Reading Eisenhower 1956 last month while Egypt shed Mubarak made David A. Nichols’ examination of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tumultuous reelection year specially absorbing. While this scrupulously reported book focuses on 12 months during which the popular Republican fought strenuous battles both political and personal, it also illuminates today’s Middle East, helping to explain why relations between Egypt and its neighbors, particularly Israel, are so volatile.
Nichols’ revisionist work presents an Eisenhower more complex, pacifist, and deliberate than the man portrayed in the print- and radio-dominated media of his day. This tightly written, chronological account covers a heart attack and, later, a severe intestinal illness that threatened Ike’s reelection; betrayal by Britain and France, his staunchest allies in World War II; Israeli belligerence spearheaded by David Ben-Gurion that eerily presages Benjamin Netanyahu’s contemporary approach; the mixed legacy of sharp-tongued Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the largely incompetent record of his brother Allen, director of the Central Intelligence Agency; the rise of Arab nationalism as embodied in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser; and the West’s continuing dependence on Middle Eastern oil transported through the Suez Canal, a flashpoint for decades.
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, when Eisenhower was president. His was an avuncular image: benign, sunny, hands-off. Defiantly middle-of-the-road, Ike infuriated those eager for a more overtly progressive leader like Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate he trounced in 1952 and 1956. Eisenhower was not a favorite of intellectuals, but Nichols shows he was very much a thinker.
He also posits Eisenhower as a highly effective leader deathly afraid of nuclear disaster. Not only did he keep the United States from war in Egypt – and Hungary, which the Soviet Union crushed in its short-lived revolution of late 1956 – he made the US the key world power, supplanting colonial Britain and France in the Middle East and effectively legitimizing Nasser.
One of the most fascinating tracks of Nichols’ narrow but deep account is the fall of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet, his French counterpart, as their scheme to regain control of the Suez Canal from Egypt collapsed. Because Ike wouldn’t side with them and Israel, his former allies had to dupe him, mustering for a fake war with Jordan until they began bombing Egypt, forcing the issue into the United Nations and forcing Eisenhower to make economic threats against them. On another, simultaneous front, Eisenhower was battling the Soviet Union over funding for the Aswan High Dam, a key Nasser goal.
As an example of his leadership, Ike got the British and French to agree to leave the canal so a United Nations force could keep the peace.
“He shrewdly preempted any Eden plan for including British and French troops in the United Nations contingent,” Nichols writes. “‘I would like to see none of the great nations in it,’ Eisenhower said. ‘I am afraid the Red Boy is going to demand the lion’s share. I would rather make it no troops from the big five,’ referring to the permanent members of the Security Council at the time – France, Great Britain, the United States, Nationalist China, and the Soviet Union.”
If the political drama isn’t enough, there’s the personal. Not only did Eisenhower suffer a major heart attack in September 1955, he sustained a life-threatening bowel obstruction the following June. His doctors dithered; press secretary James Hagerty, a master of spin long before the term was invented, downplayed the debilities like a champ. Ike, meanwhile, countered depression by action, convinced that running for a second term was the way back to health. John Foster Dulles’ own condition became an issue in mid-1956 when the secretary of state, the right arm Ike kept on a short leash, wore himself out in shuttle diplomacy.
The “least interventionist of any modern president,” the father of the Eisenhower Doctrine that still defines US policy in the Middle East, was a “master delegator” who in 1956 battled demons in bodies personal and politic and in the desert – and prevailed. Nichols’ book, written lean enough to allow the facts speak for themselves, makes for exciting history.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio.