on March 10, 2011
The first week of November, 1956: Soviet tanks were crushing the Hungarian uprising. Israel had invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. British and French paratroopers landed to secure the Suez Canal, and the Egyptians were sinking ships to block it, endangering oil flows to Europe. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was hospitalized. It was the week that the U.S. presidential campaign was coming to a frenzied close. This was the crescendo of a year of crisis that had also seen President Eisenhower suffer a heart attack and endure intestinal surgery. The D-Day Commander, now President, faced an extraordinarily complex array of challenges.
The tight focus of historian David Nichols in this book is President Eisenhower's leadership. Drawing on detailed White House and National Security Council minutes, archival records, and scores of diaries, memoirs and oral histories, he well demonstrates Eisenhower's capacity (the ability to receive huge amounts of information under stressful conditions), reliance on planning, and strategic vision. Nichols traces the intense Presidential, political, military, and diplomatic maneuvering during the Suez Crisis, demonstrating Eisenhower's masterful orchestration of all the elements of American power. It included some behind-the-scenes arm twisting directed at France and the United Kingdom; both allies had "double-crossed" the President, hiding their preparations for war.
Eisenhower avoided war and set out a new direction for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Nichols lays to rest earlier impressions of Eisenhower as detached, or ill, or intellectually unequal to the Presidency. He discredits old notions that it was the ideological Dulles that drove U.S. foreign policy; rather Dulles needed close guidance by the President. The Aswan Dam crisis demonstrates the importance of U.S. foreign aid among the instruments of power. The book does not burnish the reputations of Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anthony Eden, and Allen Dulles (and the CIA). It shows the strength of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Senator Walter George, press secretary James Haggerty, U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, and U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Robert Byroade. And Nichols credits another intelligence source -- images from the Lockheed U-2 in its first important operation.
When Egypt is once again in the news, and the American President contemplates what American can -- and can't -- do in the Middle East, this book is timely.
OK. I know this is a stretch to cajole you into reading a book about a dead president. But hang with me a minute--and let me try.
Two-term U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that "October 20, 1956 was the start of the most crowded and demanding three weeks of my entire presidency." And according to author David Nichols, "During this period, Eisenhower embodied the wisdom of his preachment that `plans are worthless but planning is everything,' enabling him to `do the normal thing when everyone else is going nuts.'"
There's one big reason you should read this book: crisis management (The Crisis Bucket). Nichols summarizes this stunning account--and Eisenhower himself--on the book's last page with this one-liner, "By any standard, his was a virtuoso presidential performance--an enduring model for effective crisis management."
This book is unlike any book I've read. It covers mostly one year, 1956, with the greatest focus on Ike's most demanding three weeks of his presidency. (I study leaders. Ike was a leader, not just a general.)
For starters--have you ever had a couple of weeks like this?
--Eisenhower couldn't convince Congress to use foreign aid to fund Egypt's proposed Aswan Dam project, so after a soft commitment to Egypt's President Nasser, Ike pulled the plug on the deal.
--In response, Egypt's President Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal.
--Oops! Western Europe is almost totally dependent on the flow of oil through the canal (with oil reserves of just 15 to 30 days).
--Ike's best friends--Britain and France, the nations he rescued in World War II--plotted secretly and devised clever smoke screens to keep the U.S. not just ill-informed but misinformed about their intentions. Read: bald-faced lies!
--Britain, France and Israel go to war against Egypt.
--Ike refuses to provide cover to his double-dealing, deceptive friends, and suggested they "be left to burn in their own oil."
--At one point, commenting on the flurry of cables between London and Washington, he quipped that it had turned into a "trans-Atlantic essay contest."
Oh...and did I mention: The President had a heart attack on a trip in the fall of 1955, requiring seven weeks off in Denver, and then more surgery later in 1956 for a cancerous tumor the doctors and staff had kept from him.
Doctors told him to take it easy--and in that we get a humorous picture of Ike. He wrote a friend that he had been ordered "to avoid all situations that tend to bring about such reactions as irritation, frustration, anxiety, fear and, above all anger." So he had snapped at the doctors, "Just what do you think the presidency is?"
Yet, he decides he's healthy enough to run for a second term; Adlai Stevenson, his opponent, disagrees. Often. And quite publically!
"The real reason a President wants to run again," suggested aide Sherman Adams, "is because he doesn't think anybody else can do as good a job as he's doing."
Oops! Then during the campaign, the Soviet Union hustles tanks into Hungary.
So whatever your current leadership or management crisis is (you've had some doozies and will continue to have them), you gotta admit...it ain't as challenging as Ike's crises in 1956. At one point he whined to his personal secretary, Ann Whitman, "why anyone would want such a job as that of the President."
