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 old.
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 seemed paralyzed.
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 oath?