Before his death in January, 1977, Anthony Eden composed a charming memoir of his earliest years and joined to it a sober rendition of his experiences as a young officer in World War I. The result, published posthumously as Another World: 1897-1917, offers an intimate glance at both the personal life of one of England’s leading twentieth century politicians and an aristocratic way of life which is now as far in the past as the Ancien Régime of France. Eden’s description of that life reminds one so much of Talleyrand’s observation on eighteenth century France that it could be paraphrased to read, “No one who was not a member of the English upper class in pre-1914 Britain knows how sweet life can be.” It was the catastrophe of World War I, along with more prosaic economic changes, which destroyed this world, and Eden is an example of how one of its most illustrious members faced the destruction of his civilization.
It is rare for a world leader to write with the tenderness and insight about his childhood which Eden does. When it happens, it is revealing about both the man and his country. In Eden’s case it unveils a sense of humor, modesty, enthusiasm, innocence, discipline, and generosity. In fact, he comes across as an extremely sympathetic person. Those with an inclination to view life cynically might regard him as a bit of a do-gooder, while his stiff upper lip in the face of enormous personal and national loss appears almost inhuman, but all in all Sir Anthony Eden was one of the most natural and sensitive men ever to achieve supreme political leadership. The fact that a man with such qualities could be rewarded with the highest office of his country attests to the continuing English tradition of emphasizing human values as much as sheer power.
Eden’s political career was not uniformly successful, and to his permanent disgrace, he left office in the wake of the humiliation of the forced retreat from Suez in 1956. The triumphs, though, outnumbered the defeats. Entering Parliament in 1923, he made a mark with his speeches on foreign policy and was soon rewarded with sub-Cabinet governmental positions. From this vantage point, he was able to participate in European diplomacy in the 1930’s, building up a formidable expertise and firsthand contact. When Stanley Baldwin appointed him Foreign Secretary in 1935, he became the youngest man to hold that office since the eighteenth century.
Diplomacy in the 1930’s was extremely contentious business, with unsavory Fascist dictators strutting on the stage, small East European states bickering about their borders, an uncertain and threatening Communist regime in Russia, and civil war in Spain. Eden’s constant exposure to this mixture convinced him that England must stand firm and deal from strength, although he was not opposed to all negotiation. When Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister and began acceding to the demands that Mussolini and Hitler were making without receiving any quid pro quo, his Foreign Secretary disagreed vehemently and resigned in protest in February, 1938. This was Eden’s finest hour, and Winston Churchill later wrote, “he seemed to me at this moment to embody the life-hope of the British nation.”
Eighteen months later, after war had broken out, Eden rejoined the cabinet. With Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister, he was elevated to Minister of War and then Foreign Secretary again. In this position, he worked extremely closely with the often irascible Churchill, and for six long years devoted himself heroically to the defense of his country. He fully supported the Prime Minister’s emphasis on the American alliance, smoothed the path to wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union, and then tempered Churchill’s enthusiasm for his Eastern ally as its postwar ambitions became more apparent. He was also instrumental in bringing France back into the war as a full-fledged member of the alliance. By all accounts, Sir Anthony was a gifted diplomat, and even figures as difficult to deal with as Charles de Gaulle paid him tribute.
The elections of July, 1945, brought the Labor party to power, and Eden stayed in opposition until the Conservatives came back in 1951. With Churchill still in command, Eden returned to the Foreign Office. From 1951 to 1955, he showed a deft hand by outwaiting the anti-British Mossadegh in Iran, renegotiating with the Egyptians, and helping to terminate the French war in Indochina. In April, 1955, he became Prime Minister after Churchill turned the...
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