- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2011

EISENHOWER 1956: THE PRESIDENT’S YEAR OF CRISIS - SUEZ AND THE BRINK OF WAR
By David A. Nichols
Simon & Schuster, $28, 346 pages

“The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground during my administration. We kept the peace. People ask how it happened - by God, it didn’t just happen.”

This quotation, inscribed on the wall of the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kan., heads the concluding chapter of “Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis - Suez and the Brink of War” and neatly summarizes the subject of this strongly written, meticulously researched and inherently dramatic study of President Eisenhower’s response to the perfect storm he faced on Election Day, Nov. 6, 1956.

As is the case today, the oil-laden ill winds came blowing in from the Middle East. In that summer and fall, three of our closest allies - England, France and Israel - secretly conspired to attack Egypt in retaliation for President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. (Israel had the added incentive of Nasser’s stated promises to wipe it from the face of the earth.) In the nine days leading up to Nov. 6, as the three allies invaded Egypt, the Soviet Union took advantage of Western disunity by brutally suppressing the uprising in Hungary and threatening intervention in Egypt.

David A. Nichols, historian and former academic dean of Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., draws on newly available accounts of secret meetings as well as extensive primary sources to take us through the days leading up to the election, following Eisenhower, recovering from a heart attack and major surgery, as he forces the British, French and Israelis to withdraw from Egypt and faces down the Soviets.

In addition to geopolitics, Mr. Nichols is also skilled in handling the domestic politics of the day. He shows us Adlai Stevenson, on election eve, raising questions about Eisenhower’s fitness for a second term with that demagoguing, ad-hominem rhetoric that is off-limits to everyone except liberal Democrats, warning his audience that “the president’s age, his health make it inevitable that the dominant figure in the Republican Party would be Richard Nixon. Do you want to place the hydrogen bomb in his hands?”

Meanwhile, Richard Nixon, without that hydrogen bomb, and campaigning as the president’s surrogate, called John Foster Dulles for advice on how to handle what was seen as the British/French/Israeli double-cross. Dulles, Mr. Nichols writes, suggested that he not single out the Israelis because “they may have been used.”

Eisenhower himself was less forgiving with those he’d known and worked with during Word War II - especially Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill’s longtime protege who had probably passed his political expiration date when finally being chosen as prime minister.

In a postelection conversation with Dulles, Mr. Nichols reports, Eisenhower commented, “one of the most pleasant things in life was to find one’s estimate of a man increases each time he had dealings with him.” But “one of the most disappointing things was to start with an exceedingly high opinion of a person and then have continually to downgrade this estimate.”

Eden, Eisenhower concluded, as did a vast majority of England’s politicians, military leaders and electorate, “fell into the latter category.”

On Election Day, with a cease-fire in Egypt in effect, Eden called to ask about the voting. Eisenhower replied: “We have given our whole thought to Hungary and the Middle East. I don’t give a damn how the election goes.”

Through it all, Eisenhower demonstrated those qualities we expect in our leaders when confronted with crises. Above all, he was ready. “He was a planner,” writes Mr. Nichols, but “his favorite planning aphorism was, ‘Plans are worthless - but planning is everything.’ ” The planning process itself, he believed, required a thorough examination of contingencies and policy goals, so that he would be prepared, as president, “to do the normal thing when everybody else is going nuts.”

One of Eisenhower’s great strengths was in viewing his leadership as “the normal thing,” and never “going nuts” while providing it. (Memo to our aspiring leaders on the Hill and in the White House: Take careful note.)

“By any standard,” Mr. Nichols concludes, “his was a virtuoso presidential performance - an enduring model for effective crisis management.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).