WHAT THIS COUNTRY NEEDS IS A PRESIDENT WITH IKE'S INTEGRITY AND COJONES

 

SUEZ & BUDAPEST - 50 YEARS LATER

 

H. Scott Prosterman

 

University of Michigan, Rackham M.A. 1980

 

 

 

            This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the aborted Hungarian

Revolution of 1956. Coincidently, it also marks the 50th Anniversary of the

failed tripartite invasion of the Suez Canal by a joint

Israeli-British-French force.  This timing of these two events represents

one of the most chilling confluences of history.  It also illuminates the

great integrity of President Dwight David Eisenhower, who made bold

diplomatic moves in the Middle East, in the weeks leading up to the 1956

U.S. Presidential Election, despite the risk of losing Jewish votes. (A

related event was the USSR-Hungary aquatic bloodbath known as the Olympic

Water Polo match of the 1956 Olympics.  One of the participants in that ugly

event was former U.S. Olympic and Michigan Swim Coach, Jon Urbancek.)

 

 

 

            Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956, three

days after the USSR had invaded Hungary.  The preface to this invasion was a

complex series of events prompted by the Cold War, Western commercial

concerns, and the best and worst of nationalism.  Egyptian President Gamel

Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal three months earlier on July

26, 1956.  Nassser's power play was mitigated by his intention to compensate

the Canal shareholders, who were to lose their interests to nationalization.

But Nassar's insistence of maintaining Egyptian control made the Western

European powers uneasy, in view of his growing relationship with the USSR

and Czechoslovakia the previous year.  In particular, American Secretary of

State John Foster Dulles and British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, would not

accept Nassar's agenda of neutrality in the Cold War atmosphere.

 

 

 

            During the height of the Red Scare in America, neutrality was

not an option.  You were either with us or against us, and Nasser and Dulles

were diplomatic irritants to one another during this period.  Nasser had

approached the U.S. about assistance for improving the Aswan High Dam for

commercial development and greater military assistance.  Dulles' refusal of

Nasser's request for aid for the Aswan Dam, was prompted by pressure from

the American cotton industry, which was already nervous about the increased

shares of Egyptian cotton on the global market. Dulles did the bidding for

American cotton farmers' interests, by pressuring Britain and the World Bank

to also withdraw support for the Aswan Dam project.  Nasser's final request

to the U.S. was met by a less than generous gift, so Nasser expressed his

gratitude by taking that money ($2 million by some accounts) and building a

useless tower on Gizera Island in Cairo.  Egyptians called it "Dulles'

Folly." Meanwhile, Nasser continued his agenda of trying to modernize

Egypt's economy by improving the Aswan Dam, and his military, so he sought

and received the aid from Czechoslovakia and the USSR that the US had

refused.

 

 

 

            Angered by the dismissal and condescension from the West, Nasser

nationalized the Suez Canal on July 26.  British PM Eden wanted to invade

the canal immediately, but was told that his military was not prepared for

such a venture.  Instead he initiated an arms embargo against Egypt on July

30, and informed Nasser that Egyptian control of the canal was not

acceptable.  Nasser further alarmed the Western powers by enlisting Soviet

support to help run the canal, leading to an attempt on the part of the US,

Britain and France to impose a "user agreement" on the Canal, and

effectively take it over from Egypt on September 12.  Three days later,

Nasser had Soviet ship pilots running all the traffic through the Canal..

 

 

 

            Israel's invasion of the Sinai on October 29 had been

pre-arranged with Britain and France, who followed up with air support on

November 5. This happened to be Election Day in the U.S., and occurred,

despite a UN brokered cease-fire that was issued on November 2. In 1950, the

US, Britain and France formed their own tripartite agreement "to assist the

victim of any aggression in the Mideast."  Ike was furious that his closest

allies had violated the spirit of that agreement AND kept him in the dark

about their plans for invasion.

 

 

 

            Though Britain and France did not lend air support until the

actual Election Day, their involvement in the Suez campaign was visible

throughout the Summer and Fall of 1956. Ike's problem was that he was trying

to pressure the Soviets to quit Hungary. Condoning the aggression by his

allies in Egypt would have severely weakened his hand. So, Ike "ordered"

Israel, Britain and France to pull back. In essence, "How can I tell the

Soviets to quit Hungary and stay out of the Middle East, when you guys are

invading Egypt?  And by the way, I'm trying to get re-elected next week, so

don't give me another headache." (Paraphrasing mine).

 

 

 

            While Eisenhower was no more a fan of Nasser than his

counterparts in Britain and France, he recognized that Nasser had

established a good track record at running the Canal and keeping it open.

He also recognized that Egypt was being victimized by aggression on the part

of his allies, who had neither consulted nor informed him. Eden had not told

Eisenhower of the planned invasion on his Election Day, creating a huge rift

of hard feelings.  Despite the great political risk of alienating Jewish

votes in the weeks before the election, Eisenhower stood firm in his resolve

to pressure the three countries to withdraw from Egypt, in the weeks before

the election.  Two days later, on November 7, the UN honored Eisenhower's

leadership, and voted 65-1 that the invading powers had to quit Egypt.

 

 

 

            It may be argued that this was the greatest display of integrity

by an American President in history, with all due respect to Lyndon Johnson

placing his weight behind the Voting Rights Act 1964.  Indeed, when he was

reminded about the great political risk of alienating Jewish voters by being

even-handed towards all parties in the Middle East, he said, "I don't care

in the slightest whether I am re-elected or not. I feel we must make good on

our word." (1)  Eisenhower's political bravery reminds us of the integrity

that once defined the American Presidency, and the deficiencies of our

current and recent leaders.

 

 

 

(1) Warriors at Suez, Donald Neff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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H. Scott Prosterman is a writer and editor in Berkeley, and holds an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from The University of Michigan