Book Review of “Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace” by Alex Von Tunzelmann

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A number of crises since 1945 have propelled the world to the brink of another global war, which is why it is so critical for a powerful nation like the United States to be led by someone of sound judgment and temperament.  One of those pivotal moments occurred on October 29, 1956, when Great Britain, France, and Israel all invaded Egypt in a concerted effort to reclaim the Suez Canal.  Simultaneously, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, both complicating the developing crisis and deflecting international attention.  Alex Von Tunzelman’s Blood and Sand is a gripping retelling of those events, which took place during the closing days of an American presidential election.

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, November 5, 1956.

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, November 5, 1956.

Gamal Abdel Nasser had become the president of Egypt after deposing the pro-British leadership in 1952.  He compounded the offense in Western eyes by nationalizing the British- and French-controlled Suez Canal in July of 1956 in retaliation for the failure of Britain or the United States to finance his pet project, the Aswan Dam.

At the time, Britain was the largest single shareholder in the Suez Canal Company, one of Britain’s last remaining colonial possessions.  Some 1.5 million barrels of oil a day went through the canal, of which 1.2 million were destined for Western Europe.  According to the author, the British Treasury estimated the value of its assets in the Canal Zone to be 500 million pounds.  But even aside from the profits, Britain needed the oil.  In addition, though not measurable in dollars or barrels, Britain did not want to lose “its divinely and racially ordained place at the top of the world.”

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When Nassar nationalized the Suez Canal Company, all of that was threatened.  British Prime Minister Anthony Eden treated the nationalization as a direct affront to British prestige and became so incensed that (according to Von Tunzelmann ) he ordered Nasser’s assassination.

But, as the BBC History Magazine reported:

“. . . for as much as the operation [seizing the canal from Egypt] was a success in military terms, it was a disaster politically. World opinion roundly condemned the three nations for their aggression and lack of respect for Egyptian sovereignty. Fury and outrage erupted across the Islamic world at Britain’s perceived neo-colonial behaviour.  . . . “

The United States was also opposed to the violation of Egyptian sovereignty.  Both Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, were somewhat incapacitated with health issues.  They were, however, able to exert not only moral and financial suasion, but also the threat of potential military force against the British, French, and Israelis.  When Eisenhower was warned by politicos that checking the Israeli advance might cost him New York’s electoral college votes in the coming election, Eisenhower said he would rather be right than president.  

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden (left), and President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956, (right).

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden (left), and President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956, (right).

To make matters infinitely more complicated, as Von Tunzelmann reported, “…the high point of the Suez crisis – From October 22 to November 6, 1956 – would coincide precisely with the biggest rebellion yet against Soviet power, which took place in Hungary from October 23 to November 4.”  The people of Hungary spontaneously revolted against the incompetent rule of their government, which was pretty much a puppet of the Soviet Union.  At first, the Russians tried to placate the Hungarians by installing a new set of puppets, but when that failed to quell the unrest, Khrushchev ordered a full scale invasion.  The Hungarian rebels fought bravely, but they had only small arms against tanks.

Russian tanks enter Budapest

Russian tanks enter Budapest

The author cogently summarizes the broader meaning of the crisis for the various players:

“The crisis would be intensely emotional for the nations involved.  For Hungary and Egypt, it would be about freedom.  For Israel it would be about survival.  For France, it would be about saving territory it considered integral to the republic.  For the Soviet Union, it would be about resistance to Western colonialism as well as reasserting and extending its own influence.  For the United States, it would be about decency and the trustworthiness of its allies.  And for Britain, as the then leader of the House of Commons Rab Butler admitted in his memoirs, it would be about the ‘illiberal resentment at the loss of Empire, the rise of coloured nationalism the transfer of world leadership to the United States.’”

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All of these developments ratcheted up tensions among the major Cold War players, a dangerous situation given that the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Britain all held nuclear weapons.  The Americans felt powerless to aid the Hungarians militarily without starting a nuclear war.

Von Tunzelmann’s book gives a nearly hour by hour account of the actions at the highest levels of the Soviet, American, British, French, and Egyptian governments.  In the author’s account, Anthony Eden appears nearly unhinged and exceedingly unwise; Khrushchev is volatile; the Israelis are aggressive and unscrupulous; and Nasser is simply over his head.  Eisenhower is something of a hero in this tale:  his prudence and calm manage to avoid a worldwide catastrophe even though he was unable to help the Hungarians other than by leading the condemnation of the Soviets in the United Nations.

