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Anthony Eden

Prime Minister 1955 - 57

Anthony Eden's early career was that of a very popular and hard working politician. After Eton, Christ Church College, Oxford, and service in the First World War, entry to Parliament as MP for Warwick and Leamington came in 1923. Promotion followed quickly. By 1926 Eden was parliamentary private secretary to Austen Chamberlain at the Foreign Office. Other important jobs at the Foreign Office led to the position of foreign secretary in 1935. It was during this first period as foreign secretary that Eden experienced events that marked him for the rest of his career. In March 1936, soon after Eden took over as foreign secretary, Hitler ordered German troops into the Rhineland. This was done in direct contravention of the Versailles treaty concluded at the end of the First World War. Eden was regarded as a gifted diplomat, and his instinct had always been to try and find a negotiated settlement to international disputes. But in the light of World War Two Eden would deeply regret in later years his efforts to negotiate with Hitler. He would feel that failure to make a show of force over German occupation of the Rhineland was his responsibility. And it was this failure which encouraged Hitler to eventually invade Europe. Whether this is true of course is very debatable. The fact is there was no general desire to oppose Hitler in the late 1930s. Memories of the First World War were still fresh in people's minds, and the vast majority of people were willing to do almost anything to avoid another war. As late as September 1938 a Mass Observation study - an early form of opinion poll - showed that 70% of those questioned were in favour of trying to negotiate a settlement with Germany (see The Prime Ministers Vol 2 P294). Eden could only do what was possible, and it could be argued that an attack on Germany in 1936 simply was not politically feasible. But Eden didn't think like this. He was a man who felt he had power over world events. Every waking hour was full of work and meetings - this was not a man with a sense of events beyond his control. In his memoirs Eden wrote that Britain and France "should have attempted the impossible" and put military pressure on Germany. To Eden the fault for inaction lay with the British foreign secretary, and him alone. This sense of failure could be seen as dictating later disastrous events in Eden's career, in trying to go back and rewrite this painful past.

 

Ironically as the Second World War approached, Eden's reputation was not damaged because of his past support for negotiation with Germany. While Neville Chamberlain suffered the humiliation of being judged a weak appeaser, Eden managed to escape with his reputation intact. This happened more through luck than judgment. Eden was an insecure man, who resented prime minster Chamberlain's involvement in "his" area of foreign affairs. Eden resigned as foreign secretary over supposed prime ministerial interference in February 1938, and it appeared that Eden had resigned because he disagreed with Chamberlain's foreign policy. In this way Eden came to be seen as a brave voice of resistance to Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Winston Churchill clearly viewed Eden in this way. After the 1938 resignation Churchill didn't sleep. He wrote: "From midnight until dawn I lay in my bed consumed by emotions of sorrow and fear. There seemed one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender. Now he was gone. I watched the daylight slowly creep in through the windows and saw before me in mental gaze the vision of death" (quoted in The Prime Ministers Vol2 P355).

 

Entrance to underground Cabinet War Rooms, Whitehall

Once Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 he immediately made Eden foreign secretary, and began to groom him as a future prime minister. As well as foreign secretary, the additional job of leader of the Commons was considered useful in the grooming process. These extra responsibilities exacerbated an already workaholic personality. Eden worked from before breakfast into the early hours every day. Virtually every waking moment was devoted to meetings and business. This driven man seemed unable to be quiet, or alone, for more than a few minutes at a time. Perhaps in time of war this impression of endless activity gave a required sense of purpose and direction, which Churchill loved so much. By 1945 these work habits were causing health problems.

 

