November 1956, 50 years ago, was a month the drama
of which many of us can yet recall. It was a defining moment of the Cold War.
This was the month Eisenhower was reelected in a landslide and in which he
laid down, in simultaneous crises, the new ground rules of the Cold War, both
to our NATO allies and Soviet adversaries.
On Oct. 29, in a strategic thrust of which Ike had not been informed, Israel
launched a preemptive strike on Egypt, seizing the Sinai. Israel then called
on Britain and France to come in and separate the armies and occupy the Canal
that Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser had nationalized.
British and French troops moved on Suez. Nasser railed against Western aggression,
and Nikita Khrushchev rattled his rockets and threatened to rain them down on
London. "I know Ike. He will lie
doggo," Harold Macmillan had assured British Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
Like many Brits, Macmillan had misread his man.
An angry Ike ordered the French and British out of Suez, threatened to
sink the pound if the Brits did not depart and told David Ben-Gurion to get
his troops off the Sinai or face U.S. sanctions.
Ben-Gurion went, Eden's government fell, and, so legend goes, his successor
Macmillan telegraphed Ike: "Over to You!" Macmillan meant that Britain's responsibility
and role in securing the Middle East would now have to be assumed by the United
States. For, without Suez, the Brits could no longer secure it.
At the time, many felt Ike should have let the Brits take down Nasser. But
Eisenhower was not only enraged at not being informed of the operation, he had
come to believe British imperialism was finished, that Arab nationalism was
here to stay, that the Suez Canal was now irretrievable, and that we had to
deal with the new Arab world rather than attempt futilely to reconstruct the
Just days before the Suez crisis, however, Hungarian students in Budapest had
risen up against the regime. When some were shot by Hungarian security police,
a people's revolution erupted that overthrew the Soviet puppet, disbanded the
security police, and took Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact. For days, the Kremlin
But with the world suddenly distracted by Suez, Khrushchev ordered hundreds
of tanks and thousands of troops into Hungary. In a bloodbath that lasted for
a week after Nov. 3, the Hungarian Revolution was drowned, 200,000 fled to Austria,
and Moscow imposed yet another communist Quisling on Budapest.
America did nothing. Ike sent Vice President Nixon to meet the fleeing
Hungarians, some of whom cursed us for abandoning them. The Bridge at Andau,
through which 70,000 Hungarians fled to freedom, was dynamited by the Soviets.
The border was sealed.
If Americans were ambivalent about the Israeli-British-French invasion
of Egypt, they identified with the Hungarians. For days after the uprising,
the Hungarians were the toast of the West, freedom fighters who had stood up
to Soviet tanks and liberated their country from communist tyranny. Seeing film
of the Hungarian youth fighting the Russian tanks with rocks and Molotov cocktails,
many Americans felt a deep sense of shame that we had not come to their aid.
The Eisenhower Republicans who had taken power in 1952 had spoken boldly
of a "rollback" of the Soviet Empire. Nixon had said of Adlai Stevenson, "Adlai
has a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."
But when the test had come in Budapest, America had stood by, watching
impotently the massacre of thousands of freedom fighters and the deportation
unto death of thousands more.
It was a defining moment for America. What Ike – who had held up U.S.
armies to let Zhukov's Red Army take Berlin, because he did not want American
troops dying taking German cities that the U.S. government had ceded to Stalinist
occupation – was saying was this:
We admire Hungarian heroism, but we cannot risk war with a nuclear-armed
Soviet Union to save a nation FDR ceded to Stalin at Yalta, a nation whose independence
is not vital to the United States.
Ike's decision seemed to violate the command of the heart that we should
send an army to save the Hungarians. Yet it was a decision rooted in the national
interest, as Ike understood it. He would not risk our security for any other
country that was not vital to our security.
To those of us then of the same age as the Hungarian students, the heroism
of Budapest in 1956 was unforgettable. And what we felt as the Russian tanks
crushed them was shame. They had risked their lives in the fight against communist
tyranny, but we were not willing to do the same.
But was Ike wrong about Suez and Hungary? Was Ike wrong to invite the "Butcher
of Budapest" to the United States, three years later? Or was he doing what was
best for the country to the freedom and security of which he had sworn a lifetime
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