Irrational leaders pose special problems for scholars. Some future historian will have to have a say. What would that be? About Donald Trump? About Boris Johnson? Until recently, the British prime minister most often placed in this category was Anthony Eden, who served as foreign minister from 1951 to 1954, then succeeded Winston Churchill in the top job when the latter stepped down in the fall of 1954. The reason for singling Eden out—as Kevin Ruane and Matthew Jones rightly note—is the minister's extraordinarily reckless behavior in 1956, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Eden conspired with France and Israel to get it back. Eden's comments about Nasser and general deportment were such that others feared for his sanity. Former Minister of State Anthony Nutting supplied chapter and verse in his book No End of a Lesson.
Ruane and Jones turn this image upside down in Anthony Eden, Anglo-American Relations and the 1954 Indochina Crisis. The crisis, for those not familiar, grew out of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, where French armies in Indochina strove to turn back a Vietnamese revolutionary tide that was headed to independence. The United States, having embarked on a crusade against Communism, considered whether to intervene on the French side in that battle, which would have embroiled U.S. troops in Vietnam years before that actually happened. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wavered on intervention and had a hard time resisting the pressure. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sought to create a political-military framework to enable intervention. Eden played a heroic role in 1954, helping to organize and then co-chairing a conference in Geneva that ended the Indochina crisis without military intervention, by means of agreements that featured a ceasefire in the war and a set of accommodations between France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Ruane and Jones reject as phony the claim that the United States never really intended to intervene in Indochina. The importance of this book (which might more manageably be titled just Anthony Eden) is that the authors have mined the record in depth to show how Eden's steadfast opposition to the U.S. intervention bid really did stop Eisenhower and Dulles from bullying their way into war. Ruane and Jones argue that Eden feared the Indochina crisis could lead to nuclear war, a fear that stoked his determination to foil U.S. plans to internationalize the conflict (p. 255). Along the way the authors present British policy—and its effects on Washington's enterprise—in exhaustive detail.
This is the most important treatment of the Dien Bien Phu crisis that has appeared in a very long time. Do not miss it.
Ruane and Jones do one better, though. They push ahead to Suez and actually attempt to contrast Eden in the annus mirabilis of 1954 with the year of disaster 1956. Interestingly enough, they dismiss claims of a linkage between the Dien Bien Phu and Suez crises. “It makes greater sense,” the authors conclude, “to root Eden's Suez decision-making—including his mistakes and misjudgments—wholly in 1956” (p. 261). The authors also reject the idea that Dulles sought revenge in the Suez crisis for the U.S. failure at Dien Bien Phu. In Eden's memoir Full Circle he devotes more than a hundred pages to the Indochina war, including the full trajectory of the conflict, the conferences at Berlin and Geneva, and intervention. That public account, published in 1960, is ably confirmed in this book. Those who have constructed artificial visions that exalt Eisenhower and denigrate Eden now have an evidentiary mountain to climb.