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4.0 out of 5 stars Waging Peace, July 30, 2012
This review is from: Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis--Suez and the Brink of War (Paperback)
A dramatic and compelling behind the scenes portrait of events leading up to the Suez crisis.

Everyone remembers the phrase "I Like Ike", his warning against feeding the Military Industrial Complex and one can sense the appeal of having a wise and capable father/grandfather figure in the White House. Yet 1956 was a year of two major crises - the short lived Hungarian Spring and Nasser's bold play to nationalize the Suez canal. Domestically it was also an election year ... and Eisenhower has a heart attack on June 8th which puts him on the sidelines just when he needs to be front and centre. So it is left to high ranking subordinates such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to steer the ship and maintain the Eisenhower Doctrine for a nuclear age. This meant avoiding the escalation of conflict while containing the Soviet Union. However, if as Nichols suggests (pp53) that the localized US policy was to influence the Egyptians towards a peace agreement using the financing of of Aswan as an incentive, then the US pullout from such a deal, which was a financially sound decision, was a political disaster.

Eisenhower's critics charged that Ike was really out of the game as he recovered from the attack. Nichols claims that he wasn't, that he read key reports and gave short judgements, much like the spin that was given to the press. In his view Eisenhower deferred the process of crisis resolution to the UN on principle, and Adlai Stevenson's accusation that Ike's health problems made him unaware and distant until the middle of November. However from reading Nichol's account my conclusion was that for a significant time the country was on autopilot.

The slow build to crisis is covered in detail. In addition to Aswan the US hoped to use America's cotton industry and the Baghdad pact as bargaining chips with the Egyptians. To the Israelis Dulles turned down their appeal for the US to balance Soviet and American arms sales to Egypt, saying that the Israel's best hope was to rely on the UN for protection (pp71). Though not adverse to indirect arms sales through France and Britain, on May 10th the administration blocked the sale of 21 army surplus half tracks. (pp104) Yet Dulles was not happy with the pro-Egyptian attitude of America's US Ambassador to Egypt, Henry Byroade who wanted to "break the back of Zionism as a political force", bypassed by the administration through Ike's friend and diplomatic envoy Robert Anderson. At the same time Nasser had extended recognition to communist China - crossing another American red line of the time. And on June 26th the Americans discover that Russia has trumped the US by offering to finance Aswan with a 60 yr. loan of $400m, cancelling the debt on previous arms sales, and offers to buy Egypt's cotton crop and aid its industrialization by building a steel mill. (pp116).

What gets presented is a somewhat insular and very American outlook. For example, Canadian Foreign Minister Lester B. Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his bold solution to the Suez crisis (establishing UNEF) is not even mentioned - all we get is a one line throwaway about a Canadian proposal to the UN with no details as to what it entails. Or the aftermath. And while we get a sense that Britain saw Suez as a way to hold on to what was left of its economic power, Nichols never details the reasons behind French involvement - the coverage of Eden's antipathy towards Nasser, his sinking popularity over the handling of the crisis and British economic vulnerability is much better. Through the discussion on Egypt's solicitation of financing for Aswan we see how Nasser attempt to play the US against the Soviets. The US said no, the Soviets yes, and the rational was both reasonable and revealing. But missing was Nasser's efforts to elevate Egypt to the centre of the Arab world, Missing too was that Israel sensed a gradualized aggression from Egypt, a sliced salami approach, premised on Nasser's rhetorical bluster, attacks by fedayeen, the cutting off of oil supplies via Suez, and the acquisition of large amount of armaments acquired from the Soviets that would have put her in a far worse position by the summer of '57. The fact that Nasser's moves on the canal antagonized the French and the British added to the sense that striking now rather than later was more desirable. And what of Hungary? One suspects that the Soviets pushed the focus of the UN towards the Suez Crisis to emphasize the then current diplomatic view of spheres of influence in order reassert their control over their satellite nation and extend their influence into the middle east, a diplomatic success that would persist for another generation. A look at complementary view points would have, IMV, improved the book.

That being said, the writing is clear and the material is presented in an interesting way that succeeds in bringing the era to life Probably this would resonate very well with readers who lived through the era and for me, as a Canadian, it rendered a great deal of insight into the era.

Recommended supplementary reading:

Pearson's Prize: Canada and the Suez Crisis
Between Arab and Israeli
Pearson's Peacekeepers: Canada and the United Nations Emergency Force, 1956-67
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