If, like me, you're sickened by the unseemly spectacle of US presidential candidates fighting over Israel every 4 years, you probably find yourself wondering what America would be like with a real president, that is, one prepared to treat Israel without fear or favour and stand up to it when the occasion demands.
Wonder no more. Dwight D (Ike) Eisenhower (president 1953-1961) was such a president.
Ike was the real thing because, unlike one or two of his successors who tried to stand up to the Israelis, he actually followed through and emerged triumphant, whip firmly in hand.
It was the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain, France and Israel invaded the Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser (president 1956-1970), that provided the occasion for Ike to demonstrate what being a real US president is all about.
The following account comes from the new (2012) biography of Ike by Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower: In War & Peace:
"One week [after failing to receive US backing for the dam], on July 26, 1956, Nasser announced that Egypt was nationalizing the Suez Canal. 'The fat was in the fire,' Eisenhower wrote later in his memoirs. The cancellation of the Aswan Dam was the greatest diplomatic debacle of the Eisenhower era, and the West was totally unprepared to respond to Nasser's action. Britain and France feverishly organized military forces to retake the canal, and [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles was away from Washington attending conferences in Latin America. Eisenhower, who was still recovering from [an] operation, was thrust back in command. It was a blessing in disguise. With the president back on the bridge, the American ship of state resumed its steady course. Ike refused to panic. What authority did Nasser have to seize the canal? he asked Herbert Brownell. 'The entire length of the Canal lay within Egyptian territory,' the attorney general answered. It was a matter of eminent domain. From that point on, Eisenhower's policy was clear. 'Egypt was within its rights,' he told Dulles, 'and until its operation of the Canal proves incompetent, there is nothing to do.'
"Eisenhower immediately wrote [British] Prime Minister Anthony Eden to emphasise 'the unwisdom even of contemplating the use of military force at the moment.' When Britain and France persisted with plans to intervene, Dulles, the Joint Chiefs, and the congressional leadership, particularly Lyndon Johnson, argued that America's allies deserved moral and economic support. Eisenhower rejected the argument. When Dulles suggested an international consortium to operate the canal, Eisenhower would have no part of it. 'How would we like an international consortium running the Panama Canal?' asked the president. Admiral Arleigh Burke said the Joint Chiefs agreed that 'Nasser must be broken.' Eisenhower disagreed. 'Nasser embodies the emotional demands of the people of the area for independence and for 'slapping the White Man down'.' Unless we were careful, said the president, Muslim solidarity could 'array the world from Dakar to the Philippine Islands against us.'
"Eisenhower went back to working seven days a week. He had temporarily averted war over Suez, the British and French stood down... Except for intensified cross-border skirmishing, the Middle East remained calm, and Eden took pains to assure Ike that Great Britain preferred a negotiated settlement concerning Suez. In reality, Britain, France, and Israel were organizing to retake the canal by force. On October 24, 1956, at Sevres, outside Paris, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion signed a secret protocol with Britain and France putting the plan into motion. Israeli troops would invade the Sinai Peninsula on October 29 and advance toward the Suez Canal. Britain and France would issue an ultimatum to Israel and Egypt to cease hostilities and accept Anglo-French occupation of the Canal Zone. Egypt presumably would refuse, at which point Britain and France would launch their own invasion of Suez. With American voters going to the polls on November 6, planners in London, Paris, and Tel Aviv assumed the American government could not respond until after the seizure of the canal was a fait accompli.
"When the Israelis struck on October 29, Eisenhower was campaigning in Richmond, Virginia. Ike felt he had been betrayed by Eden and was furious. To compound the problem, American intelligence had failed to anticipate the Israeli attack. The president flew back to Washington and angrily ordered Dulles to fire off a message to Tel Aviv. 'Foster, you tell them, Goddamnit, that we're going to apply sanctions, we're going to the United Nations, we're going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing.' At a hastily convened meeting in the Oval Office, Ike reminded those present that the 1950 Tripartite Declaration pledged the signatories to 'support any victim of aggression in the Middle East.' When Dulles suggested that the British and French believed we had to support them, Ike hit the ceiling. 'What would they think if we were to go in to aid Egypt to fulfill our pledge?' he asked angrily. 'Nothing justifies double-crossing us. I don't care whether I'm re-elected or not. We must make good on our word, otherwise we are a nation without honor.'
