Suez Crisis

[ Norman and his wife, Irene, on board M.V. Australia ]

Norman and his wife, Irene, on board M.V. Australia, Unknown, 1956, University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, BC 2124-122, Norman and Irene, perhaps pleased to be leaving N.Z., journey to a new posting in the Middle East

In December 1957, just eight months after Herbert Norman’s death, Lester Pearson, Canada’s Minister of External Affairs, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in resolving the Suez Crisis of the previous year. As the Nobel Prize Committee wrote, Pearson was “the man who contributed more than anyone else to save the world” in the midst of the crisis. If Pearson did indeed “save the world,” Herbert Norman can rightly be thought of as the man who saved the man who saved the world.

Why did Pearson need saving? And how did Norman do it? The answer lies in the colonial and Cold War politics of the mid-20th century.

Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was typical of the Arab leaders of the 1950s. Nasser was a commoner who had risen through the ranks of the military, growing more and more nationalist as he did. He and his fellow Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952. They saw the 80,000 British troops stationed along the Suez Canal as an oppressive colonial presence. In 1956, when Nasser became Egyptian president, he acted swiftly to rid the country of the interlopers, nationalizing the Suez Canal and ousting the British forces. Egyptians and colonized peoples worldwide rejoiced at the takeover. But the act antagonized the colonial powers in the region, Britain and France, and their ally, Israel. Leaders of the three countries met secretly to plot Nasser’s undoing. The plan they designed and carried out saw Israel launch a surprise military invasion of Egypt. Britain and France then issued an order to both countries to withdraw from the Canal Zone. Egypt was expected to refuse to leave its own territory, as it did, giving Britain and France their signal to invade Egypt.

People worldwide were appalled at this blatant display of imperialist arrogance. But the one observer whose annoyance really counted was United States President Dwight Eisenhower. The three powers had neglected to fill him in on the plot. As he informed the British prime minister, the invasion would cause people throughout Asia and Africa to “be consolidated against the West.” Eisenhower’s ire was heightened by the fact that the Soviet Union used the disunity in the Western camp as an opportunity to bluster about defending Egypt with nuclear weapons and to put down the Hungarian uprising with a military invasion of its own.

The world – or at least the Western world – was in dire need of a saviour. Into the breach stepped the Canadian Minister of External Affairs, Lester Pearson. Working with the United States Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, Pearson introduced an emergency resolution at the United Nations General Assembly with a novel element. Britain, France, and Israel needed a face-saving means to disengage. The device Pearson offered them was a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) that would go in to replace the occupying forces and supervise “peace.” The UN had never before created a peacekeeping force, and no one knew exactly what one looked like. But it was a gamble the world organization judged to be worth risking.

The UNEF sold well in New York. But in Cairo, Nasser was understandably skeptical. His territory had been invaded, yet a contingent of foreign troops would be stationed on it – not in Israel, Britain, or France. Herbert Norman, meanwhile, had taken up the post of Canadian ambassador to Egypt just two months before the Suez Crisis erupted. He was the man on the scene who had the difficult task of convincing Nasser that the Canadian strategy was just. Persuading Nasser was crucial to more than the UN’s reputation. Pearson’s fate in his own country also hung in the balance. He found himself under attack because, in the words of the Calgary Herald, he had “run out on Britain.” Conservative External Affairs critic Howard Green condemned the Liberal government as a “United States chore boy” and called its refusal to support Britain “the most disgraceful period for Canada in the history of this nation.”

As Herbert Norman knew, success in Suez was necessary to saving his boss’s political skin. Pearson’s wife, Maryon, at least as formidable an intellect as her husband and – judging by her husband’s speeches – far more eloquent, made the trenchant remark that “Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.” Norman might have added “and dedicated assistants.”

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