If you're not a history buff or a dead presidents buff, you may find the first half of the book slow-going, even tedious perhaps--but the beauty of this one-year historical feast is the author's amazing quilt of quotations he threads together from newly released sources like the top secret minutes of the National Security Council and Oval Office meetings.
But keep reading, because when Nichols (a former prof and academic dean) hits Ike's three most demanding weeks of his life, it's a page-turner--and I don't use that phrase lightly. The crisis management insights and best practices are served up on almost every page.
Example: on addressing Ike's response to the Soviet occupation of Hungary, the author writes, "This was standard Eisenhower doctrine, to give an opponent an escape hatch from a confrontation that could escalate into great conflict." Think of your last crisis--did it escalate unnecessarily?
Example: "Eisenhower had long ago perfected the art of embracing a messianic mission and making it sound like a simple soldier's call to duty." Does your organization have a big vision--and is it stated simply enough?
His campaign buttons announced, "I LIKE IKE." Ditto. I was so sad when page 286 arrived that I even read the "Acknowledgments," hoping for another crumb or two. I got `em!
on March 16, 2011
David Nichols' book on the most significant year during Eisenhower's presidency is a history of one of the most dangerous episodes in the Cold War era.
The first part of the book discusses Eisenhower's poor health and the way he coped with all the hardships and challenges he faced. In a letter addressed to Winston Churchill, he regarded the Middle East as "the most important and bothersome of the problems that currently confront our nations...The prosperity and welfare of the entire Western world is inescapably dependent upon Mid East oil and free access thereto"(p.92) Two life-threatening illnesses-his heart attack in September 1995 and his abdominal surgery in June 1956-caused the president to be out of action at some very critical moments during those years.
More than two thirds of Western Europe's oil supplies passed through the Suez Canal, which was jointly run by the British and the French. After Eisenhower returned to the White House on July 15,1956, Dulles, the foreign secretary, had already decided to renege on the offer of aid to the Aswan project,largely because the US Congress refused to support it. This resulted in Nasser's
emotional three-hour anti-American speech to a cheering crowd in which he announced his intention to nationalize the Suez Canal Company. Nasser also added that the Canal was built by Egyptians and 120000 of them died building it. "Thus,we shall build the High Dam our own way"(p.131)
This was the beginnning of the Suez Canal crisis. The British labeled Nasser "a paranoic like Hitler" and they started a deception process aimed at the Americans in order to topple Nasser and regain control of the canal.
The following chapters describe in detail the diplomatic efforts of the Americans to persuade the British and the French not to use military power in the crisis, but all in vain. Unknown to Dulles and Eisenhower, on October 22, the delegations from Israel, Britain, and France had arrived under a shroud of secrecy at a scheduled villa in Paris, where the stage was set for the signing of a formal agreement for launching an attack on Egypt. The plan was to let the Israelis begin to advance toward the Suez Canal Zone. Britain and France would issue an ultimatum to Israel and Egypt to cease fighting and accept Anglo-French occupation on the Canal Zone. If Egypt, as expected, rejected the ultimatum, Britain and France would begin bombardment followed by troops landing.
Nichols demonstrates to what extent Eisenhower and his intelligence master, Allen C. Dulles, knew nothing about the secret meeting in France and no one gave any clues as to the emerging conspiracy among Eisenhower's allies. This was not the only surprise which waited for Eisenhower.
Another one had to do with Hungary's invasion by Soviet troops who shot and killed thousands in their efforts to suppress that nation's bid for freedom. Khrushchev had stated that the Arabs will not stand alone if war broke out in the Suez Canal. The Soviet premier even suggested to solve the crisis by conducting a joint military operation in the Canal. Eisenhower was obsessed with fear about a nuclear war. He remembered that in 1953 the Soviet Union conducted its first successful test of a hydrogen bomb. He also received a report which stated that 65 percent of the American people would be casulaties in a nuclear exchange. Although the Soviet offer, Eisenhower rejected it and instead placed American forces on alert.
The book shows to what extent Eisenhower was a master of diplomacy and crisis management, offering many option to solve the crisis. He improvised many strategies and, in the words of the author,the president "was a virtuoso of presidential performance". Nichols has written a fascinating book which dissects the way Eisenhower managed to avoid a confrontation not only with the Soviets, but also with his allies. He draws on hundreds of newly declassified documents and interviews, showing for the first time how the Suez Canal crisis was seen through the eyes of Eisenhower and his administration key men. Nichols also demolishes the myth that it was Dulles, the Secretary of state, who actually ran the policy of the crisis. This is a gripping and riveting tale of how the wisdom, cunning and masterful diplomacy of one great American president averted a possible nuclear war.
on March 29, 2011
Eisenhower was often portrayed as someone who was not engaged as president during his eight years of his presidency. Little is known about his tenure as president except during that eventful year of 1955 to 1957 when Ike had to deal with his first major heart attack; his running for president and the two international events of a war in Egypt and the USSR invasion of Hungary. As I read this book I am stunned by the lack of communication between the two main departments: The President and the Secretary of State. Many times communication had to take place over regular telephone lines or face to face since there was no such thing as secure communications in the 1950's. Often times when the president was incapacitated and incommunicado, there was no attempt to bring Nixon into the decision tree, or even inform him of what is going on which made Foster Dulles free to make decisions that may effect the United States dramatically. Fortunately, the USSR was in the same state of communication that we were. Ike was very concerned about the effect of an all out nuclear exchange even prior to the war in Egypt and expressed his concern often in his letters and in his planning processes.
Eisenhower was one tough dude during this period of his life having a major heart attack and a major abdominal surgery to remove part of his intestines and still was able to run for president and work two major regional conflicts at the same time. This book is a good narration of that period of time backed up by copious footnotes. This read gives you a good insight of low tech government and wonder how we survived that period in our history.
on July 3, 2011
My interest in the book was finding out more about Eisenhower's attitude toward Israel and the influence exerted by John Foster Dulles. I expected to go quickly through the book picking out bits and pieces that would reinforce the opinions I had of both of them, which were not complimentary, and their activities during the Suez War. My thoughts were wrong and I ended up devouring the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the writing style, insights, story-telling and reporting. According to the author, the President fully controlled foreign policy, had definite unequivocal beliefs and exercised strong leadership during a very harrowing and dangerous period. Based on results and the luxury of being able to look back it appears Eisenhower did a great service to the Nation and World, and before this book was written, in a mainly private behind the scenes way.
What the book got me thinking about was the role the United States played, plays and will play in the security and continued existence of the State of Israel. I also have the input of many other books containing thoughts and actions of American presidents and their close advisors, particularly about the Yom Kippur War involving Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The impression I glean is the difference between the concern, friendship, security and support toward Israel and American interests. American interests, as viewed by Eisenhower and Kissinger, Nixon's Secretary of State and his chief foreign policy advisor during the Yom Kippur War, was much greater than that of Israel and in some measure, Israel's fight for continued existence. Eisenhower, and Kissinger, had to consider localizing the warfare, relations with and internal politics of the combatants, containing the influence of the Soviet Union, the possibility of nuclear destruction, the economies of countries dependent on Arab oil, domestic politics both with Congress and public opinion, the influence of Israel's supporters, the way any action would be viewed and reported in the press, and the aftermath of any actions. These are many balls to juggle and it appears Eisenhower did it very well and that Kissinger needed Nixon to step in to provide essential support to Israel where Kissinger dragged or waited for the drama to play out according to a world view he held on to.
These thoughts indicate to me, that Israel while needing to interact and receive support from the United States, other large powers, and many other countries, needs to understand that they cannot expect its friends to support them if that support will be contrary to their best interests, as viewed by those countries, when there is a serious crisis. Also, these "best interests" continually change as well as the leaders determining those interests and that no one can prophesize what the situations will be at any point in the future. We know what we would like it to be, but that doesn't make it be. Accordingly, my advice to Israel is to seek as much help as you can whenever and wherever it is available, never losing sight that you might be in a position where outside help when needed most might be delayed or withheld. Israel's strength will lie with Israel and Israel alone.
Good book. Highly recommended.
on December 21, 2012
Nichols has clearly done more than enough homework and, yet, at the same time manages to stay out of the weeds making this a readable, sometimes compelling, account. But two things bothered me about this book that, I guess, makes me out of synch with other readers. First, I find the rigid week-by-week chronology too limiting. It prevents important overall themes, such as the evolution of UK/US relations and the influence of the election on Eisenhower's decisions, from being coherently developed and evaluated. Instead, these important issues come and go as individual data points on a timeline. In short, too many trees, too little forest. Second, Nichols spends little time setting the stage. It's assumed the reader knows the context of the events going into late 1955. England's complicated post-war relationship with Egypt is barely covered, France's view of Isreal going into these events (heavily affected by Algeria) is completely absent. If you don't know what the "Baghdad Pact" is when it crops up; tough, you'll have to look for an explanation elsewhere. I'd note one of the great aspects of the book "1775" is McCullough spends a chunk of the book describing the landscape and events leading into that year so one fully appreciates and understands what is going on. That would have worked equally well for 1956.
on January 11, 2012
We tend to think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the "big" international crisis of the post-World War II era, but the Suez situation in 1956 was equally as tense, if not as dramatic as the events that would transpire six years later. Author David Nichols has written a deep and thoughtful book about that time in "Eisenhower 1956". It's a fine read.
