November 6, 1956
IT WAS ELECTION DAY. Americans were going to the polls either to elect a new president or keep Dwight Eisenhower in that office for another four years.
Just past noon, Ike stepped out of the limousine that had transported him from the airport and strode into the White House. He and Mamie had driven to their home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that morning to vote, only to be urgently called back. The president had just endured the most stressful week of his presidency, coming on the heels of one of the most difficult years, at least physically, of his life. He had suffered and recovered from both a heart attack and major intestinal surgery, the latter in the midst of his campaign for a second term.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in July, the British and French had begun preparing for war. For months, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had held them off. Ike now knew that his World War II allies had double-crossed him, hatching their own secret plot to take military action against Egypt.
On October 29, as part of an elaborate plan to wrest control of the canal from Nasser, Israel had attacked Egypt, followed by British and French bombing—all without consulting Eisenhower. Ike had protested, had taken the issue to the United Nations, and had announced to the American people that “there will be no United States involvement in these present hostilities.”
The situation had worsened day by day. As the Israelis advanced, a huge Anglo-French armada sailed toward the Egyptian coast. The morning of November 3, Ike learned that the main oil pipeline through Syria had been sabotaged and Dulles had gone to the hospital during the night for cancer surgery.
The morning of November 4, the Soviet Union had sent 200,000 troops and four thousand tanks into Budapest, Hungary, to put down a revolt. The next day, British and French paratroopers landed in Egypt; by then, the Israelis held five thousand Egyptians prisoner and were occupying the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. The Soviet premier, Nikolai A. Bulganin, had sent messages to Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, threatening to intervene in the war in the Middle East. Ike had responded by putting American military forces on alert.
On Election Day morning, Ike’s health was still fragile. The previous night, his blood pressure was elevated and his heart was skipping beats. He had awakened after a fitful sleep and called his doctor immediately to examine the infected scar from his surgery. In his first meeting on that day, Ike had recognized that he confronted a situation that could escalate into the world war he had tried so hard to avoid. “Our people should be alert,” he had said to a meeting of key advisors that morning. He knew that the presence of Soviet planes in Syria would inevitably trigger British and French attacks on those airfields, possibly followed by Soviet retaliation against America’s closest allies—allies the United States was pledged to defend.
When Ike and Mamie had arrived at Gettysburg, he was immediately called to a phone. A helicopter rushed him back to Washington but he did not know the reason until he arrived at the airport—news from Moscow that the Soviet Union was possibly moving toward intervention.
At 12:38 p.m., Eisenhower walked into the White House and, after being briefed, went to the Cabinet Room, where eighteen men waited—the vice president and the top leadership of both the State and Defense departments, including the Joint Chiefs. The purpose of this council of war was to review the readiness of the United States to fight a major war with the Soviet Union.