The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, serves as a key transport route between Europe and Asia and is considered one of the world’s most important waterways. Initially owned by a French and British company, the canal was of great importance to the economic development of both France and Britain and was considered by them to be vital to their national security.
In the 1950s, however, it became entangled in broader Cold War politics, diverging Western strategic aims, and the painful transition to a postcolonial world. The ensuing crisis would also demonstrate the power of emerging intelligence technology.
As the West and the Soviet Bloc jockeyed for geopolitical dominance in the wake of World War II, each saw the support of Egypt as a key factor in that strategic battle. The United States and Britain, however, valued Egypt for different — and often conflicting — reasons:
- The United States was pursuing anti-Communist and anti-imperialist polices, and
- Britain, though anti-Communist, was equally determined to retain its status and influence as an imperial power, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East.
France, too, was struggling to retain its colonial possessions, and it saw the hand of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in a revolt against French control in Algeria.
Nasser, an Arab nationalist who had seized power in 1954, was willing to play these competing powers against one another in his goal of transforming Egypt into an independent and modern state. A major component of his program was the construction of the Aswan Dam, and U.S. and British commitments to fund its construction were calculated to woo Nasser into the Western camp. At the same time, however, the Egyptian leader incurred U.S. and British disapproval by recognizing Communist China and accepting Soviet Bloc arms in exchange for Egyptian cotton.
On July 26, 1956, following a U.S. and British decision to retaliate by withdrawing funding for the dam, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company — a move that gave him access to the millions of dollars collected from transiting vessels.
The takeover stunned French and British shareholders and precipitated an international crisis. The struggle for control of the canal was underway, and the U-2 — CIA’s new reconnaissance aircraft — would offer Washington’s most reliable window on developments.
The West Divided
As tensions built, French and British leaders formed a covert alliance with Israel, which had been denied use of the canal by the Egyptians and was also deeply concerned by Egypt’s arms purchases. Even as the leaders of the three nations were deliberately misleading their U.S. counterparts, however, U.S. intelligence was developing a very clear picture of the changing disposition of British, French, and Israeli forces in the region.
“I don’t like to do this to my friends, but I will G-2 [spy on] them if I have to,” said President Dwight Eisenhower, on whose orders CIA’s U-2 had begun making almost daily flights over the region more than a month before the invasion.
On October 27, a U-2 photographed British bases in Cyprus. The imagery revealed large numbers of British and French bombers and transport planes parked beside the runways. Another U-2 passing over an Israeli airfield showed a squadron of French fighter-bombers.
While the imagery indicated some unusual activity, it could not address the question of intentions, and, until the day before the Israeli assault, Eisenhower and his top advisers continued to interpret the U-2 imagery in light of the allied disinformation.
The Plot Unfolds
On the afternoon of October 29, Israeli forces launched a full-scale invasion of the Sinai peninsula. The attack came as no surprise to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet. They knew that the Israeli assault was the opening move in a tripartite scheme calculated to enable London to regain control of the canal and its revenues.
As planned, Britain and France approached Nasser and offered to “separate” the warring Israeli and Egyptian forces, confident — and correct — in their assumption that Nasser would reject the offer. They then moved on to the next phase of their plan: bomb Egypt and force the reopening of the canal.
The U-2 Proves Its Worth
Perhaps the most impressive display of the U-2’s capabilities came as the British and French began their bombing campaign. On November 1, a U-2 flew over the Almaza Airbase near Cairo; on its return pass 20 minutes later, it snapped images of smoldering aircraft. During the interval, an Anglo-French air armada had attacked the base.
Art Lundahl, who headed CIA’s photographic intelligence center, showed the before-and-after photos to President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House the following day. Impressed, Eisenhower exclaimed, “Ten-minute reconnaissance, now that’s a goal to shoot for!” The success strengthened Eisenhower’s belief in the U-2 program and gave him the confidence to take serious risks with the aircraft.
The Suez Crisis was also a major turning point in how the U-2 was used. Before the crisis, its mission had been to collect strategic intelligence over the Soviet Union, with high-quality results considered more important than speedy processing and analysis of imagery. As a result of the crisis, it was expected to perform like a tactical reconnaissance unit, developing film immediately after landing for instant interpretation and passage to policymakers in Washington.
- Top: Almaza Airbase before the bombing campaign. Bottom: Almaza Airbase photographed 20 minutes later during the return pass of the U-2.
A Watershed Event
The brief Suez war eventually sputtered to an end, overshadowed internationally by the Soviet Union’s ruthless squelching of a revolt in Hungary. Although Britain had temporarily achieved its aim of regaining control of the canal zone, the United States — working through the UN — forced a ceasefire and an eventual withdrawal of French and British forces.
Britain and France saw their hopes of retaining imperial status begin to evaporate. By contrast, Nasser retained control of the canal, although he agreed not to restrict shipping, and his pan-Arab credentials emerged stronger than ever. Soviet engagement in the Middle East was also enhanced, as was that of the UN, which deployed the first of what would become its many multinational peacekeeping forces in the region.
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