Nichols, David A.: Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis--Suez and the Brink of War.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Pereboom, Maarten
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Spring-Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 87 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis - Suez and the Brink of War (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Nichols, David A.
Accession Number: 294895897
Full Text: Nichols, David A. Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis--Suez and the Brink of War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. xx + 346 pages. Cloth, $28.00.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 was a dramatic chapter in the history of the Cold War, in part because of the twists and challenges this event represents in the overall narrative of the period between 1947 and 1991, when the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, intensified by the threat of nuclear apocalypse, dominated world affairs. Historians aim to reconstruct and interpret the significance of events both as they were experienced at the time as well as how they came to be understood subsequently. In this case, the crisis at the time signaled an end of the era of European colonialism, but we may also look back on these events now with the hindsight that the Middle East was replacing Europe as the prime focus of U.S. foreign policy. At the time, the fear that the United States and Soviet Union might go to war as a result of upheaval in the Middle East certainly had a major impact on how the crisis unfolded, but it began with a provocative assertion of Egyptian sovereignty over a strategic waterway and symbol of Anglo-French imperial glory located within Egypt's borders, the Suez Canal. World War Two had sealed the fate of Britain and France's empires, a reality which some understood better, or more rationally, than others by 1956. Yet, because of the amount of oil shipped through it, the canal retained great importance in a world increasingly understood in geopolitical terms.

David A. Nichols' Eisenhower 1956 examines the leadership of U.S. President Dwight David Eisenhower through this crisis. The existence of much literature on both Eisenhower and Suez--Eisenhower's own memoirs, the classic 1991 biography by Stephen Ambrose and a new one by Jim Newton (2011), the 1995 book by Cole Kingseed focusing specifically on Eisenhower and Suez, and an abundance of literature on the Suez Crisis drawn heavily from source materials in Britain and the United States open for several decades--raise the question as to whether there is anything new to say. Broadly speaking, the answer is no: scholars for decades have challenged and refuted the at-the-time condescension of their predecessors, who dismissed Eisenhower as genial but semi-retired, unengaged and willing to leave Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in charge of U.S. foreign policy. But Nichols' book improves on Kingseed's, placing Eisenhower's handling of Suez into the fuller context of Middle East diplomacy, and it provides a highly readable account of a critical period in the Eisenhower presidency, when, challenged by two major health crises (in September 1955 and June 1956) that called into question his campaign for a second term, the president effectively steered the country, and the world, safely through a period of great danger. Nichols evidently "likes Ike" but he presents a persuasive case for some veneration of a man who knew the horrors of war and was determined to avert it, especially in the nuclear age.

Based on a close reading of the documentation in the Eisenhower Library, Nichols presents a largely chronological account of events from September 1955 to December 1956. In the fall of 1955 the United States had just presented an Arab-Israeli peace plan to the United Nations General Assembly, but concern that the Soviets might sell or provide arms to Egypt, in which Gamal Abdel Nasser was consolidating his power, alarmed the United States and its allies, particularly Britain and France, and raised the specter of a preventive Israeli attack, while the latter state still enjoyed a military advantage. A fierce opponent of colonialism emerging as a leader of what would become known as the non-aligned movement, Nasser refused to play the role of Cold War pawn, and Dulles certainly understood that the United States had to compete for his allegiance. On the table was development assistance for a new hydroelectric dam on the Nile at Aswan, but in July 1956, after Egypt concluded an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, Dulles lost patience and withdrew the offer, whereupon Nasser announced a takeover of the Suez Canal. The United States had played a role in upsetting the balance, but Nichols' analysis suggests that Eisenhower's severe illness that summer gave Dulles the latitude to steer diplomacy his own way--and off course.

Nichols has little regard for either the secretary of state or his brother Allen, who as head of the Central Intelligence Agency bore responsibility for generally poor intelligence throughout the crisis. Likewise, the author does nothing to redeem the historical reputation of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who decided to challenge Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal with military force, working in secret with the French, who saw Nasser as a major threat to their control of Algeria, where an anti-colonial struggle was underway, and the Israelis. Their attack began on October 29, 1956, nine days before the U.S. elections and six days after a revolt spread through Hungary and presented the Soviet Union with a major challenge to its dominance of Eastern Europe. Though incensed at the breach of the alliance, Eisenhower would ensure that reason would prevail and a broader war would be avoided. As Diane Kunz has explained, economic diplomacy effectively made the case that Britain, still struggling to stabilize itself financially and economically after the Second World War, was in no position to defy U.S. leadership and was quietly forced to stand down. Working through the United Nations, the United States, with an assist from Canada, sent peacekeeping forces to the area, and the crisis came to an end. Egypt would keep the canal. Just a few months later, in January 1957, Eisenhower made a speech that launched what would become known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, pledging the United States to secure the region, and its interests, against communist aggression.

The Cold War International History Project Digital Archive contains a December 1956 report from the Soviet Foreign Ministry discussing Suez and Hungary as "wins" for the United States in the developing world. While Nichols' portrait of Eisenhower's leadership might benefit from a more global perspective, readers will appreciate the nuanced and insightful portrait of presidential leadership that emerges from this meticulous and well-written study.

Maarten Pereboom, Ph.D.

Professor of History

Salisbury University

Salisbury, Maryland
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