"A good night's sleep did nothing to improve Ike's temper. 'The British and French do not have adequate cause for war,' he told Dulles and Sherman Adams the next morning. 'Egyptian action in nationalizing the Canal is not enough to justify this.' At Eisenhower's direction, Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a motion in the UN Security Council calling for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces. When the vote was taken that afternoon, Britain and France cast vetoes - the first in the history of the United Nations. A follow-on Soviet motion to the same effect was also vetoed. The British and French vetoes upset Ike. Later that afternoon, when Defense Mobilization Director Arthur Flemming warned Eisenhower that the Israeli attack imperiled Western Europe's oil supply, the president barked back that 'those who began this operation should be left to work out their own oil problems - to boil in their own oil.' The United States would not provide assistance. Lodge was instructed to appeal the cease-fire resolution to the UN General Assembly - a procedure that had not been used since the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 - and Treasury Secretary George Humphrey was told to look at the financial implications of the invasion for Britain and France. 'This cost of war was not irrelevant,' said Eisenhower.
"On October 30, as planned, Britain and France issued ultimatums to Egypt and Israel to stop fighting, withdraw from the canal, and permit Anglo-French occupation of the Canal Zone to ensure canal traffic would not be interrupted. If they did not, Britain and France would take the canal by force. Dulles told Eisenhower the ultimatums were 'about as crude and brutal as anything he had ever seen.' The Israelis announced their readiness to comply, the Egyptians ignored the ultimatums, and 12 hours later British and French planes commenced attacks on targets in Cairo, Port Said, and Alexandria. The New York Times reported sightings of 'the largest naval concentration seen in the eastern Mediterranean since World War II.' Nasser responded by sinking a 350-foot freighter loaded with cement at the narrowest point of the canal, effectively blocking transit...
"Later that afternoon, at Eisenhower's direction, Dulles presented the United States' cease-fire resolution to the UN General Assembly. Dulles also issued a sharply worded statement pertaining to sanctions against Israel if the fighting continued. At the same time, Eisenhower moved quietly to tighten the screws on Britain and France. 'You are not going to get a cease-fire by saying everybody please stop,' he told Dulles. The administration pigeonholed plans to supply Western Europe with oil in the event supplies from the Middle East were cut off, and the Treasury Department moved to reduce British access to dollar amounts in the United States. The pound stirling was already under siege on world markets, and Eisenhower wanted nothing done to ease the pressure. Also on November 1, Syrian Army engineers destroyed 3 pumping stations of the pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean. Those pipelines had a capacity of 500,000 barrels a day. With the pipelines shut down, the Suez Canal blocked, and the United States not shipping any oil, Europe's supply of petroleum was dwindling rapidly.
"That evening Eisenhower spoke to a Republican rally in Philadelphia's Convention Hall - his final speech of the campaign. 'We cannot and will not condone armed aggression - no matter who the attacker, and no matter who the victim. We cannot - in the world, any more than in our own nation - subscribe to one law for the weak, another law for the strong; one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us.' Eisenhower did not mention Britain or France by name, and did not refer to the resolution pending in the General Assembly, but the thrust of his remarks was clear. 'We believe humanity must cease preying upon itself. We believe that the power of modern weapons makes war not only perilous - but preposterous - and the only way to win World War III is to prevent it.'...
"The presidential party arrived back in Washington shortly after midnight. Four hours later Dulles reported from New York that the General Assembly had approved the US cease-fire resolution 64-5, with only Australia and New Zealand joining Britain, France and Israel voting against...
"By the weekend, Israeli troops had taken most of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip; the aerial bombardment of Egyptian targets continued, but British and French forces had yet to come assure...
