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The Next Best Man

Anthony Eden

by Robert Rhodes James
McGraw-Hill, 665 pp., $22.95

On April 4, 1955, Sir Winston Churchill gave a dinner at 10 Downing Street on the eve of his retirement as prime minister. For him, it was the definitive end to an Olympian career. For Sir Anthony Eden, his heir apparent, his long-awaited promised land was now finally in sight. Yet although Churchill claimed that “no two men have ever changed guard more smoothly,” relations between them had recently been strained almost to breaking point. Eden had been so enraged by Churchill’s procrastination and obstructiveness that he had sometimes come to hate the man he most admired. And Churchill was so distressed by Eden’s hunger for power and hostility to his policies that he had even come to doubt the fitness of his own protégé for his job. At the end of the evening, when all the guests had departed, the prime minister turned to his private secretary, John Colville, and observed with vehemence, “I don’t believe Anthony can do it.”

Throughout his life, opinion about Eden was always sharply divided. His admirers acclaimed him as the golden boy of British politics, who was handsome, glamorous, and debonair, and whose courage in war and integrity in peace were beyond question. Abroad he was a statesman of world stature, while at home his appeal to people of all classes and parties was uniquely strong. Indeed, according to this interpretation, it was only the megalomania of Nasser and the perfidy of the Americans which tragically ruined a prime ministership of which the greatest hopes had quite rightly been entertained. But to his enemies, Eden’s glitter was entirely superficial: he was a “charm school” politician with a “screen star” image, whose reputation was based on style rather than on substance. He never coined a memorable phrase or conceived an original idea, but was always bland, aloof, and indecisive. When we view him in this light, his day of reckoning was bound to come. Suez may have been unexpected; but nemesis was inevitable.

Since Eden’s death, his critics have been emphatically in the ascendant, and their case against him has recently been greatly strengthened by David Carlton’s muchpraised and highly critical biography. By contrast, Robert Rhodes James’s book is intended as an eloquent and moving case for the defense. It is the first biography to be based on Eden’s papers, and has been written with the support and encouragement of his widow Clarissa. It specifically sets out to rebut the “consistent and mystifyingly hostile” portrait painted by Carlton. And it does so by depicting Eden as “an English worthy,” whose “brand of humane, liberal and progressive Conservatism” Rhodes James—himself a Tory MP—believes to be the only appealing political creed. Yet ironically, he is so successful in producing a book that is “sympathetic, but not uncritical, and, above all, fair,” that he lends almost as much support to Eden’s detractors as to his admirers. The result is a fascinatingly paradoxical biography: well-disposed in intention, but ultimately damning in content.

Rhodes James’s argument is that there were indeed two Edens, the one attractive, accomplished, and successful, the other unappealing, inadequate, and unfathomable, and that the tension between them provides the key to understanding his career. He was born in 1897, the younger son of a County Durham baronet, and remained an aristocrat all his life. The family home, Windlestone Hall, was secure and civilized, and Eden grew up to love books and pictures, trees and flowers. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a First in Oriental languages, without apparent effort. Between school and university, he served in the First World War. He was a brave and brilliant soldier, won the Military Cross, and became one of the youngest brigade majors in the army. At twenty-six, he was elected MP for one of the safest Tory seats in the country, and he soon established a reputation in the Commons as an expert in international affairs. Within three years, he was given junior office under Austen Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, and by the early 1930s he was widely acclaimed as the rising star of his political generation.

But as Rhodes James amply demonstrates, there was another side to this success story. Despite the undeniably idyllic surroundings, Eden’s childhood was lonely and difficult: his father was eccentric, tyrannical, and given to furious outbursts; his mother was financially irresponsible beyond the point of profligacy; and Eden himself may well have been the illegitimate offspring of her affair with George Wyndham. He was a physically delicate boy, further afflicted with poor eyesight, and he grew up to be exceptionally sensitive, highly strung, and inclined to bad temper. During the First World War, two of his brothers were killed, his father died, and the family fortune was dissipated. As a younger son, Eden himself had very little money, and had to augment his small inheritance with journalism. In 1923, he married the beautiful Beatrice Beckett; but almost from the outset it was an ill-fated union. Eden was increasingly wrapped up in his work, whereas she loathed politics and diplomacy. By the late 1920s, the marriage was already failing, and the combined pressures of private sadness and public success brought on Eden’s first ulcer.

