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David Nichols Discusses 1956 at Third-Annual Eisenhower Symposium

By Mike Unger

Phpoto: Author David Nichols speaks at the third-annual Eisenhower Symposium.

Author David Nichols speaks at the third-annual Eisenhower Symposium. (Photo Jeff Watts)

David Nichols discussed his new book, Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis—Suez and the Brink of War, during American University’s third-annual Eisenhower Symposium February 16 at the School of International Service.

“All of us have accused Dave of organizing the events in Egypt to promote his book,” joked SIS dean Lou Goodman, who opened the event. “When you read it, I think you’ll find many [themes] that are profoundly interesting today.”

Nichols, a former professor and academic dean of Southwestern College, called the Suez incident “the most dangerous foreign crisis of the Eisenhower years.”

In 1955, President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack that landed him in the hospital for six weeks. Despite his failing health, in February 1956 he announced plans to run for a second term.

“Eisenhower believed no one was better equipped than he was to prevent a nuclear holocaust,” Nichols said.

In June 1956 the president suffered a serious intestinal blockage, and again was out of commission for weeks. It was then, in July 1956, that Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, setting off a chain of events that led nations to the brink of another world war.

“Eisenhower called the Suez the most important waterway in the world,” Nichols said. Two-thirds of the oil used in Western Europe flowed through the canal.

“But Eisenhower was adamant that war could not take place.”

When the British, French, and Israelis attacked Egypt, Eisenhower refused to join the traditional U.S. allies.

“Eisenhower stated the United States cannot and will not condone armed aggression no matter who the attacker and no matter who the victim,” Nichols said. “He thought the power of modern weapons was preposterous, and the only way to win World War III was to prevent it.”

While this drama unfolded abroad, at home Eisenhower was in the middle of a re-election campaign and continued to battle his health. Due partly to the president’s diplomatic efforts and maneuvers, fighting ceased at 7 p.m. eastern time on election night, November 6, 1956.

It was a fascinating time, one Nichols clearly delighted in delving into.

Following Nichols’s talk, former Washington Post foreign correspondent David Ottaway and Stephen Randolph, associate dean for faculty and curriculum at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, offered critiques and additional comments about the book.

“You give him 100 percent on his handling of [the Suez] crisis—I would too,” Ottaway told Nichols. “But when you look at his performance [in the Middle East] after, I don’t think he did a very good job.”

Of course, navigating the Middle East has been a task no president has truly mastered since. But as Randolph pointed out, the events of 1956 were “a culminating point to the rise of America to global superpower status.”

“We watched [Eisenhower] dominating the policy-making process,” he said. “He shows a visceral understanding of how to grasp the instruments of power.”

The symposium is an annual scholarly event which commemorates Eisenhower, the 34th president and one of the founders of AU’s School of International Service. This year it was cosponsored by the School of Public Affairs’ Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, and the Eisenhower Institute.

Following the discussion, a Yusuf Karsh portrait of Eisenhower was unveiled in the SIS Dean’s Office, where Goodman no doubt will keep a copy of Nichols’s book handy.

“I remember living through it,” Goodman said of the extraordinary 1956 events. “I read the book, and I was still nervous.”