Prosterman Guest Editorial Where Is

Prosterman Guest Editorial: Where is Ike?



H. Scott Prosterman

Last week marked 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) Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez.

H. Scott Prosterman

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