181. Message From Prime Minister Eden to President Eisenhower 1

Dear Friend: Thank you for your message2 and for writing thus frankly. There is no doubt as to where we are agreed and have been agreed from the very beginning namely that we should do everything we can to get a peaceful settlement. It is in this spirit that we favoured calling the twenty-two power Conference and that we have worked in the closest cooperation with you about this business ever since. There has never been any question of our suddenly or without further provocation resorting to arms while these processes were at work. In any event as your own wide knowledge would confirm we could not have done this without extensive preparation lasting several weeks.

This question of precautions has troubled me considerably and still does. I have not forgotten the riots and murders in Cairo in 1952, for I was in charge here at the time when Winston was on the high seas on his way back from the United States.

We are both agreed that we must give the Suez Committee every chance to fulfil their mission. This is our firm resolve. If the Committee and subsequent negotiations succeed in getting Nasser’s agreement to the London proposals of the Eighteen powers there will be no call for force. But if the Committee fails we must have some immediate alternative which will show that Nasser is not going to get his way. In this connection we are attracted by Foster’s suggestion if I understand it rightly for the running of the Canal by the users in virtue of their rights under the 1888 Convention. We heard [Page 401] about this from our Embassy in Washington yesterday. I think that we could go along with this provided that the intention was made clear by both of us immediately the Menzies Mission finishes its work. But unless we can proceed with this or something very like it what should the next step be?

You suggest that this is where we diverge. If that is so I think that the divergence springs from a difference in our assessment of Nasser’s plans and intentions. May I set out our view of the position. In the 1930’s Hitler established his position by a series of carefully planned movements. These began with the occupation of the Rhineland and were followed by successive acts of aggression against Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the West. His actions were tolerated and excused by the majority of the population of Western Europe. It was argued either that Hitler had committed no act of aggression against anyone or that he was entitled to do what he liked in his own territory or that it was impossible to prove that he had any ulterior designs or that the covenant of the League of Nations did not entitle us to use force and that it would be wiser to wait until he did commit an act of aggression.

In more recent years Russia has attempted similar tactics. The blockade of Berlin was to have been the opening move in a campaign designed at least to deprive the Western powers of their whole position in Germany. On this occasion we fortunately reacted at once with the result that the Russian design was never unfolded. But I am sure that you would agree that it would be wrong to infer from this circumstance that no Russian design existed. Similarly the seizure of the Suez Canal is, we are convinced, the opening gambit in a planned campaign designed by Nasser to expel all Western influence and interests from Arab countries. He believes that if he can get away with this and if he can successfully defy eighteen nations his prestige in Arabia will be so great that he will be able to mount revolutions of young officers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. (We know from our joint sources that he is already preparing a revolution in Iraq which is the most stable and progressive.) These new Governments will in effect be Egyptian satellites if not Russian ones. They will have to place their united oil resources under the control of a united Arabia led by Egypt and under Russian influence. When that moment comes Nasser can deny oil to Western Europe and we here shall all be at his mercy.

There are some who doubt whether Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait will be prepared even for a time to sacrifice their oil revenues for the sake of Nasser’s ambitions. But if we place ourselves in their position I think the dangers are clear. If Nasser says to them, “I have nationalised the Suez Canal. I have successfully defied eighteen powerful nations, including the United States, I have [Page 402] defied the whole of the United Nations in the matter of the Israel blockade, I have expropriated all Western property. Trust me and withhold oil from Western Europe. Within six months or a year the continent of Europe will be on its knees before you”. Will the Arabs not be prepared to follow this lead? Can we rely on them to be more sensible than were the Germans? Even if the Arabs eventually fall apart again as they did after the early Caliphs, the damage will have been done meanwhile. In short we are convinced that if Nasser is allowed to defy the eighteen nations it will be a matter of months before revolution breaks out in the oil bearing countries and the West is wholly deprived of Middle Eastern oil. In this belief we are fortified by the advice of friendly leaders in the Middle East.

The Iraqis are the most insistent in their warnings; both Nuri and the Crown Prince3 have spoken to us several times of the consequences of Nasser succeeding in his grab. They would be swept away. Other warnings have been given by the Shah4 to our Ambassador when he said that he gave getting rid of Nasser a very high priority. The Libyan Ambassador5 here, who was formerly Prime Minister, said that wise men must see the danger of Nasser succeeding. King Saud of whose advice you will know more than we do also spoke in apprehension to Prince Zaid of Iraq when he was there the other day. He said that it would be bad if Nasser emerged triumphant for he agreed that Nasser’s ambition was to become the Napoleon of the Arabs and if he succeeded the regimes in Iraq and Saudi Arabia would be swept away.

The difference which separates us today appears to be a difference of assessment of Nasser’s plans and intentions and of the consequences in the Middle East of military action against him.

You may feel that even if we are right it would be better to wait until Nasser has unmistakeably unveiled his intentions. But this was the argument which prevailed in 1936 and which we both rejected in 1948. Admittedly there are risks in the use of force against Egypt now. It is however clear that military intervention designed to reverse Nasser’s revolutions in the whole continent would be a much more costly and difficult undertaking. I am very troubled as it is that if we do not reach a conclusion either way about the Canal very soon one or other of these Eastern lands may be toppled at any moment by Nasser’s revolutionary movements.

I agree with you that prolonged military operations as well as the denial of Middle East oil would place an immense strain on the economy of Western Europe. I can assure you that we are conscious [Page 403] of the burdens and perils attending military intervention. But if our assessment is correct and if the only alternative is to allow Nasser’s plans quietly to develop until this country and all Western Europe are held to ransom by Egypt acting at Russia’s behest it seems to us that our duty is plain. We have many times led Europe in the fight for freedom. It would be an ignoble end to our long history if we tamely accepted to perish by degrees.

With kindest regards,

Yours ever,

Anthony 6
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, International File. Secret. Delivered to the White House on September 6 under cover of a note from Coulson to President Eisenhower which reads: “I have been asked by the Prime Minister to convey to you the enclosed message about the Suez Canal.” Coulson also delivered a copy of the message to the Department of State on September 6.(Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D Eden to Eisenhower Correspondence 1955–1956 Vol. I)
  2. Document 163.
  3. The Amir Abdullah.
  4. Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran.
  5. Mahmud Muntasser.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.