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 re-elected 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 pre-emptive 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.