up and more united over the Canal issue than was British public opinion. After all, the French were already fighting in Algeria. They argued that it was more or less hopeless to fight in Algeria if Nasser was simultaneously to win a great victory in Egypt on the Canal issue. In short, they would rather fight at the center of the trouble—namely, Egypt—than fight around the periphery of the difficulty—namely, Algeria. Moreover, they would have the advantage of fighting Egypt with British assistance. Accordingly, with the exception of the Communist Party the French were united in favor of military action against Egypt.

The situation was not quite so solid in Great Britain. While initially the Labour Party had supported the Government’s insistence on the validity of resorting to force, they had lately had second thoughts on the subject, and were now opposed to invoking force to solve the problem. Gaitskell had informed Secretary Dulles that there was very great doubt whether Great Britain would be in a position to go to war against Egypt if the Labour Party opposed this plan of action. The Labour Party was also very strong in its belief and conviction that Britain could not afford to ignore the UN in the existing circumstances.

Summing up, Secretary Dulles said that the foregoing was approximately the way the situation stood at the present time. The issue, he said, was very grave, and he himself found it extremely difficult to take a strong stand against the British and French views since, after all, the British and French would be finished as first-rate powers if they didn’t somehow manage to check Nasser and nullify [Page 329] his schemes. Indeed, they had told Secretary Dulles that failure to do this would reduce them to the rank of third- or fourth-rate powers. Both Salisbury and Macmillan were strong-minded people, thoroughly imbued with the tradition of British greatness. They would rather go down fighting than to accept an accomplished fact from President Nasser. Admittedly, they are not clear as to how they could successfully carry through a war against Egypt, with which view Secretary Dulles agreed. The whole Arab world would be pitted against them, and obviously it would be easier to start such a war than to finish it. In order to achieve their objectives, they might even have to try to re-establish colonial rule over the whole area of the Middle East. All of this constituted a morass from which it was hard for Secretary Dulles to see how the British and French could ever hope successfully to extricate themselves. Needless to say, continued Secretary Dulles, the British and French hope that we will be fighting along with them if it comes to war against Egypt.

At the conclusion of Secretary Dulles’ remarks, Mr. Anderson asked Admiral Radford if he had anything he wished to add.

Admiral Radford first referred to the several papers prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Council, analyzing some eight possible military courses of action. These JCS reports had been turned over to the so-called State-Defense study group, as the President had recently directed.5 The general conclusion reached by the Joint Chiefs of Staff was that the most desirable course of action for the United States would be strong public, political and logistic support for Great Britain and France, without direct military intervention by the United States in support of these countries against Egypt unless a third party intervened in the hostilities. Such a course of action, Admiral Radford believed, would be most likely to prevent a war over Suez from spreading.6

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Admiral Radford went on to point out that although the U.S. military have not taken part in the development of UK-French plans for the use of force against Egypt, we do know in a general way what the British and French intend to do and the character of the forces they are mobilizing for possible use against Egypt. The British and French have informed us that they would be ready to undertake military operations against Egypt some time in the period between August 29 and September 5. As far as Admiral Radford knew, the British and French were proceeding on this schedule, and are presumably nearly ready to take military action if the decision to do so is made.

The studies by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, continued Admiral Radford, indicate in general the Chiefs’ feeling, from the military point of view, of sympathy for the British and French analysis of the Suez dilemma. They agree that if the Suez crisis is not handled decisively the result will be grave long-term repercussions. Admiral Radford also predicted that if the British and French go to war against Egypt, the United States would have to provide them at least with logistic support. This, of course, would identify us with the British and French in the eyes of the world. Admiral Radford concluded by pointing out that in any event the United States should do all that is possible to do to avoid committing U.S. land forces in action against Egypt.

At the conclusion of Admiral Radford’s comments, the President inquired whether any members of the Council had any questions he wished to put. There being no questions, the President added his own view that the Suez situation was so grave that it must be watched hourly. It seemed to the President, he said, that the limit of what we can consider doing now is to take the necessary steps to prevent the enlargement of the war if it actually breaks out. This immediately raised in his mind the question as to whether it would be necessary to consult with the Congress. He asked Secretary Dulles for his view on that question.

Secretary Dulles replied that in his opinion such a U.S. course of action would require consultation with Congress, since the area of hostilities was not covered by any treaty to which the United States was a party. Secretary Dulles went on to state that up to now we have all tended to consider the Suez crisis as likely to result in either (1) a great victory for President Nasser or (2) a very serious war. Nevertheless, Secretary Dulles thought it at least possible to entertain an intermediate point of view—namely, we might be able, if we maneuvered correctly, to deny to Nasser the full fruits of victory. Secretary Dulles pointed out that the leaders of several Arab countries were concerned with the growing preeminence of President Nasser in the Moslem world. These leaders would be very happy [Page 331] indeed to find an issue that could be used to deflate Nasser’s prestige. Unfortunately, they do not consider the Suez Canal issue a suitable weapon for deflating Nasser. In any event, all of this suggested the possibility of an intermediate situation which would not mean a total success for Nasser, who might subsequently be successfully deflated.