Positive Outcome:  Presidents Eisenhower and Nasser meeting in New York, 1960

Positive Outcome: Presidents Eisenhower and Nasser meeting in New York, 1960

Von Tunzelmann points out that the Cold War put the United States in an awkward position in seeking influence in the third world against the Communist powers.  Prior to the Suez Crisis, the United States had struggled to maintain a balance in world affairs in remaining allied to the French and British colonial powers while preaching liberal democracy and anti-colonialism to the rest of the world.  When push came to shove, Eisenhower upheld American ideals even though he had to chastise his closest allies and risk the wrath of Israeli’s supporters in the American electorate.  

Evaluation:  This is an even-handed, well-written account of a perilous time.  Perhaps the best lesson to come out of this history is how fortunate the world was to have an American leader who was experienced in battle, adept politically, and calm under pressure.

Rating:  4/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

June 5, 1762 – Birth of Bushrod Washington, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Bushrod Washington, born on this day in history, was the son of John Augustine Washington, who was George Washington’s brother.

Bushrod Washington graduated from the College of William & Mary in 1778 and along with John Marshall studied law under George Wythe. (Wythe also taught and was a mentor to Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and other men who became American leaders.)

Bushrod Washington, engraving, 1891,  Library of Congress

Bushrod Washington, engraving, 1891,
Library of Congress

Washington practiced law from 1784 to 1798, also serving in the Virginia House of Delegates. On September 29, 1798, President John Adams appointed Washington to the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court vacated by James Wilson after John Marshall had declined the appointment. Washington was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 20, 1798, and became an associate justice on February 4, 1799, at the age of 36, continuing until his death in 1829.

Serving for thirty-one years, the Federalist Washington tended to support the opinions of Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story. Washington favored increasing the powers of the federal government, protecting private property rights and encouraging economic development. He voted so consistently with the great Chief Justice that they were considered conjoined “as a single judge.” He only voted against Marshall on three occasions. 

Bushrod Washington

Bushrod Washington


 
As George Washington’s favorite nephew, Bushrod inherited Mount Vernon after Martha Washington’s death, and became executor of his uncle’s estate, including President Washington’s public and private papers. 

When Bushrod and his wife moved to Mount Vernon, he brought his slaves, but even so was unable to support the upkeep of the plantation’s mansion on the proceeds from the property and his Supreme Court salary. He sold many of his slaves to gain working capital to support the main house and property. (Somewhat in keeping with the tendency of early Americans to say one thing and do another, Washington was among the founders of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which promoted repatriation to Africa of blacks.)

Bushrod died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 26, 1829, while riding circuit. His wife died two days later while transporting his body for burial. They were both interred at Mount Vernon.

Book Review of “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See,” by Bruce Chadwick

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Chadwick argues that at the start of the Civil War in 1861, Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and William Tecumseh Sherman “were in place because of events that occurred three years earlier, in 1858…” Well, you’ve gotta have a gimmick, to borrow a line from the musical Gypsy, in order to write a new book on the Civil War. It’s not a bad book, nor is it a great book, but it does provide a different twist on the war’s causation by discussing the positions of these five men in 1858, as well as those of three others: President James Buchanan, Senator Stephen Douglas, and activist abolitionist John Brown. (You may ask, what about Ulysses S. Grant? Well yes, his name is in the title, but he really doesn’t put in much of an appearance. And these actors failing to see the war coming? Not. Someone should have reworked the title.)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Some of Chadwick’s mini-portraits contain surprising observations. Jefferson Davis, for example, was so [comparatively] kind to his slaves that he bought them “designer” clothes, had them tutored, and even ate with them. And yet, he was the most vociferous defender of slavery in the Senate. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, couldn’t stand the thought that his slaves might actually take breaks or be distracted in any way from constant labor, all the while professing to be *against* the institution of slavery.

President Buchanan was “a spectacular failure” who ignored the slavery controversy, and spent most of his political capital trying to defeat a fellow-party member, Stephen Douglas, against whom he held a personal vendetta. In fact, claims Chadwick, if it weren’t for Buchanan’s efforts against Douglas (which involved manipulating patronage, favors, making threats, and outright campaigning), Lincoln might never have been able to win the election.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

William Seward, a brilliant man who added much-needed experience to Lincoln’s administration, thought that *he* would win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. He was so sure of it, he left for Europe for an eight-month tour! Lincoln’s supporters, meanwhile, averred that Lincoln was the most electable candidate, since Seward’s stand against slavery was more radical than Lincoln’s. Seward had spoken out provocatively in October of 1858 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, declaiming:

“The slave system is not only intolerable, unjust, and inhuman towards the laborer, whom, only because he is a laborer, it loads down with chains and converts into merchandise, but is scarcely less severe upon the freedman, to whom, only because he is a laborer from necessity, it denies facilities for employment, and whom it expels from the community because it cannot enslave and convert him into merchandise also.”

