Eden, Anthony (1897–1977)

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EDEN, ANTHONY (1897–1977)


British politician, served as prime minister from 1955 to 1957.

Eden was born on 12 June 1897 into a gentry family in County Durham. He went directly from school to serve on the western front in World War I, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He was elected Conservative member of Parliament (MP) for Warwick and Leamington in 1923, and was one of the talented young MPs who supported Stanley Baldwin's (1867–1947) moderate outlook. From 1926 to 1929, Eden served as parliamentary private secretary to the foreign secretary, and from this point onward his career was dominated by foreign affairs.

Eden was the junior minister at the Foreign Office from 1931 to 1933, and then given responsibility for relations with the League of Nations as lord privy seal, though outside the cabinet. In 1935 he was promoted to the cabinet as minister for League of Nations affairs, and became foreign secretary in December 1935 following the downfall of Sir Samuel John Gurney Hoare (1880–1959). For most of his first period as foreign secretary, Eden followed a course of moderate appeasement. He hoped for negotiations with Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), and when German forces remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936 his reluctance to act restrained the French from anything more than diplomatic protest. When Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) became prime minister in May 1937, frictions between them over the control and direction of foreign policy led to Eden's resignation in February 1938. The immediate cause was Chamberlain's desire to make concessions to Italy, and Eden's resistance made him seem an opponent of appeasement in general. Although this was hardly true, it was to be the making of his career and reputation.

When war came in September 1939, Eden accepted the post of dominions secretary, but was not a member of the war cabinet. In May 1940, Churchill appointed him secretary for war, and he oversaw the evacuation from Dunkirk and the preparations against invasion. As the "anti-appeasers" rose to dominance, Churchill was able to restore Eden to the post of foreign secretary in December 1940. This established him as Churchill's heir apparent and the second figure within the Conservative Party, although he would also have to wait patiently for his inheritance. Eden worked closely with Churchill during the war, providing important support and advice on strategic and policy issues as well as handling the detailed work of relations with Britain's allies.

When the Conservatives were defeated in the 1945 general election, it seemed likely that Churchill would soon make way for his younger colleague. In fact, it was to be a decade before Eden secured the top post, and by then many of his colleagues felt that he had passed his prime. From 1945 to 1951, Eden acted as leader of the opposition during Churchill's lengthy absences, and he played a key role in fostering a moderate and modern identity for the Conservative Party, popularizing the aim of creating a "property-owning democracy."

He served again as foreign secretary in Churchill's second ministry of 1951–1955, although their relations were marred by Churchill's repeated postponement of his oft-promised retirement. Eden had several successes in this period, including the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina and the resolution of German rearmament and entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ironically, he also secured an agreement with the Egyptian government on the withdrawal of British forces from bases near the Suez Canal in 1954.

He finally became prime minister in April 1955 and called a general election in which the Conservatives increased their majority. Within a few months, matters had deteriorated and criticism of his performance was mounting. The defining event was the Suez crisis of 1956: as well as the importance of the Suez Canal route for Britain's oil supply, Eden saw parallels with the failure to resist Hitler in the 1930s. He accepted a French plan for military seizure of the canal in collusion with Israel, concealing this from the House of Commons and most of the cabinet. The Israeli attack upon Egypt was followed by the landing of Anglo-French forces near the canal on 5 November 1956. However, Eden had failed to inform the U.S. administration of his intentions or to consider its response, and this led to the collapse of his strategy. Within a few days, American refusal of economic aid forced Eden to halt operations and promise to withdraw; it was a national humiliation that revealed Britain's eclipse as an independent world power. Eden had been under mounting stress, and his health—permanently damaged by a botched operation in 1953—gave way. On 9 January 1957 he resigned as prime minister; he was created Earl of Avon in 1961 and died on 14 January 1977.

See alsoChamberlain, Neville; Churchill, Winston; Suez Crisis; United Kingdom.


Primary Sources

Eden, Anthony, Earl of Avon. Full Circle: The Memoirs of Anthony Eden. London, 1960. Memoirs that are selective and misleading on key aspects of the Suez crisis. Also available in three separate volumes, listed below:

——. Facing the Dictators: The Memoirs of Anthony Eden. London, 1962.

——. The Reckoning: The Memoirs of Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon. London, 1965.

——. The Eden Memoirs: Another World, 1897–1917. London, 1976. Slim but elegant account of his early life.

Secondary Sources

Carlton, David. Anthony Eden: A Biography. London, 1981. Very critical biography.

Dutton, David. Anthony Eden: A Life and Reputation. London, 1997. A judicious and balanced assessment.

James, Robert Rhodes. Anthony Eden. London, 1986. The original official life.

Thorpe, D. R. Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden, First Earl of Avon, 1897–1977. London, 2003. Early twenty-first-century life authorized by Eden's widow.

Stuart Ball