41. Memorandum of a Conversation, British Foreign Office, London, August 1, 1956, noon1


  • Suez Canal


  • Great Britain: Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, Sir Harold Caccia, Messrs. Ross and Fitzmaurice
  • United States:
    • Secretary Dulles
    • Ambassador Aldrich
    • Mr. Carl W. McCardle (P)
    • Mr. Herman Phleger (L)
    • Mr. Robert Murphy (G)

Secretary Dulles met at noon today with Selwyn Lloyd at the British Foreign Office. Mr. Lloyd began with a reference to Nasser as a paranoiac like Hitler but without the power that Hitler had back of him. He said in essence that the British people feel they cannot let Nasser get away with his action on the Suez Canal. He talked about the strong feeling in Parliament and the unanimous support of the Conservatives enjoyed by the Government and discussed the question of oil shipments which might have to be routed around the Cape. Mr. Lloyd said naturally Britain wants to arrange matters peaceably, but there is universal feeling that there must be resolution to see this through. He said they wished to be reasonable regarding any measures necessary to arrive at a peaceful solution but that he did not quite fully understand American views regarding a larger conference. He raised questions regarding the idea of applying Article 8 of the Convention of 1888 which would contemplate an invitation by three of the signatory powers. He raised questions regarding states successors to the signatories of the Convention.

Secretary Dulles said the real question seemed to be what the Conference is for; that once that was decided he thought the composition of the Conference would not be too difficult. He said [Page 95] that what we needed to decide is where we come out. It would be intolerable that an international waterway should be under the domination of one country without international control and supervision. The whole concept of the Suez Canal from the beginning is international—its construction, its financing, its management. In reply to Lloyd’s question whether that point of view would affect Panama, Secretary Dulles replied in the negative saying that the only bearing Panama has on the present question is the importance we attach to sticking to the treaty which governs. Panama was built as a U.S. waterway and the treaty with the U.K. gives the latter certain privileges. Panama was not built as an international waterway but in effect on American soil for our interests so that we would not need two navies. We obtained in Panama what amounts to sovereign rights, and international interest is really limited to the tolls agreement with the U.K.

The Secretary said the U.S. does not want to get into the position that any waterway is automatically an international waterway. In the case of Suez, however, a powerful case can be made for it as an international waterway; that does not apply to Panama. We feel no embarrassment about Panama as long as we stick to the treaty. Otherwise, we would have grave difficulties dealing with the Suez problem. The U.S. must proceed in accordance with the treaty. We could agree that it would be unacceptable to have any one nation dominate Suez, especially if it would be the dictatorship of a fanatical person who openly avowed an intention to use the Canal for the purpose of exploiting it for national purposes and ambitions. We are in entire agreement, the Secretary said, that a way must be found to make Nasser disgorge. We believe, however, that force is the last method to be tried. We do not exclude it if all other means fail, but if it is used we believe that it must be backed by world opinion. We must be aware of effects in other Moslem countries and remember that even if the Soviet Union does not openly intervene it could operate by more subtle means. Without adequate preparation of public opinion, we could not associate ourselves in a military undertaking. The Secretary pointed out that for that we would require Congressional authorization, which under present circumstances would be most difficult to obtain. We believe that Nasser can be forced to disgorge by means other than military. Some form of organized effort to create a favorable world opinion is required.2

[Page 96]

There might be, the Secretary said, a difference between the U.S. and the U.K. in respect of preliminary efforts as these seem to be regarded by the U.K. as pro forma, whereas we think bona fide and substantial effort should be made. We think that if we proceed on the basis of a treaty to which the Soviet Union is a signatory we do not see how we can exclude the Soviet Union and we are not sure under the circumstances that their influence would be totally evil. The Secretary said it was quite possible that the Russians have been playing a careful game to disguise their support of Nasser but that he, the Secretary, could not believe that the Russians are very happy over Nasser’s announcement last week that the military supplies received are from the Soviet Union and not from Czechoslovakia. The Secretary referred to the fact that Molotov at San Francisco made a big point that the arms transaction was a commercial one with Czechoslovakia.

The Secretary said that in any event the conference should be so organized as to insulate the Russians. He referred to the procedures we had worked out in connection with the Japanese Peace Treaty. There we had agreed among ourselves where we would come out and then we went into a conference with agreed rules of procedure. Thus the Russians and satellites were boxed in and the treaty was signed according to plan. Lloyd inquired how long it took to set up that Conference, and the Secretary agreed that in the present instance we would have to move faster.

