Anthony Eden

Anthony Eden is perhaps best known for his decision, as Prime Minister, to launch a military operation against Nasser's Egypt in 1956, the so-called Suez Crisis. Eden made it very plain when justifying this action that he was acting to protect British commercial interests centred on the recently nationalised Suez Canal. However, drawing on the lessons of the 1930s, he was also at pains to stress that an evil dictator should not be allowed to get away with aggression. To appease Nasser could be fatal, just as appeasement in the 1930s had served to encourage Hitler and Mussolini on the path which led to world war. It was a decision that brought to an end a political career that had begun in 1923, and it was certainly influenced by Eden's belief that not enough had been done to stand up to aggressors in the 1930s, a failure for which he too held some responsibility.
Early Career
Anthony Eden had a traditional aristocratic upbringing, although his father's extreme eccentricity made home life traumatic. He attended Eton and Oxford, and retained many conventional, privileged views on life, and the world generally, until his death. During the First World War, he displayed great courage and ability, winning the Military Cross and becoming the youngest brigade major in the British Army. He also lost two brothers. Overall Eden's experiences in the war, like those of other more youthful political figures in the 1920s and 1930s, gave him a relatively pragmatic view in relation to future conflict. One biographer, David Carlton, stated that to Eden, and others like him, 'vile as the experience [of war] was, it was not utterly intolerable, and there might be others yet worse'. Such attitudes were in stark contrast to the views of older men, like Neville Chamberlain, who saw war as the ultimate evil.

Eden became a Conservative MP in 1923, and specialised in overseas and defence issues. His first speech was controversial, arguing for the maintenance of strong defence forces. In most policy areas, however, Eden toed the party line. In the later 1920s, he worked closely with Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, to preserve international security, whilst limiting Britain's international commitments beyond the empire. The League of Nations was to be a tool to enable Britain to preserve her own security with minimal effort and resources. Eden supported the rejection in 1925 of the Geneva Protocol, which would have given the League of Nations some military capability but would also have heightened Britain's global commitments.

The Anti-Appeaser?
In the early 1930s, Eden became more closely associated with the promotion of the League as the key to maintaining peace. Such a role was envisaged by many as essential in the face of the growing threats to stability posed by Japan, the failure to secure disarmament, and by Italy and Germany. Such a stance was in contrast to his earlier position as he now advocated, at least on the surface, a fuller commitment to the League by Britain. Eden cultivated the pro-League image, as it was a popular one. In 1931, he became a junior minister with special responsibilities for League affairs. To many, he was the great hope who would counter the hesitancy of the older generation of politicians, such as Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secretary, and drive forward the cause of international co-operation. Harold Macmillan (Prime Minister in 1957) wrote: 'I unhesitatingly gave my support to Eden, who seemed to embody all the aspirations of the war generation'.

The reality was that Eden played a delicate balancing act, attempting to promote negotiation and agreement through the League where possible, including visits to Berlin and Moscow, where he was the first western minister to be received by Stalin, but also seeking to safeguard Britain's position and limit her commitments. He was also careful that powerful Conservatives such as Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were not unduly antagonised, as it was on support from these men that his future career rested.

Eden's attitude at the Geneva Disarmament Conference (1932-1934) reflected sympathy for the German position and revealed frustration with the French, who seemed wholly unwilling to compromise. After a meeting with Hitler in 1934, Eden described him as reasonable, charming and affable. The French negotiations for an alliance with the Soviet Union also angered Eden as he believed, with some justification, that this move would force Germany into a corner. Eden retained, for some time, the attitude that Germany could be won over.

