On 23 October 1956, a university student riot in Budapest snowballed into a popular revolt against the Hungarian People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite during the Cold War. It would last for twelve days before being crushed by the Soviet Army on 4 November 1956.
It caught the Americans off-guard, but they were quick to embrace it, with President Dwight Eisenhower saying that the demonstrations reflected an “intense desire for freedom” while CIA director Allen Dulles describing them as noting less than a “miracle.”
In its midst, another crisis would erupt that autumn, putting the Eisenhower Administration in a very difficult situation, when the Suez Canal War broke out on 29 October 1956.
Eisenhower was a decorated officer who had led his troops to victory during World War II. He had a strong moral fiber and firmly believed that as leader of a Super Power, he couldn’t condemn one invasion while shamelessly turning a blind eye to another. His dilemma strikes a particularly raw nerve when compared to President Joe Biden’s opposition to the Russian war in Ukraine and his total support for the Israeli one in Gaza, which began in October 2023.
Some attribute what they perceive as Biden’s total submissiveness to the fact that in less than two months, it will be Election Year in the US and he is actively trying to secure the American-Jewish vote for a second term at the White House. The same applied to Eisenhower, only in his case, the US was in Election Week, not just Election Year. Voting was scheduled for 6 November 1956, days into the Suez War, and yet, that didn’t prevent him from taking a tough stance on the invasion of Egypt.
The Israelis had been mobilizing troops for a week, ostensibly in response to a joint military pact between Egypt, Syria and Jordan, signed earlier that October. The full-fledged war decision, however, had been taken in response to President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s very popular nationalization of the Suez Canal earlier that July.
On 24 October 1956 a secret meeting was held in a mansion in Sevres, near Paris, between Israeli premier David Ben Gurion, French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau and his British counterpart, Selwyn Lloyd. The Israeli chief-of-staff Moshe Dayan was also present, when the three states agreed to present Nasser with an ultimatum to retract his seizure of the canal, knowing that he would refuse. And when he did, Israel would start by bombing Egypt, followed by France and Great Britain.
US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called the ultimatum “crude, brutal...and utterly unacceptable.” Both he and the president were worried about how the USSR would respond, given Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin’s immediate threat to restore to force. Bulganin sent messages to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and prime ministers Guy Mollet of France and David Ben-Gurion, warning of a “third World War.” He also said: “We are full of determination to crush the aggressor and reestablish peace in the Middle East by using force.”
For his part, Eisenhower had spoken forcefully against Bulganin’s threats to invade Hungary, which he described as “unacceptable” but now, an equally “unacceptable” invasion was unfolding, not by the communists but by friendly states that with him, had fought the Nazis in World War II. Eisenhower was furious, fuming: “They haven’t consulted with us on anything.” The White House issued a statement saying that the president had heard of the attack through “press reports.”