And then, to the rage of Southerners, Seward added, “It [slavery] is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free labor nation.”

William H. Seward

William H. Seward

The framework in which these biographies are presented is made up of several seminal occurrences in 1858 that ramped up the conflict between pro- and anti- slavery forces. One was the fight over the adoption of a constitution for the newly proposed state of Kansas: was it to be a slave state or a free state? A second was the election battle for senator from the state of Illinois, which resulted in seven spectacular debates between Lincoln and Douglas. And a third was a series of “rescues” of slaves by abolitionists, including a group of men in Oberlin, and a foray by John Brown and his followers.

These events and the men that played so large a role in them certainly helped precipitate the disastrous collision that left over 630,000 dead by 1865. If, like me, you enjoy reading all you can on that remarkable era in our history, this book provides an interesting set of lenses from which to view its chief protagonists.

Published by Sourcebooks, 2008

June 1, 1944 – Crossword Puzzle Scare

On this day in history, five days before D-Day in World War II, there was a security scare when, for the fifth time in a month, one of the D-Day code names appeared as a crossword clue in the the London Daily Telegraph – in this case “Neptune”, the code for the naval assault crossing. When questioned by MI-5 agents, the Surrey school master who composed the puzzles months before said that his students suggested words for the crosswords.

Some of his other clues in puzzles preceding the invasion included Omaha (the landing beach, in a puzzle dated May 22), Overlord (overall code name for the invasion, in a puzzle dated May 27), and Mulberry (for floating harbor, in a puzzle dated May 30).

The puzzle creator, Leonard Dawe, was found not guilty of any charges that the agents could try to pin on him and lived out the rest of the war. He died in January, 1963 at the age of seventy-three.

In 1984 Ronald French, a schoolboy of 14 in 1944 and a former pupil of the crossword creator, revealed that he was the one who suggested the words to the schoolmaster. French had picked up the terms while hanging around Canadian and American soldiers camped close by the school, awaiting the invasion.

D-day puzzle

May 30, 1963 – Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s Memorial Day Speech at Gettysburg

On this day in history Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to speak on the occasion of a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. (The actual battle was fought in July, but the ceremony was timed to coincide with Memorial Day.)

a previous speaker...

a previous speaker…

The speech, said to be a response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s majestic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is worth quoting in full:

“On this hallowed ground, heroic deeds were performed and eloquent words were spoken a century ago.

We, the living, have not forgotten–and the world will never forget–the deeds or the words of Gettysburg. We honor them now as we join on this Memorial Day of 1963 in a prayer for permanent peace of the world and fulfillment of our hopes for universal freedom and justice.

We are called to honor our own words of reverent prayer with resolution in the deeds we must perform to preserve peace and the hope of freedom.

We keep a vigil of peace around the world.

Until the world knows no aggressors, until the arms of tyranny have been laid down, until freedom has risen up in every land, we shall maintain our vigil to make sure our sons who died on foreign fields shall not have died in vain.

As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too–a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people–so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain.

One hundred years ago, the slave was freed.

One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.

The Negro today asks justice.

We do not answer him–we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil–when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.”

It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans–white and Negro together–must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.

Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.

To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough. But to fail to ask of him–and of all Americans–perseverance within the processes of a free and responsible society would be to fail to ask what the national interest requires of all its citizens.

The law cannot save those who deny it but neither can the law serve any who do not use it. The history of injustice and inequality is a history of disuse of the law. Law has not failed–and is not failing. We as a nation have failed ourselves by not trusting the law and by not using the law to gain sooner the ends of justice which law alone serves.

If the white over-estimates what he has done for the Negro without the law, the Negro may under-estimate what he is doing and can do for himself with the law.

If it is empty to ask Negro or white for patience, it is not empty–it is merely honest–to ask perseverance. Men may build barricades–and others may hurl themselves against those barricades–but what would happen at the barricades would yield no answers. The answers will only be wrought by our perseverance together. It is deceit to promise more as it would be cowardice to demand less.

In this hour, it is not our respective races which are at stake–it is our nation. Let those who care for their country come forward, North and South, white and Negro, to lead the way through this moment of challenge and decision.

The Negro says, “Now.” Others say, “Never.” The voice of responsible Americans–the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here–their voices say, “Together.” There is no other way.

Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.”

You can read more about the speech here.

Vice President Lyndon B.Johnson in Wilmington, Del., in 1963, the year of his profound Memorial Day speech.