Plagued by two illnesses in less than a year, (a heart attack in 1955 and ileitis in 1956) Dwight Eisenhower was in such a weakened physical condition over these months that it is hard to fathom how well he performed. Hoodwinked by the Israelis, French and British following the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, and forever countering his saber-rattling Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower had to juggle many international balls in the air for months at a time. Nichols is thorough in his timeline of how American rejection of funds for the Aswan Dam project may have set in motion Egyptian President Nasser's plan to take the action that he did. But once the secret decision to put troops on the ground was made, Nichols narrative really crackles.
As the author points out, Eisenhower was the least interventionist president in modern times, owing much to what he had seen in the Second World War. He was a man of balance and, in hindsight, great vision as he tried to keep not only the allies in check but also members of his administration. Not only did this crisis spur him through angst and to action but on top of it Ike had to plan for his own re-election. And then there was Hungary and the Soviets, so well documented throughout the book.
It's hard to imagine today that any U.S. president (except for George H. W. Bush) would have used the United Nations as a central core to success, but Eisenhower did. He succeeded in keeping a cool head and conveyed that temperature, (publicly anyway) throughout those tense times. "Eisenhower 1956" is a terrific book and I highly recommend it.
on December 18, 2011
From a diplomat's perspective, there is much to learn and to like in David Nichol's excellent book on Eisenhower and the Suez crisis of 1956. Ike's strategic thinking and practical use of the elements of power (armed forces, diplomacy, financial leverage, oil) belie definitively the popular misconception of him as an infirmed and bumbling President. Before Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, there was Ike and Suez. Professionals striving to make peace in the Middle East (as I was during most of my 30 year career with the State Department) have a very relevant case study of success in Professor Nichol's highly readable account.
In 1978, historian David Nichols published his first book "Lincoln and the Indians" Lincoln and the Indians: CIVIL WAR POLICY AND POLITICS which remains a rare study of a frequently overlooked aspect of Lincoln's presidency. I read and reviewed the book early in my days as an Amazon reviewer. Following his retirement from academic life, Nichols, who resides near the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, effectively began a second career as a historian of the Eisenhower administration. "Eisenhower 1956" tells the story of Eisenhower's greatest foreign policy test: the Suez crisis of 1956, Eisenhower's handling of this crisis remains controversial. I wanted to read this book because of my own interest in and admiration for Eisenhower. I also remembered Nichols' first book on Lincoln and was inspired to see an author branch out in a new direction upon retirement. (Between 1978 and his two recent books on Eisenhower, Nichols apparently had not published a book.)
Nichols tells a complex, detailed history clearly and well. Although he is critical of some aspects of Eisenhower's handling of the Suez crisis, he praises Eisenhower's broad approach and what Nichols sees as his principled leadership. Some critics of Eisenhower's presidency tended to see him as disengaged and as deferential to his subordinates, in particular to his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Critics of Eisenhower in the Middle East have also claimed that his administration showed too much sympathy for the Arab position and underestimated the threats that Israel faced. Nichols belongs with a group of scholars who, beginning in the 1980's, have reassessed Eisenhower's leadership style and gradually and substantially raised the stature of his presidency. In his book, Nichols portrays Eisenhower as an active, knowledgeable leader in the area of foreign affairs who managed top-down with the public interest rather than politics at heart. Eisenhower gave direction to his administration as opposed to responding passively to his staff.
Nichols shows that the Suez crisis had a long history during which Eisenhower's participation was mixed. The crisis coincided with Eisenhower's first heart attack and with a subsequent serious intestinal illness. During these periods, Eisenhower's active operation in government was necessarily limited. American policy thus tended to lack firm control, and it vacillated. During this time, the Soviet Union had begun massive arms sales to Egypt. The Israelis became concerned and the United States had to determine the extent to which it would support the sale of additional arms to Israel without precipitating an arms race and encouraging conflict. In addition, the United States and Egypt had discussed American assistance in the construction of the large Aswan Dam to stimulate Egypt's economy and reduce the flooding which over the ages had plagued the country. The Egyptian leader, Nasser, tried to play off the United States and the Soviet Union as providers of the aid. American policy on Aswan aid vacillated during Eisenhower's illness and led to the Suez crisis. During the period of Eisenhower's ill-health, he was also preoccupied with deciding whether he was physically in a condition to run for the presidency for a second term. Although Eisenhower was a Cold Warrior, his major preoccupation during his presidency was avoiding nuclear war which, the president understood, would have catastrophic, irrevocable consequences.