Acting Secretary of the Treasury Burgess informed the Council that he had been in London at the time that the conference opened, and wished to pay a tribute to Secretary Dulles. He said that after two days of the meeting in London, Secretary Dulles had succeeded in changing the entire direction of British public opinion. The President agreed that Secretary Dulles’ accomplishment was impressive, but pointed out that the present situation with respect to British public opinion might be even worse. A country in which public opinion was divided, as in the case of Britain, could give aid and comfort to Nasser, who might now calculate that he could get away with practically anything without the risk that Britain would resort to military force. Secretary Dulles expressed agreement with the President’s view, and said that he was by no means sure that Gaitskell’s performance was wholly to the good.

Governor Stassen inquired whether any thought had been given to various other courses of action which might be pursued to resolve the Canal crisis. For example, had any thought been given to the possibility that the Israelis might defeat Egypt, or that some other Arab country or countries might take up arms against the Nasser government? Secretary Dulles replied that such courses of action had been explored and had been found wanting … .

The President intervened to say that as quickly as that happened the United States would find all the Arab countries of the world united against us.

Secretary Dulles agreed with this view of the President, and then said that he had just received a memorandum from officials of the State Department pointing out that we may presently have to take steps for the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Egypt. The British and French are already doing this, and we may soon be compelled to do it under forced draft. This will throw some heavy responsibilities on the Defense Department, because we will probably have to use military facilities to evacuate civilians, which will mean that these military facilities will not be initially available for military purposes.

Admiral Radford pointed out that a plan for the evacuation of U.S. civilians from Egypt had been developed. The great concern of the military at present was how to obtain advance warning in sufficient time to evacuate our civilians prior to the outbreak of military action. Also, he added, we are very greatly concerned to be assured of continued access to Saudi Arabian oil.

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The President inquired as to the character of the U.S. civilians in Egypt. Were they mainly commercial people? Secretary Dulles replied that they were largely so, and went on to point out the serious repercussions, from a political point of view, of any public notice that the United States was evacuating American citizens from Egypt.

Dr. Flemming assured the National Security Council that we were moving ahead with our plans for dealing with the oil situation in the event of trouble in the Suez Canal. We are also talking with the British,7 who have provided us with a preliminary study of what the closure of the Canal would do to their dollar position. Secretary Dulles turned to Secretary Burgess and said that he had better have his checkbook ready.

The National Security Council:8

Noted and discussed a report by the Secretary of State on the status of developments and future contingencies, based on the recent Conference in London.
Noted and discussed the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the subject, transmitted by the reference memorandum of August 22.
Noted a statement by the Director, Office of Defense Mobilization, on the status of oil studies pertaining to the Suez Canal situation.

[Here follow agenda items 2 and 3. Agenda item 3, “U.S. Policy in Mainland Southeast Asia,” is printed in volume XXI, page 241.]

S. Everett Gleason
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Records. Top Secret. Prepared by Gleason on August 31. The time of the meeting is from the record of the President’s Daily Appointments. (Ibid.)
  2. The memorandum transmitted the JCS memorandum of July 31 to the NSC; see Document 50.
  3. The memorandum transmitted the JCS memorandum of August 3 to the NSC; see Document 68.
  4. Document 118.
  5. On August 23, pursuant to NSC Action No. 1593 (see footnotes 8 and 9, Document 72), the Joint Chiefs of Staff forwarded to the Secretary of Defense an “Analysis of U.S. Military Courses of Action with Respect to the Expropriation of the Suez Maritime Canal Company” under cover of a memorandum by Radford which recommended that a copy be forwarded to the Defense member of the State-Defense study group formed in response to Eisenhower’s directive. The analysis was based upon the assumption that the British and French could seize the Canal without direct U.S. participation and that political and economic actions already taken by Western governments had not produced acceptable results. (JCS Records, CCS.092 Egypt (7–28–56))
  6. In addition, the JCS viewed as militarily acceptable the following courses of action: (1) to guarantee publicly that the United States would take appropriate action, including direct military action by U.S. forces as necessary, in the event of significant military intervention by third parties which threatened to expand the conflict; (2) to publicly endorse and politically, economically, and logistically support British-French military action without direct participation of U.S. forces; and (3) to participate from the outset in combined military action with Britain and France. (Memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense, August 23; ibid.)
  7. Documentation relating to Anglo-American discussions concerning the oil situation is in Department of State, Central Files 840.2553 and 974.7301 and in Conference Files: Lot 62 D 181, CF 748–749.
  8. The following paragraphs constitute NSC Action No. 1597, approved by the President on September 5. (Ibid., S/SNSC (Miscellaneous) Files: Lot 66 D 95, Records of Action by the National Security Council, 1956)