The distinguished career and rapid fall of Britain's Anthony Eden

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Anthony Eden: A Biography, by Robert Rhodes James. New York: McGraw-Hill. 665 pp. Illustrated. $22.95. The spectacular way in which Anthony Eden's distinguished career crashed down around him left many unanswered questions. How could this subtle practitioner of diplomacy and lifelong striver for peace have managed in the Suez affair to bring consternation to his allies, discord to his party and nation, and humiliation upon himself?

This book, appearing 10 years after Eden's death, has been eagerly awaited. Robert Rhodes James would seem uniquely qualified to be the official biographer of this gifted statesman. The author of such excellent historical studies as ``Ambitions and Realities: British Politics 1964-1970'' and ``The British Revolution, 1880-1939,'' Rhodes James was recently reelected as Conservative MP for Cambridge and is known to be the kind of progressive Tory not unlike Eden himself (a breed rarer now in the anticonsensus world of Thatcherite England). He had the cooperation of Eden's widow and access to his personal and official papers. Yet after reading this weighty tome, one is left wondering just how well he has succeeded in explaining this enigmatic man or his career.

Robert Anthony Eden (1897-1977), knight of the garter, First Earl of Avon, was born into an eccentric, not particularly wealthy, but undeniably aristocratic family. Two of his brothers were killed in World War I, in which he also served with great courage and distinction at a tender age - he was only 21 when the armistice was signed. Like many of his generation, he emerged from the horror of war with a passionate commitment to peace.

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But Eden was never a pacifist: He believed that subtle diplomacy and national strength were the best antidotes to war. A firm supporter of the League of Nations and its policy of collective security, he first gained prominence as the Cabinet minister responsible for league affairs a mere decade after he first entered Parliament in 1924. He became foreign secretary in 1935, but resigned abruptly in early 1938, basically because he could not work with the appeasement-minded prime minister Neville Chamberlain.

Reentering the Cabinet on the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, he served as foreign secretary again from 1940 to 1945 and was generally regarded as Churchill's right-hand man and political heir apparent. Back at the Foreign Office when the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, he spent almost four years in a tantalizing minuet with the skittish, undecided Churchill, who continually held out the prospect of Eden's succession while repeatedly postponing his own retirement. Finally, in April 1955, Eden attained the great office he had so long desired: prime minister.

Unfortunately, by this time, he was not equipped to be the prime minister he might have been. Inheritor of a government that had drifted for the past four years under the brilliant but Olympianly aloof leadership of Churchill, Eden almost immediately called an election but failed to restructure his Cabinet sufficiently. Worse still, his health was deplorable, following a horribly bungled operation in 1953. The biographer provides a harrowing account of his medical travails but is commendably cautious about placing too much blame upon them for Eden's political problems.

Rhodes James gives careful attention to the various phases of Eden's public career and to his complex private life, which included difficult relationships with his parents, the loss of a son in World War II, and the breakup of his first marriage shortly thereafter.

But for many readers, the heart of the book will be the account of the Suez affair and, more particularly, Eden's role at the center of this personal and national debacle.

The account here is full, based on unrivaled access to political documents. The emphasis on Eden nowhere eclipses the pivotal roles played by so many others, from Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles to Harold Macmillan and David Ben-Gurion.

Even after 30 years, many readers have their own strongly held views on Suez. But I doubt that the account of the events given here will satisfy many people, whatever their particular viewpoint. For in this, as in so many other areas of Eden's life, Rhodes James adopts a role far too close to that of apologist. Time and again he seems to strain to excuse what his subject has done rather than make an attempt to analyze and understand the motivation. We see what Eden does, we are often appalled, we sometimes applaud, but we do not know why he has done it.

There are other faults in this book. Rhodes James has written memorably in the past, but the style of this book is, at times, atrocious. It is immensely repetitive: We are told more often than we need be, for instance, that Eden was more comfortable in Canada than in the United States. The writing is often labored, and there are more than a few dangling modifiers, which provide some quite unintended moments of comedy in what is admittedly a rather sad book. The author shortchanges us by whisking through the final two decades of Eden's life in a mere 28 pages. This section, amazingly, is titled ``Victory.''

Of course, Eden's life and career remain fascinating, so there is much to be found in even this flawed biography. Given the high quality of British political biography as a genre, we may feel confident that Anthony Eden will one day have a biographer with the skills to provide the key to this tragic figure.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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