The Suez crisis began when Dulles rather peremptorily informed Egypt that it could not provide assistance for Aswan. A good part of this decision was a result of Congressional opposition. Nasser then nationalized the Suez canal in retaliation for the United States refusal of the aid, and Britain and France prepared for military action. Eisenhower opposed precipitate military action chiefly because of his fear that it would lead to broad war. He was committed to a negotiated resolution. Eisenhower believed that Egypt was within its legal rights to nationalize the canal as long as the canal remained open and was operated fairly. Britain, France, and Israel had reason to be worried.
For months, under Eisenhower's leadership, the allies sought a negotiated solution. Without Eisenhower's knowledge, Britain, France and Israel surreptitiously planned and camoflagued an invasion of Egypt, leading Eisenhower to claim, with great justification, that the allies had "double-crossed" him. Although his actions were and remain severely criticized, Eisenhower worked through the United Nations to arrange a cease-fire. The Soviet Union, which had invaded Hungary, had threatened to intervene on Eggypt's behalf, the the world may have been close to WW III, which Eisenhower was determined to avoid. The crisis came to an end and the threatened rupture with America's allies was tenuously restored.
Although the United States had effectively blundered into the crisis and showed a marked failure of intelligence operations in not detecting the British-French-Israeli plan before its implementation, Nichols gives Eisenhower high marks for leadership and principle in resolving the Suez crisis after it was thrust upon him. On the whole, and although even today Eisenhower is severly criticized over the Suez crisis, I think the praise is deserved.
As with subsequent administrations, Eisenhower tried to be friends with all parties in the Middle East and to encourage a negotiated solution to the problems which plagued the region at the time and continue to do so. Eisenhower's broad efforts proved no more successful than those of subsequent administrations. But in his cool, even-handed handling of the Suez crisis, Eisenhower may have averted a world war. He showed principled political leadership under substantial pressure. I am looking forward to reading Nichols' other book on the Eisenhower presidency: "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution" A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution.
I recently read Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (which was a well researched, well written book). In the postscript of that book, Ms. Olson mentioned how Anthony Eden, who became Britain's Prime Minister in the mid-1950s drew the precisely wrong lesson in handling concerns about the Suez Canal from Chamberlain's mishandling of the Nazi threat in the late 1930s. I realized that I knew very little about the Suez crisis of 1955-1956 and looked for a book that would educate me in that matter.
Eisenhower 1956 is also a very well researched book that provides great insight into Eisenhower's worldview and effectiveness as President. 1955 and 1956 were certainly crucial years in his presidency. He suffered a significant heart attack near the end of 1955 and required major surgery for a digestive problem in early 1956. Accordingly, serious questions arose as to whether he should run for re-election in 1956. Also, the dynamics of the situation in the Middle-East changed significantly when Egypt's new ruler, Gamal Nassar, nationalized the Suez Canal and had Egypt take over operation of it from France and Britain as a way to pay for the Aswan Dam project after the Western allies withdrew offers to finance it.
In the meantime, while Eisenhower's health issues limited the hours that he could work, France and Britain involved Israel in a plan to take back control of the Suez Canal while misleading the US about their intentions.
When France and Britain went forward with their plan just before the 1956 election, the Soviet Union was in the process of putting down the brave efforts by Hungary to withdraw from the Soviet bloc. France and Britain's Suez misadventure then allowed the Soviets to get a military foothold in the Middle East via Syria such that the US's ability to intervene in the Hungarian situation was seriously compromised. Eisenhower's handling of all of these problems amid a campaign for re-election are carefully detailed in this book leaving no doubt but that Eisenhower was a thoughtful, pragmatic, effective President whose major efforts to minimize the likelihood of a nuclear war while maintaining the US's standing in the world were impressive.
The problem with this book is that the author feels the need to show off his research so that it bogs down with endless minutia about Eisenhower's golf games, the itinerary and scheduling of meetings, Eisenhower's health situation virtually day by day. This book could have benefited significantly from the involvement of a good editor. In addition, the attention to the day to day activities as between Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles results in a myopic focus that results in a less than clear cut sense of the situation in Hungary. Similarly, while the author provides a helpful picture of Eisenhower's handling of the 1956 election campaign, one is not provided with any sense of how serious the Stevenson challenge was so one never has a sense of whether Eisenhower's handling of the dual crises in October 1956 required political calculations because his re-election was at stake. In short, the reader is often left with little sense of the forest because of the tedious focus on certain trees.