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The World: Eden: The Loyal Adjutant

6 minute read

His life spanned some of the most glorious years of modern British history and some of the most traumatic—from the empire’s pinnacle at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, through two devastating wars, to the humiliating retreat from Suez in 1956 and the prospect of devolution at home. For three decades he was a highly visible, thoroughly photogenic presence at international conferences, almost boyishly handsome even in middle age. Sartorially splendid in the Savile Row tradition, he looked and talked like an MGM image of a British diplomat. But his long career in politics and foreign policy involved problems of substance more than niceties of style. An important, long chapter of British history closed last week when Robert Anthony Eden, the first Lord Avon, died at age 79 of liver failure at his manor house in Alvediston, Wiltshire.

Prime Minister of Britain from 1955 to 1957, Eden served his country as Foreign Secretary three times. He won an outpouring of public respect by resigning that post when he disagreed with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s prewar policies. He gained further acclaim under Winston Churchill—serving, in effect, as Britain’s wartime chief of staff, Churchill’s alter ego and, as Oxford Historian Michael Howard puts it, “the loyal adjutant who skillfully executed his master’s grand strategy.” Seldom was a man so groomed for his country’s highest political office. Yet when it came Eden’s turn to serve as Prime Minister, he had perhaps outlived both his time and his vision: he disastrously mishandled the Suez crisis and thus sped the dissolution of the British empire.

If ever a Briton was born and bred for success, it was Eden. The third son of Sybil and Sir William Eden, a country gentleman and master of hounds, Anthony Eden had a perfect pedigree for membership in the British ruling class: Sandroyd Preparatory School, Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he won first-class honors in Persian and Arabic and pulled a respectable oar. Before entering Oxford, young Anthony saw action in France with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps during the first World War; at the age of 20 he became a brigade major.

Eden was similarly precocious in politics: he won a seat in Parliament at 26, became Lord Privy Seal at 34, Minister for League of Nations Affairs at 37 and Foreign Secretary less than a year later. As Foreign Secretary from 1935 to 1938, he raced to get ahead of the swiftly moving events in a radically changing Europe: the resurgence of Germany under Hitler, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), and the Spanish civil war.

As the threat of war involving all Europe mounted, Eden’s dissatisfaction with the way Chamberlain was dealing with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy prompted him to quit the Foreign Ministry, thus jeopardizing a promising political career. “The essence of our actions at home and abroad must be firmness and courage,” he said at the time. “All must be ready to defend it.” After replacing Chamberlain in 1940, Churchill returned Eden to his old post as Foreign Secretary. At the fateful conferences of Yalta and Potsdam, which set the frontiers of postwar Europe, Eden was always at Churchill’s elbow —both as a colleague and as his heir apparent.

During the Labor government of 1945-51, Eden was the Tory opposition’s foreign affairs spokesman. He emphasized the importance of the Anglo-American partnership and a militarily strong Western Europe, including a rearmed West Germany. Eden, though, was cool to West European economic or political integration. In one 1949 speech he declared, “If the U.S. and the British Commonwealth and Empire stand together and work together, there is no world problem they cannot solve. If they fall apart, there is no world problem that can be solved.”

After Churchill returned to 10 Downing Street in 1951, Eden was again named head of the Foreign Ministry. It was one of the most successful periods of his long career. His role as co-chairman of the 1954 Geneva Conference, which ended the French involvement in Indochina, is described by Historian A.J.P. Taylor as “a beautiful diplomatic operation.” That year Eden also found a formula for rearming West Germany that was acceptable to Paris. Labor’s present Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, lauds Eden for “an inspired piece of first aid, which held Europe militarily together.”

In April 1955, an enfeebled Winston Churchill stepped aside. Eden had been waiting for this moment. But he was Prime Minister for only 21 months; ironically, a foreign adventure brought him down.

When Egyptian Strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden concluded that strong action was necessary to keep open what he regarded as the life line linking Britain to its Asian and East African colonies. He thus backed a joint British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt in October. World opinion was outraged, as were many Britons; Washington was furious that it had not been consulted, while the Soviets threatened to send “volunteers” to help the Egyptians. Because of international pressure, the invading forces pulled out 21 days later. To escape blistering criticism, Eden, on the ground of ill health, took a three-week vacation in Jamaica; he never recovered, physically or politically. On Jan. 9, 1957, he quit his office and resigned the Commons seat from Warwick and Leamington that he had held since 1923. Harold Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister.

Eden retired to his Wiltshire estate with Clarissa, his second wife (he had in 1950 divorced his first wife, Beatrice, by whom he had two children: Simon, who was killed in World War II, and Nicholas, who is now a merchant banker). He raised purebred Herefords, dabbled with watercolors, reread Proust and Joyce and wrote his circumspect but stylish memoirs; the last of four volumes, titled Another World: 1897-1917, was published last spring. Through a television series in which he recounted his life and career, Eden became a new presence to a generation of Britons who knew none of the world events he shaped and suffered through. History’s verdict on Eden is hard to judge. Winston Churchill, in 1938, described him as “the one fresh figure of first magnitude arising out of the generation that was ravaged by the war.” It may be one of the great disappointments of postwar Britain that this fresh figure fulfilled so few of his generation’s high expectations.

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