November `56: Defining Moment
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
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
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
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
Andau, through which 70,000 Hungarians
freedom, was dynamited by the Soviets. The border
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
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
It was a defining moment for America. What Ike—who
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
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
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
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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