In an odd twist, Eisenhower actually supported the Communist-leaning Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1956Suez crisis. Hoping to construct a new dam on the Nile River to provide electricity and additional land for farming, the Nationalist Nasser approached British and American officials with requests for economic assistance. When the negotiations collapsed, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for help and then seized the British-controlled Suez Canal, which linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Great Britain and France asked Eisenhower for military assistance to retake the canal, but Eisenhower refused, forcing the two powers to join with Israel in 1956 to retake the canal themselves. Eisenhower condemned the attack on Egypt and exerted heavy diplomatic and economic pressure on the aggressors. Unable to sustain the action in the face of U.S. disapproval and financial pressures, Great Britain and France withdrew.
In 1957, in order to protect American oil interests in the Middle East, Eisenhower announced the Eisenhower Doctrine, which stated that the United States would provide military and economic assistance to Middle Eastern countries in resisting Communist insurgents. Although not terribly significant, this doctrine, as well as the restoration of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran, demonstrated the growing importance of oil in American foreign policy decision making.
A growing crisis in French Indochina proved to be no less challenging for Eisenhower than the Suez crisis. Ever since World War I, Vietnamese nationalists under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh had sought independence from France, the colonial power in the region. Although originally more nationalist and anticolonial than Communist, Ho turned to the Soviet Union in the 1950s after U.S. officials had rebuffed his earlier requests for help in securing independence. The USSR supplied money and arms to the Vietminh forces, putting Eisenhower in the difficult position of supporting a French colonial possession in order to contain the USSR.
When the key French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell to Ho Chi Minh’s troops in 1954, Eisenhower promised to assist the French economically. Many U.S. foreign policy thinkers feared that if one Southeast Asian country fell to Communism, all the others would fall as well, just like a row of dominoes. This so-called domino theory prompted Secretary of State Dulles and Vice President Nixon to advocate the use of nuclear weapons against the North Vietnamese. Remembering the fruitless war in Korea, however, Eisenhower merely responded, “I can conceive of no greater tragedy than for the United States to become engaged in all-out war in Indochina.” Nevertheless, Eisenhower’s financial commitment to contain Communism in Vietnam after the fall of Dien Bien Phu laid the groundwork for what eventually devolved into the Vietnam War.
An international convention in Geneva, Switzerland, tried to avert further conflict in Vietnam by temporarily splitting the country into two countries, with the dividing line at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh erected his own government in Hanoi in North Vietnam, while American-supported Ngo Dinh Diem founded a South Vietnamese government in Saigon. This Geneva Conference agreement stipulated that the division would be only temporary, a stopgap to maintain peace until national elections could be held to reunite the country democratically.
Although the USSR consented to the agreement, Eisenhower rejected it. Instead, he pledged continued economic support to Ngo Dinh Diem and convinced Great Britain, France, Australia, and other regional nations to join the mostly symbolic Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), modeled after the highly successful NATO.