Following the war Clement Attlee's Labour government took over, until an ageing Churchill won again for the Conservatives in 1951. Following Churchill back into power, Eden reprised his role as foreign secretary, and the endless hours of work continued. The Cold War was at its height, and Eden is attributed with much success during this period. Eden's talents for diplomacy were often called upon, and his final period as foreign secretary certainly coincided with an easing of global tensions. His three and a half year term saw tensions ease in Korea, in Persia where British oil men had been ejected, and in the Balkans where Italy and Yugoslavia were arguing over Trieste. Eden was given credit for helping make this happen. Politicians often write about politicians, and it is natural for them to magnify a politician's importance. In The Prime Ministers, Anthony Nutting, Eden's former minister of state for foreign affairs, attributes the maintenance of global peace in the early 1950s to his former boss. I have no way of knowing whether this is really true, but common sense would suggest this is an ambitious claim. Perhaps in some situations where things sat on a knife edge, Eden could be seen as playing a pivotal role. In early 1954 French colonial forces were coming under heavy pressure in their fight with communist Viet Minh forces in Vietnam. The French stronghold at Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam had been surrounded, and the French government had called for American aid. Plans to support Dien Bien Phu with U.S. air strikes and ground troops were put before a meeting of Congressmen.This meeting made it clear that Congressional support for U.S. military intervention would only be forthcoming if Britain agreed to join military action. With the threat of American involvement widening the war, Eden resolutely refused to support American military action. He was made more determined by hearing the Americans categorically declare at the Bermuda Conference in December 1953 that atomic bombs would be used in Asia if necessary (see The Failure Of The Eden Government by Richard Lamb Ch 5). In this instance, with unusual circumstances putting the British foreign secretary in a crucial position, Eden can be credited with a significant role in preventing a widening of war in Asia. In different circumstances, of course, Eden had been unable to bring peace, and in the case of the Rhineland occupation even blamed himself for bringing about war. But in the early 1950s, things went the right way, and Eden was given much credit.

 

Whether or not Eden was truly responsible for global peace, Eden himself had to feel in control. The endless hours of work continued. When Churchill retired in April 1955, Eden became Conservative leader and won the ensuing election. A personal, and global crisis then followed for the new prime minister. Egypt under General Nasser was becoming increasingly hostile towards Britain, perceived as playing a major role in the creation of Israel. Attempts were made to diffuse this tension. British troops had been present in Egypt since 1882, but had been withdrawn in 1954 in the ongoing attempt to maintain sound relations with Egypt. British and American development money was then offered to support the Aswan High Dam project, which would improve irrigation of the Nile Valley. But in an intensification of the Cold War the Soviets offered their own support for the Aswan Dam, and persuaded Nasser to sign an arms deal with them. American secretary of state John Foster Dulles suddenly announced that American support for the Aswan Dam was being withdrawn, and in retaliation, on 26th July 1956, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company, against the terms of a 1955 treaty. Eden came under pressure to act decisively. The press had already begun making disparaging remarks about Eden's firmness. The Daily Telegraph described Eden's tendency, whilst making a speech, to put the clenched fist of one hand into the palm of the other, "but the smack is seldom heard" (quoted The Prime Ministers Vol 2 P339). Conservative MPs were drawing comparisons between the Egyptian situation and the appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Eden was acutely sensitive to this kind of criticism. Talking of 1930s appeasement of dictators, Eden said: "We were determined that the like should not come again. There might be other mistakes, there should not be that one" (Full Circle by Anthony Eden). Eden's chancellor Harold Macmillan called Nasser "an Asiatic Mussolini" (Harold Macmillan by Nigel Fisher P161). Trying to make up for his perceived failure in the late 1930s, Eden now abandoned his diplomatic instincts and lashed out. He set about organising an operation in combination with France and Israel to invade Egypt and secure the Canal Zone. The lead up to the invasion was remarkably underhand. At a secret meeting at Sevres in France, representatives of the British, French, and Israeli governments agreed on a plan that would allow the Israelis to attack Egypt, with France and Britain then intervening to apparently separate the combatants. Under cover of this "peace keeping" operation the canal would be reclaimed. Eden wanted to make it appear as though he was reacting to events, when he was creating those events in the first place. But life is not so easily manipulated. Operations began in October 1956, and although militarily successful, they were politically disastrous. The deception of the peace keeping operation soon leaked out, and International opinion was resolutely against invasion. Fearing a wider war, a cease fire was forced on Britain by the United States on 6th November. Eden's fragile physical and mental health collapsed under the strain, and he resigned on January 9th 1957.

 

Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel le Ferne

In a way the story of Anthony Eden is very Shakespearian. Imponderable questions of fate will tend to come to mind in reading about him. He thought it was his fault World War Two started. He thought he could learn from his mistake and manipulate events differently if the same thing happened again. Eden had great pressures on him in 1936 preventing any firm response to Hitler's invasion of the Rhineland. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet he beats himself up for not acting, and bitterly resents the manipulations of his enemy. But then, like Hamlet, when he tries to act, his actions cause more disasters beyond his control. In 1956 Eden thought he could make up for past mistakes by acting differently with his Suez operation. He was of course wrong. Eden, who had come to office as one of the world's most respected statesmen, was swept out of government in January 1957 a broken man. Fittingly, in retirement he became president of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Eden lived the last part of his life at Broadchalke in Wiltshire. He died in Salisbury in January 1977, and is buried in the country churchyard at Alvediston.

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©2009InfoBritain (updated 01/10)