World War III? In 1956, Russia Almost Fought Britain, France, and Israel With Nuclear Weapons

Michael Peck

Key point: This signaled the end of British imperialism.

The war began with an imperialist invasion to seize the Suez Canal. It ended with the Soviet Union threatening to nuke Britain, France and Israel.

The 1956 British and French attack on Suez, and the parallel 1956 Israel-Egypt War, have to be among the strangest conflicts in history. The cast of characters includes two fading empires reluctant to admit their decline, a charismatic Arab dictator, a paranoid Jewish state, a semi-fake war and a superpower with nuclear weapons.

The crisis began over who just owned the Suez Canal, gateway between Europe and Asia. In July 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced he would nationalize the canal, which was controlled still by European shareholders even after Egypt achieved independence from Britain (the same situation would later apply to the United States and the Panama Canal). Nasser’s decision was prompted by the cutoff of American funding for the massive Aswan Dam, after Nasser had signed a huge arms deal with the Soviet bloc.

Nasser’s response was simple: if the Americans and British wouldn’t subsidize the Aswan Dam, then Egypt would nationalize the Suez Canal and use the toll revenues to build the dam itself. Unfortunately, he forgot a basic rule of history: there is nothing more dangerous than a declining empire.

Or two empires. In 1956, the sun had already set on the British and French imperiums, even if they couldn’t admit it to themselves. Battered and bankrupted by World War II, these former great powers were still coming to grips with the new reality of becoming supporting actors on a global stage dominated by America and Russia.

But for Britain, the Suez Canal was a symbol of imperial prestige, as well as a lifeline to its bases in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. For the French, the issue was less about the canal and more about Nasser, whom they accused of arming Algerian rebels fighting for independence from France. British prime minister Anthony Eden alluded to Munich, as if taking down Nasser would make up for not stopping Hitler in 1938.

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