8 Surprising Facts About the Suez Crisis

Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images
Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Season two of The Crown opens on a full-blown catastrophe: 1956's Suez Crisis. This mass failing of diplomacy would diminish Britain’s world standing and severely damage relationships between multiple nations for years to come. It began with the seizure of the Suez Canal and ended with a UN ceasefire. But there was an entire secret invasion in between that. Here are a few key details on the very messy international affair.

1. GAMAL ABDEL NASSER USED A CODE WORD TO SEIZE THE CANAL.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918 - 1970) with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1897 - 1977) in Cairo, 1955
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden in Cairo in 1955, a year before the Suez Crisis.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nearly 90 years after the canal opened, Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. He spoke extensively about the canal and its creator, Ferdinand de Lesseps, in a July 26, 1956 speech. The Economist estimates he said the name “de Lesseps” at least 13 times. This wasn’t out of admiration. “De Lesseps” turned out to be a code word. Upon hearing it, Colonel Mahmoud Younes and his men seized control of the Suez Canal Company offices in Cairo, Port Said, and Suez. Nasser declared the canal theirs, which is what led to the Suez Crisis.

2. IT WAS ALL OVER A DAM.

Nasser had a specific reason for taking the canal: He wanted to construct the Aswan Dam to control flooding and drought in the region, but he needed money to do so. The United States and Great Britain had offered him a $70 million grant to begin construction on the project, but Nasser was also considering an offer from the Soviet Union. Both America and the UK were growing increasingly frustrated with Nasser. They were outraged over his dealings with communist nations of China and Czechoslovakia, and believed he was playing both sides of the Cold War to his benefit. Britain withdrew its offer first; America followed on July 19, 1956. Just days after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made the announcement, Nasser seized the canal, intending to use its revenues to finance the dam himself.

3. FRANCE, BRITAIN, AND ISRAEL WERE NO FANS OF NASSER.

Picture released on November 1956 of French troops disembarking at Port Fuad, Egypt, during the Suez crisis
French troops disembarking at Port Fuad, Egypt, in November 1956.
AFP/Getty Images

The Suez Crisis forged an alliance between France, Britain, and Israel, who all despised Nasser. Sir Brian Urquhart, a retired UN diplomat, told NPR, “The one thing I think they all agreed on was the unspoken phrase regime change. They all wanted to see the last of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the president of Egypt.” But they all had separate reasons. By that point, both Britain and France were major shareholders in the Suez Canal Company. France also believed Nasser was assisting Algerian rebels fighting for independence from their French colonizers. By Urquhart’s account, Israel had the biggest grievance: Nasser would not allow Israeli ships through the canal, and his government was also sponsoring Fedayeen terrorist raids into Israel. With these motivations in mind, the three nations hatched a plan to invade Egypt and take the Suez Canal back from Nasser.

4. THOSE THREE COUNTRIES COLLUDED ON A SECRET INVASION.

In October of 1956, representatives from France, Israel, and Britain convened just outside Paris, in Sèvres. They reached an agreement, which would become known as the Protocol of Sèvres: Israel would invade Egypt first, providing Britain and France with an alibi. They would invade next, as supposed peacekeepers. These joint invasions would allow the allies to take back the canal and punish Nasser. Once the protocol was finalized, UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden ordered all evidence of the plot destroyed. But the details did leak, and the impact was catastrophic.

5. QUEEN ELIZABETH HAD RESERVATIONS ABOUT THE PLAN.

Queen Elizabeth II at Badminton House, Gloucestershire in 1956
Tidmarsh/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Queen Elizabeth II knew about the invasion, much less her opinion on it. Royal historian Robert Lacey has suggested that the Queen was not fully briefed on the Suez strategy. In Elizabeth the Queen, Sally Bedell Smith counters that the monarch had access to Suez documents through her “daily boxes” of important papers and correspondence. Regardless, it appears Elizabeth was not thrilled with the plan. Eden told Lacey that the Queen did not voice any disapproval, “nor would I claim that she was pro-Suez.” Elizabeth’s longtime courtier, Martin Charteris, put it much more bluntly: “I think the Queen believed Eden was mad.”

6. DWIGHT EISENHOWER WAS FURIOUS.

At least one person was openly livid about the plan: Dwight Eisenhower. According to J.P.D. Dunbabin, the American president anticipated some kind of invasion or strike after the U.S. elections. But when Israel took action on October 29, 1956, with France and Britain following just a few days later, he was blindsided. “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things,” he said at the time. “I think that Britain and France have made a terrible mistake.” Eisenhower led the charge in squashing the invasion, pressuring the International Monetary Fund to withhold any loans to Great Britain until they agreed to a ceasefire.

7. THE SUEZ CRISIS SPURRED THE FIRST ARMED UN PEACEKEEPING MISSION.

United Nations troops enter Port Said, on November 15, 1956 during the Suez Crisis.
United Nations troops enter Port Said, on November 15, 1956 during the Suez Crisis.
AFP/Getty Images

UN Peacekeeping officially began in 1948, when a group of UN observers traveled to Israel to monitor a ceasefire between the new nation and its Arab neighbors, but the Suez Crisis marked the first armed UN Peacekeeping intervention. After Britain and France accepted a UN ceasefire on November 7, 1956, the UN dispatched a delegation to monitor the armistice and restore order. According to Urquhart, it was this mission that earned the group its nickname, the “blue helmets.” The UN had wanted to send the taskforce in with blue berets, but didn’t have time to assemble the uniforms. So instead, they spray-painted the liners of their plastic helmets blue.

8. THE CRISIS KILLED ANTHONY EDEN’S CAREER.

The Suez Crisis spelled the end for Anthony Eden. Soon after the ceasefire, he left Britain for three weeks to rest in Jamaica, on doctor’s orders. (He stayed at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate.) When he returned, the British government was still reeling from the Suez Crisis. It was clear Eden would not survive the controversy. On January 10, 1957, he resigned with a report from four doctors stating “his health will no longer enable him to sustain the heavy burdens inseparable from the office of Prime Minister.” (Eden's reliance on Benzedrine has been a major plot point in The Crown, and many believe it's what clouded his judgment.) Eden would live for another 20 years, but the Suez Crisis was his legacy—one that defined his short term in office.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

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