Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Generally when one thinks of our thirty-fourth president, one thinks of golf. Or at least, Eisenhower was the president most closely associated with golf before Trump was elected. During Eisenhower’s eight years in office (from 1953-1961) he played almost 800 rounds of golf. Plagued by a football knee injury however, he was never satisfied with his score, and once grumbled, “If I don’t improve, I’m going to pass a law that no one can ask me my golf score.”
But Eisenhower was much more adept than his diversionary life suggested, even if the fact that the press played up his avocations (he was also fond of painting) tended to obscure his successes as President. One of the greatest of his achievements was the commanding way in which he handled the Suez Crisis of 1956.
In that year, America’s closest allies pursued a course of action profoundly adverse to U.S. interests and which also brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In the greatest secrecy, Britain, France, and Israel prepared and conducted an invasion of Egypt in response to Gamal Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.
Gamal Nasser came to international attention in 1952, when he and a group of army officers overthrew the monarchy of Egypt and Sudan. He became president of Egypt in a military coup in 1956. Nasser wanted to build the Aswan High Dam to regulate the flow of the Nile River, and sought financial aid from the United States. The U.S. was willing to assist the Egyptians only if they installed financial controls that the Egyptians considered infringement on their sovereignty. The Soviet Union was willing to assist Egypt under less onerous terms, but the U.S. used its leverage in arms sales to dissuade the Russians. Unable to find satisfactory financing for the dam, Nasser then nationalized the Suez Canal, planning to use revenue from operation of the canal to pay for the dam.
The British envisioned the canal as an important strategic asset because it greatly reduced travel time by sea to its prize colony, India. Even though the canal lay entirely within Egyptian territory, Britain and France owned nearly all the stock in the canal company and Britain had controlled and operated the canal since the 19th century. The British stationed 80,000 troops in the canal zone to protect its interests.
The British and the French could not envision the canal to be operated by mere Arabs (thought to be not even able to make water run down hill). Moreover, the Europeans distrusted Nasser, a dictator in his own country who was openly seeking to be the leader of the Arab world. Meanwhile, Israel and Egypt had been engaged in numerous deadly border skirmishes since 1948. The Israelis were eager to attack Egypt and annex more territory as a buffer zone between the two countries.
The British, French, and Israelis secretly concocted a wild scheme whereby the Israelis would attack Egypt from the East. Britain and France would then intervene militarily to protect their vital interests in the canal.
In mid-October 1956, just before the American presidential elections, the Israelis invaded Egypt, and the British and French launched a large expeditionary force that they had secretly assembled in Malta and Cyprus, ostensibly to separate the Egyptians and Israelis, but actually to retake the canal. Seeking to establish their influence in the Mideast, the Soviets threatened to use all necessary force, including nuclear weapons, to prevent the Europeans from taking the canal.
Eisenhower was just recovering from a severe heart attack. His Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was also very ill. Nevertheless, during this crisis with the world at the brink of war, Eisenhower managed to keep his composure. Through deft diplomacy and careful manipulation of the procedures of the United Nations, he led an American effort to persuade the British and French to withdraw from Egypt and avoid a world war, all the while keeping the Soviet Union from establishing a foothold in the oil rich Mideast. (It may have helped that the Soviets had their hands full elsewhere, as they were busy brutally putting down popular uprisings in Hungary and Poland.)
Eisenhower realized that Egypt was completely within its right to nationalize the canal with appropriate compensation to the British and French shareholders of the canal company. He also firmly believed and asserted that the law was the same for Egyptians as it was for his long time allies. He rightfully felt betrayed by Britain and France, which had kept their machinations secret from him. He had to take sides against his close friends and allies from World War II to prevent World War III. Moreover, he had to confront a strong pro Israeli lobby and a staunchly pro-Israeli Democratic party during a period immediately before the presidential election. All this while conducting his own re-election campaign while his Secretary of State was hors de combat and he himself was recovering from his own medical crisis!
Discussion: Nichols gives us an arresting description of a strong, decisive leader under great pressure. If anything, Eisenhower is portrayed even more favorably than in Michael Korda’s stridently positive Ike, An American Hero.
Eisenhower is surely our most underrated modern president. He had the guts to tell our two closest allies to discontinue a policy near and dear to them. Moreover, he defied a recalcitrant and uncooperative Israeli government, just before a presidential election no less, and forced them to cede territory they had just taken from Egypt by force of arms. Compare the reluctance of our more recent presidents to sacrifice electoral advantage and assert American strategic interest by not objecting to Israel’s construction of additional settlements in occupied land!
Eisenhower 1956 reads almost like an adventure novel with the president as the chief protagonist. But that quality may be its biggest shortcoming. It contains more detail (at what time did Ike arise, how did he sleep, what did he eat) than I found interesting in a book even about very important historical events. On the other hand, Nichols’s analysis is keen, albeit sparse.
Note: An excellent map is included, as well a number of photographs of the key players.
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011