Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War

  • Published

Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War by David A. Nichols. Simon & Schuster, 2011, 368 pp.

Young Egyptians demonstrate in the streets. Britain and France conduct military operations in North Africa. Israel attacks Gaza. Americans endure election politics while Westerners worry about the flow of oil from a Middle East in turmoil. This is not the winter of 2011. It is 1956, during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower as described by David Nichols in his recently published book Eisenhower 1956. For either the student of history or the layman hungry for a good story, Nichols chronicles a busy year of decision making by an administration bombarded by concerns about a new world war with the Soviets and struggling to balance old relationships around the world. At the center of so much tumult during this one year, US president Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower faces a time when the Soviets enlarge their role in an increasingly bipolar world while former European colonies rebel against Western influences. Nichols describes how Eisenhower understood these forces and their intersections in the context of the Cold War that he feared could become catastrophically hot. The author challenges the reader to comprehend how so many critical events occurred in such a short period of time and found their way to Eisenhower’s shoulders.

Specifically, Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal after 100 years of ownership by the British and French, who respond with an attack against Egypt contrary to US advice. Israel, ever ready for an opportunity to seize more land from its neighbors, joins them and attacks the Egyptians in the Sinai. Egypt responds by sinking ships in the Suez Canal to block all traffic, cutting the flow of oil to Europe. So far, it’s a busy year. But there’s more.

Ike’s concerns multiply when the opportunistic Soviets back the Egyptians. Now the United States faces a military clash between the Russians and the British/French. The terms of the new NATO treaty require America to aid the Europeans. Eisenhower explicitly warns the two European allies not to take military action in Egypt, but they ignore him. Do they now expect Ike to confront the Russians in Egypt on behalf of European colonialism? “No,” says Ike. “The French and the British do not have an adequate cause for war” (p. 205). And neither does Israel, he adds.

Then another front opens. A student-led rebellion in Budapest, Hungary, captures the world’s attention with the first use of the term freedom fighters and offers the prospect of Hungary’s escaping the Iron Curtain and rejoining Western Europe as a free country. However, 4,000 Soviet tanks and 16,000 Red Army soldiers brutally suppress this short-lived attempt to throw off Moscow’s imposed communist rule. The Iron Curtain becomes more threatening as the Soviets feel abler to stand their ground. Western Europe finds itself in further peril. But there’s still more.

Chaotic 1956 is also a presidential election year. The Democratic candidate for Ike’s job, Adlai E. Stevenson II, cannot resist hurling the usual political invectives at the president, criticizing Ike for not helping our British and French “allies,” the Hungarians, and the Israelis, as well as failing to take other geopolitical actions—for none of which Stevenson either bears responsibility or faces consequences. The narrative, pieced together from Nichols’s research of primary source documents of the time, shows that Ike wisely decided it was in America’s best interest not to support European action in Egypt, especially in light of the threat of a larger conflict with the Soviets escalating to nuclear war.

In true political fashion, Ike also endures criticism for his age and health, along with “his” failed Middle East policy, which includes aid to Egypt for its Aswan Dam project on the upper Nile and which might have prevented the Suez crisis. Congress, however, blocks this initiative, motivated by its own narrow interests—among them, limiting Egypt’s competition with the American South in the cotton market. On top of everything else, Ike suffers a heart attack and then undergoes intestinal surgery. This would be a hell of a year for any man in American history.

Despite concerns about his health, Eisenhower’s age and experience are assets. At 66 he has accumulated plenty of experience in handling crises, having planned and led Operation Overlord in 1944, accepted the surrender of the Germans in 1945, and ended the Korean War in 1952. Consequently, he is a far more capable leader in a crisis than any carping politician. Ike’s calm, grandfatherly public demeanor disguises all of his emotions, which he vents in private. The American people pick the right man for the time, and Ike handily wins reelection. Having defeated Stevenson and the Democrats, he then takes on the French, British, Israelis, and finally, the Russians. His recovery from the heart attack does not slow him down.

Ike recognizes the British and French rationale for attacking Egypt for what it is—the last gasps of a colonial mind-set that will lead only to more clashes around the world. Eisenhower also understands that President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt is expressing his people’s desire to control their own land. Nevertheless, the French, British, and Israeli actions, along with the US Congress’s lack of foresight, put on hold for another quarter of a century Eisenhower’s efforts in 1956 to establish Egypt as an American ally. In that year, without American approval and military aid, the French and British have to back down and leave Egypt while the Israelis withdraw from the Sinai. The Soviets then diffuse their rhetoric and threats. Eisenhower, the West Pointer and combat general who delivered Western Europe from Nazi bondage in 1945, becomes the Middle East peacemaker in 1956.

Eisenhower’s health is indeed an issue. Nichols provides day-to-day updates from his research of diaries and logs, noting that Ike’s heart attack and recovery took longer than publicly admitted and that most details of his health problems were withheld from the press. His cardiologist becomes a significant presence in his entourage during 1956. Yet, while the world boils around him, Ike remains the calm in the storm. Few people have ever faced so much in so short a time, in terms of health and duty, as did this man who emerged from a humble, simple, rural Kansas background to become president of the United States. Divulging a little-known part of American history, this book gives readers an understanding of an era, a man, and the issues of his time. Certainly this reviewer now has greater respect for Eisenhower and a deeper appreciation for his role in history.

Given a historian’s hindsight of half a century, not all of Ike’s actions escape criticism, and Nichols leaves room for such musings and questions. However, we cannot fault Dwight Eisenhower for an effort that kept us out of more war, perhaps a nuclear war, with the phlegmatic, unpredictable, and secretive Soviets while he brought a crisis in the Middle East to a peaceful conclusion. The casual reader will find much of value in Eisenhower 1956, from pivotal history to sheer human drama. Similarly, today’s student of this era now has an excellent resource for facts and stories pertaining to the American, military, and Middle Eastern history of the time—and Eisenhower was a significant part of it all.

Postscript: The Soviets built the Aswan Dam and stayed in Egypt until the 1980s. In the city of Aswan, the Russian engineers’ quarters—a high-rise concrete apartment located on a bend in the Nile—is now a hotel favored by American tourists, with a fantastic view looking north along the Nile. In 1957 the Egyptians, with international help, cleared the Suez Canal of the war’s debris and now operate this conduit of international commerce efficiently and without interruption. Its revenues helped pay for the Aswan dam and other Egyptian civil works projects. Included in frequent, regular, and unimpeded transits of the canal today are US Navy warships and carrier task forces sailing to and from the Arabian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and other parts east. Regarding the confrontation over the Suez Canal, Ike was right.

Maj Thomas F. Menza, USAF, Retired

Colorado Springs, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."