Following the 1948 War, the United States was interested in cultivating a relationship with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Despite losing the war to Israel, Nasser was viewed as the leader of the Arab world, the head of the largest country with the most powerful army. President Eisenhower was especially determined to keep him from allying with the Soviets in the Cold War but was unwilling to supply the weapons Nasser wanted.
“We insist,” Nasser said, “on securing arms for our army to safeguard our revolution and our independence and to preserve our dignity.”
Nasser tried to get the two superpowers to compete for his friendship. He had let it be known in 1954–55 that he was considering buying weapons from the Soviet Union to pressure the Americans into selling him arms. “Heavy arms,” said Nasser, “are controlled by the big powers, and these agreed to provide Egypt’s armed forces with arms, but on certain conditions.” He complained that “France bargained with us, saying that she would only supply us with arms if we refrained from criticizing her attitude in North Africa, which was another way of saying that we should abandon our Arabism . . . shut our eyes to massacres . . . The United States only gave us promises, making it a condition that we should sign a mutual-defense agreement or pact . . . The United Kingdom said she would readily supply us with arms, but she has only sent us very small shipments.”
To the surprise and anger of the United States, Nasser announced on September 27, 1955, that Czechoslovakia would supply heavy Soviet weaponry to Egypt. The deal was said to be worth more than $83 million and included tanks, MiG-15 fighter planes, and heavy bombers. He proclaimed that the “fifth goal of your revolution of building a strong national army” had been achieved through the “unconditional” acquisition of heavy weapons.
Nasser justified the purchase by claiming to have French and British intelligence documents indicating Israel was planning to attack Egypt. “But now,” he said, “we are rich with faith, sacrifice, men, and arms.” Nasser also resented Western support for Israel.
When they heard Nasser’s announcement, Secretary of State Dulles and British Foreign Secretary Macmillan issued a joint communique stating that their governments had acted “to avoid an arms race” and hoping that “other governments will continue to be guided by the same principles.” Dulles sent an emissary to Cairo to convince Nasser to cancel the deal but was rebuffed.
Ironically, it was Czechoslovakia that supplied much of the hardware Israel needed before and during the War of Independence, including reconditioned German warplanes from World War II that helped establish its air force. The Soviets permitted the transfers for the same reason they supported partition, the hope that the Jewish state would provide a socialist or even Communist toehold in the Middle East.
The sale was a catalyst for the Suez War, as Israel feared it would be the target of the weapons Egypt acquired. Britain, which still hoped to maintain influence in the region, feared the Soviets were gaining a foothold.