This was an ominously insecure base from which to launch a major political career. But during the 1930s, Eden’s rise was meteoric. He seemed the glamorous survivor of the lost generation, nobly striving to build a better world. In 1931, on the formation of the National Government, Stanley Baldwin sent him to the Foreign Office as parliamentary under-secretary, where he won golden opinions for his work in Geneva at the disarmament conference and for his shuttle diplomacy between the European capitals. He was soon promoted to full ministerial rank, and his reputation was further enhanced when he sought—albeit unavailingly—to thwart Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. Late in 1935, he became the youngest foreign secretary of modern times, and waged a courageous campaign from inside the cabinet against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, which culminated in his sensational resignation in February 1938. In a dismal decade, Eden seemed, in Churchill’s words, the “one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender.”

Once again, however, this was only part of the picture. Tense, lonely, and unhappy, Eden was already driving himself too hard. His many absences abroad, and his dislike of political infighting, meant that he made few friends in the Commons or the cabinet. Even in foreign policy, his attitudes were neither clear nor consistent. Initially, he was a strong supporter of disarmament and was well-disposed to Hitler. As foreign secretary, he was more preoccupied with the Italian than with the German menace. And his resignation was astonishingly maladroit: he was outmaneuvered by Chamberlain in the battle for advantage; the specific issue on which he left the government was vague and trivial; and his speech in self-justification impressed no one. The rumors put about at the time—that he was on the verge of physical and nervous collapse—may well have been the malicious whisperings of his enemies. But there was already some evidence that he did not hold up well in a crisis. Thereafter, he failed conspicuously to exploit his position: he refused to join with Churchill in attacking the government wholeheartedly, his speech against the Munich settlement was feeble, and even in early 1939 he was still unsure about precisely what policy to adopt toward Germany.

Nevertheless, on the outbreak of the Second World War, Eden returned to power as dominions secretary, and on the fall of Chamberlain’s government he became secretary of state for war. He organized the Home Guard and promoted gifted commanders like Dill and Brooke; his orders to hold the Channel ports made the Dunkirk evacuation possible; and he rightly took much of the credit for Wavell’s early victories against the Italians in Africa. When Lord Halifax was exiled to Washington as ambassador on the death of Lord Lothian, Eden took over the Foreign Office again. He established close contacts with exiled leaders like De Gaulle and Sikorski; he scored notable diplomatic triumphs on two visits to Russia; he was the first major Western figure to divine Stalin’s expansionist intentions; and he was a significant influence in the preparation and agreement of the United Nations charter. In 1942, on the eve of one of his foreign visits, Churchill advised the king to send for Eden in the event of his own death. Thereafter, his position as crown prince was assured and unassailable.

Yet even these were tainted triumphs. His health and his marriage were further undermined by the burdens of office, and his eldest son was killed in the very last stages of the war. While in charge of the Dominions Office he was inevitably a marginal and insignificant figure. Even as secretary for war, he did not sit in the inner war cabinet. And as at the Foreign Office, he played no more than a peripheral part in the crucial meetings between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. Throughout the war, diplomacy was subordinated to strategy and, on the British side, Churchill was emphatically in charge of both. While Eden consolidated his reputation as an accomplished and highly professional negotiator who was outstanding at settling problems and working out agreements, he was implementing policy rather than formulating it. On more than one occasion, he considered abandoning his subordinate position for “a real job.” In 1943, he was strongly tempted to go to India as viceroy, and at the end of the war, he longed to be appointed the first secretary general of the United Nations. But after the heavy defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, he stayed on, in the forlorn hope that Churchill would soon retire.

As deputy leader of the opposition, he encouraged young, progressive, liberal Conservatives, who were seeking to update the party’s image and program. He divorced his first wife and married Clarissa Churchill, who was not only his leader’s niece, but also brought him happiness and companionship hitherto unknown. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, he resumed the Foreign Office a third time, and as Churchill aged, Eden became correspondingly more assertive. In 1954, he pulled off a spectacular string of diplomatic coups: he brought about a cease-fire in Indochina and held back America and Russia from the brink of nuclear war; he successfully negotiated the withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal base; he stabilized the precarious situation in Iran, to Britain’s financial advantage; and he brought West Germany into NATO and established the Western European Union. Appropriately enough, he received the Order of the Garter from the Queen, and the Wateler Peace Prize from the Carnegie Foundation. When he finally succeeded Churchill as prime minister in 1955, it was to widespread welcome, and within a month he had increased his party’s majority at a general election, the first occasion on which this had been accomplished in peacetime since 1900.

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