Lloyd admitted that they had in mind an arbitrary list of countries for the purpose of getting unanimous endorsement and said that after that it would have to be put in some way to include [Page 97] the Egyptians. He said that they had not thought out the procedure in precise detail and their thinking had run along the lines of a rapidly summoned conference of shipowning countries.

The Secretary referred to the fact that the U.S. yesterday took rather drastic action3 which had been approved by our Treasury people only reluctantly. We had learned that Egypt had been planning to take out perhaps $10 million from its credits in the U.S. today. We know that our action will draw down upon us serious reaction against us in Egypt. Nevertheless we took the action as public notice of the gravity we attached to the present situation. Lloyd expressed the deep appreciation of the British Government.

There was discussion regarding advance combination of lists of countries to be invited to an eventual conference.4 The meeting which lasted forty-five minutes was adjourned for the Secretary’s luncheon with Eden. Lloyd jocularly made the parting remark that he would go along with us if we could guarantee a three-day conference with a satisfactory resolution, plus our agreement to join a military action. The Secretary commented that we believed that we would have to have a two-thirds majority lined up with us in the conference.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 974.7301/7–3156. Top Secret. Drafted by Murphy. The source text is erroneously dated July 31. Other accounts of this meeting are in British Foreign Office, “Record of a Meeting Held in the Foreign Secretary’s Room, Foreign Office, at 12 noon on Wednesday, August 1, 1956”; “London Tripartite Conversations,” pp. 5360 (both ibid., Conference Files: Lot 62 D 181, CF 724; and Secto 7 from London, August 1 (ibid., CF 726).

    Dulles arrived in London at 9 a.m. He spent the morning at the Embassy where he conferred first with Aldrich, McCardle, Phleger, Murphy, Barbour, and Foster, and then later with Caccia, Aldrich, and Murphy. No accounts of these conversations have been found in Department of State files. (Memorandum of Secretary’s Engagements, August 1; ibid., CF 728)

  2. Dulles’ remarks on the use of force were transcribed in the British Foreign Office “Record” as follows: “Mr Dulles continued by saying that while it was unacceptable that any one nation should dominate the Canal, it was far more unacceptable when this one nation was Egypt. Egypt was under the dictatorship of a man who had avowed that the use of the Canal was not for the benefit of the nations of the world but for the satisfaction of his own national ambitions. A way had to be found to make Nasser disgorge what he was attempting to swallow. Force was the last method to be tried to accomplish this, but the United States Government did not exclude the use of force if all other methods failed. However, the use of force, if not backed by world opinion, would have disastrous results. It would involve the loss of Western influence in all the Moslem countries, unless it were intended to take the whole of the Middle East by force. Such action would be highly dangerous and even if the Soviets did not openly intervene they would activate resistance, send Volunteers’ and supply weapons. During his visit to the Middle East in 1953 he had observed the military difficulties of operating against the Egyptians. Since then the Egyptians’ potential for resistance had increased, because of the military supplies and technicians obtained from the U.S.S.R. He doubted if the United States Government would be able to associate themselves with an operation involving force, which had not been preceded by genuine efforts to reach a satisfactory solution by negotiation. In such a case it would not be possible to get the necessary legislation through Congress.

    “Mr. Dulles thought that there was a fair chance that Nasser could be brought to give up what he had seized. Failing that it should be possible to create a world public opinion so adverse to Nasser that he would be isolated. Then, if a military operation had to be undertaken, it would be more apt to succeed and have less grave repercussions than if it had been undertaken precipitately. He therefore strongly urged that a genuine effort should be made to bring world opinion to favour the international operation of the Canal, before force were used.”

  3. Reference is to the Treasury announcement on July 31; see footnote 7, Document 34.
  4. According to the British Foreign Office “Record”, Dulles proposed that the following countries be invited to the Conference: on the basis of the 1888 Convention—the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Spain, and the U.S.S.R.; on the basis of ownership of tonnage—Norway, Sweden, Federal Republic of Germany, United States, and Denmark; on the basis of vital interests in trade—India, Australia, Pakistan, Japan, possibly Iran, and possibly Saudi Arabia. According to the British “Record”, Dulles then noted: “A slightly greater tonnage of products from Saudi Arabia passed through the Canal than from Iran, but on the other hand Iran, as a Baghdad Pact Power, would be more acceptable. It might therefore be necessary to leave out Iran to avoid giving offense to Saudi Arabia. A group comprising the Powers mentioned above would overwhelmingly want international control of the Canal.” The “Record” then notes that the addition of Ceylon and New Zealand was discussed.