"On Monday, November 5, the British and French armada finally arrived off the Egyptian coast: some 200 ships including 5 aircraft carriers, 6 battleships, a dozen cruisers, and an assortment of lighter craft. What followed was a textbook World War II amphibious landing. Paratroopers jumped before dawn; commandos went ashore at first light, and by noon most of Port Said, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, was in the hands of British and French forces.... With the British and French ashore, the issue was now a military problem, and Eisenhower instinctively assumed command. 'If we could have for the next 2 or 3 days a period of relative calm while your troops did nothing but land,' he told Eden, 'we might much more swiftly develop a solution that would be acceptable to both sides and to the world.'
"Ike's solution unfolded quickly. At 10 am the markets in New York opened and the pound came under unprecedented pressure. In 1956, currency exchange rates were fixed, and the British pound was pegged at $2.78. To maintain its value, the British government was forced to liquidate much of its gold and dollar reserves. That afternoon Deputy Prime Minister Rab Butler placed an urgent call to his friend George Humphrey and pleaded for a loan. Humphrey had anticipated the call and was ready with an offer: a $1.5 billion loan with the interest payments deferred. It was available, said Humphrey, as soon as the British ceased firing and withdrew their troops from Suez. Meanwhile in Britain motorists queued at petrol stations and tens of thousands of demonstrators crammed into Trafalgar Square to protest the Suez policy of the Eden government. The British press, without exception, blasted what The Manchester Guardian called 'Eden's war'...
"Tuesday, November 6, 1956, was election day... At 12.30 Washington time, Eden announced Great Britain was ready to accept a cease-fire.
"American financial pressure had done the trick. On Tuesday morning the British government had requested the International Monetary Fund to make available the dollar funds the British had on deposit. The US Treasury Department, as was its prerogative under IMF rules, blocked the transfer. At that point, Harold Macmillan, who was now chancellor of the exchequer, told an emergency meeting of the British cabinet that he could 'not any more be responsible for Her Majesty's exchequer' unless a cease-fire was ordered. Eden had no choice.
"When he learned of the decision of the British cabinet, Eisenhower placed an immediate call to Eden. 'Anthony,' said Ike, 'I can't tell you how pleased we are that you found it possible to accept the cease-fire.' 'We are going to cease firing tonight,' Eden replied. 'Without conditions?' asked the president. 'We cease firing tonight at midnight unless attacked.' Eisenhower pressed Eden to withdraw quickly. Eden was evasive. Perhaps the British would remain as part of the peacekeeping force, or to help clear the canal. Eisenhower - who still held the trump hand - rejected the idea. 'I would like to see none of the great nations in it,' he replied. 'I am afraid the Red boy [ie the Soviet Union] is going to demand the lion's share. I would rather make it no troops from the big five' - a reference to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
"When Eden continued to evade a commitment, Eisenhower got tough. 'If you don't get out of Port Said tomorrow, I'll cause a run on the pound and drive it down to zero,' said Ike. Eden capitulated. France followed suit. Israel did not agree to withdraw until the following day, and did not complete the movement until January 1957, after receiving assurance of its right of free passage through the Gulf of Aqaba." (pp 694-704)
Unfortunately, that final sentence is far too sketchy. It's almost as though, with Eisenhower's bringing Britain and France to heel, the biographer has run out of interest in the subject, even to the point of muffing his dates. In reality, forcing Israel to disgorge the Gaza Strip and the Sinai proved far harder than forcing Britain and France out of Egypt proper. My next post, therefore, will explore this final phase of the operation.
This egregious omission notwithstanding, Smith correctly notes the significance of Eisenhower's achievement:
"Never in the postwar era was American prestige higher than in the aftermath of Suez. Small nations could scarcely believe the United States would support Egypt, a Third World country, in a fight against two of America's oldest allies, or that it would come to the aid of a Muslim state resisting Israeli aggression." (p 705)
Nor, incidentally, did any of this tell against Ike in the 1956 election, which he won, says Smith, with "the largest presidential majority since FDR routed Alf Landon in 1936."
Continued next post...