The President’s Year of Crisis — Suez and the Brink of War.
David A. Nichols
Simon & Schuster: 346 pp., $28
As the Middle East has trembled in recent weeks, the Obama administration has struggled for a coherent and forceful response — one that reconciles American interests with American values, that balances geopolitics with the moral example of democracy. For an object lesson, the administration might look to the example of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and might start by reading David A. Nichols’ new book on that fateful year.
Nichols’ “Eisenhower 1956" captures the president and the nation as both battled a series of difficulties, including the president’s shaky health, his reelection and a pair of overlapping foreign crises. The result is a riveting and relevant analysis of a sequence of events that placed the great nations of the period at the brink of a world war. That we know so little about the clashes of 1956 is testament not to their unimportance but to their deft handling by a great American president.
A word about the author: Nichols is a pioneer in the Eisenhower landscape, now increasingly populated by followers, myself included. His 2007 look at Ike’s civil rights record, “A Matter of Justice,” has rightly been described as “revisionist history at its best.” I don’t subscribe entirely to his view of Eisenhower on civil rights — the Ike that I read is a bit less broad-minded than the one Nichols presents — but Nichols’ work was refreshing, enlightening and overdue. As is true of the best revisionist history, he challenged conventional thinking and forced a new conversation about the civil rights period of the 1950s, in its way more important than the more conventionally chronicled decade that followed.
Now, Nichols is back with a different type of history. “Eisenhower 1956" is less argumentative, more narrative, a study that does not so much re-argue its subject as exhume it.
Eisenhower, of course, stands at its center, and the book finds Ike at a crucible moment in his presidency. In September 1955, Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack, and his recovery was long and difficult. Prolonged bed rest was followed by the slow resumption of his official duties, made somewhat easier by the commendable performance of Vice President Richard Nixon, who led the Cabinet while studiously avoiding any suggestion that he was seizing power (he refused to sit in Ike’s chair). Eisenhower gradually returned but chafed against the restrictions imposed by his condition. Among them: Doctors insisted that he watch his temper and avoid stress. In response, Eisenhower complained: “Just what do you think the presidency is?”
Eisenhower and the nation were lucky that he was stricken during a quiet period. But as the president recovered, events abroad gathered steam, and a crisis took hold in Egypt, where the U.S. was fencing with its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser over his plans to build a dam on the Aswan River. In painstaking, meticulously documented detail, Nichols re-creates the complicated slide into confusion and distrust over American participation in the dam, as Ike fought conservative members of his own party who opposed foreign aid, as well as other sundry interests who distrusted Nasser or worried about political or economic implications of the project.
Eventually, the U.S. withdrew its pledged support for the dam, sending an angry Nasser scrambling to the Soviet Union for help, recognizing the government of Communist China and, most provocatively, retaliating against the West by nationalizing the Suez Canal.
That thrust the conflict into a higher orbit, and Eisenhower wrestled with it at the same time that he confronted two more difficulties: a worrisome flare-up of a longstanding intestinal disorder that forced him to undergo surgery in mid-1956 and his reelection campaign that year, a rematch of the 1952 contest against Adlai Stevenson. With all of those distractions swirling around Eisenhower — whom Nichols aptly describes as a master juggler — Britain and France secretly prepared to retaliate against Nasser.
Ike knew something was up. He tried to persuade the British to negotiate, warned that they were building Nasser into a bigger figure than he actually was by reacting so militantly to the seizure of the canal. But British and French leaders — whose nations Ike only a dozen years earlier had helped defeat Hitler — deliberately misled Washington behind a series of smokescreens. It was an act of monumental duplicity, committed by the most trusted of allies.
Then, just as that crisis built to a boil, another with vast Cold War implications erupted in Europe. Hungarian rebels forced a confrontation with the Soviet Union, and the Soviets, after first appearing to grant Hungary some leeway, then responded with crushing force, encouraged in part by the divisions in the Western alliance over Egypt.
That confluence of events — Ike’s discovery that his allies had betrayed him; his forthright determination to stand with Egypt against Britain, France and Israel, which triggered the invasion in coordination with the European nations; the stunned helplessness as brave Hungarians were trampled by Soviet forces — form the dramatic apex of Nichols’ narrative. It is a staggering moment of peril, vividly captured by a gifted author.
It is also timely in important ways. As Egypt again is a key player in a region in revolt, Eisenhower’s experience in 1956 demonstrates both the significance of American principle — the molding effects of this democracy — and the limits of American power. Eisenhower prevailed in this great crisis of his presidency because he elevated principle above allegiance and because he recognized where he could act and where he must be restrained. So too has the Obama administration confronted the limits of its ability to influence events, acting with prudent and easily criticized restraint.
For Eisenhower, 1956 was indeed a test of stamina and resolve (though, interestingly, Ike himself thought 1958, not 1956, the toughest year of his presidency; it was then that Republicans lost the midterm elections while he lost his oldest brother and childhood friend to death and his chief of staff to scandal). He prevailed by commitment to patience and devotion to principle — an example too often ignored by his successors but relevant today as in few other moments.
Nichols captures all of this with his trademark precision. It is a splendid book.
Newton, editor-at-large of The Times’ editorial pages, is completing a presidential biography of Eisenhower, to be published this fall.