To Eden, it was Mussolini's Italy which posed the major threat to stability. The Abyssinian Crisis seemed to confirm his fears. It was also this crisis that launched him to the lofty heights of Foreign Secretary in December 1935, at the tender age of 38. His predecessor, Sir Samuel Hoare, had been discredited by the Hoare-Laval Pact, which would have given Mussolini effective control of Abyssinia. This 'deal' prompted an international outcry, but Eden, who had been involved to an extent in its formulation, escaped censure and reaped the rewards. His reputation was certainly enhanced by his perceived role in the Abyssinian Crisis. One biographer has commented: 'he placated the internationalists [those in favour of collective security and a key role for the League] by seeming always to be somewhat more advanced than his colleagues, while he kept the confidence of his colleagues by loyally accepting apparently unpalatable decisions'.

Eden's tenure as Foreign Secretary was dominated by the search for some form of binding agreement with the dictators on arms and territorial disputes. He was undoubtedly an appeaser, despite later assertions to the contrary, but his view of appeasement was linked to the need to ensure that any negotiations and agreements involved concessions from both sides. This is in stark contrast to the approach at Munich in September 1938, where Germany was given what she wanted without ceding anything in return.

Unlike the French, Eden was opposed to regional pacts and alliances that could be interpreted as a threat by certain countries. Instead, he sought to achieve wide consensus for arrangements that would guarantee stability on a general level. On the question of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in July 1936, Eden promoted the idea of non-intervention and, even when it was obvious that Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were in breach of this, he strove to shore up the non-interventionist position in the hope that the conflict would be contained. In a speech to the House of Commons in November 1937, he stated that 'we [Britain] will join no anti-communist and no anti fascist bloc ... we offer co-operation to all, but will accept dictation from none'. The message was that Britain would promote world co-operation and stand up to those seeking to undermine it. The reality, of course, was different, but this was not essentially due to Eden. Britain's fragile economy, weak military position and fundamental political and popular aversion to foreign commitments prevented a stance that would back up the rhetoric.

Eden saw Italy and Japan as the main threats to peace, although Germany, relatively quiet since the Rhineland reoccupation in 1936, was becoming an increasing worry. It was due to a disagreement with the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on relations with Italy especially that Eden resigned in February 1938. Chamberlain believed, unfairly, that Eden was unwilling to reach agreements with Mussolini and Hitler by 1938. There can be no doubt that Eden did try to find common ground with the dictators, but by 1938 he had become sceptical of their commitment to reaching any deal designed to ensure peace. Chamberlain held a different view and wrote: 'I had gradually arrived at the conclusion that, at bottom, Anthony did not want to talk either with Hitler or Mussolini and, as I did, he was right to go'. Chamberlain continued on the appeasement path until Hitler forced his hand in 1939. His reputation has suffered much as a result.

Following his resignation, Eden became a tentative supporter of the need to take a firmer line against the dictators. However, he never quite felt able to commit fully to a line that opposed government policy directly. As a consequence, it was Churchill, and not Eden, as some had hoped, who led the call to confront those who sought to use aggression to achieve their ends.

As a result of his unwillingness to openly challenge Chamberlain and his former colleagues, Eden was consigned to live in Churchill's shadow for much of the rest of his political career. He became Churchill's Foreign Secretary in 1940, but Churchill retained a key role in foreign affairs and dominated the Conservative Party until his retirement in 1955. Eden finally took the lead, but only until his resignation after the Suez Crisis a year later.

Eden was clearly a very able and committed politician. He spent much of his career on the front bench of the Conservative Party and was out of office for only eight years between 1931 and 1957. However, he was, at root, an establishment figure. He was reluctant to openly challenge his Party's position, and generally preferred to find consensus rather than to seek confrontation. This partially helps to explain his success as a politician, but it also highlights why his actual achievements were somewhat limited. When a risk needed to be taken, he shied away from it. It was perhaps a realisation that he had not grasped the nettle in the 1930s that prompted his decision over the Suez operation in 1956. Unfortunately for Eden, times had changed and the moment had passed.

Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis
Further Reading
The rise and fall of Sir Anthony Eden
by Randolph Churchill

by Anthony Eden

Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis: Reluctant Gamble
by Dr Jonathan Pearson

Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden First Earl of Avon, 1897-1977
by Dr D R Thorpe

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