Vice President Lyndon B.Johnson in Wilmington, Del., in 1963, the year of his profound Memorial Day speech.

May 28, 1963 – Lunch Counter Sit-In in Jackson, Mississippi

On this day in history, a small group of students and faculty from Tougaloo College, a private and historically black institution in north Jackson, drove downtown and sat at the lunch counter at the five-and-dime store. The group at first consisted of two African American women and one African American man. They were later joined five other Tougaloo students and professors, white and black.

The practice of segregated seating at Woolworth’s lunch counters was part of the store’s stated official policy of following “local custom” (i.e. segregated seating in the South). The attempt to integrate dining places was part of a months-long boycott by blacks of white-owned businesses.

A May 28, 1963, sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., where whites poured sugar, ketchup and mustard over the heads of the demonstrators. (Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News via AP file)

A May 28, 1963, sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., where whites poured sugar, ketchup and mustard over the heads of the demonstrators. (Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News via AP file)

Although the group sat peacefully, a white mob arrived, spitting, shouting obscenities at the protestors, dousing the group with condiments and hot coffee, and beating some of them. One student was knocked unconscious. One of the white Tougaloo students who participated in the sit-in recalled the “ugly roar” of the crowd, and told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview:

“Basically, it just seemed that it was never going to end.”

In an article commemorating the event fifty years later, Bill Minor, then a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who had been tipped off about the sit-in by Medgar Evers, watched the scene unfold, and recalled:

“The people working behind the counter at Woolworth’s were afraid to serve anybody,” Minor says. “They just let them sit there. They wouldn’t serve them. That’s what they were ordered to do–not serve any blacks.”

The police at first stood by idly, but eventually moved in and broke up the attacks by whites. Meanwhile, the uninjured protestors continued to sit at the counter until the manager of the store closed it down. But there was a crowd outside, too, and no police officer would escort them out. The (white) President of Tougaloo College, Dr. Adam Daniel Beittel, arriving after he heard what was going on, led the students out of Woolworth’s.

Pictures from the event turned a local protest into a mass movement against segregation in Jackson.

That night, a huge meeting of people gathered to organize more demonstrations, with civil rights leader Medgar Evers addressing the crowd. Two weeks later, Evers, a World War II veteran, was shot in the back by local Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith and died in his driveway three weeks later.

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers

While the sit-in was just one of many held across the South, Jackson’s occurred more than three years after a more famous one in Greensboro, N.C.

May 26, 1637 – Beginning of Massacres of the Pequot Tribes by the Puritans

As summarized on the website of The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut:

In 1633 the English Puritan settlements at Plimoth [sic] and Massachusetts Bay Colonies had begun expanding into the rich Connecticut River Valley to accommodate the steady stream of new emigrants from England. Other than the hardship of the journey and the difficulty of building homes in what the Puritans consider a wilderness, only one major obstacle threatened the security of the expanding settlements: the Pequots.”

Tribal territories of Southern New England tribes about 1600

Tribal territories of Southern New England tribes about 1600

The Pequot tribe had already been weakened by smallpox brought by the English settlers, and by internecine conflict between those who were pro-English and those who were pro-Dutch. Matters were made much worse when the Pequots killed a dishonest trader, John Oldham, in July of 1636. The settlers demanded retribution. Massachusetts raised a military force under the command of John Endicott. This troop landed on Block Island, killed 14 natives and burned the village and crops. They then moved on to Saybrook and burned that village as well.

And on this day in history, May 26, 1637, a military force under John Mason and John Underhill attacked the Pequot settlement near New Haven, Connecticut, destroying the village, consisting mostly of women, children, and the elderly, and killing over 500. The only Pequot survivors were warriors who had been with their leader Sassacus in a raiding party outside the village. Sassacus and many of his followers were surrounded in a swamp near a Mattabesic village called Sasqua and nearly 180 warriors were killed. Sassacus was eventually killed by the Mohawk, who sent his scalp to the English as a symbol of friendship. Surviving captives were sold in the West Indies as slaves. The few Pequots who were able to escape the English, fled to surrounding Indian tribes and were assimilated. The Pequot nation was destroyed.

A 19th-century engraving depicting the Pequot War

A 19th-century engraving depicting the Pequot War

Captain John Mason later wrote that they wouldn’t have killed so many Pequots if they could have served as “servants” but “they could not endure that Yoke.” Thus did the Lord, Mason writes, “scatter his Enemies with his strong Arm!:

Let the whole Earth be filled with his Glory! Thus the LORD was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance.”

You can read the entire text of Mason’s joyous account of the Pequot massacres here.