Article abstract: Although his three appointments as foreign secretary, during 1935-1938, 1940-1945, and 1951-1955, brought Eden a high reputation for firmness and diplomatic adroitness, his tenure as prime minister, between 1955 and 1957, ended in humiliation and resignation for his part in the ill-starred invasion of Egypt which brought the Suez crisis to a head.
The fourth of five children, Robert Anthony Eden was born on June 12, 1897, on his family’s estate near Bishop Auckland in county Durham. His father’s lineage, through local nobility, could be traced back at least to the fifteenth century; among others, Sir William Eden could claim descent from royal governors of Maryland and North Carolina. Lady Sybil Frances Grey Eden, Eden’s mother, was partly of Danish ancestry, although one side of her family was related to that of Sir Edward Grey, Great Britain’s foreign secretary preceding and during World War I. Young Anthony (he eventually preferred the middle to his original given name) was educated in part by tutors during his early years. For a time, he was taught by a German governess, from whom he evidently received more thorough instruction in French than in her native language. At the age of thirteen, he entered Eton, where he was regarded as promising and intelligent but not notably distinguished.
Before Eden could consider further studies, World War I broke out, and late in 1914, John Eden, his eldest brother, was killed while on active duty in France. Another brother, Timothy, was captured and held in Germany as a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, in September, 1915, Eden enlisted in the infantry and was commissioned a lieutenant. He was to spend more than three years on the Western Front, chiefly at Ypres and on the Somme. He was appalled at the carnage and suffering of war as it affected those around him. He learned as well that his younger brother, William Nicholas, a midshipman, had perished in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. Eden nevertheless performed his duties loyally and with conspicuous gallantry. In June, 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross for bringing a wounded sergeant back to safety while under German machine-gun fire. Early in the spring of the following year, he was promoted to brigade-major.
Upon his return to civilian life, Eden entered Oxford University. Enlarging upon the example of one of his neighbors from Durham, a former diplomatic official who had taught him some elements of Turkish, Eden decided to read for a degree in Oriental languages; he concentrated upon Persian, with some attention also to Arabic. When he completed his studies, he obtained first-class honors. Rather than take up a diplomatic calling, however, the lure of political challenge led him to stand as a Conservative candidate for Parliament. Although the first time, in November, 1922, he was defeated in a district where the Labour Party had a preponderant following, he was later nominated in a neighboring area, around Warwick and Leamington. Eden, espousing conventional party doctrines, campaigned diligently, and he was elected handily in December, 1923. Not long beforehand a major event took place in his personal life: He was married to Beatrice Beckett, the daughter of a Conservative Member of Parliament who was the chairman of the Yorkshire Post. To the young couple two sons, Simon and Nicholas, were born during the next seven years.
Eden’s first speech before the House of Commons warned of the need, not merely for air defense, but also for the means to develop offensive capabilities which then might deter any would-be attacker. Other statements, on economic concerns, recorded his beliefs that the working and lower classes had interests in social stability to the extent that they might also become property holders. Eden seemed more comfortable dealing with matters of international concern. He spoke out on issues such as imperial defense, relations with Turkey, and disarmament proposals. After a wide-ranging foreign tour he produced his first book, Places in the Sun (1926), which made little impression and was regarded by critics as platitudinous.
As his political career developed, Eden became increasingly known, by supporters and detractors alike, for his appearance and bearing. To his admirers, he was the embodiment of self-assurance and polished ease, a tall, trim figure, impeccably tailored, who gave the impression of strength and dignity. Later cartoonists and critics found his personality symbolized by his bushy eyebrows and the thick overhanging mustache that he had cultivated since his army days; his protruding front teeth contrasted with a somewhat weak chin to produce an effect of awkward irresolution. On the radio, his voice seemed thin and reedy to many, though his later television appearances produced somewhat more favorable impressions.
Eden’s growing expertise in diplomatic matters was widely recognized, and in 1931, he became under secretary of state for foreign affairs. For some time, he represented Great Britain at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva and later dealt with the crisis of October, 1934, when Italy and Hungary were suspected of complicity in the assassination of Yugoslavia’s king Alexander. In January, 1935, he endorsed the return of the Saar to Germany when this measure was approved by a local plebiscite. In the course of his diplomatic work, Eden met with Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany, and leading French statesmen. In April, 1935, he was received at the Kremlin by Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. During that summer, Eden was appointed to a cabinet-level position: minister for League of Nations affairs.
At times, Eden seemed poised between conciliatory overtures and more forthright assertions of resistance to the minatory policies of European dictators. When Italy went to war in order to subjugate Ethiopia, in October, 1935, Eden urged that all measures short of actual military involvement should be used to oppose Mussolini’s imperial designs. Eden became foreign secretary in December of that year, after Sir Samuel Hoare, his predecessor, was forced to concede that efforts to find a solution through diplomatic concessions had failed. While the Ethiopian issue remained unsettled, further problems were posed by Germany’s introduction of troops into the Rhineland in March, 1936, in pointed defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. In July, 1936, civil war broke out in Spain, and it was not long before Nationalist forces received active assistance from Germany and Italy. Eden sternly contended that all powers should follow a policy of nonintervention in the Spanish conflict. It would appear that during this period, Eden was at least as much concerned with Italian as with German challenges to peace, and his position began to diverge from those of others in the government. Neville Chamberlain, who became prime minister in May, 1937, clashed with Eden on certain points. His efforts to secure an understanding with Italy, in the absence of preconditions which Eden insisted were essential, were followed by secret meetings with Italian diplomats. Rather abruptly, in February, 1938, Eden resigned from the Foreign Office, though he avoided any outward recriminations that might have proved embarrassing to the Conservative government.
Subsequently, Eden’s standpoint seemed amply vindicated by events, as the Fascist dictators became even more intractable, although it is not clear the extent to which principled prescience guided his decisions. In September, 1938, the prime minister took part in the Munich accords, which consigned part of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich. In the wake of this agreement, Eden spoke from his seat in the Commons, expressing reservations about Chamberlain’s diplomacy without venturing to judge its ultimate results. After Great Britain declared war on Germany, in September, 1939, Eden became secretary of state for the Dominions; in May, 1940, with Winston Churchill as prime minister, he was appointed secretary of state for war. That December, he again was made foreign secretary. On some matters, Eden differed sharply with Churchill; for some time he favored firmer support for General Charles de Gaulle’s French Committee of National Liberation. On some occasions, Eden believed that the prime minister’s...
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