For my blog post today on Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I’ll quote something that Stephen Ambrose says on page 532. The topic is the famous world leaders Nixon knew.
“Sometimes, these men said things to Nixon they never said to anyone else. Ike, according to Nixon, felt that ‘the U.S. restraint of Britain, France, and Israel when they were trying to protect their interest [in 1956] was a tragic mistake.’ Nixon felt Eisenhower’s actions were a mistake, and often said so, but Ike did not—-or at least, not to anyone other than Nixon. To this author, and many other interviewers and friends, Ike vehemently defended his policy.”
Ambrose’s sarcasm is an enjoyable aspect of his Nixon trilogy. Of course, there are plenty of writers who are sarcastic, yet I don’t enjoy reading them as much as I do Ambrose. The reason is that Ambrose is not just sarcastic, but he also tries to be fair and balanced in his depiction of Richard Nixon.
In that passage from page 532, Ambrose is quoting what Nixon said in The Real War. Ambrose cites page 79 of The Real War, but, in my edition of The Real War, the passage that Ambrose quotes is on page 86. Nixon essentially argues that it was disastrous for the U.S. to have pressured Britain, France, and Israel to back off from Egypt after Egyptian President Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, which Nixon says was the source of a lot of trade and oil for Europe. According to Nixon, the reasons that the U.S. pressured those three countries to back off from Egypt were that the U.S. was condemning the Soviet Union for suppressing a revolution in Hungary (implying perhaps that the U.S. didn’t want to look hypocritical by supporting an invasion), President Dwight Eisenhower was running for re-election touting “peace and prosperity”, and “the anticolonial movement [was] gathering force.” But our policy had disastrous consequences, according to Nixon. Britain and France became less willing to play a significant role in the Middle East and other countries. Nasser of Egypt looked at the U.S. with contempt and became more hostile towards Israel, and also to a number of Arab countries. And “radical workers set fire to Kuwait’s wells and pipelines.” Nixon states that “Years later Eisenhower was to reflect that the U.S. restraint of Britain, France, and Israel when they were trying to protect their interests in Suez was a tragic mistake.”
I don’t want to get into a major research project about why Eisenhower pursued the policy that he did with the Suez Canal, but, after reading here and here, it seems to me that there were a variety of reasons: Britain’s inefficiency in terms of the attack, Egypt’s legal claim to the Suez, Eisenhower’s desire for the conflict to be worked out in the United Nations, Eisenhower’s anti-colonialism, and Eisenhower’s fear that the aggressive move by Britain and France would rally more and more support for Nasser in the Arab world.
Why did Nixon think that Eisenhower later regretted his policy on the Suez Canal, when Eisenhower himself defended that policy? Was Nixon lying? I have my doubts. Was Eisenhower’s stance on the Suez Canal complex? Perhaps. Nixon said that Eisenhower asked him “Why couldn’t the British and French have done it more quickly?” (see here). Eisenhower may have had problems with the inefficiency with which the British and the French acted, but I don’t think one should disregard the other problems that he had as well with their invasion: its colonialist air, how it could rally the Arab world around Nasser, etc.
I think that what we see here is that memory can be a tricky thing. People have remembered me saying things that I did not say. I have remembered them saying things that they don’t remember saying. They remember saying things to me that I don’t remember. Personally, I believe that my memory is quite good, but it does seem to me to be the case that people’s memories are filtered through certain narratives that they hold. In my opinion, Nixon believed that he was right about the Suez Canal, and so he “remembered” Eisenhower coming around to that same position.